The morning is bright, a thick marine layer blocking the solar eclipse, and on the front deck of the Coronado Yacht Club, sailors chat, morning coffee in hand.
Looking out over Glorietta Bay, I watch and appreciate the morning preparation specific to boating as small sailboats are unloaded and supplies are reinforced at the dock.
A woman with a kind, clear voice approaches and sits down at a table right behind me, her mobility cane guiding the way (I later learned that her cane was named Barbie).
I sit down at the table as she introduces herself to me—Tammy Airhart, one of the sailors competing in the Coronado Yacht Club’s Small Boat Regatta that day, Saturday, Oct. 14.
Two sailing foundations, Challenged Sailors San Diego and the KMAC Foundation, participated in the small boat regatta.
The KMAC Foundation for Accessible Sailing in Coronado uses specially adapted sailboats and provides therapeutic, recreational and other sailing opportunities for people with disabilities to enhance their mobility, well being and independence.
KMAC has close ties with Challenged Sailors San Diego (CSSD), both of which are foundations with the strong belief that people from all walks of life and with disabilities should have the opportunity to experience sailing.
Airhart is on the board of directors for CSSD and has been sailing with them every Saturday since 2009.
Sitting on the front deck of the yacht club, she shared with me pieces of her story.
Airhart said she started losing her vision in 2007 because of diabetic retinopathy. Two years later, she lost all vision in one eye after falling face first on the concrete.
“So now, I only have about 25% vision,” Airhart said.
Because of this, she lost her job of 33 years at Sharp Healthcare as an administrative assistant.
I really just thought my life was over…But, I’m resilient and the first thing I thought of is, ‘I’ve got bills to pay’ and for some reason that kind of made me overcome it-Tammy Airhart.
“I really just thought my life was over,” Airhart said. “But, I’m resilient and the first thing I thought of is, ‘I’ve got bills to pay’ and for some reason that kind of made me overcome it.”
Airhart started taking classes at the San Diego Center for the Blind to learn how to live with vision impairment.
She is now a contract closeout specialist for Lighthouse for the Blind, and she sails with Challenged Sailors San Diego.
She said she started sailing to overcome two fears.
“One was a fear of just wrapping myself into my disability and not doing anything. The other was a fear of deep water,” Airhart said.
Meet Kai McDonald, the face of KMAC
The spooky sound of ghosts wafts over the deck.
A few yards away, the face of KMAC, Kai McDonald, 5, is playing with the yacht club’s motion-sensored Halloween decor on repeat.
Kai is in a wheelchair due to spina bifida. He has been racing with his dad, Steve McDonald, for the past two years.
“I like that there’s Halloween,” Kai said after his dad asked him what he liked about sailing in the regatta.
In fact, Kai said he’s going to be a ghost for Halloween this year.
For Steve, he said that sailing with KMAC has been a great opportunity for the father-son duo to get outside and do something competitive.
For us, KMAC has really been one of the best opportunities for me and him to get out here and bond, race, be competitive and have a good time.”-Steve McDonald.
“We’re kind of limited in a lot of other aspects. He’s not out there playing soccer or T-ball,” Steve McDonald said. “For us, KMAC has really been one of the best opportunities for me and him to get out here and bond, race, be competitive and have a good time.”
Out on the water
After all of the sailors finished setting up, everyone took to the water, Kai and his dad in KMAC’s bright greet boat named “Maverick.”
I hopped in the committee boat captained by Jamie McArthur, the man in charge of starting the KMAC Foundation, which was named after his son, Lt. Junior Grade Kyle McArthur, who was involved in a fatal automobile accident in 2013.
McArthur said that KMAC has a big picture goal, one that would take a lot more funding.
“We want to build a world class, community-based sailing center of excellence for the Coronado Juniors, for accessible or disabled sailors and community outreach,” McArthur said. “That’s the big goal.”
While we chatted about big picture plans, we also prepared everything for the start of the race. And that first meant orienting the course to the wind.
Smaller boats approached the committee boat with tetrahedron buoys to set up the starting line, which was 20 yards wide.
And once all of the gates were set up, the racers came to the committee boat to check in before McDonald fired the fog horn for the start of the first race.
The racers needed to go around the orange tetrahedron buoys stretching the length of the part of the Glorietta Bay inlet, twice.
‘In that boat, you’re just like anyone else’
Like Kai and his dad, each sailor had a companion sailor with them in the boat for assistance, and the boats are wired with assistive technology to cater to various needs.
Airhart said that her companion sailor, Hanyan Wang, is her eyes.
After she is told what the course looks like, Airhart makes a mental map of it in her head. On the course, Wang talks Airhart through the marks to prepare her for how much to turn the sails. But Airhart is still the skipper.
“Because the person with the disability becomes the skipper in charge of the boat, it really enhances your self-confidence, because when you’re in that boat, you’re just like anyone else,” Airhart said.
At one point during the five races, something went wrong with Airhart and Wang’s sail, and I assisted pulling them into the dock on another small boat.
The “pit-crew” at the dock assessed the issue, fixed the problem and Airhart flew back on the course for the next race, like Amelia Earhart herself.
After five races, the boats caravanned into the dock to unload.
Tired and sunburned after a full day on the reflective glare of the water, everyone joined back together on the deck for food and drinks.