By Carter Blease, Project Coordinator, Impossible Dream Inc.
Traditionally, sailing has been an activity limited to able-bodied individuals, but with her universally accessible design, the Impossible Dream catamaran is breaking down barriers and changing the way people think about what is truly possible. It was love at first sight for Deborah Mellen, owner and founder of the Impossible Dream Inc., upon her initial meeting of the world’s most accessible sailing catamaran.
In 1989, Deborah’s life changed in an instant when she was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident in Italy. It was after her injury, when she moved to Miami, FL for her rehabilitation, that she fell in love with sailing through the organization, Shake-A-Leg, a non-profit adaptive watersports center located in Miami. “I began to sail about six years after my injury,” says Deborah. “I had always loved the water, but had never had the chance to learn how to sail. I was hooked the first time out in a Shake-A-Leg boat. Sailing reacquainted me with feelings of exhilaration, excitement and pure joy, in the moment.”
It was after finding her community and passion through sailing that Deborah heard the Impossible Dream was for sale and in 2014 she made the trip to Southampton, England with Shake-A-Leg’s founder, Harry Horgan, to acquire the vessel.
A one-of-a-kind sailing catamaran, the Impossible Dream is unlike any other vessel in the world. Her completely unique design makes no compromises to accessibility and style, and to this day she remains the standard for barrier-free marine construction. Her 100% custom design was built specifically for people with disabilities to be able to freely operate the vessel, sleep onboard, cook in the galley, use the heads, and simply enjoy sailing unassisted. Her design makes this possible because she was built from the keels up with the intention of being fully usable to a person in a wheelchair.
The Impossible Dream defies the status quo in the sailing world because unlike other attempts to build wheelchair-friendly vessels, her design is not an afterthought or an adaptation of an existing inaccessible design. Other attempts at creating accessible sailing vessels often result in users having to be separated from their wheelchairs to board, or unable to access all of the boat. On the Impossible Dream, guests and crew can use her lifts and ramps on their own accord and access all parts of the vessel without assistance.
It is Impossible Dream’s use of innovative high and low-tech design features that makes sailing her achievable by individuals of all ability levels. These innovations include four custom titanium hydraulic lifts in both hulls that provide wheelchair users with independent access to all parts of the vessel; a state-of-the-art steering station with movable captain and co-captain chairs that glide on tracks; copious amounts of wheelchair-height hand holds; a wide ‘racetrack’ that runs fully around the wheelhouse on the main deck; a layout that offers the freedom for multiple wheelchairs to move about above and below decks; hydraulic winches and halyards; and accessible outdoor port and starboard steering stations.
Designed by Nic Bailey and constructed in 2002 by Multimarine Manufacturing Ltd. in Plymouth, England, the 60-foot Impossible Dream uses technology to make sailing possible for wheelchair users. She was originally built as a private sailing yacht for an avid sports enthusiast and businessman, Mike Browne, who was injured in a skiing accident and wished to continue sailing independently and competitively as a paraplegic.
In the ten years she was owned and operated by Mike, the all carbon fiber catamaran logged serious mileage touring the Mediterranean and North Atlantic and making multiple Atlantic crossings, proving she is more than a novelty vessel and is a real workhorse. In 2010, the Impossible Dream continued to make history as she was used by Sir Geoff Holt, who became the first quadriplegic sailor to cross the Atlantic Ocean unassisted, earning him the title of Officer of the British Empire for his accomplishments.
Deborah and Harry had other plans for the world’s most accessible sailing catamaran. Soon after her purchase, they began writing a new chapter in the Impossible Dream’s vibrant story. After falling in love with ‘getting salty’ during her rehabilitation in Miami, Deborah dreamed about sharing her passion of sailing with others with disabilities while at the same time opening community’s minds to what is possible when a yacht is designed for accessibility from the start and not an afterthought.
It was out of her vision that Impossible Dream Inc., a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, was born. Founded in collaboration with Horgan and Shake-A-Leg, the organization’s primary mission is to raise awareness of barrier-free design and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities through sailing. Beginning in 2015, Deborah and her ‘Dream Team’ began developing innovative programs to use Impossible Dream’s unique design to empower as many people with disabilities as possible through on-the-water experiences.
Serving as the cornerstone of Impossible Dream Inc.’s programming, the annual Summer Voyage was developed. The ambitious journey, exceeding 4,000 miles of sailing from Miami to Maine and back every summer, stops in over a dozen ports to collaborate with the nation’s leading rehabilitation hospitals, advocacy organizations, and disability groups. At each stop, the Impossible Dream offers patients, participants, and their families the opportunity for daysails around local waters at no cost. During the sails, participants, converse with crew members, explore the universal design features of the vessel, and simply enjoy a day out on the water with loved ones. The daysails on the Impossible Dream serve as a foundation for members of the disabilities community to explore innovation, outdoor recreation, alternative rehabilitation, community building, and foster independence.
Our Summer Voyage is about bringing people together to sail. Whether walking or rolling, everyone is welcome. The Impossible Dream serves as a platform for people of all abilities to unite, converse, and form friendships. There is no pressure or expectations from guests other than to sit back and enjoy the wind on your face.
Created out of the successful Summer Voyages, Deborah – always one to keep dreaming bigger – saw the opportunity to offer more to individuals with disabilities who express a keen interest in joining the crew on longer passages on the Impossible Dream. For these individuals, the Impossible Dream offers long-term ‘Guest Crew’ positions. Guest Crew work directly with the captain and first mate in the daily operations on the vessel. This program encourages independence, collaboration, employment training, new skills, outdoor recreation opportunities, and community building for participants. Our Guest Crew are a crucial part of our team as they are able to connect on a personal level with our guests who have endured similar life experiences. We are a boat that is built for and sailed by people with disabilities.
Over the course of its short lifespan, the annual Summer Voyage has introduced sailing to nearly 6,000 people with disabilities and generated many magical moments only possible on a vessel named Impossible Dream (the letters “I” and “m” are crossed out in the name on her topsides). Whether it is President George H.W. Bush taking the helm in Kennebunkport, or father and son America’s Cup winners Jerry and Rome Kirby stopping by for a surprise visit and leading the Tall Ships Parade of Sail with hundreds of vessels following behind her, the Impossible Dream makes these moments happen on a regular basis.
When she’s not sailing up and down the Eastern Seaboard, the Impossible Dream competes in international sailing regattas with a crew comprising people of all abilities. The crew has raced to the Bahamas, Florida Keys, Cuba, Mexico and Canada, regularly beating vessels with able-bodied crews. Participating in high-profile races sends a message that a person’s ability is only limited by their surroundings and when an environment is designed with everyone in mind, no dream is impossible.
The Impossible Dream has seen firsthand the positive changes she’s had on dozens of communities. Her presence has made meaningful, lasting impacts regarding the importance of inclusion and accessibility everywhere she sails. Her crew often finds when she visits a port for the first time, whether a marina or town dock, typically waterfront access is abhorrently inaccessible. It is only after seeing our vessel – operated by wheelchair users – that people’s perceptions of what is possible is completely altered. On numerous occasions, we have returned to a location the following year to find a waterfront that had been unnavigable for wheelchairs with a brand new accessible ramp and docks installed anticipating our arrival – a sign that we make real impacts on communities that will continue to provide access to the water, even when we are gone.
The Impossible Dream Inc. is a non-profit organization whose mission is sustained by private and public donations and sponsorships. To learn more about our programs, to become involved or to donate, please visit our website, theimpossibledream.org. ■
(Editor’s note: Please do visit theimpossibledream.org, click on “In the News,” and watch the video entitled “They Said it Was Impossible – Sailing Uma.” It just might the most inspiring thing you’ve seen in a long time.)