2016-07-28 / Front Page

Making the Impossible Possible

By Betsy Sherman Walker


Shake-A-Leg alum Peter Benson of Newport and David McCauley, a Miami-based artist sailing on the Shake-A-Leg Miami flagship Impossible Dream, a wheelchair-accessible, 60-foot catamaran, during a recent afternoon sail around Newport Harbor. (Photo by Harry Horgan) Shake-A-Leg alum Peter Benson of Newport and David McCauley, a Miami-based artist sailing on the Shake-A-Leg Miami flagship Impossible Dream, a wheelchair-accessible, 60-foot catamaran, during a recent afternoon sail around Newport Harbor. (Photo by Harry Horgan) Two accidents, a decade and a continent apart: One on the streets of Newport, the other on the autostrada of Italy. Harry Horgan, a native Newporter, was 22 when he fell out of the back of a pickup truck and landed wrong. Deborah Mellen, a native New Yorker, was living in Tuscany with her Italian-born husband when the driver of a truck fell asleep at the wheel and collided with her car. Two accidents, with the same result: both lost the use of their legs.

And two life-changing events that ultimately brought two strangers together.

Horgan and Mellen met in Miami, where Horgan had moved in 1990 to establish Shake-A-Leg Miami, the relocated adaptive sailing program he founded in Newport in 1982. Mellen, back in the states and recently widowed, chose Miami for rehabilitation and discovered Shake-A-Leg. She had never spent time in a boat before. “I fell in love with sailing,” she told a reporter. “Water was an element that offered me the physical freedom that I could no longer find.” In gratitude for how sailing had more or less given her life back, Mellen chose to pay it forward.


Deborah Mellen brought Impossible Dream to Shake-A-Leg Miami. Deborah Mellen brought Impossible Dream to Shake-A-Leg Miami. In 2014, she decided to buy a boat.

And what a boat: Mellen had heard about Impossible Dream, a 60-foot wheelchair-accessible catamaran, custom designed for a paraplegic trans-Atlantic yachtsman by the name of Mike Brown. It is wide (as catamarans are wont to be) with a mast that stands 85 feet high. Built in a boatyard near Plymouth, England, in 2004, it had made numerous trans-Atlantic crossings; Brown had also loaned it to a quadriplegic adventurer named Geoff Holz. After 10 years he began to look for an organization to take on the responsibility and mission of his Dream. And along came Deborah Mellen.

“I created a nonprofit organization devoted to connecting all kinds of communities and abilities with the experience of sailing,” she said, “and to expanding awareness that all is possible.” The boat is Mellen’s home when on the water; she lives on board with the crew and her yellow lab, Winter, who is never out of sight.

For the second summer in a row as part of an ambassadorial cruise up the East Coast, Impossible Dream recently spent a week in Newport, comfortably docked at Casey’s Marina on Long Wharf taking daily sails out around the harbor.

On the day we are invited out on Dream for a sail, there is little wind, but it is a beautiful summer afternoon. Visitors for the sail are from the New England Veterans Association. All of them are 100 percent ambulatory; Horgan explains beforehand they are from a post-traumatic stress disorder support group. Young men with young wives who have seen and withstood too much; as a group they are friendly and enthusiastic. From their behavior one would never know, but as Horgan is quick to point out, disabilities are chameleon-like; they appear under many guises.

From the deck, scenes from Newport Harbor glide by: Fort Adams, Castle Hill; on the return we watch the Dumplings and then Newport Bridge in the distance. Horgan talks about the aftermath of his accident, and the challenges of getting back into an active life. “The emotional paralysis was something more difficult to deal with,” he added, “than the physical.”

But deal he did, with the help of family and a large circle of friends. That winter he went with his parents out to Colorado. “They put braces on me and I went skiing.” Colorado was a turning point. “I needed a place for people to come together. It helps you believe [things are] possible.”

In 1982 in Newport, he launched Shake-A-Leg, a nonprofit organization whose mission was to help individuals disabled by illness or accident through the physical and emotional therapy of sports. Sailing was his activity of choice.

Interspersed throughout the afternoon is wheelchair talk, observations about a life spent seated. Mellen commented that the irony of what drew her to Italy (cobblestone streets, the charm of antiquated buildings) was what ultimately prevented her from being able to stay. “Miami is easy,” she added. “They’ve gotten hip.”

Prior to the arrival in Newport on July 8, the catamaran had made stops in Baltimore, New York City, and Sag Harbor. Hearing Horgan and Mellen discuss their many guests over the past two years, one realizes how diverse – and universal – is the citizenry of Wheelchair Nation. The boat has stopped numerous times in Havana. Guest sailors this summer have included the rap group 4Wheel City, led by two young victims of gun violence from the Bronx, and John Hockenberry, host of NPR’s “The Takeaway.”

Among the notables who visited during last summer’s inaugural East Coast cruise was Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin, who came to Newport to sail, Horgan said with admiration, “in the pouring rain.” 2015 also marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was supported and signed into law by George H.W. Bush. The cruise included a stop in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where Horgan and Mellen invited George and Barbara Bush out for the day. “The president is in a wheelchair all the time,” Horgan said. “He fit right in, and sailed the boat for over an hour. Winter jumped right up and cuddled next to Barbara.”

Following this recent stay in Newport, Impossible Dream had plans to be in Martha’s Vineyard on July 25-30 and in Boston from August 1-8 (where it will berth in Charlestown). On Wednesday, August 3, following a James Taylor concert at Fenway Park, they are working with Taylor, who has been involved in a Boston Marathon bombing survivor group, to take a group of survivors out for a sail. After that, another sail with the Bushes is on the horizon.

And as last summer was a milestone for the ADA, the summer of 2016, for Horgan, has a personal and equally as powerful meaning.

“It was 30 years ago this summer at Sail Newport,” he remarked, “that we launched the country’s first handicapped accessible sailboat, the Freedom Independence.” It was the state’s first adaptive sailing program. “Sailing back to Newport in the most wheelchair accessible catamaran imaginable is truly, for me, a dream come true.”

He and Mellen are among the ones who go where the brave dare not go.

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