Program puts wind in Grand County teen’s sails |

Program puts wind in Grand County teen’s sails

Tonya Bina
Grand Lake, CO Colorado
Emma Harrington, right, takes Alexandra Shankley sailing on Friday morning as part of the sailing program with the Grand Lake Yacht Club Sailing Foundation and National Sports Center for the Disabled. Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi News |

GRAND LAKE – Alexandra Shankle, 13, proudly wears her sailing school T-shirt below her life preserver.

Her mother Carla says in anticipation of the few hours of sailing instruction on Fridays during the month of July, Alexandra may even wear her sailing T-shirt all week.

“She dreams about this. It’s getting her out here on a boat like everybody else,” Carla said.

The sun beamed through a pocket of clouds, shifting radiance on the water Friday morning as Alexandra worked the tiller of a Pram sailboat with her crew, certified sailing instructor Emma Harrington.

Although the morning lacked wind, Alexandra had been eager to exit her wheelchair into the small boat endearingly called “apple-pie,” and her smile was as sweet as the boat’s name as she floated near the shore of the Grand Lake Yacht Club.

The teen is among 34 children in the world with Shprintzen-Goldberg – an extremely rare connective-tissue and cranial disorder affecting developmental motor and communication skills, vision and hearing from birth.

She has had 20 surgeries in her young life, yet through it all continues to maintain an active lifestyle that includes Girl Scout Brownies and cheerleading. Her three younger siblings each are enrolled in sailing school, and a highlight of Shankle’s past four summers has been the chance to learn sailing basics alongside them.

Alexandra is known to happily squeal and giggle while on the boat, according to one instructor, and she occasionally “steals” her sailing instructor’s nose, playfully dunking the clutched thumb into the water.

New opportunity

The private Grand Lake Yacht Club volunteers facilities to the special-needs sailing program, which in its fourth year works in cooperation with the National Sports Center for the Disabled of Winter park and the nonprofit Grand Lake Yacht Club Sailing Foundation.

Alexandra is among four to nine participants of ages 7 years to 60 years-plus who each get the chance to work the tiller, the sheets, tack and jibe on forgiving sailboats such as Prams, Fevas and a 19-foot Flying Scot. Each sailing participant is joined by a volunteer yacht club instructor, and lake residents volunteer to drive spotting boats.

“When the wind gets going and the boat starts going and their faces light up, it’s a ‘wow’ experience for them,” said of the sailors Grand Lake program volunteer Vince Comella.

To sailing instructor Cory Ziegler of Grand Lake, who has long volunteered for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, the sailing program is a good fit for introducing special needs individuals to a Grand Lake-tailored water activity.

Helping to bring this experience to novice sailors is a “break away from one’s world,” he said. “No matter how bad your world is going, you always have something to look forward to in helping someone.”

And Alexandra is one of the most devoted of his sailing students, he said.

“She wants to be on that Pram as bad as anybody.”

The sailing program for special needs ended its probationary period this summer and likely will continue into future years, even expand such as offering sailing instruction to disabled veterans, according to Kevin Cox, Grand Lake Yacht Club member and NSCD volunteer who spearheaded the program.

“We feel this program is extremely viable,” he said. “We just wish the season was longer.”

Organizers continue to seek program support, such as volunteers and funding, and aim to one-day provide advanced equipment such as hoists to help higher-needs individuals more easily board or leave boats.

Al Vance, 63, a blind U.S. veteran, took the skipper seat of the Flying Scot on the starboard side among his crew, two other adult NSCD participants and three instructors. Vance called the sailing experience “therapeutic.”

Of being on the boat when the wind kicks in – feeling a lift when the sails are full – he said: “It makes you feel good doing it.”

Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603

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