The Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors Is Making Sailing Accessible

All images by Josh Maddox

Kathi Pugh’s introduction to the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors (BAADS) was a blend of excitement and humor. “My world was forever rocked,” she says, recalling her first sail with them. And then there was the fact that the organization’s mascot is a pirate with an eye patch and a hook: “The original disabled sailor!”

The idea for BAADS was formed in the late 1980s, when participants in the Lake Merritt Adapted Boating Program in Oakland expressed interest in sailing on the San Francisco Bay. Today, BAADS operates out of San Francisco’s South Beach Harbor. Pugh and her husband joined the organization in 1992, and she currently serves as BAADS’s commodore. While she had long been an active, outdoorsy person, a snow skiing accident in college left her paralyzed from the chest down.

“For somebody with my disability, there’s so few recreational opportunities out there, especially ones that challenge you, that are outdoors,” says Pugh. But BAADS reintroduced her to the sporting lifestyle she’d missed and has created new possibilities for countless other members over the years.

BAADS’ fleet includes several Hansa “small boats” in double- and single-seat versions, all specifically designed for people with disabilities; some of the boats are also equipped with servomotors, which can allow people with severe physical disabilities to sail solo. The rest of the fleet is made up of a handful of large keelboats, each specially rigged and equipped with adaptive features. The volunteer-run organization strives to accommodate everyone, regardless of experience level, and with all forms of disabilities.

“I have a disability where my arms and legs don’t work at all, and I drive my chair with a chin control,” says Cristina Rubke, who has been sailing with BAADS since 2007. “They were like, ‘We can put that feature on a boat and you can sail by yourself.’ ” Though she didn’t quite believe them, within a few months BAADS had adapted a boat for her. Now she not only sails recreationally, but races on a national and international level.

“I’ve been sailing with other organizations, but it’s nice to be in a place where it’s not about my disability; it’s about my sailing and what we can do to make it work in any circumstances,” says Rubke.

While Rubke and Pugh both love the challenge of sailing, Pugh also views the activity as something that all people can appreciate: “Once you’re on the water, looking out at the city, you never look at the bay the same way,” says Pugh, who controls the boats with a joystick. “You see dolphins, harbor seals, sea lions and the last couple years people have seen whales. It is so magical.”

BAADS operates year-round, weather depending, with small boat sailing on Saturdays and keelboat sailing on Sundays. For anyone unsure if physical limitations might impede ability to participate, Pugh says, it’s worthwhile to try: “It’s a whole new world out there.”

BAADS sailors on the bay