Impossible Dream offers unique sailing opportunity
Mystic — Hiram Gonzalez's life changed on an afternoon in 2004.
Gonzalez, a mechanical engineer and father of four from Meriden, had been removing dead tree branches outside his home all day when the ladder slipped, and Gonzalez landed on his head. In the hospital, he found out he had injured his spine, leaving him unable to walk.
"It was a shock," he said. "It's a big adjustment from being able, to not able."
In the years following his accident, one of his new passions became sailing through the Sail CT Access program in Westport, going "as often as I can," he said.
Gonzalez was excited when on Friday, he and six other local wheelchair users were given an opportunity to sail onboard the Impossible Dream, a uniquely accessible, 60-foot-long catamaran that offers trips to people who have difficulties on traditional sailing ships along the East Coast.
Captained by William Rey and first mate Ariel Velazquez, the Impossible Dream was commissioned by adrenaline junkie and outdoor sporting goods retail chain owner Mike Browne, a paraplegic who wanted a boat that could be sailed by a wheelchair user.
Several years and one trans-Atlantic journey later, the boat was purchased by businesswoman Deborah Mellen, who converted the boat to a traveling charitable and educational vessel to provide opportunities for wheelchair users to get out on the sea.
It was a last-minute stop for the boat, which had traveled from its home base at Shake-a-Leg Miami, a nonprofit in Coconut Grove with a wheelchair-accessible port, up to Quebec to join a festival of tall ships and was on its way back when the crew decided to stop in Mystic. Mystic Seaport put out word to wheelchair users in the region.
The Impossible Dream embarked from the Seaport with a fair wind shortly after 2 p.m., with the seven visitors from Rhode Island to Meriden clustered around the bow on a wheelchair-accessible track that circles the vessel.
Engines powered the boat down the river but the crew unfurled the sail was once it reached Long Island Sound. It quietly journeyed around North Dumpling Island toward Fishers Island, and then back toward Mystic.
Cindy Lotring grew up on a boat her father sailed between New London and Florida, and was "pretty familiar with the area" but hadn't been sailing since the mid-1980s. She sat at the stern of the boat, picking out landmarks and ships along the river.
"This is the best part," she said, as the engines died and the boat took sail. "It's very serene."
Jack Washburn, 89, silently mouthed the words to the sea-songs being played aboard the ship as he looked out over the ocean.
The New London resident, who will celebrate his 90th birthday on Monday, had to give up the Tartan 31 he raced for many years in Long Island Sound, due to Parkinson's disease.
"I'm a big boat fan," he said.
As they talked, several of the travelers swapped stories about the difficulties they encounter with people in public spaces, like the grocery store, where people might not realize they're blocking the only way a wheelchair user can go.
Sometimes, said Sandra Cherry, a Navy veteran and resident of Mystic, she feels "we are invisible" to other people.
"Except to little boys, who love mechanical stuff," she added.
Usually, there's at least one wheelchair user in the crew, Rey said, however, no one was available on this leg of the boat's journey to Miami.
But on its return into the Mystic River, Rey passed the steering wheel to Gonzalez, who kept his eyes fixed on the ship's bearing as Rey studied the GPS and depth charts toward the Mystic River Bridge.
It was a special kind of tranquility, Gonzalez said.
"I feel privileged to be in a boat," he added. "It's such a feeling of freedom."
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