Shake-A-Leg Miami Sets Sail

by beth landman | May 1, 2013 | Home Page

Head over to Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove on any Sunday, and you’ll likely see a horizon dotted with triangles. Get a little closer, and you’ll notice people with broad grins sailing the open water. There’s no denying the elation of those on board.

While sailing is popular for the freedom it offers the average sailor, a particular group out on the water is far from average: If chasing the wind and understanding the tides weren’t enough of a challenge, these sailors are mastering the seas with physical disabilities.

This crew belongs to Shake-A-Leg Miami, a charitable organization located between the Coral Reef Yacht Club and the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, which uses the marine environment to improve the health, education, and independence of people with disabilities. Shake-A-Leg’s president and founder, Harry Horgan, knows how liberating sailing can be. When he was 22, he was flung out of a car door; the fall broke his back and injured his spinal cord.

“I was just a kid with no real challenges in life, and the doctor told me I would never walk again,” he recalls. “How do you accept that? I was told I had to get over it and live life as a paraplegic, but I had two major goals—walking with leg braces and skiing.”

The latter turned out to be a breeze. A volunteer instructor showed him how to work his adaptive skiing equipment, and suddenly he was flying down at full speed. “You have to overcome the fear, but then it was the same exhilaration as when I was able-bodied,” he exclaims. Moving on flat land was more challenging. In a park, Horgan was determined to walk, but after a few minutes, he took a major fall. “My wheelchair was at one end of the park, and I wound up at the other,” he says. “I was alone and got back on my chair by rolling over and walking [with leg braces] and crutches.”

That was when the idea for Shake-A-Leg formed. “My dream at that moment was to create a place where people like me could improve their functionality and gain independence,” he says. Horgan wanted to translate the thrill of fresh air, sun, and speed of skiing to sailing, which he had learned as a child in Newport, Rhode Island.

So in 1986, Horgan launched the summer sports program in Newport, but on a visit to Miami, Dr. Barth Green, a neurosurgeon, convinced him to move the program to Coconut Grove, where he could run it year-round. They partnered with the City of Miami, took over a former US Coast Guard base on Biscayne Bay, and inaugurated Shake-A-Leg Miami in October of 1990, bringing with them the customized 20-foot sloop Freedom Independence.

This boat, which has been adapted for people with disabilities and is used for sailing classes, is equipped with sail control lines designed for one-hand use directly into the cockpit, adaptive tillers, and steering from a single, strapped seat. It also has a heavy keel to prevent capsizing and room for two chairs. A transfer box on the floating dock helps sailors get in and out.

Shortly after the program’s start, a woman named Kerry Gruson caught sight of the Freedom Independence. “I happened to be rolling along the dock, and I saw a group of people in chairs having so much fun,” she recounts. “It was love at first sight.”

Like Horgan, the connection was personal. When she was 26 and a journalist on assignment for The Boston Globe, Gruson stopped in Hawaii en route to Vietnam to report on the postwar nation. She began speaking with a Green Beret, and that’s all she remembers. “He had a flashback and thought I was the Vietcong,” she says. “When he left, he assumed I was dead.” She had been strangled, which left her partially paralyzed for life and having trouble with projecting her voice—a condition diagnosed as traumatic Parkinsonism.

Gruson persevered in journalism, working for The New York Times’ Miami bureau as a news assistant for 27 years. She joined the sailing club and, despite her severe disability, became an instructor. Gruson is now Shake- A-Leg Miami’s chairman of the board. “I can rule the waves!” she enthuses. “I am stubborn and tenacious.”

That’s an understatement. Gruson also competes and has won many races, including last year at the prestigious Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week Regatta in England, at 64. Horgan, too, is active in the racing world; he hosts the important Rolex Miami Olympic Class Regatta (now called ISAF Sailing World Cup) for the paralympic classes each January.

Since its founding, Shake-A-Leg has expanded its fleet to 20, offering various programs: We Can Sail mentors children with disabilities on the water, and the group also trains athletes with disabilities who want to compete in regattas. Every June also marks the start of Shake-A-Leg’s three summer camps: The Academy, a seven-week program, immerses 225 kids of all abilities and incomes in marine activities; Island Adventure (five two-week sessions) allows 60 children 6 to 14 to visit an offshore island where they engage with and learn about the environment; and Water Sports, when for 10 weeks kids 8 to 14 with regular abilities learn to sail, kayak, and windsurf.

Horgan certainly has many reasons to be proud. “It makes me feel good when I see a mother excited to see her child with a big smile,” he says. Gruson is one person he’s particularly impressed by. “Kerry doesn’t let anything stand in her way. My dream was to create a place where people can help themselves. She did that and beyond.”

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photography by gary james

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