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Gene Orosz might come across as slightly gruff, but get him talking about the effect that sailing has on physically and cognitively challenged students and emotions well to the surface. “We’ve seen some true miracles,” says Orosz, the former director of the ACCESSAIL Program offered by the Duxbury Bay Maritime School (DBMS) in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Now in its 13th year, ACCESSAIL could be described as “aqua therapy” for people with physical and mental disabilities. Each summer, over 500 students participate in the program—some 400 more than when it was launched in 2004.

“We believe our program is innovative in terms of the approach we take with the students,” explains Orosz. “Most other sailing programs of this type focus on wheelchair-bound individuals who are disabled through accidents or other causes, so they’re in it for the sport aspect. We’re in it for the humanity.”

Watch a video on the Accessail Program.

A lifelong sailor, Orosz knows well the power that sailing has on the mind and spirit. During his tenure at DBMS, he witnessed numerous examples of autistic students coming out of their shells once they felt the motion of the boat or were handed the tiller or mainsheet for the first time. This type of participation is empowering—sometimes life-changing.

Helping put nervous parents and caregivers at ease is a staff of patient, energetic young sailors, many of whom came up through the ranks of the youth sailing programs offered at DBMS. These instructors are responsible for sailing the boats on Duxbury Bay, as well as helping the students in and out of the vessels.

While advanced students can sail in Marshall Catboats or Flying Scots, ACCESSAIL relies mainly on a pair of rugged 21’ fiberglass O’Days that were donated to DBMS. The boats have been modified by cutting away the aft cabintop and adding special trunk-support seats equipped with 5-point safety harnesses. Orosz explains that the seats are

actually designed for NASCAR racing. “They were made by a company in Texas, and when I told the salesman down there that I wanted the seats for a sailing program, he said, ‘What the heck kind of sailing y’all got up there?’”

Getting wheelchair-bound students in and out of the boats can be a challenge, but the docks at DBMS are equipped with ramps and a hydraulic lift installed for transferring heavier individuals between the dock and vessel.

Once on the bay, the water and wind take over, eliciting a variety of emotions and reactions from the students. Some find it exhilarating, others calming. For many, it’s their first time on the water, and the experience can be transformative.

Indeed, Orosz feels so strongly about the benefits of the program that has asked several doctors if they would consider recommending ACCESSAIL as a form of therapy, especially for their cognitively impaired patients. “I really think they should consider writing prescriptions for ACCESSAIL lessons,” he smiles.

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