Retired aerospace engineer Dave McCabe was a seasoned transatlantic sailor when he was offered a voyage like none other.
Would he lead a new group providing sailing therapy to handicapped children and their families? Would he do this for free?
“Almost instantaneously, I said yes,” McCabe said.
He well remembered stepping in to protect special-needs students at his school as a teen.
Here was an opportunity, in his retirement years, to do much, much more.
“The (sailing) event is not intended to be simply a joyride, but the children are offered the opportunity to go to work to the best of their ability,” said McCabe, a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain
“They get to raise the sails, tie the knots, steer the boat and when they are at the helm, they get to wear the captain hat and they are the big boss and they get to issue the commands.”
Many of the participants come from the autism spectrum, or are children and adults with Down syndrome.
Secure within the confined, organized structure of a sailing sloop, they rejoice in the wind and the motion.
“It’s amazing seeing him raise the sail, seeing his confidence,” said Maria Mantilla of Houston, smiling at the wide grin of her son, Andres.
She and her husband, Paulo, climbed out on the deck with their 10-year-old son on a sun-sparkled spring break Friday.
“I loved seeing him taking the wheel and sailing.”
In fact, the sailing therapy has as a strong impact on families as it does on children.
Ann Fontenot of Houston just couldn’t stop beaming as she watched her daughter venture out on the deck.
Fontenot, president of the Down syndrome Association of Houston, was on board the Blue Marlin, a 38-foot Morgan sloop, along with her husband, daughter Tricia, 12, and two sons.
A speech therapist, Fontenot deals daily with the impact of a genetic disorder on children and their families. But on board the Blue Marlin, she could take a break.
“It doesn’t matter how many chromosomes you have when you’re sailing,” Fontenot said. “There are no disabilities on this boat.”
McCabe and his crew of more than 80 volunteers are hooked on the experience.
“Once I started this, it was obvious the benefit for the special-needs children would be tremendous,” said McCabe, who grew up sailing boats in Long Island, N.Y.
“But what I did not grasp at the time was the benefits to the family itself — these families being able to turn over their children to us and sit back and bask in the sun and watch their children achieve things their parents probably never thought would be achievable.”
The sailing therapy program dates to 2007 when the founder of an international charity approached McCabe with an offer: Start up a program in the Greater Houston area and see if it will float.
McCabe had just returned from sailing 4,000 miles in five weeks from the Caribbean to England.
He was retired from an aerospace career that included working as part of the team of engineers that helped bring the Apollo 13 crew back to Earth using a lunar landing module never designed for earth re-entry.
He could do this.
Cheered on by his wife, Marjorie, McCabe gathered a crew of volunteers and a fleet of loaner sailboats, ranging from 35 to 45 feet.
He spread the word among private and public special-needs schools and organizations.
Participants would come with their families and caretakers. They would be acclimated on the basics for the first half-hour and then taken out on about a two-hour sail.
A steady stream of children came. Some were carried on boats in stretchers. Some arrived with their own medical team.
Maria Revell and her husband, John, of Friendswood brought their special-needs son Jake.
“He was not at all sure he wanted to get on a boat but after some intense negotiations (a milkshake), Jake finally climbed aboard and had a wonderful time,” she said.
Revell is now among the volunteers who come from all walks of life, many from special-education careers, to form sailing crews.
In 2011, the program decided to form its own Houston-based charity. Wounded warriors have been added to the offering.
All told, some 7,000 participants have sailed. McCabe plans to bring on board at least 1,500 people in 2014 alone.
He is hoping for more families and groups from Galveston County.
“The challenge is to swamp me with children,” he said.
At a glance
WHAT: The Sailing Angels Foundation providing sailing therapy for children and adults with special cognitive and physical needs and critical illnesses. The program has expanded to serve wounded warriors.
WHEN: In good weather, as many as three sails are scheduled daily with groups that have booked ahead of time.
WHERE: Headquartered in the Greater Houston area, Sailing Angels sails out of Portofino Harbour Marina in Kemah.
HOW: Some 81 volunteers crew sailboats that range from 35 to 45 feet from a group of 13 boats donated by owners. Participants help steer the boat, learn knot tying, navigation and piloting during the two and a half-hour sail.
COST: There is no charge. Donations are welcome.
INFORMATION: Visit www.sailingangels.org; call Capt. Dave McCabe, 281-507-1867; or email DaveMcCabe@SailingAngels.org. Pictures of sailors and families are posted on the Sailing Angels Foundation Facebook page.
Capt. Dave McCabe, founder of The Sailing Angels Foundation, also is an active partner in the Blue Marlin Sailing School based in the Kemah area. The company runs charters and teaches sailing lessons on a 38-foot sloop rigged keelboat.
Down syndrome Association of Houston: www.dsah.org