A sailboat motored its way through pea soup fog into Boothbay Harbor at around 4 p.m. on Aug. 20. On board were the captain, three crew members, two of them in wheelchairs, and a yellow lab named Winter.
The Impossible Dream is a 60-foot catamaran that is helping make dreams come true for people with disabilities. The universally accessible sailboat was the idea of paraplegic Mike Browne, who had a dream of sailing a boat that was fully operational to someone in a wheelchair.
After taking in the size of the boat and the 85-foot mast, the next thing you notice is the exceptionally wide beam.
The reason for the width is that the deck is wheelchair accessible, all the way around.
Deborah Mellen and Harry Horgan are both wheelchair users, due to spinal cord injuries sustained in separate automobile accidents. Horgan is co-founder and president of Miami-based Shake-A-Leg, an organization that was started to help him and others with mobility disabilities maximize their independence through sailing.
After Mellen's accident, she went to Miami, Florida, for physical rehabilitation and was introduced to Shake-A-Leg, and Horgan. She said that's when she fell in love with sailing.
Mellen said the first time she was on a boat for any length of time, it did the trick.
“I went to Harry and said 'We have to do something.'” They met with a designer, but then heard about a boat that was for sale.
The Impossible Dream was in Plymouth, England. Mellen met up with Horgan and the two went to have a look. When the owner of the boat heard about Shake-A-Leg and what Mellen and Horgan were dreaming up, he offered a deal that Mellen couldn't refuse. She bought the boat, and Shake-A-Leg has become her winter home.
“It was serendipitous,” Horgan said. “We had been talking about designing a boat, and then a good friend of Deborah's told her about this boat that was for sale. Deborah got it for less than half of what he was asking. I think that was partly because he knew it was going to a place that would serve a lot of kids.”
This summer Mellen and Horgan have been partners in a mission: In mid-July, the Impossible Dream set sail from Miami to head up the East Coast in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Their plan was to stop in ports and take people with disabilities sailing, helping them see that they could go above and beyond expectations. Many of them had never been out on the ocean.
“We're on this journey up the coast, providing some hope and trying to help people improve their quality of life,” Horgan said. “We know how design and technology can really make life accessible to people with disabilities. And we want to connect with the innovators who are doing incredible work, and be the people who connect them to the sea. There are magical qualities on the water that we're benefiting from, and we want to share.”
Horgan said that they have taken over 300 people sailing during the voyage, including people from the Christopher Reeve Foundation, Mt. Sinai Hospital, Wheeling Forward, the NY Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, the Woody Foundation, the UNH Recreation Dept., Northeast Passage and Camp Jabberwocky.
Mellen said the stop in Boothbay Harbor wasn't part of their plan. “We were pretty exhausted after New Hampshire, so we thought we'd just come here and see what happened.”
On their first night in Boothbay Harbor, the crew from the boat went to the Tugboat Restaurant for dinner. “They knew about us,” Mellen said. “They started asking us questions, and one man stood up and sang, 'The Impossible Dream.'”
On Aug. 21, the boat was tied up at Hodgdon Yacht Services in Boothbay Harbor, and there were several people on-board, obviously having a good time, and sipping champagne.
“Parts of this journey, New York, Newport, Martha's Vineyard and New Hampshire were all very choreographed,” Mellen said. “But the other part doesn't have to be. Look what's happening here. This is spontaneous and it's great. Pulling into ports with Harry and me in chairs on the bow, it's all part of the perception. Just look at us. Just see us.”
Captain Will Rey sailed the boat from Miami, and Horgan and Mellen joined him in New York.
“It's the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's an amazing project,” Rey said. “This is a 120-foot boat stuffed into 58 feet. It's an incredibly challenging boat to keep running, with all the technology. But now that we're in Maine we're starting to chill out, because we've accomplished our mission.”
After leaving Boothbay Harbor on Aug. 23, the boat headed south and pulled into another port: Kennebunkport. On Aug. 25, the Impossible Dream served as host to the man who had signed the ADA into law 25 years ago: President George H. W. Bush.
The sailors had received word that the former president and first lady Barbara Bush had accepted their invitation to go for a sail. Lunch aboard was supplied by Ports of Italy owner Sante Calandri. Horgan said it was a great way to thank the president for signing the ADA.
The 2015 summer journey of the Impossible Dream may have ended, but the campaign continues.
“Deborah and I teamed up to make all this possible, but we're not done yet,” Horgan said. “We still need other work done. Being docked at Hodgdon’s Marina, a leader in the boat building industry, and being able to introduce them to the Impossible Dream has been great. We want to talk to designers and innovators about the things we still need to make the boat even more accessible.”
There’s a quote from Deborah Mellen on The Raw Beauty website: “Boundaries and limits do not define me. The strength I learned from my parents has carried me on and I wish to spread their message to the world: Never Give Up.”
“It's about the possible,” Horgan said. “They're out there and it's possible, and we're encouraging them to seek the impossible.”