In 2014, the SEAS staff and Board of Directors made a decision that we hoped would change the lives of countless future sailors – to grow an Adaptive Sailing Program. Inspired by the story of Steve Heronemus, a sailor living with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), SEAS started developing technology and systems to be fitted on our Sonars that would eventually allow Steve, and many others, to once again experience the joy of sailing a boat on their own.
The first piece of the puzzle fell into place when the SEAS team, spearheaded by then-Bosun/Fleet Manager Nick Chadwick and past-Executive Director Rich Reichelsdorfer, built a chair in which Steve, or another person with similar physical impairments, could comfortably sit even if the boat is ‘heeled’, or sitting at an angle while moving through the water.
The next step was making it possible for Steve to control the steering and sail trim on his own – a tall task, but not out of reach for our friends at Harken! An engineering and manufacturing company based in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Harken is consistently at the forefront of sailing technology and they lived up to expectations in their development of a system for the Sonar. Steve Orlebeke, Harken’s Director of Engineering, worked with Steve, Rich, Nick and the rest of the SEAS team extensively to create a bite-switch and button system for easing and trimming the sails and steering the boat even with extremely limited mobility. The final puzzle piece was launching the boat, and getting Steve in the chair in a good weather window.
We continue to develop this technology. Those living with ALS have constantly changing physical abilities, and we work hard to keep our systems up to speed with them. Since Steve inspired the development of the ALS system on our Sonars, he has been sailing with friends and family on his own countless times and pushes us to keep up with his needs and dreams. In 2016, five more individuals living with ALS were able to experience the freedom and happiness of sailing, and we hope to continue to expand our reach to others who will benefit from this experience. In return, the genuine joy and gratitude shown by these sailors for being in control of the boat they are on creates a positive impact on our staff and volunteers.