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Destination: Netherlands : Able to Sail : They Went for the Adventure and Found Special Pride in Moments of Independence and Discovery

July 17, 1994|SUSAN DIBBLE | Dibble is a free-lance writer based in Glen Ellyn, Ill

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Sailing out to the Waddenzee in the north of Holland and having our vessel fall dry on the sand as the tide went out had not been my idea of how to spend a vacation. But the morning I slid down the ramp from our 1890s clipper ship and walked on the bottom of the sea was one of the highlights of my voyage on the Lutgerdina.

The fact that several of the passengers were in wheelchairs, one was legally blind and some of the rest of us had other physical impairments was no obstacle to the crew of this sailing ship owned by Holland's Aquatic Sports Foundation for People With Disabilities. The wheelchairs were tied with ropes to be gently let down the steep incline. Strolling the sea floor, I looked with curiosity at the anchor that had held our flat-bottomed boat in place that night, studied the wormlike squiggles in the sand and marveled as the tide rolled in. Before the water rose too high on the wheelchairs, the crew got us all safely back on deck. I re-boarded the ship with a pocketful of shells and a memory I will not forget.

It had been my brother's idea to book this 13-day sailing and sightseeing tour of Holland. A wheelchair user due to muscular dystrophy, Richard was looking for an active vacation. In the early stages of MD myself, I had been asked to accompany him and my niece, Diana, a lively 11-year-old who served as her father's attendant on the trip.

So last June we three joined 11 Canadians and became the first U.S. citizens to sail the Lutgerdina since a Dutchman named Jan Olijve had dreamed of marketing the accessible cruises in North America four years earlier. Working with the Ontario March of Dimes, Olijve, the owner of JOS Sailing, had organized the first group of 20 Canadians in September, 1992.

Sailing holidays for the disabled are not new to the Dutch. The Lutgerdina, a 110-foot, double-masted clipper ship built in 1897, was refitted in 1979 as an accessible teaching sailboat with adapted toilets, roll-in showers and a lift between decks. A hydraulic device allows passengers with limited hand or arm functions to steer the ship, and an electronic gadget instructs blind helmsmen on setting course. Navigation charts also are available in Braille.

Our trip to Holland's waterways started aboard KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. The seven-hour flight from New York's Kennedy International Airport to Amsterdam's Central Airport of Schiphol went smoothly enough except for a wait while the flight crew obtained a narrow-aisle wheelchair to transport my brother off the plane. After we encountered the same delay on our return, a KLM employee in New York explained that the airlines have codes to signify which wheelchair passengers can walk short distances by themselves and which cannot, and that it's a good idea to check and make sure passenger status is correctly understood.

Met at the airport by a guide from JOS Sailing, we were transported by van to the Lutgerdina, docked near Amsterdam's Centraal Station. Although our tour included all transportation, wheelchair users can ride the frequent trains between the airport and this rail-service hub. Except for trips to and from the airport, people with disabilities need to call a day in advance to obtain the special assistance offered by the national railways. Train timetables in Braille are available for the visually impaired.

The first passengers to arrive, we got our choice of the ship's tiny sleeping cabins, which were outfitted with bunkbeds, a sink and wall cabinet. Two bathrooms with adapted toilets and roll-in showers were located at one end of the bunk-room area. (Since our trip, all of the Lutgerdina's cabins have been renovated, and all but one converted to two-person accommodations.) But even being squeezed three or four to a room somehow did not matter very much.

"Who would even think you wouldn't mind living with four people in a little tiny cabin,' said Dorothy, a 76-year-old widow from Toronto. "Everybody on a boat talks their own life. The group dynamic is a good thing for me."

Young and old, able-bodied and disabled, sailing enthusiasts and inexperienced landlubber, seasoned travelers and first-time visitors to Europe, we would all take away our own memorable moments from the trip. Independent in her electric-powered scooter, Dorothy came for the sailing and found special pride in boarding one of Amsterdam's accessible streetcars by herself.

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