Against the Wind

How a disabled sailor found his sea legs

By Mike Ervin

In the last ten years Gerry Dahl has had both legs amputated, and six years ago he was disabled by a stroke, all the result of diabetes. Now he uses a cane and walks on two black, conelike prostheses. But Dahl considers himself fortunate: if none of this had happened, he’d never have become a sailor.

Dahl is full of the jargon and poetry of sailing. Right now we’re in a beam-reach wind regime, so our boat is in irons, meaning we’re pretty much dead in the water. We bob lazily on Lake Michigan just beyond McCormick Place. Dahl knows the wind here, the way it ricochets off the building. He pushes the rudder just enough to get the right wind angle on the sails, and we start moving. “The sail is a wing, a vertical wing,” Dahl says, speaking from deep within an unruly beard. “I’m not fighting anything. I’m not trying to dominate anything. I’m just making adjustments. The weather controls what happens. When you start to think that you’re controlling things you start to lose it.”

Dahl grew up on the far northwest side, a son of what he calls a “traditional Norwegian woodworking family.” Destined to be a carpenter, he had his own workbench at age five. Carpentry was his profession and his passion, even after his first amputation in 1987. But in 1991 came the stroke, and he lost his other leg in 1993. In his early 40s he suddenly found himself robbed of his profession and a major part of his identity. “I was lost,” he says. “I had no idea what I was gonna do.” He was recovering at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago when a recreation staff person came to the ward and asked if anyone wanted to go sailing. Dahl figured he had nothing to lose, so he went. That was the day that turned his life around.

“Sailing is really a great escape, and it puts things in perspective,” Dahl explains. “When you’re paying attention to these big natural forces, you yourself and your own situation are about this big.” He holds his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. “When you get up the boat speed it really liberates you–whether it’s from business pressure or disability. You can get completely lost in it. I could get to that state doing fine woodworking. When I lost that, I didn’t find that again until I got on a sailboat.

“That was one of the great life lessons for me, that out of real despair and anger something great can happen. I never would’ve been doing this. It was an amazing awakening. Let’s not kid ourselves. Getting up in the morning and putting these things on–who wants to do that? But you get beyond it. You get out of the house.”

The boat he went out on that day was similar to this one, a 20-foot fiberglass keelboat. Five others just like it are operated by the Chicago Park District’s Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Program. The program was founded on the belief that with the proper adaptations, just about anyone can sail a boat. This craft is virtually impossible to capsize: the bucket seats have sturdy chest and shoulder straps for those with poor balance; the chairs are also bolted to the floor on a swivel hinge, so sailors can swing to the other side of the boat and operate the sail lines without leaving their seats.

Now Dahl is an instructor in the program. He takes participants with all sorts of disabilities out on the water; some eventually compete in races all over the country. This Saturday and Sunday Dahl and his partner, John Kostanecki, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair, will compete for the U.S. Independence Cup / North American Challenge Cup, the national championship trophy for sailors with disabilities. Officially sanctioned by the United States Sailing Association, the race gathers 18 teams of sailors from across the nation. After being held off the coast of Rhode Island for years, the race was moved to Lake Michigan last year; it starts from Belmont Harbor and heads toward downtown beginning at 9 AM both days.

“The guy who won in 1994 didn’t have any arms at all,” says Dahl. “He lost them in an electrocution accident. He controlled the boat by pushing the rudder with his big toe.”

Our boat splits the waters, gaining speed, listing sharply to the left. Dahl has found the perfect point of sail, that position where the oscillating wind pulls us at top speed. It is Dahl’s addiction: finding that mercurial point of sail.

A powerboat speeds by. Dahl smirks. “All he has to do is put his hand on the throttle and turn the steering wheel any old way, and that thing is plowing through. It has absolutely no relationship to the medium in which it is operating. This boat is intimately involved with the wind and water.”

Dahl tilts the boat the other way; the point of sail is about to change. “There’s a wind shift coming. I can tell by the cat’s-paws on the water. Those are those scallop-shaped waves.” He points, but to me it all just looks like water. “Where the water is darker, that means there’s a wind shift coming. You can move the boat in the wind we’re in now. But when you learn how to move the boat in the wind that’s coming, that’s when you win.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gerry Dahl photo by Nathan Mandell.