Deborah Mellen dreams of a barrier-free world where people with disabilities can enjoy the same level of accessibility as those without.
Her dream is embodied by her custom-made, universally accessible catamaran, the Impossible Dream.
For the fifth year in a row, the Dream returned to Menemsha Harbor to give folks at Camp Jabberwocky, a residential vacation camp for people with disabilities, the chance to head out on the water.
The 58-foot carbon fiber racing cat is specially built from the ground up to be sailed and crewed by those with disabilities.
Mellen, who owns the Impossible Dream and operates the nonprofit charter service for the disabled, suffered a spinal cord injury when she was in a car accident. An avid sailor, Mellen wouldn’t let her injury keep her from her passion, so she purchased the Impossible Dream from the original owner, Mike Browne.
Browne, who is also a parapalegic, sailed the Dream back and forth across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic multiple times before passing the torch to Mellen.
Mellen said everyone deserves the chance to get out on the water and get some seaspray in their hair. “We want to get people who are disabled and may be marginalized in their community out on the water; it is a very special experience,” Mellen said. “We know how wonderful it is, and we want to share that feeling.”
One purpose of the Impossible Dream is to raise awareness of accessibility issues by showing the world that universal accessibility can be functional and aesthetically appealing.
“The conventional idea is that additional accessibility features take away from the beauty of something,” Mellen said. “In this case, our increased accessibility actually makes the boat more beautiful. It shows people that accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought.”
The Dream is outfitted with many custom features, such as hydraulic lifts in both hulls that enable people in wheelchairs to access below-deck amenities. Boarding is made easy with a two-part footbridge that can be adjusted to sit level with the dock, depending on the water height.
The bridge deck area and surrounding “racetrack” walkway are effectively a single, unobstructed level with no steps or door thresholds. The gradually sloping walkway is wide enough for wheelchair wheels to easily maneuver around the vessel.
Inside the bridge deck house, where the helm and kitchenette are located, there are chairs mounted on a small chassis that traverses the width of the cockpit, giving the helmsman access to all necessary instruments and controls.
For Mellen, her experiences with Camp Jabberwocky have been “absolutely exhilarating and eye-opening.”
She said Jabberwocky is unique because the relationship between camper and counselor is so close. “When you see the campers and counselors just being friends and laughing together, those assigned roles sort of melt away,” Mellen said.
The sight of empty wheelchairs sitting at the bow with both campers and counselors lounging together on the netting is, according to Mellen, “a truly beautiful thing to witness.”
Mellen said she wants those with disabilities to reach out and build a community of support around them. She said there are many organizations, including Impossible Dream, that will do all they can to help.
Kyle Gieselman, a 29-year-old camper with cerebral palsy, said he has been coming to Camp Jabberwocky every summer since he was 6.
Gieselman said he has enjoyed coming out on the Impossible Dream with his friends and having an adventure. “It’s fun to just hang out and relax, and everyone is really nice,” Gieselman said. “I have always loved the water.”
Gieselman said that something as simple as a ramp for a disabled person shouldn’t be an afterthought, and that even some places on Martha’s Vineyard have limited accessibility.
David McCauley is a crew member aboard the Impossible Dream. He said that after he suffered a debilitating spinal injury, the ship taught him that nothing is outside the realm of possibility.
“I love this life, and I want to invite other people to have this experience and understand that these support systems are out there,” McCauley said.
For some disabled people, McCauley said, even leaving the confines of their home is daunting because they anticipate being confronted by an obstacle created by the lack of accessibility.
“Whether it’s going into a public space and not having any ramps, or even something as simple as not having enough curb cuts in densely populated areas — all these things are obstacles people face every day,” McCauley said.
Crew member and physical therapist Paulina Belsky said she has learned “so much” about accessibility (and sailing) while aboard the Impossible Dream.
She said the ship proves that increased accessibility can enhance the beauty of something, instead of diminishing it. “It’s a perfect balance of form and function,” Belsky said.