All Richard Ramos wants is to be able to sail in Marblehead, a place he calls home.
And in a port city that has a deep and lasting legacy of sailing that should be easy – unless you are disabled.
Harbormaster Mark Souza is making progress to bring the city’s docks and riverside areas into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but the fact remains that Ramos and other disabled residents do not have access to much of the water.
Making gangways accessible and adding a Hoyer elevator to get someone onto a boat “would open three-quarters of Marblehead that are currently cut off for me,” Ramos said.
A little background
Ramos grew up in Nantucket in a non-sailing family but fell in love with Nantucket at a young age. He said his life pretty much revolved around being on or in the water, swimming, surfing, fishing and sailing until he came to a 6.
“I was paralyzed right away and I knew it,” said Ramos. “I had just turned 16 in May.”
He was released after a stint at the Children’s Hospital and a three-month stint at Boston University Medical Center, where Ramos said he was lucky because there was a good spinal cord rehabilitation center there.
“I went back to high school in December,” he said. “I went to BC (Boston College) and studied biology and settled in Somerville and then Medford.”
But it would be decades before he would ever sail again.
About 30 years later, Ramos met Maureen McKinnon, a paralyzed marble leader and the first woman to represent the United States in Paralympic sailing. She ran an adaptive sailing program at a community boating center and introduced Ramos to the technology that enabled him to use a joystick to sail a sonar, a racing sailboat with a single design.
He was back on the water. He later met Keith Burhans, another Paralympic sailor who had developed a crank control system with a seat that moved on a semicircular rail so that the sailor could cruise with the boat. This enabled Ramos not only to sail, but also to race.
“The first time I went out with it, I thought, ‘Yeah, I could race it,'” said Ramos.
That summer, Ramos began racing at the Piers Park Sailing Center in Boston, a mix of healthy and disabled sailors, and ended his season by participating in the Clagett Regatta in Newport. The Clagett is considered the premier regatta for disabled sailors in New England, https://clagettregatta.org/.
Ramos called it an amazing experience sailing into Newport Harbor.
“Being able to sail again alone was extremely liberating,” he said. “Being alone on the water has completely changed my life and I was really gripped by the regatta virus.”
In 2014, Ramos was recognized together with Aleef Mahmud for leading an RIT team in the development and manufacture of a tailor-made steering and seating system for Ramos. They were later recognized by Community Boating in Boston as part of the Cheers4 Chairs campaign for building a Universal Skipper’s Seat, a version of the same system that could adapt to users of different sizes.
“For our collaboration, we were honored with the Old Pulteney Maritime Heroes Award for ‘exceptional progress in empowering all members of the sailing community,'” said Ramos.
A turn for the worse
Ramos said he actually bought the sonar sailboat from Burhans and campaigned to compete in the Paralympics, but then learned that he had stage 3 bladder cancer. Although he had an operation to remove his bladder, Ramos was given 6-12 months to live a year later.
“I went to the hospice,” he says.
But eight months after his stay, Ramos was neither sick nor dying, but he was severely depressed.
“I was preparing to die and I wasn’t dying,” he said. “It took a good year to get that out.”
During this time, Ramos lost his dominant right arm significantly, which meant that he could no longer sail with the crank control. He also moved to Marblehead where his frustration grew.
“I couldn’t sail, and even if I could, I wouldn’t have access to sailing in Marblehead,” he said.
Although Ramos would find another way to sail, with a swallow-and-puff method and a place to sail in Boston, sailing in Marblehead was still impossible. Even if he could go down a gangway, most of them had no bridge slab below, just a steep step down. Some don’t have a bridge at the top. And there is no access to floats or an elevator to help him get on a boat.
Until recently, there was a small fleet of eight feet resting at Marblehead until they were told they would not be able to compete in a national regatta due to the lack of ADA access.
“They left town and went to Rockport,” said Ramos, adding, “We were told that we would not be able to attend race week due to a lack of ADA facilities.”
Ramos was quick to tell Souza during a meeting of the Ports and Water Committee Monday that he appreciated everything he was doing to make the waterfront accessible. But he also admits that it is not enough.
Ramos said a proposal from James Aston and Jocelyn Cook to Harbors and Water for a community boating center in Parkers Boatyard might solve the problem, but the board hasn’t even discussed the proposal.
Board members said Monday they were ready to schedule a future meeting to discuss the idea but were not confident that it would be implemented.
Follow Cook and Ashton’s efforts at https://www.mhdboating.org/.
“My dream is to have the Chandler Hovey Disabled Clinic and Regatta,” said Ramos.
Chandler Hovey was a lifelong sailor despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 1995, the national trophy for the disabled, the Independence Cup, was named in his honor.
And he could do so with an accessibility like that offered in the proposed community boating center, Ramos said. He admits there are issues with the site, but there are known issues with the city that could be resolved.
“People learn to sail at a community sailing center and buy their first boat and need a place to hold it,” he said. “Parkers could offer it all.”
Ramos argues that it’s not just about accessibility either.
“Three-quarters of Marblehead – unless you’re a member of a yacht club or you’re lucky enough to have a berth and you have to wait 20 years for that – don’t have public access,” he said. “Nantucket even has a community sailing center … there’s no such thing here, unless families are part of a yacht club.”