Dealing with reduced mobility afloat

To the editor: A mobility handicap can make many things a challenge, even when staying on land. For a sailor, however, this issue becomes even more difficult. I know this firsthand, as I was involved in a car accident in 1987 caused by a drunk driver. I sustained multiple orthopedic injuries, a severe closed-head injury and was in a coma for three weeks.

After more than 13 years of various surgeries, including two brain operations to remove blood clots, a total knee replacement and additional rehab, I began to accept that walking normally wasn’t something I would be able to do. The injuries were too severe, and my balance was affected permanently. I walk with the aid of one or two canes, use a wheelchair on occasion and, as of five months ago, I’m learning to walk with the help of my service dog. Bubba is a two-year-old chocolate lab I received from Labradors At Your Service, an organization in Cardington, Ohio.

As I still wanted to enjoy sailing, I had to approach our boat in a whole new way. With a 45-foot Roberts ketch, Gisela, the challenge began before even getting aboard. Not all marinas are easily accessible. Narrow, moving docks can make the trip to the boat an interesting undertaking when one has difficulty with balance. If using a wheelchair, the width of the dock is particularly important, along with the condition of the dock surface. Uneven, rutted boards can make rolling without getting wheels lodged between planks next to impossible. Why not ask for help? Independence is a precious commodity to one that has little freedom to begin with due to a stroke, car accident or whatever reason.

One of the more unique ways for mobility-challenged individuals to meet and conquer such situations in life as well as in boating is to obtain an assistance dog. These service dogs can play a significant part to returning to a life that is as normal as possible for a person with mobility difficulties. Assistance animals are becoming more familiar to the general public, particularly with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The dogs are accepted in most public places without many problems. A service dog on a sailboat, however, is a bit more unusual.

Whether or not the dog is comfortable aboard and under sail depends on the nature, size and temperament of the dog. There are adaptations that can be made both for the service dog and his person to allow for simpler adjustment. In most situations, a portable gangplank will assist both dog and human in getting aboard. Ladder steps covered with non-skid tread can assist in safer navigation above and below deck. Life vests for both assistance dog and owner are a must when above deck at any time. It’s important to stay in the cockpit when under sail, as the deck is too slippery to walk on safely. What would likely be considered a luxury on most sailboats but a welcome addition to a sailboat captain transporting a service dog and its owner is a hydraulic lift attached to the stern. The lift could be used as a swim platform as well as a way to disembark when at anchor. The dinghy can be stored on the lift when not in use.

There are several websites that deal with traveling by boat with animals. One that is particularly informative is Use the Sailing with Pets link. Also, is helpful with quarantine information and pets. Information obtained from states that service dogs are exempt from quarantines in most countries, but each country has its own form of paperwork to fill out for clearing a service dog. Check the following website:

According to the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), when entering a foreign country or Hawaii with a service dog, restrictions are possible. Check with the embassy of the particular country at least four weeks in advance of the trip for pertinent information. A health certificate needs to be obtained from a veterinarian no more than 30 days before departure. Most airlines require proper ID of the dog and for it to be in harness and on the floor not by an exit door when traveling. It’s best to let the airlines know 24 to 48 hours in advance that you’ll be traveling with a service dog. Additional information can be found at

Sites that deal with obtaining a service dog include the following:; American Dog Trainers Network,; or An excellent source for life vests for dogs can be found at

When one has become comfortable working with their service dog, situations stated earlier (i.e., dock conditions) are not as crucial. Width and ruts are still factors but can be handled with less difficulty. The weight of the dog can be a counterbalance and can make the navigation of the dock safer. If width is a problem, the dog can walk farther ahead or behind, whichever is more comfortable. One can spend less time concentrating on maintaining balance and can pay attention to the conditions of the dock surface when being assisted with a service dog.

Obtaining a service dog is not a walk in the park by any means and isn’t a solution available to everyone as yet. People with mobility challenges know that all things cannot be accessible. However, with a qualified service dog, most things, even sailing, are possible.

Sandy Dent is a 45-year-old mom who lives in Ohio with her husband, son, daughter and Bubba.

By Ocean Navigator