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Setting sail on the Hudson

The impossible dream.org cofounder Deborah Mellen, seated on a motor boat in the Hudson River
Ralph Gardner Jr.
The impossible dream.org cofounder Deborah Mellen

The distance from our house to the Hudson River as the crow flies is approximately nine miles. But since we’re not crows the metric’s essentially meaningless. Whatever the distance, the Hudson is a severely underutilized resource in our family. Were the amenity the Atlantic Ocean we’d probably visit several times a week.

My primary experience of the Hudson’s grandeur is to watch it through the smudged window of an Amtrak train traveling between New York City and Hudson, NY.

So what accounts for our conflicted relationship with one of America’s most storied waterways? For starters, it’s not easy to access. We typically do so from the landing in Stuyvesant, NY. That requires crossing railroad tracks whose Amtrak trains whiz by at a hundred miles an hour. That’s when they’re not stopped dead in their tracks for reasons that are poorly understood, especially by passengers. Should you succeed in making the crossing the amenities for contemplating the river -- a couple of benches and picnic tables -- aren’t all that splendid.

The Hudson is sometimes in the news as one of the EPA’s largest superfund sites because of decades of industrial pollution. That reputation doesn’t recommend it as a swimming destination; though it’s made great strides in recent years and people whose taste and intelligence I trust do so regularly in summer without evident skin rashes or neurological damage.

Finally, the currents on the river can be treacherous. You better know what you’re doing if you’re planning to launch, say, a kayak, canoe or paddleboard. I don’t, so I don’t.

All this is an extremely long-winded way of saying that a delightful cruise I took on the Hudson a couple of weekends ago was an enchanted exception to my rule of treating the stream with kid gloves.

The vessel was a 58-foot racing carbon fiber Catamaran called the Impossible Dream and our host Deborah Mellen, a paraplegic businesswoman and philanthropist. The vessel is the world’s only universally accessible catamaran. What that means is that someone in a wheelchair, who happens to be a competent sailor, could conceivably sail it across the ocean singlehandedly. Geoff Holtz did in 2010, becoming the first quadriplegic to sail independently across the Atlantic.

I neglected to ask Deborah whether she could. On this evening the boat’s skipper, Will Rey, ably guided it south under the Rip Van Winkle Bridge.

These days the boat, based in Miami, sails up and down the East Coast during the summer from Florida to Maine, stopping at dozens of ports along the way and providing rides to people with disabilities, as well as wounded soldiers and disadvantaged children and their families.

The boat’s lofty mission is to make the global community aware of the possibilities of barrier-free design and to inspire people with disabilities. Among the guests have been former President George H. W. Bush whose wife Barbara politely warned Deborah not to indulge the former commander-in-chief’s affection for martinis.

That’s a logical concern considering that the common-sensical features that make the vessel welcoming to the disabled also make it an excellent party boat. One could easily take a brisk walk or even a run around the spacious “racetrack” that circle’s the Impossible Dream’s deck house. It offers something like the grandeur of a superyacht, not that I have much experience with superyachts. Rising gently towards the bow, it allows a person in a wheelchair to move freely from stern to bow.

First mate Paulina Belsky stands in the boat's galley
Ralph Gardner Jr.
First mate Paulina Belsky

Paulina Belsky, the Impossible Dream’s first mate gave me a guided tour of the boat, including its sail trimming functions, all of which can be accomplished from inside the cockpit by a sailor in a wheelchair.

Unfortunately, most of the bells and whistles were lost on me since I know next to nothing about sailing. I’m familiar with the term “come about” which I employ liberally, even when it’s not applicable. For fellow landlubbers, that’s when the mainsail is about to swing violently from one side of the boat to the other to catch the breeze and it’s best to duck. Sailing enthusiasts and even day trippers might want to visit the boat’s website, Theimpossibledream.org, to learn more about its highlights, its good work, and how to get involved.

The two details that most impressed me were, first of all, hydraulic lifts that a person in a wheelchair can board and descend below deck to the boat’s four large cabins, two on either side. There are also two “heads,” as we mariners refer to the bathrooms, for reasons that elude me.

The other feature that impressed me was the open bar. It was being ably manned by Harry Horgan, the Impossible Dream’s cofounder. Being wheelchair bound himself did nothing to inhibit Harry’s hosting skills. I offered to mix my own drink, fearing he might not share my values regarding the all-important ratio of vodka to ice. But Harry poured me an extremely generous Grey Goose on the rocks. I could understand why Barbara Bush might have been concerned.

Nourishment included a sumptuous cheese platter as well as two excellent pasta salads prepared by Italian furniture designer and part time Columbia County resident Ornella Pisano, a friend of Deborah’s.

 Pietro Russino strums a guitar on board the Impossible Dream, surrounded by guests and crew
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Pietro Russino entertains guests and crew

The boat sailed down the Hudson several miles, turned around as the sun set behind the Catskills; the moon rose; Pietro Russino, an accomplished guitarist serenaded us, and we rode the current back to Hudson. Since I was socializing strenuously rather than paying attention I can’t say whether the boat came about or not. I doubt it because there was little wind to speak of. The Hudson, for all its majesty, will probably never compete with Nantucket as a sailing mecca.

Nonetheless, the trip would conform to any standard definition of magical. It also reinforced my desire to spend more time on the historic river, especially if I’m able to hitch another sweet ride.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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