Come Sail Away
By Sandie Tillery
story: Sandie Tillery photos: KaraStewartPhotography.com
THE REDDING YACHT CLUB'S MIKE STRAHLE
An eager group of fifth-grade students from Rocky Point Charter School has gathered to learn the principles and pleasures of sailing. Divided into four boats, they call to each other with delight, clinging tightly to the port or starboard of the hull as they glide through the water. Mike Strahle sits at the stern of his Sonar racer, harnessed into an adaptive skipper seat (his own design) that allows him to steer the boat while his crew tends to the sails. Keeping the traveler line loose and the mainsheet line taut, the mainsail billowing and the jib standing out, they run with the cool winter breeze on a rare clear day in late January.
Strahle has completed the dry land lesson after inquisitive minds have been challenged and the basic nautical nomenclature covered. Members of Redding Yacht Club and friends of Strahle’s Wounded Warrior Sailing organization have loaded the students into boats of varying sizes and styles for a giddy trip across Whiskeytown Lake. With warnings to “stay below the boom,” the crews tack and jibe to catch the wind. Lessons continue on the water as sailors demonstrate maneuvers and curious learners probe for more understanding. According to Strahle, “This is a perfect day.”
Strahle defines success as “waking up with a desire, something to look forward to each day.” It seems simple enough, but his daily choice has become a conscious lifestyle after a downhill skiing accident in his early 20s smacked him hard and altered everything. His epiphany came during a breakthrough moment in rehab when he couldn’t get his food to his mouth. Just as his frustration overwhelmed him, he remembered the young man sitting next to him in the cafeteria whose mother would always have to feed him. He thought about how lucky he was instead of how limited. The moment changed his perspective. He now focuses on what he can do. Ever since, he says he “squeezes some kind of enjoyment out of every day.”
The day after leaving rehab, Strahle was set up and ready to sail with help from friends and his three brothers. He grew up in the Redding area sailing with his family at Whiskeytown Lake. He decided to enjoy it again with all his energy. A quadriplegic paralyzed from the neck down, Strahle has some control of his arms but no grip in his hands. His difficulties during that sailing experience launched his first invention, called a trapseat, with the help of a local mechanic who welded a frame to support a custom seat, one of many that have evolved over time. The adaptive skipper seat, specially designed for his Sonar, keeps Strahle safely harnessed with hand grips that allow him to control the rudder. He can easily be transferred with the help of friends from the new handicapped accessible dock at Brandy Creek Marina.
Strahle and his brother Carl have traveled as far as Florida, British Columbia and Australia with their boats to compete in U.S. and international sailing competitions over the past 20 years. Strahle enjoys retelling the exploits of those thrilling adventures which have earned him several world championship trophies, including the 2002 World ISAF Sailing Championship and fourth place in the 2000 and 2004 Sonar class U.S. Paralympics trials. His most recent jaunt with Carl took them to Lake Havasu, Ariz., in November for the historic International Hobie Class Association-sanctioned North American Trapseat Championship.
Wounded Warriors Sailing, doing business as the Redding Yacht Club, now occupies much of Strahle’s energies. He founded the nonprofit organization in 2007 to provide access for the community, including elders, youngsters and people with disabilities, to affordable sailing opportunities. The club provides group and private sailing lessons from basic to advanced, access to a fleet of boats for members for day sailing on Whiskeytown Lake, and also offers open membership in a family-friendly community of sailors. A family membership costs $150 for the year. Events scheduled from April through October include regattas, barbecues and kids’ camps. The organization focuses on promoting Shasta County as a travel destination for sailors with disabilities and raising funds to install accessible docks at all major North State lakes.
Strahle recently earned his master’s degree in communication studies from Chico State University. He hopes to repeat the recent “perfect day” at the lake with many more groups of students and adults. As he shares his story and teaches sailing, people see his skills and passion well before they notice anything else. With the underpinning of the Wounded Warrior Sailing organization, he hopes to find opportunities to speak, write grants and encourage others to “look forward to each day.”
The sailing season has arrived. Check out Redding Yacht Club and Wounded Warriors Sailing at reddingyachtclub.org.