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Disabled sailor takes the helm using student-designed chair

An adaptive sailing chair designed for Richard Ramos by four RIT engineering students will make its competitive debut this summer, turning Ramos’ physical challenges into championship possibilities.

“I just got back into sailing,” Ramos says. “I had a spinal injury in 1979, when I was 16. I had sailed as a child growing up in Nantucket, but I had not been back in a boat for 31 years, until two years ago.”

Ramos made several Rochester connections, including one at the Rochester Yacht Club and another with the Kate Gleason College of Engineering. He came away with an older model adaptive sailing chair from the former and plans for a new system designed just for him from the latter, putting him in the captain’s seat for this season’s competitions.

Keith Burhans, commodore of the Rochester Yacht Club, built the older model and used it when he was on the United States Disabled Sailing Team competing for a place at the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games. He considered RIT for redesign work and knew Kate Leipold, a lecturer in the mechanical engineering department, from the local sailing community. She proposed the challenge for a senior-design project to Aleef Mahmud, Mitchel Rankie, Steve Gajewski and Christopher Sullivan, all fifth-year mechanical engineering majors.

Mahmud worked with Ramos and Burhans to assess the design requirements that would become the basis for the custom-made, adaptive seating and driving system for a Sonar, a 23-foot Olympic and Paralympic-class sailboat.

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Sailing crews need to be able to move from side-to-side during a tack, a shift in the boat’s direction and orientation. “The old system was over a 100 pounds,” Ramos says, “and in sailing, you want to be light and go fast.”

Built on a half-moon track mounted on the deck, the new system consists of the modified chair with a user-interface of adjustable handgrips and crank-steering mechanisms. Decisions about turns and tactics are Ramos’ responsibility, relayed to the crew, often while the boat is leaning precariously into winds from 18 to 25 knots on rough seas.

It’s like a dance, Ramos says of the actions between him and his two crew members while onboard: “My arms are cranking to turn the boat—at the same time the seat is swinging downward, carried by gravity going into the tack. Just to call it a ‘chair’ doesn’t communicate its dynamism.”

With limited range of motion in his neck, Ramos also needed a chair that could tilt back slightly to allow a view of the sails. The students added a 10-degree recline to the chair design. Although custom-made for Ramos, the entire model can be adjusted and modified for different body types, Mahmud says.

“I had no idea how much of an impact this project would have,” he adds. “It is not just a device we designed for quadriplegic users, it is an intangible sense of freedom and an opportunity to experience the true joys of sailing like never before.”

With a four-year plan, Ramos is training for the 2016 Paralympic Games and advocating for other disabled sailors—and showing them a viable option for sailing.

“I’m starting a nonprofit organization and will be approaching community sailing centers. If they don’t already have a community sailing program, or an adaptive program for people with disabilities, I’m going to propose that they start one—using this equipment as a way to do that.”

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