Keith Burhans: A Sailor’s Journey
“Learning a new skill, and applying it to sports and recreation, is a practice that carries over to work and personal relationships, and makes a positive impact on life.”– Keith Burhan
Sailing is in Keith Burhans’ blood. It’s been his passion from the time he was a young boy sailing with his father for fun, to racing competitively all his adult life. There’s no place that he’d rather be than on the water.
On July 30, 1995, however, being on the water wasn’t so great for Keith; it was downright awful.
While fishing on Lake Ontario, an out-of-control motorboat collided with his anchored boat, capsizing it and trapping his two young daughters inside. The propeller from the other boat had slashed his shins, causing him to eventually lose both of his lower legs and feet. His 10-year-old daughter was able to extract herself, however, his 4-year-old was trapped. Keith somehow managed to swim underneath the boat to rescue his daughter.
“It was a miracle that the Coast Guard helicopter was nearby at that time,” said Keith, now 55. “They saved my life.”
Two months after the accident, Keith walked out of the prosthetics facility on artificial legs and returned to the Rochester Yacht Club where he had been a member since 1979. When he walked in, members greeted him with a standing ovation.
“It was pretty cool,” said Keith, a man more self-effacing than brash; he was clearly touched by the accolade.
“You can’t dwell on the things you don’t have,” said Keith, who always knew he would sail again.
Keith is not a man to let anything slow him down. With family and friends behind him, he confronted the water again and went sailing less than 8 weeks after his accident.
“Sailing is truly an inclusive sport,” said Keith. “You can have able-bodied people side-by-side with people who have a disability.”
A world-class sailor in his own right, it was through disabled sailing that Keith began to meet people from around the country who inspired him.
“Despite the unimaginable obstacles of day-to-day living with spinal cord injury, amputation, or degenerative diseases, these people seemed to share a zest for life.”
One of those people whom Keith met during a regatta in 1998 was Paul Callahan, CEO of Shake-A-Leg, now Sail to Prevail! - a national disabled sailing program. While attending Harvard in 1985, Paul slipped on a wet floor and broke his neck at the C-4, C-5 level, causing severe quadriplegia. Paul had recently discovered the joy of adaptive sailing – one of the few sports that people with quadriplegia can successfully participate in.
“He was on a mission,” said Keith of Paul’s desire to compete during the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia. “He asked me to do it with him, and I’m thinking ‘slow down, let’s sail together first'.”
Paul had bicep function only, which means he had very little strength to pull, no ability to push, and no hand function to grip anything. “During our first sail together Paul asked me to duct tape his hand to the tiller extension,” said Keith. “It was a white-knuckle sail, but we had a blast.”
They sailed more regattas together with Paul always on the starboard side, and their team placed 7th in Sydney.
“Thirteen years ago, Keith helped us get SportsNet started,” said Nancy Steinkamp, Director of Physical Rehabilitation Services. “His tremendous knowledge of the sport of sailing, as well as disabled sailing, plus his relationship with Rochester Yacht Club, helped us establish regular adaptive sailing clinics to allow people with disabilities experience the thrill of being on the water.”
SportsNet partners with the Rochester Yacht Club to offer a chance for people with disabilities to sail. The program offers several dates during July and August for people to sign up for 2-hour tours, sailing out from the shores of Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Genesee River.
“Sailing is a sport few people actually have the opportunity to experience in life,” said Anita O’Brien, SportsNet Manager. “With Keith’s help, SportsNet hopes to make adaptive sailing available to more people with disabilities in the Rochester area.”
Keith knows what it takes both physically and mentally to sail. With this in mind, he created a custom seating and steering system for his Sonar (a 7-meter keelboat that seats 3 to 5 people) that enables a person with quadriplegia to drive and rotate from side to side in the boat. His innovative design empowered sailors across the world to compete effectively in the Sonar class.
Although Keith didn’t qualify for the Greek Sailing Paralympics, he loaned his system to the Greek Paralympic Sailing Team in 2004 and assisted them in preparation for their race. “They had a skipper with quadriplegia,” said Keith, “but lacked the adaptations for them to sail and be competitive.”
“It’s all about helping other people,” said Keith, who had only 8 days to teach them about the boat and system. His help paid off; the Greeks won a race and finished 8th overall.
“They named the boat "Greek Tragedy" and referred to me as the "deus ex machina,” said Keith. “It was very rewarding and fun.” His contribution was significant and earned him a Pierre de Coubertin Fair Play award in 2004.
Passionate about sailing and giving back, it was through Keith’s relentless efforts that Rochester hosted the 2007 Disabled Sailing World Championships, where 170 sailors from 32 countries participated in hope of qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. In 2007, he used the International Foundation for Disabled Sailing (IFDS) world championship event to raise funds for SportsNet.
“Over time people learn to accept their limitations,” said Keith, “but regaining their personal confidence can be a long struggle. Learning a new skill, and applying it to sports and recreation, is a practice that carries over to work and personal relationships, and makes a positive impact on life.”
“I’m glad to know that I’ve made a difference in a person’s life,” said Keith.“It’s very rewarding.”
SportsNet’s last sailing opportunity this summer is August 13th, with boats leaving the Rochester Yacht Club at 9:00 am and 11:00 am. To check on availability, call Anita O’Brien at 271.1894 ext. 1742. You may also download our adaptive sailing program schedule and registration form .
To learn more about SportsNet adaptive sports, upcoming events and registration information, and to get on our mailing list, send an email to: email@example.com.