Short Sail

By Joseph K. Waltenbaugh

Let me state for the record that I am not a little person, although I'm not very large in stature.  What I am is a sailor.  Most of my sailing is done on the inland waters of my home state of Pennsylvania, but I regularly sail Lake Erie, Chesapeake Bay, and the waters of the Caribbean.  I can honestly say that in all the ports and marinas in which I’ve made landfall, I’ve never encountered a single little person participating in my favorite sport and pastime.  For a number of reasons, I find that odd.

I embarked upon my sailing adventure back in 1980 when I became one of the first in my region to take up the relatively new sport of windsurfing.  Other than being pressured by some family members to enter the Coast Guard Academy upon my high school graduation—something I unfortunately did not do—I had never had any real predilection toward the water.  I knew how to swim, but that was about it.  But in 1980, I laid hands on some new contraption known as a Windsurfer, and things were never the same after that.

Once I learned to master the sport, it became my passion.  I was constantly on the water, and my forte became the performance of sailing stunts on the board.  High winds or light winds, it didn’t matter to me.  I would sail along at breakneck speeds when the air was heavy and gusting, and I would entertain the folks on the shoreline doing pirouettes and routines on the board in light air.  My love of the water grew with each day I spent on it.  I referred to windsurfing as tripping the wet fantastic.  Even when I was caught—more than once—on Lake Erie in conditions in which no sane man would have been on the water, I emerged bruised and waterlogged but smiling nonetheless.  My windsurfing career felt like it would never end.

But as we know, nothing lasts forever.  Physical degeneration from years of active sports—I was also competing in triathlons and playing competitive volleyball at the time—left me with a degenerative hip that was replaced five years ago.  Needless to say, my windsurfing stunt days were behind me.  It was at that time that I looked seriously into something that would enable me to continue my water and fresh air addiction—a sailboat.  But I didn’t want just a sailboat.  I wanted something a little more than that, but not a large luxury yacht which I couldn’t afford.  What I settled on was a pocket yacht.

A pocket yacht is a sailboat that is small enough to transport on a trailer yet big enough to provide some creature comforts below deck.  The first one I bought was 18 feet long, a Precision 18.  I looked at many used ones, but in the end I took out a loan and purchasing a new one for about $10,000.  There’s nothing like owning a new boat.  After a few years, I traded it in for a new 21-footer, a Precision 21, for which I paid about $18,000.  That is the boat I sail to date.

My Precision sailboat has a nice sized and extremely comfortable cockpit and some nice accoutrements below deck—sink, stove, bunk, etc.  It has headroom of 50 inches in the cabin, but even with a height of 5’ 8”, I’m able to move throughout the cabin.  I have to bend over some or walk around on my knees in the cabin, but it’s manageable.  At least it’s been manageable so far.  I will admit that I get spoiled whenever I travel and charter a 40 or 50 foot yacht, but I have neither the bank account nor a place to dock something like that.

A few months ago, a new medical problem arose that required surgery on my cervical spine and the fusion of vertebrae, a diagnosis of spinal stenosis.  Now with my fused spine and my prosthetic hip, this cocky ex-windsurfer is finding it difficult to spend quality time on his boat.  I enjoy sailing but I also enjoy eating and sleeping overnight on my boat as well, and I’m finding that I’m unable now to comfortably maneuver below decks.  My boat is like my weekend vacation home, and it has suddenly become less hospitable because of my physical challenges.  It was when I began studying ways to address these challenges that I came to the realization that I’ve never seen a little person sailing, and I find that strange.

A little person would probably find my current boat luxurious and spacious, similarly to how I would feel on a 40-foot boat.  There’s only one difference.  I’d have to pay about $200,000-$500,000 to satisfy my needs, but a little person could do it for as little as $2,000 if he were willing to settle for a used boat.  That is why I am amazed that I don’t see more little people involved in the sport.  For such a small investment, a comfortable and well appointed “yacht” could be had that would make the rest of us taller people jealous because we will never be able to know or afford that kind of luxury.

As for the physical demands of sailing a boat, a little person would have no more problem mastering them and sailing a boat the size as mine than I would sailing a 40-footer.  The newer boats lead all the lines back from the mast so almost everything can be done from the cockpit and anyone can sail singlehanded.  There are boats outfitted to enable those in wheelchairs to sail, so it’s a breeze for anyone who has any kind of mobility.  It’s one of those areas where size doesn’t matter.  It may be a little more difficult for a little person to raise the mast or launch the boat, but most marinas and boat yards have some type of mast raising system and sailors are famous for offering assistance and wanting to help.  We’ll use any excuse to do anything that involves a boat.

And one doesn’t need to live along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts to enjoy sailing a pocket yacht.  The number of inland lakes and reservoirs in all of the states is too numerous to count.  I do the majority of my sailing on a small state park lake as do many sailors.  Many nice marinas can be found where you’d least expect them.

So now that I’ve let the secret out, I’ll expect all of you to race out to your nearest marina to check the bulletin boards for used boats and to take sailing lessons.  If you need some sailing advice and reference material, you can check out my nautical web site at  As for me, I’ve got my eye on a Seward 26RK with cabin headroom of 5’ 9”.  With my 5’ 8” stature, I too will be able to gloat and laugh at all the six-footers trying to fold themselves into the small cabins of their pocket yachts.

Here’s wishing you fair winds and calm seas.


Copyright © 2008 Joseph K. Waltenbaugh