A CRAB Celebration

New center boasts amenities for all abilities 

By Cheryl Costello 

Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, known as CRAB, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, with a yearlong party that includes a special gift to the region. A new adaptive boating center, touted as one of the best in the country, will open next summer to bring the “thrill, freedom and therapeutic value of sailing to those with disabilities, wounded warriors and children from under-served communities.” 

CRAB’s leadership met with local officials Monday to cut the cake and kick off their celebration. At the ceremony, the state, county and City of Annapolis presented proclamations. “This gives the ability for nearly everybody in the city to get to the waterfront and actually touch and feel the water,” said Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley. “This facility will make Annapolis one of the most inclusive places in the country. And inclusivity is what we’re all fighting for.” 

CRAB skipper Steve Ritterbush praises the organization for getting him back on the water. “To me, it’s my church,” he said. “After I fell about six years ago, I was totally paralyzed.  I couldn’t do any of the activities I loved to do, whether it be boating, fishing, running, camping.” 

CRAB helps people like Ritterbush leave their wheelchairs and worries on the dock—and go sailing. Founded by Annapolis resident Don Backe in 1991 after he was paralyzed in a car wreck, the program has grown tremendously. For the last 30 years, CRAB has operated out of a single floating pier at Sandy Point State Park. 

“In those days, if they took out 400 guests, that was a huge, huge year,” says CRAB Executive Director Paul “Bo” Bollinger. Now they take out well over 1,000. 

The success means they’ve outgrown their current home. In 2017, a long process to find a new marina began. On September 2, 2020, the State of Maryland Board of Public Works unanimously approved the $1.8 million Program Open Space grant for the City of Annapolis to acquire property at 7040 Bembe Beach Road for $2,250,000. Anne Arundel County contributed $1.3M and the City of Annapolis committed $500,000 of their funding, in addition to the $1M committed by the State of Maryland in the 2019 Capital Improvement budget.   

The City of Annapolis closed on the property, formerly the Port Williams Marina, Oct. 30 and CRAB signed a 40-year lease with the City of Annapolis on Nov. 19, 2020. 

Bollinger says there are currently 1,200 boat slips on all of Back Creek and none are handicapped accessible. “We have .86 acres of property here, including the original home on the property. It will be torn down and, in its place, will be the adaptive boating center,” he said. 

The CRAB center will feature the 2,600-square-foot Don Backe Learning Center with modern floating docks that exceed ADA standards and are fitted with several Hoyer lifts to transfer guests from wheelchairs into a CRAB sailboat or privately-owned boat. It will hold staff offices, a new marina and boathouse, and a pavilion. The center will also be a model of environmental stewardship using solar energy, recycled building materials, and rain garden landscaping. Everything will be barrier free and accessible for those with disabilities.  

Beyond sailing, the marina will include a boat slip for a new pontoon boat that can take guests in wheelchairs out on the Bay to fish, crab, wakeboard or earn their Maryland boating certification. CRAB will offer boating instruction, the chance to learn about marine trades and offer job training and internship programs, STEM programming, and exercise classes taught by licensed instructors or therapists. Additional adaptive water sports and programs will be offered at the center to expand outreach to more guests including paddleboarding, kayaking, and remote-controlled sailboat racing. There is also talk of adding a larger sailboat to CRAB’s existing fleet so guests can participate in Wednesday night sailboat racing. 

The new center has plenty of support in the region. Del. Shaneka Henson (D-30A) was on hand Monday to celebrate CRAB’s success and said the county’s $75,000 financial contribution to the project was going to good use. “We’re going to contribute some handicapped accessible restrooms … for guests so that they can be able to make sure they freshen up before they get on the boats.” 

The biggest private donation yet—$100,000—was presented by Lex Birney, CEO of The Brick Companies, in memory of his father, Arthur Birney, who loved to sail. The money will be used to build a Serenity Park that includes the aforementioned pavilion.  

Lex Birney recalls racing to Bermuda with his father on a 48-foot schooner in the early ‘70s. “It really shaped our relationship and our lives. And he really passed onto me the values that come along with sailing … you learn from adversity.” 

“As he would have said, he loved schooners, and in the terminology of schooners, you would sit in a boat after a long day and have a ‘gam [social visit with fellow mariners],’” Birney says. “So, we hope that many people will have many gams.” 

CRAB hopes to continue to help others find their own islands of peace for years to come. “CRAB has been providing this service free of charge to people with disabilities for nearly 27 years with zero public money,” said Bollinger. 

The new marina will accommodate a fleet that has grown over its 30-year history. The new docks will have an 80-foot T-head of unobstructed docking space to allow guests to be picked up by family and friends who aren’t on a CRAB boat. “Not only can I sail in the CRAB boat but many of my friends can bring their boats by and have me lifted in and I can go out with them for an afternoon,” said Ritterbush. 

The new adaptive boating center is expected to open in April 2022. 

“You will change people’s lives with this initiative and I thank you for the passion,” said Buckley. “I know it didn’t happen overnight, you told me it didn’t happen overnight, you kept fighting and fighting and you never gave up.” 

–Kathy Knotts contributed to this story.