Don Backe never won the America's Cup or any other world-class sailing event, but he probably had more of an impact on the sport around the Chesapeake Bay than any champion.
A segment of the local sailing community — the physically and emotionally disabled as well as those who couldn't afford to sail — are deeply indebted to Backe, who helped found Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB) in 1991, four years after a car accident left him a paraplegic.
While mourning his death on April 12 at age 77 after a prolonged illness, those who knew Backe are also celebrating his life — particularly the last 22 years of it. A memorial service is being planned for June in Annapolis, where Backe's nonprofit was based.
"He was one of the people who made boating accessible for disabled people where, I think it's fair to say, 25 years ago there wasn't much of it," said Hall of Fame sailor Gary Jobson of Annapolis. "Don Backe gets a lot of credit for that."
Jobson, whose US Sailing organization honored Backe with one of its six Maritime Heroes awards at a ceremony in February in Clearwater, Fla., added, "Seeing how he operated was inspiring."
Said Lyn Backe, who married her husband in 1993: "He truly believed that people could find something in sailing that would free them to do many other things that they felt they couldn't."
Lyn Backe said her husband began sailing when he moved as a teenager from California to Munich, where his father worked for the U.S. State Department on immigration issues after World War II.
An avid runner and windsurfer as an adult, Backe returned to sailing after a lengthy rehabilitation following the one-car crash in Crownsville that paralyzed the strapping 6-foot-3, 220-pound newly licensed real estate agent.
Backe eventually returned to Champion Realty in Annapolis, which made its office wheelchair-accessible and bought a van that accommodated Backe's disability. He also did volunteer work for the National Ocean Access Project, which taught those with physical disabilities how to sail. That eventually led to CRAB.
"The way he tells it, the discovery that he could sail again literally saved his life," Lyn Backe said.
Backe ran CRAB out of the townhouse he and Lyn shared after they were married.
"He operated CRAB out of his house for probably the first 15 years or so without an office or a salary," said Ernie Shineman, who met Backe when both were training to become real estate agents. "You talk about the love of the sport and the objective. It was literally his life's work."
Said Lyn Backe: "CRAB was his soul."
The highlight for CRAB came last spring, when Matt Rutherford became the first sailor to navigate solo around both North and South America. Rutherford, who started and finished his 10-month journey in a 26-foot dinghy in Annapolis, helped raise more than $60,000 for CRAB.
Two days before Rutherford's return, Backe discussed in an interview with The Baltimore Sun how CRAB had turned his life around.
"I realized that I could still [sail]," Backe recalled. "I was going to need help, but I was going to be able to sail. It restored a part of my life, just as CRAB helps those with other types of disabilities make their life more meaningful."
CRAB board president Lance Hinrichs said the organization helped turn his life around as well. Hinrichs has been paralyzed since he broke his neck after falling off the roof of a house while in college in 1982.
"I was an avid sailor before the accident, and when I got injured, there were no disabled sailing programs around. I thought basically that activity was no longer a part of my life," Hinrichs said.
Hinrichs met Backe at a regatta for disabled sailors in Newport, R.I., in the early 1990s, and when Hinrichs moved to Northern Virginia a few years later, he became involved with CRAB.
"I think the thing that one would want to share about Don was his passion, and his devotion to the sport and his deep devotion to serving others," Hinrichs said. "Don was an educator by trade and was one of the most selfless and self-effacing people you could have known."