NAUGATUCK — As a child growing up in the shoreline town of Westport, sailing the waters of the Long Island Sound was a way of life for Charles Marino.
Over the years, Marino’s life chartered a course that steered him away from the shore and sailing — he married, divorced, remarried, his daughter was born and after bouncing around some he finally settled in Naugatuck 21 years ago. Although sailing was always in his heart, Marino set aside the hobby.
Now, at the age of 63, sailing is once again an integral part of Marino’s life and he’s making a name for himself on the regatta scene.
During the first weekend of August, Marino won third place in the Lake Champlain Martin 16 Regatta, on Mallett’s Bay in Lake Champlain, Vt.
“I was surprised, very surprised,” Marino said. “When I went up I didn’t go up with a mindset of winning, I went up with a mindset of competing and learning.”
The annual regatta is one of many around the country specifically for disabled individuals. Marino’s left leg is paralyzed.
On Aug. 4, during the regatta at Lake Champlain, Marino competed and placed in the Silver Fleet. This fleet is for less experienced racers — Marino has only competed in two regattas, both this year — and the racers must sail with an able-bodied person. The able-bodied person is there purely for precautionary reasons and to help in case the sailor finds himself or herself in harm’s way, Marino said.
The day after racing in the Silver Fleet, Marino was invited to sail in the Gold Fleet, in which racers can choose whether to sail alone. Windy conditions on the bay forced the cancelation of the races Sunday though.
Marino, who uses a motorized wheelchair to help get around, was born disabled. Marino explained when his mother was pregnant she had a cold. At the time, he said, the doctor gave his mother cough medicine. Whatever the medicine was, Marino said, caused paralysis in his leg.
Despite his disability, Marino was an active teenager growing up in Westport. When he was in junior high and high school, his family belonged to the Longshore Country Club.
Boats were available on the weekend, Marino recalled, and he and friend would go to the club every weekend, pick up a small Sailfish, and go out on the water for a couple of hours.
If they couldn’t get a boat at the club, Marino said, they would go rent a boat in Norwalk and set sail.
Marino’s activities weren’t limited to the aquatic kind.
As a senior in high school, Marino helped manage a tennis court — selling balls, collecting fees and the like. So, Marino said, he became involved in watching tennis and the sport.
Although tennis caught his eye, it was sailing that captured his heart. But, it would be tennis that would eventually lead Marino back to sailing.
After moving to Naugatuck, Marino’s sailing days came to a halt. Sailing was something, Marino said, he never really thought about.
Several years ago his wife, Pat, was watching the Olympics when she turned said “Hey, they’re talking about wheelchair tennis,” Marino recalled.
Marino hopped online and a quick Google search of wheelchair tennis led him to Gaylord Hospital, which offers programs for people with disabilities.
One call later and Marino was playing wheelchair tennis. After one season, staff at Gaylord mentioned an open house to showcase all of the programs they offer, including sailing.
“I went to the open house to talk to the fellows about sailing and that was the end of tennis,” Marino said.
With the wind back in Marino’s sails, momentum started to build.
Marino began to sail with the Sail Connecticut Access Program out of Westbrook. The program is a volunteer group founded in 1989 to offer persons with special needs the opportunity to enjoy sailing — not only as passengers, but as skippers, according to its website.
They go out for a couple of hours, Marino said, and the group lets special needs individuals take over the tiller, controlling 22- and 23-foot boats and bring them into shore.
Last year, Marino joined the Waterbury Power Squadron, a unit of the non-profit boating education organization, United States Power Squadrons.
Marino’s friend and fellow squadron member Doug Burdett, of Naugatuck, invited Marino and his family to go sailing one weekend on Long Island Sound. After getting into the Sound, Marino recollected, Burdett sat back and told him the boat was all his.
“I said, ‘What.’ He said, ‘You wanted to sail lets see what you can do,’” Marino recalled.
From sailing small Sailfishes as a teen, Marino was now maneuvering a 33-foot boat.
“I think it’s in my blood,” said Marino about sailing.
This year, Marino bought his own boat, a 31-footer that is currently undergoing repairs.
“Boats are like kids,” Mariano said. “You got to keep them clean. You’ve got to dress them up.”
For Marino, sailing provides a tranquil escape for a few hours, some peace and quiet after a long week working in the clerk’s office at Waterbury Superior Court.
“All you hear is the waves hitting the boat and the wind hitting the sail,” Marino said.
Regattas, on the other hand, offer a quite contrary appeal.
“The difference would be driving a back country road versus I-84,” Marino said.
Marino raced in his first regatta, the Robbie Pierce One Design Regatta Larchmont, N.Y., about two months ago after some encouragement from a friend.
When Marino got to Larchmont he soon realized how serious the world of regattas, even ones raced by disabled people, is. Racers came from all over the country for the Larchmont regatta and some faces stood out from the crowd. The field at Larchmont included Maureen McKinnon-Tucker, a Paralympics gold medal winner in sailing, and Jody Hill, who just missed out on qualifying for the Paralympics, Marino said.
Marino said when he arrived he knew he wouldn’t win. Although he didn’t place in Larchmont, Marino held his own and was told about the Lake Champlain Martin 16 Regatta.
After finishing third out of 12 boats in Lake Champlain, Marino is hooked on regattas.
“I think it’s the challenge of actually going faster, trying to get as much wind into your sails and competing against the other folks — and the camaraderie,” he said.
Marino isn’t resting on his laurels either.
Marino, his wife, and his daughter, Charlene, will make their way to Lake George, N.Y., for another regatta the second weekend of September. If Marino finishes high enough at Lake George — and his current efforts to expedite getting a passport payoff — the next day he’ll be on his way to Ottawa, Canada to set sail yet again.
“That’s not mandatory,” said Marino about the regatta in Ottawa, “but if it’s offered I’m going to go.”