Nantucket boat race honors wounded war veterans

Published On May 30, 2013 | By Paula Maloney

The waters between Hyannis and Nantucket were dotted with over 240 boats racing in the 42nd Annual Figawi Race on Memorial Day weekend. The weather did not cooperate but the spirit of the day could not be dampened. In a first for the event, three wounded war vets commandeered a 54-foot Junneau Racer aptly named Free Rein. Their participation came thanks to the generosity of Holidays for Heroes, an organization which aims to honor American servicemen.

In the iconic book, “Moby-Dick”, Herman Melville wrote, “I try all things, I achieve what I can.” The crew of Free Rein echoed this sentiment loudly this past Memorial Day at the Figawi Race. The lore of the competition and the sheer thrill of racing drew these army soldiers together, but they also share a unique bond: all of them are wounded war veterans.

Among them is Jake Murphy, a 26-year-old with the build of a serious athlete who was an All-American lacrosse and football player at Wellesley High School prior to studying at West Point. On July 23, 2011, the man known as “Murph” to his friends was on his second tour of duty  as an Army  Lieutenant in Kandahar, Afghanistan when he stepped on a improvised explosionary device known as an IED. He awoke from a coma several weeks later in Germany only to be dealt the unfortunate news that he was a double amputee.

“Do not feel bad for me or other or other soldiers as we volunteered for our jobs,” Murphy said.

There is also Kyle Cornwell, a 27-year-old Californian who was on tour in Fallujah in 2010 when he was injured. Cornwell was stepping out of his Humvee to assess damage from an initial explosion, but unfortunately, a second I.E.D. was tripped and the force of the impact threw him into the side of the vehicle. The right side of his body was crushed, breaking nearly every bone. He lost eyesight in his right eye and suffered multiple traumatic brain injuries. Endless pain became an unwanted friend hanging around 24 hours a day with the man who was serving his country as an Army medic.

“I felt the blast and not much else,” Cornwell said.

The oldest crew member of the Wounded Warriors Sailing Team is 39-year-old Shawn Casey. He considers himself “fortunate.” His appearance is formidable, yet it belies the injuries he has endured.

He was part of the 18th Military Police Command that aided in training Iraqi police in anticipation of pulling out American servicemen in Baghdad. Casey ruptured  the L5/S1 disk in his lower back  early on while on duty yet refused to and worked an additional eight months in excruciating pain. He is due to have a second back operation in the near future.

Mike Strahle, a quadriplegic who broke his neck in a skiing accident in 1985, captained Free Rein. Strahle is the Director of the Disabled Sailing Program, and he teaches disabled sailors the art of racing in open waters. The crew was rounded out with an accomplished disabled sailor named Donna DeMarest whose sunny disposition hides her competitiveness. Her mantra in life and in sailing is “to finish strong,” no matter what the challenge.

In a cruel twist of fate, Free Rein did not cross the finish line due to the winds subsiding to a near standstill.

But the end of the race did not mean the end of the support for these veterans. A shining example of that support is Leo Fein, a Figawi organizer and a sprightly man with an inviting personality.

“It was a no brainer to donate a boat for the Holidays for Heroes when I was approached,” Fein said at the post-race gathering, and it was easy to see how deeply committed he is to the platform that Holidays for Heroes represents. Fein appeared misty-eyed in front of hundreds of sailors as awards were presented post-rac.

Tom McCann, the founder of Nantucket Holidays for Heroes echoed Fein’s sentiment by stating, “I was inspired to find a place for the veterans to come to heal and find themselves and what better place than the ocean?”

In “Moby-Dick”, Captain Ahab had one goal: to find Moby-Dick , the whale who had bitten off part of Ahab’s boat and leg. The crew of Free Rein had one goal: to find autonomy and a feeling of uninhibited movement. The power of the ocean and in particular racing on the sea has the ability to make one forget their disabilities, if only for a day.

In that vein, Nantucket Holidays for Heroes and the Wounded Warriors sailing program was a success on its maiden voyage across Nantucket Sound. It is a shining example of what we can do and should do for our men and women who have enlisted to serve our country.

The final act for the veterans was to take to the stage in front of a standing room only crowd; the band played and the crowd sang the country music version of “God Bless America” by Lee Greenwood. No ending could have been more fitting for three amazing veterans named Jake, Kyle and Sean.

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About The Author

I grew up outside of Boston with three brothers and immersed in sports early on. I studied at Boston University School of Education and spent summers as a lifeguard in Nantucket where I fell in love with the island and currently reside there. I work in real estate and as a broadcaster for Channel 99 covering the local sports scene on the island. I am an avid athlete but my passion is surfing. I have run three Boston Marathons and one New York Marathon which was truly a runner’s high.I am the proud mother of Bizzy, in her second year of law school and Molly, a junior in college majoring in communications.