BELFAST, Maine — Andrea Stella’s life changed forever 11 years ago, when armed men shot him in order to steal his rental car while he was vacationing in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The avid skier and sailor from Vicenza, Italy, suddenly found himself paralyzed, in a wheelchair and facing an uncertain future.
“After the incident, there [was] a very depressive period,” the 35-year-old Stella said Tuesday in Belfast.
But the shooting didn’t slow the law student down for long. Working with his architect father, Stella designed the world’s first completely handicapped-accessible catamaran, lo Spirito di Stella. The 56-foot sailboat is the centerpiece of a nonprofit foundation, Spirit of Stella, www.lospiritodistella.it, that gives disabled people the opportunity to enjoy a day at sea for free. Over the last seven years, 5,000 disabled people and their friends have gone aboard and taken a sail.
“From a problem was born an opportunity,” Stella said. “I’m very happy to have given so many disabled people the opportunity to sail.”
The catamaran had been sailing off the coast of Maine when it made an unexpected stop Saturday in Belfast in order to avoid Tropical Storm Irene. Crews at the Front Street Shipyard, which is able to haul extra-wide sailboats like that one, pulled it out of the ocean over the weekend and Stella was taking the opportunity to have some work done on the boat.
The catamaran is equipped with two interior elevators that can accommodate wheelchairs, larger-than-usual bathrooms, wider passageways, lower workstations and even an exterior sliding chair that allows disabled people to lounge on the boat’s trampoline.
In fact, the boat is so comfortably designed that it is much more handicapped-accessible than many cities in Italy, Stella said.
“For me, it’s easier to cross the ocean with the boat than to cross Milano, Rome and Venice,” he said.
Stella is one of four crew members traveling with the boat, including his girlfriend, Maria Foscarini. She gave an impromptu tour of the interior of the catamaran, proudly showing off the special elements that make it so accessible.
Foscarini said that one unforgettable guest was a man so paralyzed with Lou Gehrig’s disease that he could communicate only with his eyes. The man, who used to be an avid sailor, came aboard the boat by ambulance and carried with him his own generator, so he could breathe.
Communicating with the help of a special computer and his wife, the man spent the voyage asking things about the catamaran, the winds and the boat’s speed.
When it came time for him to disembark and get back on the ambulance, he had a special message for Stella and the crew.
“He only wanted to say thank you,” Foscarini remembered, miming the tear that was running down the man’s cheek. “Everybody was crying.”
For the disabled people who come aboard lo Spirito di Stella, the best part isn’t the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves or the chance to sit at sea in the sunshine.
“They say, if I can sail in a boat, I can do anything,” she said.
Last fall, the ship sailed from Italy to Miami on an ocean-crossing tha t aimed to promote the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as to promote accessible tourism.
“If you can build a boat, you can build a city,” Stella said.
For now, the next step on the catamaran’s journey is undecided.
Foscarini said it is possible they will have the boat stay at the Belfast shipyard over the winter, and that the couple is interested in learning more about Maine.
“We thank Irene,” she said. “First, because she was so good to us. And second, because we may stay here.”