Monterey Bay Veterans runs two annual fishing derbies for the disabled
Dorothy Patton has been fishing Monterey Bay for 42 years. Hooked at the age of seven, when her dad first took her out on the bay, salmon and rock cod trips quickly became an important father/daughter tradition.
But when the longtime Seaside resident was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1998 and promptly lost her ability to walk the following year, she also lost access to the ocean and fishing.
“When I stopped walking, I thought I’d never be able to fish again,” she remembers. “I was a pretty active person. It was really hard to be suddenly stopped like that.”
But, in 2000, when a counselor at the Department of Rehabilitation discovered how much Patton used to fish, the social worker introduced her to Monterey Bay Veterans, a local organization that runs two annual fishing derbies for the disabled.
“The thought of being able to fish again was invaluable to me,” Patton says.
So on April 23, when Dorothy Patton reeled in a gargantuan 21-pound whopper to win the 17th Annual Wheelchair Salmon Derby, it was the sweetest catch of her life.
“If I could have jumped up and down in the boat I would have,” Patton said with a laugh. “I was thinking about my father, too, who passed away. He would have been so proud. It was awesome.”
Birth of a derby
The Wheelchair Salmon Derby, and its sister event, September’s Wheelchair Rock Cod Derby, are the products of the Monterey Bay Veterans, Inc. Sports Rehabilitation Center, a volunteer-staffed organization open to all persons with disabilities.
This year’s derby boasted more than 420 anglers from all over the state and as far away as North Dakota and Michigan. More than 20 boats ranging from 18- to 40-feet were volunteered for the event.
According to current MBV Executive Director John Whitacre, the derby was born when MBV’s founding director, who wishes to remain anonymous, was being treated for a severe spinal cord injury in Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital in 1987.
While in spinal cord rehabilitation therapy, doctors, nurses, and rehabilitation therapists taught him that “psychological conditioning” was the first and most difficult step to recovery. Yet he couldn’t help noticing that the general mood in the spinal cord ward was pretty grim.
“He told them, ‘When I get out of here, I’m going to take you all fishing,'” Whitacre explained.
Doctors and therapists agreed that a sport-fishing trip would be very good therapy and a volunteer committee was formed to bring the spinal cord patients to Monterey for a fishing derby.
Shortly after that first derby, the Veterans Hospital contacted the derby committee to thank them and report that the fishing trip had proven to be excellent therapy for their patients, prompting the committee to make the wheelchair derby an annual event.
In 1988 all the Veterans Administration Medical Centers were invited to attend and since then the derbies have grown to involve hospitals throughout California.
Catching the trophy
While the other derby anglers were catching salmon at a record clip, Dorothy Patton seemed to lose her bait all morning long. But all that changed with a kiss.
“One of the past directors, Joan, came over and said ‘let me bait your hook for you’ and then she kissed my bait for good luck,” Patton recounted. “We were fishing with anchovies.”
After fishing for a while longer without any bites, the captain decided to move on to another spot and asked everyone to bring in their lines.
“I started reeling it up,” Patton said, “and I was at about 120 feet or so when it hit. At first I was like, ‘no’, then it was like ‘OH!'”
When she finally hauled the salmon aboard, Patton became the first woman to ever win the Wheelchair Salmon Derby. Clean, the official weight of Patton’s salmon was 20 pounds, nine-ounces. A trophy fish by any standard.
In addition to the respect and satisfaction automatically awarded any fishing derby winner, Patton also won a prize package that included gift certificates to Target, The Tackle Box and Quail Lodge; a rod and reel; an emergency radio; a hat and football signed by Kansas City Chief Tony Gonzalez; a Seiko watch; a Pebble Beach shirt; and a hat and sweatshirt proclaiming her the winner of the 17th Annual Wheelchair Salmon Derby.
All access fishing
Dorothy Patton is fortunate to have a power wheelchair she can drive up a ramp to board the fishing boat. Most of the other wheelchair derby participants must be lifted, often precariously, out of their wheelchairs to get aboard.
To make it more accessible to the physically challenged, the California Boating and Waterways and The California Coastal Conservancy have provided grants to retrofit the dock at Breakwater Cove.
The unprecedented design, which involves a state-of-the-art wheelchair lift designed on a floating platform will make the dock the first of its kind in the world, according to Patton.
Unfortunately, an untried venture is very expensive to insure and, despite the grants, the City of Monterey is dragging its feet on the project.
“They’ve even asked MBV to help underwrite the insurance,” said Patton, “but we can’t do that, we’re just too small.”
As it is, the organization relies heavily upon volunteers and donations. Their programs require over 20,000 volunteer hours a year and the generosity of people like Yoshi Higashi, an 88-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who donated the “Mariner,” his 28-foot fishing vessel, to MBV last year.
To allow wheelchairs easy access, the “Mariner” has to been retrofitted with a side hatch and ramp, but once aboard, wheelchairs are restricted to the deck.
Subsequently, John Whitacre and MBV are raising funds to build a 45-foot vessel that is completely wheelchair accessible. This vessel will even be designed with twin captain’s stations, one that is wheelchair accessible.
For more information regarding the 14th Annual Rock Cod Derby on Sept. 25 and to volunteer your time or money visit www.mbv.org
Monterey Bay Veterans Inc.
Where: 32 C Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93933
By RYAN MASTERS