Eight Bells: Don Backe

The founder of Chesapeake Regional Accessible Boating, which brought sailing to the disabled, dies at 77.

Don Backe

Don Backe was a teacher. Not just on a sailboat, where the Annapolis man made a name for himself in recent years. Not just in the classroom, where he spent decades educating young students.

Backe taught people about perseverance, despite using a wheelchair since 1987, when a violent car crash robbed him of his ability to walk, friends and family said Saturday.

“He was an inspirational figure because he never stopped,” said Angus Phillips, who knew Backe for more than a decade. “He got in that terrible accident, and a lot of people would have curled up and gave up, but a lot of his achievements came after that. He was indefatigable.”


Backe died Friday at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Columbia after a prolonged illness. He was 77.

Backe’s death saddened many in the boating community.

Not long after his accident, Backe returned to his lifelong passion of sailing. And he made it a mission to inspire others with disabilities to do the same.


In 1991, Backe founded Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, or CRAB. The nonprofit organization provided opportunities for physically and developmentally challenged individuals, and for people who otherwise couldn’t afford it, to boat on the waters of Chesapeake Bay.

Backe was volunteer executive director, then paid executive director, expanding the organization and helping others experience the joy of boating.

Having retired after decades of teaching and serving as the head of private schools throughout the eastern half of the U.S., Backe dedicated most of his time in recent years to CRAB, said his wife, Lyn. He also worked in real estate.


“Sailing really saved his life,” she said. “He got out of rehabilitation pretty unsure if he could take care of himself. He had no idea he could still sail. When he found out he could, he made it his life’s work to help other people discover the same thing.”

In January, U.S. Sailing honored Backe with its 2012 Old Pulteney Maritime Heroes Award for his work with CRAB.

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