Tina and Randy’s first date was on the water on a canoeing trip. But, Tina still remembers Randy talking about sailing. Later, they married and had two children. Randy worked at the same foundry for 37 years and Tina worked as a fifth-grade teacher. They had worked hard and Randy was just two years away from retirement when they received the news that Randy had ALS.
Randy’s first ALS symptom was slurred speech. Tina said, “He had a hard time just talking. He had no trouble exercising, but he would quickly run out of breath when talking about his workouts.” After about a year of seeing various doctors and specialists, Randy was finally diagnosed with Bulbar onset ALS at the Mayo clinic.
“I don’t think we knew what to do or say or how to act,” said Tina. “I know it was shocking because he was never sick. Ever. I mean, he worked at his foundry for 37 years, and he probably missed two days that I know of ever being sick. He even broke his leg carrying our son down the stairs one morning, and he made me drive him to work the same day.”
As soon as they got home, Tina started researching on the internet. She heard about Team Gleason in a Facebook ALS Support Group. Randy initially received Team Gleason’s help with voice banking. When she learned about the Adventure program, she applied for a Team Gleason Adventure, because it was Randy’s dream to sail the British Virgin Islands. They spent the last few years working on getting their sailing certifications. But when the Covid-19 pandemic shut all travel down, Team Gleason’s was forced to suspend their Adventure Program.
When it comes to Randy, Tina is not one to ever give up. “I recently retired; I said I’ll go back to work,” said Tina. “I’ll do whatever I need to do, but I want you to have a boat, and I want you to fulfill your dream. I don’t want anything to happen, and I have regrets about him not being able to do what he wanted to do.”
After months of searching, Tina and Randy were able to find the perfect sailboat, a Beneteau 361, the same boat they learned how to sail on. The boat was in fantastic shape, but it was in Stuart, Florida, and fairly far from where they live in Pensacola Bay, Florida. After the expense of purchasing the boat, they hired a captain to help them bring it home. That’s when Tina remembered Team Gleason’s Adventure program.
Although Team Gleason had officially suspended the Adventure program earlier in the year because of the pandemic, Tina reached out and explained that they would be staying on the boat and would follow all precautionary guidelines. With the reassurance that it would be safe, Team Gleason cleared the trip and jumped on board to get them home. The clothing brand, Tommy Bahama, also assisted them with an entirely new paradise perfect wardrobe.
Just weeks before they were set to sail, Hurricane Sally was headed for Pensacola bay and the sailboat. It was a frantic search to find a place that would be safe for the boat until the hurricane passed. Finally, a spot was located in Orange Beach, Alabama and the boat was safe for Tina and Randy’s adventure.
The three-week journey from just north of West Palm Beach on the Atlantic Coast, around the Florida Keys, and up the coast to Pensacola started on October 23rd with the help of Captain Bryce Bliss, who also happened to be their sailing instructor. The first week was navigating through the Intercoastal Waterway (a series of canals and bays just off the coast). The open water was too rough for them to navigate safely. So, they got a whole new education on how to negotiate narrow channels, how to dock backward, and how to sweet talk dock-keepers to stay open another three minutes (which both Tina and Randy say Bryce was exceptionally good at). Tina said that they don’t know what they would have done if Captain Bryce had not been there. Every dock was different. Navigational buoys weren’t always clear. It was an intense education with little room for error. But after that first week, they had to get in open water to make it to the Keys.
“It was in the port of Miami,” said Bryce, “we’re getting up early, you get to see all the cruise ships offshore anchored, not full of people like normal, and we knew we had to get to it and get to the keys, so we had to get offshore, it was our first offshore leg. It was also the first day we got to sail the boat. So that was one of my fondest memories, coming out the pass. I told them, it’s going to be pretty rough as we come out; these are the residual seas left over from the first week. But we knew it was going to get better as we turned the coastline. We’re coming out, and I got everybody in life jackets, Randy’s face just lit up. He’s holding the wheel as the boat bounced through the swells. Tina is looking at me, feeding off my energy, making sure it’s all ok. And I looked at them, and I said, guys, it’s time to raise your sails up for the first time. I remember Tina going from a little concerned to super happy and kinda overzealous and just kinda ‘yes, let’s do it.’ We raised the first sail and shut off the engine, and it was peace and quiet, and the boat just kind of relaxed in the water. We added the second sail, and she just took off.”
After a night in Key Largo, they finally made it to Marathon. From there, their friend Heather came to help out. It’s also there that they went snorkeling – something Randy had been dreaming of doing. But as soon as he got into the water, Randy started struggling to stay afloat. Tina says that if Bryce had not been with them, she didn’t know how she would have gotten him out of the water. Randy was quiet after that. But Bryce said, “after a few hours, he was his usual cheerful self and looking forward to exploring the keys.”
“I guess in my life I’ve seen more miracles and that type of thing than most. Things that I know are not chance,” said Randy, “And like everybody else, I got too busy and kinda fell away from all that. This got my attention. So, I reenergized that, got a lot more involved in church and all that. And really, that helps on the coping side. Because it is hope, that’s the key. I can see how people would have this (ALS) and give up. You can’t. Every day you have to fight. Put one foot in front of the other. Do what you always do. You might not be able to sing anymore or run, but you can still sail a boat, do all the things that you planned to do. I will say this. Don’t wait until the end of your life to do things. Do them all along. For me, I’ve worked since I was 15, all the time, lots of hours. And banked a lot of money for me. Not in the overall scheme, but enough to retire. But now, I don’t necessarily have the time. I think I do. But the point is, none of us knows we have tomorrow. So why wait. If you want to sail. Sail. Early in life. And throughout your life. Play golf. Don’t wait ’til the end.”
Randy was soon able to fulfill one of his dreams and stood on the United States’ southernmost tip. They explored the islands. But, Hurricane Iota was looming. They were tracking the storm, and they had just a few days to get to Tampa to get themselves and the boat to safety. It was a quick haul, and they made it. Then the storm shifted. It was headed straight for where they docked the boat. They did what they could to make sure the boat was secure and headed home to Alabama to wait out the storm. They were extremely fortunate and were not hurt. A few days later, the dockmaster gave them the all-clear to come back. When they checked out the boat, there was no damage, and they could set off across the gulf.
To sail from Tampa to Apalachicola typically takes 28-36 hours. Tina, Randy, and Bryce each took shifts on the deck so everyone could sleep. The first 16 hours were smooth, but then rougher seas started. The swells were six feet high, hitting the boat every four seconds. Tina was apprehensive but willing to go on deck. The other Captain on board then shouted up, asking if she was in need. The very quick response from the deck, “No, it’s fine.” According to Tina, it was not fine – but she was fine with hiding. At one point, she looked up, and Randy was grinning like an idiot.
“You never have a seamless crossing; you always have lumping weather on one side of the other,” said Randy, “It didn’t frighten me in the least. It was uncomfortable. I would’ve liked to have slept more. Some can sleep, some can ride, and some can be lookouts, but everyone has to rotate and go without sleep. But I enjoyed it. We saw ghost dolphins, and I never heard of that before a year or so ago where the phosphorus or the plankton in the water the fish swim through it, and you see a bright streak, and it looks like a missile. And the dolphins cross under the boat, and all you see is light. But, I wouldn’t have seen that if I hadn’t been on the gulf at night, in the dark, because it was a new moon.”
They landed in Apalachicola, where Bryce had to get off the boat. With Captain Paul, Tina and Randy made their way along the Panhandle. They made their way into Pensacola Bay, looking at the damage left behind by Hurricane Sally. It was weeks later, and sailboats were still grounded all around the bay. Two pillars of a new bridge were knocked down by loose barges. While it wasn’t easy to see the damage, both Tina and Randy visibly relaxed. They were back in the water they knew. They knew where all the rocks were and where to get fuel. The Captain jumped off the boat – headed back home.
Randy and Tina spent their first night by themselves. The next day, they made it to Orange Beach. They had made it home on their 33rd wedding anniversary.
“We feel better being together,” said Tina. “He’s been my best friend through all these years since 1986. We’ve always been the type of couple we prefer to be together than to be – I don’t know, you never had men’s night, and I never had girl’s night; we just always chose to spend life together instead of apart. So, this is, after all these years we’ve worked so hard, it’s kinda nice to be able to spend time together, kinda slow down a little bit, and enjoy what life is really supposed to be about.”
“Will you be with him if he crosses the gulf again?” I asked.
“I probably well. I might go into hiding again. It might be better next time. I might not be quite so afraid. It was quite – it was scary.”
“No,” interrupted Randy, “Fun. It’s an accomplishment.”