FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A 67-foot sailboat is making a first-of-its-kind journey around the world: using crew members diagnosed with multiple sclerosis to navigate through 33,000 nautical miles.

The bright-orange vessel stopped at Bahia Mar in Fort Lauderdale recently after sailing down the eastern seaboard with nine crew members aboard.

The sailboat, called "Oceans of Hope," wants to change the perception of what it means to live with MS, or multiple sclerosis, an often-disabling disease that affects the central nervous system.

"Sure, I have MS but it's not what defines me," said 39-year-old Christina Lamb Sidell, of Vermont, who has been on the sailboat as a crew member for a month. "Part of this trip is to step outside of your comfort zone."

Open to people from across the globe, the sailboat rotates crew members on each leg. Some stay on for two to four weeks, depending on their experience, and others, who have no sailing experience, can just sail for the day. People can apply online to join the journey.

"This is not about learning to sail," said Jens Als Andersen, who co-founded the program in Denmark. "It gives them an opportunity to show who they are, not as a sick person but as a real person."

The sailboat took off this June from Copenhagen, Denmark, and is less than halfway around the world. So far it has stopped in eight different European countries and several cities in the U.S., taking 200 participants out to sea.

Next on the route is the Panama Canal, the Galapagos, New Zealand and Australia. The 17-month journey will take the sailboat through 20 different ports and end in Barcelona, Spain next October.

"I've always had this feeling that I wanted to do something extraordinary and now I have done it," said Christina Engstroem, who was diagnosed in 1995.

She said being on the boat forced her to break her routine — crew members had late-night shifts and were often sleep deprived. But the hardest adjustment for Engstroem: living with eight other people in tight quarters.

Others said large waves crashed against the sailboat during a four-day leg down the Atlantic Ocean and water seeped into the cabins. With nowhere to dock, the crew had to weather the storm.

"Much like MS, you can't fix your symptoms, sometimes you just have to power through them," said Lamb Sidell, who was diagnosed in 2010.

To date there have been no medical emergencies on board and no crew member has suffered any sort of attack. A doctor is usually on board for long journeys.

For more on the project, donating to the cause and participating in the voyage, check out http://www.sailing-sclerosis.org/


©2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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