Never Give Up

Keith Burhans inspires boaters everywhere despite trying circumstances

December 2022 Feature Heather Magda Serrano

On July 30, 1995, Keith Burhans’ life changed forever. Despite the tragic boating accident in which he lost both legs, he still maintains his status as an avid Great Lakes boater on Lake Ontario. His courage and resilience stands as a source of great inspiration for all those who have the pleasure of meeting him.

Keith’s story begins long before his accident 25 years ago. He grew up near Buffalo in Lockport, N.Y., so he’s always been in close proximity to both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Naturally, boating became a large part of his life right from the start.

“My dad was a power boater prior to starting a family,” explained Keith, “back in the good old days when there were barrel-back Chris-Crafts in the 50s.”

Near Keith’s hometown of Lockport, there was a little harbor down at the lake in a town called Wilson. He described the harbor as a beautiful place about 12 miles east of where the mouth of the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. Growing up, he spent almost every weekend boating there with his family.

The Family Heirloom

Keith described his dad as a wood boat aficionado in the 60s. His philosophy was, “If it’s plastic, it can’t be any good.” For this reason, his dad ended up buying an unfinished boat when Keith was young. He bought the components of the boat and took two years to put it together, installing the mast, engine, and putting the keel on.

Keith was around 10 years old and was his dad’s little helper. “It was neat to take this unfinished boat and help my dad put it together,” recalled Keith.

When his father passed away in 1995, he became the inheritor of this family heirloom Balynda. At that point in time, the boat was 30-plus years old and it was starting to get a little tired since his dad had gotten older and really couldn’t keep her in top condition.

Keith ended up restoring the Balynda with a goal to enjoy the boat for another 10 years or so. It became their family boat and they managed to get another 9 more years out of her.

Racing Boats

As Keith grew up and began spending more time in Toronto, which was only about 30 miles across the lake from Wilson, he had access to the 8-Metre fleet. “The fleet was making a renaissance at Royal Canadian Yachts Club in Toronto at the time,” mentioned Keith.

It was through the 8-Metre fleet that he met a Hungarian refugee who invited him to sail with him on the 8-Metre “Quest.” From there, Keith ended up sailing in Youngstown, N.Y., where he discovered Solings, Olympic Class keelboats designed in Norway in 1965.

In 1979, Keith moved to Rochester, N.Y., and joined Rochester Yacht Club where there was a large Soling fleet and he got deeply involved in racing them. “I loved those boats,” shared Keith. “They were just such wonderful to sail boats. During the 80s, we also had a big J24 fleet here at the time.”

Needless to say, racing has played a prominent role in Keith’s life and he’s seen much success. In 1985 he was tactician on 8mR Golden Feather and won the International Eight Metre Association (IEMA) World Cup. That victory allowed him to defend in Cannes, France, the following year where he sailed to a second-place finish.

Keith finds that one of the wonderful things about sailboat racing is there are plenty of World Cups. Pretty much every international class has a world championship, so he can do something with racing every weekend if he wants.

He still worked while he was racing and he often found it to be challenging to find the time, especially when his firstborn came along in 1985 and his second-born in 1990. He had to juggle racing, family and work.

“It was a balancing act,” admitted Keith, “but we still figured out how to do it. Fast forward to now and we are still doing the Solings, J24s and big boats that led to our boating accident on July 30, 1995. This was the start of my detour in life.”

The Detour

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, which, Keith later found out, is the time when most boating accidents happen statistically. “Do you know why?” asked Keith. “Because most people are off on weekends and want to use their boats on a nice day!”

Keith wanted to do just that and go out fishing with his girls on their 17-foot Glastron boat. They decided to visit a quaint little bass fishing spot, dropping anchor about a mile offshore. Surprisingly, there was not too much boating activity, with only one other boat lying anchor about 200 yards away.

After about half an hour, this other boat pulled up their anchor to move. Keith watched them pull up their anchor and start coming straight for him and his daughters. He waved and screamed at whoever was driving the boat, but they couldn’t hear him.        

“I could tell the boat was going to hit between the windshield and the engine which is where I was standing,” said Keith. “My 10-year-old daughter Kristen was in the bow and my four-year-old daughter Allie was aft by the engine. I grabbed Allie, got her to my chest, and was diving into the bow at the time of the impact.”

The Aftermath

The impact blew the starboard side out and Keith ended on his back between the seats with his knees compressed to his chest. The boat took about four inches of tibia out of both his legs and sliced his buttocks. As the boat exited, it capsized their boat.

Keith’s kids both had their lifejackets on with the boat overturned, pressed up against the floor, which was now the ceiling. The force of the crash moved the boat about 50 feet. Keith didn’t have his lifejacket on, and when he resurfaced, he was treading water to get back. He couldn’t use his legs—they were attached, just not usable.

Just as he got himself back to the boat, Kristen was able to pull herself out of the bow. Keith then went under the boat again and found Allie under the dash. He was able to grab her ankle and pull her out to the surface. Luckily, neither of Keith’s daughters were hurt with so much as a scratch.

They were able to make it to the swim platform of the boat that hit them about 50 feet away. As they swam over, Keith could hear the man frantically calling “Mayday! Mayday!” as he tried to describe the situation on the radio. Keith could also see the man’s wife on the deck on her cell phone calling 911 for help.

The Coast Guard and sheriff’s boats arrived simultaneously 10 minutes after the Mayday call. By that time, his daughters had climbed up into the boat and Keith climbed onto the swim platform. They gave him towels for tourniquets and bags of ice to help slow the bleeding. The Coast Guard then flew him to the hospital.

“Adrenaline is an amazing thing,” described Keith. “It was definitely painful, but I did what I had to do.”

The boat had hit Keith’s boat because nobody was driving it. The people had only owned the boat for about a month. The man had started the engine and decided to put his fishing poles down below. They had four adults and an infant on the boat and nobody had been driving it when it hit Keith and his daughters.

Lifetime Boater

Despite losing his legs in this unfortunate accident, Keith wasn’t done with boating. He was able to get out and sail after getting fitted for his prosthetic legs

“I just love the water too much to not want to go play,” shared Keith. “It’s been a big part of my life and part of my identity.”

His focus after the accident was primarily to fight off infections from the injury. It took him almost five weeks to get rid of infection. Keith feels very lucky he got fitted for his new legs, attesting that the guy who created them was a genius and the legs fit beautifully.

There were a lot of life experiences that came with the accident for Keith, including the grand jury, trial, testimony, and dealing with Social Security. Then there was also the process of getting fitted for prosthetics and learning to adjust to his new lifestyle. It was a difficult and drawn-out experience which came with many frustrations. However, after everything, Keith forgives the man responsible for hitting him.

“The owner of the boat plead guilty to the charges and gave me an apology in court,” added Keith. “I shook his hand and told him I forgave him and not to let this ruin the rest of his life.”

After injury, he went on to become a member of the United States Sailing Team for 10 years, and was a member of Team USA at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. He still boats on Lake Ontario today and is an active member and a past commodore of the Rochester Yacht Club.

Not many people would have handled these trials with the same amount of grace. Keith has adjusted remarkably well to his new lifestyle. Despite the hardships he’s faced, he has never let it get in the way of his passion for boating.


For More Information

International Eight Metre Association

Rochester Yacht Club

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