Sailing allows participants to enjoy the freedom of movement and independence – whether it’s a lazy afternoon on an inland lake, mastering the wind in recreational races, or challenging yourself with elite-level competition, sailing offers something for everyone.
Individuals of all abilities can enjoy the sport of sailing as boats can be adapted for seating, controls and rigging. The first step is getting yourself to a sailing center that has an adaptive program and joining the fun. There is no limit to finding out how far you can go.
Sue Beatty is the Executive Director of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB) in Annapolis, Md., a DSUSA Chapter. “We recommend starting with a short classroom session, especially for those who are completely new to sailing,” she said. “We cover a basic set of terms for parts of the boat such as main, jib, rudder, keel, etc. We also cover the very basic principles of sailing – how the sail is like a wing, how sails are “trimmed” or adjusted depending on the wind and direction of sail, and how the keel works to keep the boat upright. Finally we discuss (and stress) safety and the rules of the road.
“After covering the basics we get people out on a boat with an experienced skipper. Seeing, touching and feeling are the best ways to make those abstract basic concepts clear. Our skippers let people take the helm and handle the sails, but are always right there to step in and keep things safe. From there it’s just more sailing and chances to learn and try things,” Beatty said.
Some individuals with physical disabilities will need assistance to transfer into and out of a boat. There are a variety of ways to do so, including use of mechanical lifts, transfer boarding benches, and personal assistance. In all cases, the boat is securely attached to the dock for safety.
“Paraplegics are routinely able to sail the boats once they’ve been assisted aboard,” said Beatty. “Our staff and volunteers assist guests on and off of the boat. That’s where those open and broad decks come in handy. Additionally we use floating docks and tie the boats up very tight when boarding or disembarking so the height of the boat’s sides don’t vary and the boat doesn’t move very much. We also have a special seat to board guests who are not ambulatory. It’s a metal box with a hinged extension that unfolds and can be positioned like a ramp into the boat. There are stainless steel hand guards on the side. Someone in a wheelchair can park it next to the seat and with assistance or without, shift themselves over to the seat. They then slide down the ramp (not at all steep) until they are next to the boat seat. There they shift again into the seat. We always have people there to assist as necessary with the process. And it is reversed for disembarking.”
Freedom 20s are sailed by CRAB. These boats begin with a design that is very forgiving and easy to access. They have a carbon fiber mast that does not need stays (the wires that hold up the mast on most boats). That, combined with broad, flat decks makes it easy to get on and off of the boat for one or more people. The boats have a large, heavy keel which makes them very stable and nearly impossible to capsize.
The boats have two fiberglass seats. Each seat is a single moulded seat and back with two seat belts to safely secure sailors in them. Each seat is mounted on an aluminum bar that allows it to pivot from one side of the boat to the other if desired. Normally they are locked in on one side or the other. There is a small footrest on the support bar as well. Someone who is strapped into one of these seats is both comfortable and very secure.
The Freedom 20s have a “self tending” jib which means it tacks from side to side without needing much attention. All of the ropes (“lines”) are lead in a clever way to both sides of the cabin top, where the forward crew member can access them from his or her seat. The line that controls the main sail is also cleverly configured so that it can be controlled from either the front or rear seat. Tiller extensions are utilized by the helmsperson while driving the boat for better control of the tiller (the control for the rudder and therefore direction of the boat). Altogether two people with disabilities can manage every aspect of sailing the boat.
Bob Ewing is president of Footloose Sailing Association, Seattle, a DSUSA chapter.
“Adaptations for disabilities include things like special seating, electric power winches, electric starter motors, talking GPS, roller furling, davit transfer systems (similar to Hoyer), joy stick controls and other innovations sometimes specific to a certain situation,” Ewing said. “For example we have two 16-foot boats that have electric winches for steering and sail control set up to work with a joy stick, chin stick or sip and puff. Once we give the sailor the basic knowledge, they can have control of sailing a boat. If you think about that and the situation that the sailor lives in, it becomes very powerful.”
Footloose has both big and small non-athletic sailboats available for sailing experiences. “A person learns about sailing by going sailing, talking about sailing and reading about it. It can be done in structured lessons or over time at your own pace,” Ewing said. “There are people who just go for a sailboat ride. It’s recreation, leaving your disability at the dock and getting out on the water with your friends. Because of disability or mind set, they want to help on the boat, but not have the responsibility of skippering the boat. So there’s your crew who will pick up sailing knowledge at their own pace and ability,” Ewing said.
“Others decide that they want to learn everything about sailing and pursue that. The best example is a high quad in Chicago who races in the Chicago to Mackinac race on Lake Michigan, sits in a special seat in the stern of his boat and calls the tactics, sail set and all the decisions for racing his boat. You need the mind, the knowledge and the ability to communicate to be a skipper,” he said.
Sailors with mobility impairments who may need something to hold onto for balance when crossing the boat can use a simple athwartship (from one side to the other at right angles to the keel) grab bar when sailing.Others whose disabilities prevent them from standing can use a simple transfer bench. Sometimes the transfer bench is used in conjunction with a grab bar to cross the boat. Another option to help slide across the boat is a line at least one-half inch in diameter tied from rail to rail. For an individual who cannot hold themselves upright, straps or harnesses can secure the sail to the seat. For those with stability issues, a seat that provides trunk or back support such as one with a high-backed moulded seat, suction handles, grab bars, lateral supports or a good harness can be used. Other seating adaptations can include padding, lap and/or chest belts, and seats modified from wheelchair bases, boat seats, and golf cart seats. Lack or limitation of hand function can be addressed with electronically-assisted steering and sheet trimming. Systems include 4-way joysticks which can be used with foot/toes or hand/fingers, or chin-control.
For those with severe quadriplegia, sip and puff control allows them to use a straw-like mechanism to control sail movement by how they blow, sip, or bite the control. These and other adaptations are explained in the Adaptive Sailing Resource Manual found on the US Sailing site under the Adaptive Sailing Tab. Visit http://www.ussailing.org/education/adaptive-sailing/manual/
Be Safe While Sailing
• Bring bottled water onboard and stay hydrated.
• Wear a hat to protect your face; consider long-sleeve cotton shirts and bring a windproof jacket.
• Dress in layers because it’s generally cooler on the water than on land.
• Bring sunglasses to protect your eyes and cut glare.
• Check your transfer equipment to be sure it is in good condition.
• Keep your wheelchair in a safe spot with brakes on. Assistive devices also should be in a secure place or in the boat.
• Wear gloves if you are a crewman and handling ropes.
• Wear a life jacket (PFD – personal flotation device). Put on before you get on the boat and wear it at all times.
• Wear shoes with grip-type soles, preferably white treads because black treads mark up the boats.
• Check seat belts and straps before leaving the dock.
• Make sure there is a First Aid kit onboard.
• Know the current and upcoming weather conditions.
To learn more about competitive and Paralympic sailing, click here.
To learn more about adaptive boats, click here.