Just a Puff of Wind


I must go down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by…

If you have ever heard that classic poem by John Masefield, then you know that people have always been in love with the sea. It’s now getting easier for people with disabilities to access all our favourite sports, including sailing. No longer must we be that poet on the beach, but rather we are the people in those ships that are sailing by. With the aid of technology, even people with severe disabilities can be the skipper. To me, being captain of your own ship means being captain of your own destiny.

The Disabilities Sailing Association in Vancouver, British Columbia, a club operating from the Jerico Sailing Centre on picturesque English Bay, now has a three-metre sailboat equipped with “sip-n-puff” controls that handle everything necessary to let even a novice sail with confidence.

The base boat is an English-designed, 15-foot dinghy called a Sunbird. It was originally designed for people with special needs and, with that in mind, it was equipped with extra weight in the keel to keep the boat upright no matter what happens. It also has a welcome splash guard to keep the sailor dry.

Because the Sunbird is fitted for totally hands-free operation, it has been slightly modified compared to the other 12 boats in the club. It has electric winches to operate the main and the jib sail (which is self-tacking), a special rudder that employs an electric arm (auto-pilot, for all you experienced sailors) and the all-important electric bilge pump.

Dubbed the “high quad boat,” its operation can be compared somewhat to that of a sip-n-puff wheelchair. With the help of the Neil Squire Foundation, this technology has been modified so that a custom air control includes a small bite switch, or bladder, on the mouthpiece to switch functions from the main sail to the jib sail to the rudder. The air operation is very straightforward: sip to pull the line in, and puff to let the line out. For the rudder, it’s puff for port (that’s left) and sip for starboard (that’s right). There is a small but bright LED display mounted on the mast directly in front of the sailor which gives you a visual readout of exactly which function is awaiting your next command.

The control itself is worn around your neck on a collar. This collar has a flexible air control that easily bends up to your mouth, so it doesn’t matter how far the boat is heeled over (or leaning over), the air control is always at your lips. The only activity that requires assistance is launching and landing the boat.

Although an instructor or volunteer is almost always aboard, those sailors who are experienced can sometimes sneak out on their own, if the safety boat is not busy with other sailors in the fleet. Safety has to be a major consideration, as a sailor with a severe disability has no means of saving himself or herself should a mishap occur. Those times that you’re out there all on your own, it’s comforting to know that even if the safety boat is out of ear shot, it is still following right behind you.

Oh, what a feeling! Sitting on your own Roho (or other suitable cushion) and tucked into the cockpit of this little boat, you feel like a Sinbad or a Columbus, ready for adventure, waiting for that gust of wind to challenge your abilities.

There are many different types of sailing, and even if you cannot go cruising overnight, day sailing and racing are enough to keep anyone busy. If the wind is calm, then it’s relaxation in its purest form. The only sound is the gentle splash of waves as the hull cuts through the waves. But if the wind is brisk, then the challenge is up to the skipper; it truly is just you against the sea. If you have the nerve and the stomach, you can sail this boat hard enough for waves to splash over the deck or off the electric winch on the windward side, coming right into the cockpit. It’s simply exhilarating! You can let up at any time, but the challenge is right there if you want it.

For me, the hook was racing. Just when I thought I was on the edge of my ability and nerve, I would catch a glimpse of a competitor and think to myself, if he can do it, then so can I — I’m going to win this one! I haven’t yet, but I am getting better.

Each season climaxes with a four-day regatta in August called Mobility Cup. Evolving out of last year’s race (won by Miami sailor Dave Schroeder), which drew sailors from all over North America, Mobility Cup 1994 is going international. That means even stiffer competition than last year. With this event comes not only the thrill of competition but the chance to meet and share with people of similar interests who are from places I have yet to visit.

The social aspect of sailing itself is a great way to be involved. It starts with getting yourself down to the facility, helping to get your boat ready for the water, the thrill of sailing, and the customary hot drink and sandwich afterwards. If you’re looking to meet new people and participate in a sport that allows you both challenge and freedom, then sailing is for you.

After the race and the maiden voyage of the sip-n-puff boat were so well publicized last year, dozens of interested people from all over North America inquired about expanding the program. This means that this technology could very well be coming to your area soon. If it’s not soon enough, then come to Vancouver and sign yourself up at the Jerico Sailing Centre.

I hope that everyone has the opportunity, as I have, to get out there and experience the pure joy of a day on the water — as the doer, not the viewer! Happy sailing!

(Larry Boden is president of the Neil Squire Foundation and lives in Vancouver, BC.)


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