Five empty wheelchairs sit on a dock in Esquimalt, their owners nowhere to be seen. For anyone who doesn’t have a disability, the sight may not be significant. But for those who spend nearly every waking moment in a wheelchair, this is a symbol of freedom.
So says Pippa Blake, who has MS and requires the use of her wheelchair to do most everything now. Everything, that is except sailing, a passion she discovered through the Disabled Sailing Association of Victoria.
Blake used to be a skier, and was looking for a safe, adventurous sport she could participate in, despite her limitations. The sight of sails glimmering in the sun and people of all ages and abilities setting sail inspired her.
“I often wandered down here and looked at other people sailing and thought, ‘I think I’d like to try that,’” said Blake.
And so she did. Using a system of nets and pulleys, sailing instructors at the association are able to hoist Blake up and lower her into the boat. At first she sailed with instructors but has graduated to sailing on her own now. Gliding over the water, manning “the sheets” on her own, Blake finds a sense of freedom and mobility elusive to her on land.
“The environment is extraordinary, you’ve got seals swimming around the boat, you’ve got the peace of being out there, with a bit of wind. It’s complete magic,” Blake said.
The Disabled Sailing Association of Victoria is a chapter of the BC-wide program of the same name, which is based in Vancouver and was founded in 1989 by future Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan. The first boat the program ever had was a British-made Sunbird donated by then-UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the ‘Man in Motion,’ Rick Hansen.
The Victoria branch started in 1992 and now offers lessons in sailing and racing, conducting 500-600 sails during a summer season. They are hosted by the Canadian Forces Sailing Association, and have the use of their facilities in Esquimalt. In 2015, Victoria played host to the Mobility Cup, a competitive international regatta for sailors with disabilities, the third time it’s done so.
“The sailboat is equalizing,” said Doug Nutting, director of operations. “When you’re on the water in one of our sailboats, you look just like any other sailor.”
Among the sailors who have come to the program is a person with the highest possible spinal injury, with no function from the neck down. Using ‘sip and puff’ technology, commonly used on wheelchairs for people with this sort of disability, they can sail independently and even race.
The association has also sent athletes to every summer Paralympics since 1996.
“It’s incredibly gratifying just to see the benefits people are deriving,” said Nutting.
A Community Grant from the Victoria Foundation is now allowing the association to expand its summer sailing season. Typically the program runs eight weeks, but with this grant organizers will be able to start it earlier and let it run later, allowing for over 200 additional opportunities for people to get out on the water.
For more information on the program, or to get out on the water, visit the association’s website here.