Sailing is life changing freedom.
Disabled sailing has empowered, motivated and enhanced the lives of people living with disabilities across the country and beyond. Although it is a relatively newer sport with a sparser history, it continues to attract people to the water and provide opportunities for challenge, excitement and freedom.
The disabled sailing movement in Canada first began when Margaret Thatcher presented Rick Hansen with a modified, British 16-foot Sunbird Sailboat in Vancouver during the Expo of 86. It was a gift to commemorate Rick’s “Man in Motion” world tour. This gracious gesture ended up positively impacting the history of the entire sailing world. For many people living with a physical disability, sports that require a vast amount of physical effort seemed unattainable. This boat was then gifted from Hansen in 1989 to Sam Sullivan, a 19-year-old tetraplegic.
Through Sam’s efforts the incredible Disabled Sailing Association of British Columbia (DSA) was founded. It was only a few short years after the DSA was founded that inclusive and accessible sailing really took off everywhere else. A major sailing breakthrough for the world of accessible sailing happened in 1993 when Sip ‘n’ Puff controls were developed and added to one of the Sunbirds. This technological advancement opened up a whole new discovery to those with little or no upper body mobility, allowing them to be in control of the boat’s movements through pneumatic switches that simply rely on one’s breath. After the Sip ‘n’ Puff controls were developed there was an introduction of a new boat, the Martin 16. The Martin 16 was designed and built in Vancouver and quickly became the standard for sailors with disabilities. This incredible boat is unsinkable, fast, maneuverable, and is easily equipped with a Sip ‘n’ Puff system.
The advancement of accessible boats continues to grow and spread joy to those all over the world. The sport began to spread as new sailing associations dedicated to disabled sailing began to pop up in multiple cities across Canada and the United States. It wasn’t long before programs began to expand world-wide, becoming an international movement. The incredible opportunities that we now have with sailing are due to the efforts of individuals committed to seeing that opportunities to sail are available to everyone. Sailing is one activity where, because of adaptive technology, even those living with severe physical limitations can compete on an equal level with able-bodied persons. Accessible sailing allows everybody to participate and experience everything being on the water has to offer (the wind, the waves, the sun and the wildlife). All this while developing their sailing skills and engaging in competition. An exhilarating, life changing, powerful sport has truly enhanced the lives of those living with a limitation.