Accessible sailing opportunities continue to increase in Atlantic Canada through the Able Sail network, with Newfoundland joining the umbrella organization in 2019 with much success.
“We had great interest for our first year,” said Matt Debicki, president of Able Sail Newfoundland. “We had exceptional numbers. We had over 40 people in boats. We had 10 solid athletes that returned quite often and most importantly, we had incredible uptake and support from the yacht club establishment.”
Debicki, who has a long history of working with accessible sailing, started working with the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club sailing school in 2019, with the goal of creating an accessible program.
“I figured the best way to do that was to create a stand-alone accessible sailing non-profit that would be the overall umbrella organization for that and would work towards promoting and creating accessible programs across the province,” said Debicki.
Some funding was secured from government to build ramps and to mount equipment needed to transport people safely to the boats and get them in and out of the vessels, said Debicki, which enabled the program to proceed.
While some accessible sailing has happened in the past with various levels of success in Newfoundland, “this is the first time it’s been offered with success,” said Debicki.
The formation of Able Sail Newfoundland has piqued the interest of people across the province, said Debicki. “There’s a group in Lewisporte that is looking at running an accessible program. We need to increase our volunteers and people working behind the organizational structure before we can really expand too much. We will develop what we have, and we are hoping very much to develop a program with groups all across the province.”
Besides the new Able Sail program in Newfoundland in 2019, two new programs were also started in the Toronto area, said Paula Stone, vice president of the Able Sail Network board of directors. “There’s definitely growing interest,” said Stone, who runs the program in Montreal through the Quebec Adapted Sailing Association, where more than 200 people took advantage of the program in 2019.
In Nova Scotia, where there are three para-sailing programs, the popularity continues to grow, says Paul Tingley, Parasport Coordinator at Sport Nova Scotia, and former Paralympian.
Tingley, who is also involved with Able Sail Nova Scotia, said the Halifax Able Sail group, which operates out of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Club in Purcell’s Cove, had 165 sailings for their 28 members last summer. “When we started in 1994, we had eight members,” he said.
Now, they have two Martin 16-foot boats that can be sailed by one person, or with an instructor in the back. Sessions run from mid-June to September.
“The boats and equipment nowadays make sailing much more independent for all abilities,” said Tingley. “We have motors and pistons on the boat to help manoeuvre heavy systems” such as two straws for high quadriplegics; one to operate the sails, the other to operate the rudder. By placing the straws in their mouth and by blowing and sucking air into the straws, they can sail independently, said Tingley.
Able Sail programs are also offered in Sydney at the Northern Yacht Club and at the Lunenburg Yacht Club on the South Shore.
Tingley said the Sail Able Club in Sydney are looking to expand their program and purchase a Martin 16. The program has an accessible keelboat for larger groups. The para sailing program at the Lunenburg Yacht Club uses Martin 16 accessible boats.
Tingley, who is a five-time Paralympian and two-time world champion is now retired from international sailing, but still sails locally.
“Racing is still strong for Canadian disabled sailing clubs. It is called the Mobility Cup and Halifax hosted it in 2018 which was fantastic,” he said.
Sailing programs for people with disabilities have been around since the early 1990s, said Stone. Since being founded in 2006, the Able Sail Network has expanded to every province in Canada except P.E.I. where so far, not enough volunteers can be found.