There are nearly 12 million disabled people in the UK, and sailing offers the unique opportunity for all of these people to participate on a level playing field.
RYA Sailability is the RYA’s programme for disabled sailing and was established to encourage and support people with disabilities to take up sailing and other boating activities and integrate them into the boating community. Since its inception in 1997 over 53,000 people with a disability have been able to experience sailing through the programme each year, with some 15,000 participating on a regular basis.
Debbie Blachford, RYA Sailability Manager, said: “Sailing is a very inclusive and diverse sport. There is no reason anyone should not be able to get afloat and have a go. All of our Sailability sites are run by experienced, skilled and enthusiastic volunteers offering a variety of flexible and enjoyable sessions on specially adapted boats.”
There are many ways to start sailing, regardless of disability, and with over 200 Sailability sites across the UK there are many options for anyone wanting to give it a try.
One of these sites, Wealden Sailability, based in Sevenoaks, Kent, was recently awarded the Queens Award for Volunteering.
Initially formed in 2008 as Bough Beech Sailability, the group moved to its current location at Chipstead Sailing Club in 2011.
Recent years have seen impressive expansion in the number of people sailing at the club, going from around six regular participants to having up to 30 at any one session in recent years.
The group, supported by around 70 regular volunteers, run sessions twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from April through to October. The group has grown rapidly in recent years from around 328 participants to more than 1,300 this year.
Wealden Sailability Trustee and volunteer John King believes the group is thriving because of the spirit of fun and enjoyment that runs through every session.
“When we were presented with the Queen’s Award, the father of one of our regular sailors said that the best thing about us is that each session is fun, and we pride ourselves on that.
“If someone wants to come and sail with us for the whole day or just an hour or two, they are welcome to.
“We have a whole range of people. We have 60-70 year-old stroke victims racing alongside seven-year-olds who are on the Autism spectrum.
“Since 2008 we have built up a fleet of around 19 specially adapted boats for our clients to use. We have three Laser Stratos keelboats, an RS Venture keelboat, as well as a few Martin 16 boats for the racers.
Emma Dakin, from Lutterworth, Leicestershire, has sailed at Northampton Sailability for the past ten years. Having been blind from birth, Emma believes that sailing offers her something that other sports have been unable to.
“I used to sail at school very independently and I really enjoyed it, but then I had my family and did not have the time for it. Once my youngest started school I had a bit more time to do some hobbies again. I was having a tough time and had tried various sports, but none of them gave me a lot of joy until I took up sailing again.
“I gained my Dinghy Level 2 from a mainstream training centre, and after that I joined Northampton Sailability.
“The man who ran the course was so lovely and he had great communication skills. When I first started, I asked if he wanted to see my piece of paper, but he said no, you tell me what you can do and I will believe you, and that was so refreshing that he had faith in me.”
Emma, 48, believes that the volunteers responsible for running the sessions are vital in ensuring everyone feels included and can progress their sailing as far as they want.
“The volunteers are keen that the people who sail are also involved in the running of the club. There is real commitment to proper equality that we are all in it together, we are all capable of making good decisions and we are all in it together.
“As the years have gone by, I have been able to get more involved. The club has not forced me. If you just want to just turn up and have fun that is fine, if you want to do more you can.
“I have been able to gain confidence, and there have been people to take me out and teach me and I have done some Spinnaker training.
Emma, who also suffers with depression, believes that her regular involvement with Northampton Sailability has helped her through difficult moments in her life.
“Sailing has really helped me to live with my depression. It has really helped me cope, given me an outlet. Sailing requires a lot of skills and concentration, and has made life bearable in many ways. It is also exciting being in a capsizable boat with a spinnaker up. Life can get me down and sometimes it is really good to have a hobby with people you enjoy being with.”
Whilst with Northampton Sailability, Emma has been able to become an Assistant Instructor, and is keen to continue progressing and help others start in the sport.
“I love taking people out and I want to do more volunteering and push on and help more people learn to sail. Club members have been really supportive of me getting my Instructor qualifications.”
The 2016 Sailability National Conference Annual Dinner and Volunteer Awards Ceremony will take place at Wyboston Lakes Executive Centre on 20 February.
Now in its ninth year, the conference will offer a unique opportunity for Sailability site representatives and individuals to exchange experiences, ideas and learn more about Sailability services.
There will be a series of informative and engaging workshops held throughout the day, aimed at supporting and encouraging growth at all 201 Sailability sites across the UK.
To find out more about RYA Sailability visit www.rya.org.uk/go/sailability