Getting out of their wheelchairs and onto the water is the mission of coach Iuan Gray who a couple of weeks ago conducted a hugely successful disabled sailing clinic at the Catamaran Club at Bronkhorstspruit Dam.
A group of 11 budding sailors – four quadriplegics and seven paraplegics – were given a taste of the exhilaration that sailing has to offer, with all of them expressing delight at the experience.
Gray may not be disabled himself, but he’s certainly had his own battles to fight, having to relearn the developmental stages of movement like a baby and eventually to walk again after 18 hours of surgery to remove a brain tumour. ‘I guess this may have given me some slight insight into the world of disability,’ said Gray, who was an active sailor before the operation and promptly returned to the sport as soon as he could.
The professional educator and training materials developer quickly became involved in the coaching aspect of sailing and he was then approached to coach disabled sailors.
‘The biggest difficulty that I foresaw was finding a boat that was suitable,’ he explained. ‘One of our members had recently brought a Windrider trimaran out to the club. On examination this boat looked like it would fit my requirements very well – it is a trimaran (so it does not capsize easily), it has a cockpit that the sailor sits inside (so they can’t fall off), it has a single sail (so is relatively easy to control), and it can be steered either by foot or by hand (so it is versatile to the differing needs of people with disabilities).
‘So, I put out a call for two ‘stunt’ disabled people who would be prepared to work with me to see if it was possible for me to teach them to sail.
‘Mike Lever, a quadriplegic, and Douglas Boman, a paraplegic, offered to be my guinea pigs. We agreed that their job was to teach me about disability and working with people with disabilities while I tried to teach them to sail.
‘This went very well. By the end of the day, Douglas and his wife were able to go out on their own and enjoy the thrill of sailing together. Mike also had a chance to sail but only as a passenger, due mainly to limitations in my understanding at that time of the adaptations needed to assist a quadriplegic to sail. Mike has since sailed with adaptations applied to the boat.
‘Both Douglas and Mike enjoyed the trial so much that both immediately joined the club and Douglas bought his own Windrider. ‘We were up and running and I began to put the word out that I was offering sailing lessons to people with disabilities.’
SA Sailing and then the international sailing federation – the ISAF – soon became aware of Gray’s programme, and before he knew it, he was off to the first ever ISAF PDP clinic held in Weymouth, England in August this year, along with one of SA emerging disabled sailors, Mandy Latimore.
‘Our objective was to learn from those that have gone before in terms of how to coach, how to sail these Olympic 2.3mR class boats, how to adapt boats for various disabilities and to network – and then to bring those lessons back to RSA and apply them,’ he said.
That they did, and while another invitation from the ISAF soon followed, the duo will be unable to attend the next clinic in Melbourne, Australia in November due to limited funds.
Gray remains undeterred, however, and the recent clinic at Bronkhorstspruit is merely the start of greater things to come. ‘I hope to run another Disabled Sailing Day in January 2016. This does require confirmation by our yacht club’s committee but no problem is anticipated since they are wholly supportive and are well on the way to converting the club premises to becoming fully accessible,’ he explained.
‘My hope is that some of the people that attend our disabled sailing open days will decide to take up sailing as a pastime and that they approach me to help train them.
‘In this way the base of disabled sailors in RSA will grow. I hope to offer a pathway for growth that does not simply steer them towards racing. I want them to experience ‘adventure’ sailing too.
‘I hope to achieve this by arranging excursions where we take the Windriders and sail them in company to distant shores on the Vaal or Gariep Dam or even along the coast, to be met by a bakkie carrying tents and braai gear and then overnighting under the stars. In this way I hope to create a love for sailing in those attending because when you love an activity you will be active.
‘Then, some of those who become active sailors will choose to race out of natural competitiveness. Some of those who race will excel at it,’ added Gray.
‘I will be there willing and able to provide coaching at every level from complete beginner, to adventure sailor, to novice racer and all the way to Paralympic competition.
‘What I and, from my experience, the people with disabilities themselves don’t want is to be projected as inspirational porn. We are merely working towards including them in something that any person could choose to do. Sailing is an activity that we can all take part in and really enjoy.’
Those interested in taking part in the disabled sailing programme can contact Gray on: [email protected]
In the picture Caroline Rule lends a helping hand to Thandeka Mona. Picture by Richard Rule