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Go with a flow: discover accessible sailing

Wind in hair, sun, salty breeze… Today, the romance of sailing is at the full disposal of wheelchair users

Wind in hair, sun, salty breeze… Today, the romance of sailing is at the full disposal of wheelchair users

Ever dreamed of becoming a yachtsman? Then it’s time to pull an anchor! Thanks to revolutionary construction solutions, modern accessible boats allow people with disabilities to get out on the water.

In this post, we gathered information about barrier-free sailing adventures for you. All hands on deck!

Why sailing?

A two-in-one formula: being out at sea is good for both your mind and body! Sailing makes you physically fit – muscles which you don’t normally use are activated to balance on an unstable surface. Typical tasks such as pulling a sail strengthen your muscles and improve coordination. Plus, a combination of fresh air, calming sounds of the waves and the wind induces a meditative state. Bye-bye, stress!

On the sea or inlands, in a team or on your own, cruising or racing – adaptive sailing takes many forms, so opportunities here are unlimited. The first step is to join an adaptive program. In most cases, training starts with theoretical sessions where newbies learn basic sailing principles.

Next step is getting on water. Instructors and assistants will be there to transfer you and to help aboard. Need more confidence before any open water practice? Good news – some training can be done even ashore! Adapted simulators allow you to manoeuvre a boat in different situations before getting on water.

Even for those with severe mobility limitations, adaptive sailing is a chance to leave a wheelchair on shore and challenge the power of nature in complete independence.

“The wheelchair’s not there, I’m a sailor and it’s a huge feeling of freedom,” said British yachtswoman Hilary Lister. She was about to end her life – but discovered sailing and became the first quadriplegic person to sail alone across the English Channel. “It’s there that the pain dissipates. It doesn’t entirely go away. But it’s like an itch, if there’s something else, you forget about it.”

How boats can be adapted to be accessible

The list of possible engineering solutions is as vast as the variety of boats. As a starting point, a wider and thicker gangplank or a sling lift ensures a safe embarkment. Grab bars, transfer benches or seats help to move around the boat. Non-slippery padded seats, straps and harnesses add up stability while seating.

Various adaptations enable a wheelchair user to skipper the boat. In single sailor boats, chin or “sip and puff” controls allow those with no mobility below the neck to navigate. Joystick controls are often used by sailors with only lower limb disabilities. If you want to read more about all these adaptations, check out this adaptive sailing manual by the US Sailing Association (starting on p. 38).

Do you want to cruise on a bigger boat? When it comes to leisure vessels, the biggest challenge often is getting from the cockpit to the living quarters below. To tackle it, some boats are equipped with a power lift. This is how an accessible catamaran looks like:

Cruising on an adapted sailing boat: accessible toilets, bedrooms, and a deck to enjoy your prosecco on.

Sailing on Swiss lakes

In Western Switzerland, Swiss Disabled Sailing offers lessons for people with physical disabilities on Lake Geneva. You can book a day cruise, and if this captivates you, continue to learn to obtain a sailing licence. It’s possible to participate in regattas as a part of the club’s team. You can read about other sailing opportunities in Swiss Romandie in this Community blog post.

Sailability, partner of the Swiss Paraplegics Association (SPA), might be an option if you want to sail in the Central and Eastern parts of Switzerland. They offer single sailing days or weekend courses for newcomers, whole sailing weeks, regular trainings, or competitions. Locations include, among others, Lake Constance, Lake Lucerne, Lake Zug and Lake Thun.

In 2018, Swiss sailors with disabilities participated in an international regatta for the first time – and with great success!

Keep your eye on the Just for Smiles foundation website, which also organises accessible boat trips on many Swiss lakes. Check this manual to plan a boat trip with them. Private individuals contact the foundation directly if interested. The Swiss Nautic Academy also regularly offers wheelchair-accessible catamaran trips on Lake Zurich.

The association Ships N'Wheels has recently made barrier-free sailing possible also on Lake Biel. Courses and accompanied excursions are offered, and a boat will soon be available for rent under certain conditions.

Aboard abroad: accessible sailing tours and boats worldwide

Swiss lakes are not enough for you? Here you can find a list of clubs offering adaptive sailing courses or trips in Germany, and here in France.

If you dream about sailing the sea or even the ocean, have a look at these highlights for accessible adventures abroad:

Feel like a pirate

The SV Tenacious is the largest wooden tall ship designed to be fully accessible. Since 2000, it’s been cruising with a mixed-ability crew around the globe and has taken over 5000 wheelchair users. Everyone actively participates in the day-to-day running of the ship. Tasks include standing at the helm, climbing the mast, setting the sails, kitchen duty and navigation. Yes, you can climb the mast in a wheelchair!

How a voyage looked like on STS Lord Nelson, the sister of SV Tenacious tall boat. Right now only the SV Tenacious is in operation.

Mediterranean voyage

What about yachting? Lo Spirito di Stella is a catamaran built by the paraplegic Italian sailor Andrea Stella. It allows wheelchair users to pilot the boat and to be totally independent on board – bathrooms, cabins and dining rooms are fully accessible. In 2022, the charity Wheels on Waves launched an expedition along the Italian coast on this sailboat. They plan new accessible adventures in 2023-2025 – updates will follow on their website.

Further accessible sailboats:

  • Cadamà yacht (Italy) – adapted by a paraplegic yachtsman with all wheelchair-accessible features in mind
  • Impossible Dream catamaran (US) – the boat on which Geoff Holt, the first quadriplegic sailor, sailed across the Atlantic!
  • Knoticat catamaran (UK) – one of a few free-to-use accessible sailing boats

Hope this post inspired you to get on water. If not, what stops you from setting sail?

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