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No Barriers

2: Unexpected freedoms

Of course many people with extensive disabilities are limited in what they can do, but this is by no means always the case. Andy Cassell was born without legs and hip joints, but has enjoyed a lifetime of considerable success competing directly against able-bodied sailors. At the age of 18 he was the youngest person ever to win the Albacore nationals; 45 years later he won the Sonar national championship and helmed ‘Winsome’ to a Skandia Cowes Week class victory.

For most of his career Andy has competed directly against able-bodied sailors, but as the Paralympic sailing movement grew, he also competed in that arena, winning a gold medal at Savannah in 1996. He set up the Andy Cassell Foundation to encourage other disabled yachtsmen and women to compete in the sport. The foundation aims to assist disabled sailors in winning competitive yacht races, promote racing for the disabled and encourage the integration of disabled sailors into the able-bodied racing community.

Geoff Holt and Hilary Lister are also shining examples of what’s possible for those with even severe disabilities. Geoff, who is paralysed from the chest down, sailed a 16ft Challenger trimaran around Britain last summer.

Over the past 30 years or so the Challenger has enabled many people who otherwise wouldn’t get the opportunity to get afloat and sail independently — it was designed as a singlehander for people with disabilities and has been sailed by those ranging in age from 12 to their nineties.

Luke Barbanneau, a 19-year-old student, has cerebral palsy, which severely affects his co-ordination and balance, so on land he spends most of his time in a wheelchair. These restrictions disappear when he’s sailing his Challenger, and he becomes independent, free and exhilarated. ‘When I am sailing I love the freedom, speed, adrenaline and the competition,’ he says. ‘I also love the community spirit and how friendly sailors are but without a doubt my favourite thing is competing.’ He is putting together a campaign for the 2012 Paralympics.

Hilary Lister is more severely disabled — she is only able to move her head, but reports a similar feeling of freedom when afloat: ‘When I’m sailing I go into a different world …it’s like flying!’ She entered the record books three years ago when she sailed solo across the English Channel, using a ‘sip and puff’ system of straws to control the sails and tiller. Right now she’s part-way through an attempt at sailing around Britain in an Artemis 20 keelboat.

Even if you don’t intend to quite so far afield, getting afloat can be a very liberating experience. ‘It feels like you don’t have any problems when you are on the water,’ says Nicola Ewen, a wheelchair user who learned to sail through RYA Sailability at the age of 12.

There are many places where you can start sailing — 200 or so clubs around the UK have a wide range of special facilities, including hoists, launching ramps and specially-adapted changing rooms. Most are also RYA training centres where sail training is offered. RYA Sailability publishes a ‘Where to go sailing guide’, which is intended to help you find a local facility that’s suitable for you. Equally, there are many different types of boat you can try, from small dinghies to stable keelboats that allow competition with able-bodied people on level terms. The Sonar, for instance, is a well-regarded keelboat that has also been used for the Paralympics, and the Squib is also used as a training boat by many Sailability groups around the UK.

Like the Challenger and Artemis 20, the Access range of dinghies is specifically designed for those with disabilities, or whose age prevents the agility needed to sail mainstream designs. They range in size from just 2.3m upwards and are sailed at nearly 100 clubs and other organisations across the UK. Worldwide it’s estimated they are used to introduce around 250,000 people to sailing every year.

For those who value performance, the Skud is a new design for this year’s Paralympics. It’s an 18ft long skiff-style keelboat designed by Julian Bethwaite with the aim of bringing hitherto unheard of levels of power and performance to the event. ‘It’s a skiff-talent boat,’ says Bethwaite, ‘and we’ve found that the best way to learn is to have disabled sailors learn from sailors who have lots of experience in skiffs.’ Sailed by two disabled crew (one will be classified with an IFDS International Classification 1) with at least one woman on board, the boat will be an exciting addition to competition at this level.

Equally, the 2.4mR (another Paralympic class) and Illusion mini keelboats are designs conceived specifically for racing, but which enable disabled sailors to compete on level terms with the able-bodied.


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At 65, chamionship winner Colin Newman regularly beats people less than half his age

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There is well-established provision for blind sailors, dating back more than 30 years

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