Sailing for people with significant physical disabilities got its start in Canada in 1989, when Sam Sullivan used a British-made Sunbird dinghy to launch the first few sails at the Jericho Sailing Centre on English Bay.
The original Sunbird had been presented to Rick Hansen by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during Expo '86 in Vancouver to mark the end of his ‘Man in Motion’ world tour.
During that first summer, sailors with tetraplegia, paraplegia and other significant physical disabilities logged a total of 22 sails. These were pioneers – for the first time these individuals were able to leave their wheelchairs behind and take up a sport independently.
No other activities offer this level of freedom. Disabled sailing caught on quickly.
Today, the Disabled Sailing Association of BC (DSA-BC) operates eight specially designed Martin 16 sailboats and hosts between 800 and 1,000 sailing experiences annually at Jericho and more from its affiliated branches in Victoria, Chemainus and Kelowna.
Inspired by DSA-BC and Sam Sullivan’s efforts to expose more and more people with very high levels of physical disabilities to the sport, adaptive sailing has now spread across Canada, throughout the US and around the world.
Disabled sailing now plays a major role in the Summer Paralympics every four years.
Disabled (or adaptive) sailing, promotes freedom and independence. Even people with no movement below the neck are able to sail by themselves, with the use of sip ‘n’ puff technology. Even people who are respirator-dependent are able to sail safely and independently. No other sport or recreational activity can match that level of independence.
Sailing is both accessible and inclusive. It allows people with disabilities to enjoy independence and freedom, whether as a recreational activity or a competitive high performance endeavor.
Participants are not segregated according to their physical abilities. Indeed, sailing is one of few sports that allows people with disabilities to directly compete against able-bodied participants.
Sailing is now one of the fastest-growing sports for people with a disability.
Participants range from complete novices to experienced racers – sailing instruction is available, although not mandatory.
Some come along for a sunny afternoon leisure activity, others are regular faces.
DSA-BC offers sailing experiences to children aged eight and up.