In Quebec, the first week of June is dedicated to people with physical disabilities. What better time to demystify the belief that those who are wheelchair-bound lead sedentary lives. If ever there was an activity that proves this wrong, it is adapted sailing. This sport opens up a world of discovery and freedom on the water.
The Association Québécoise de Voile Adaptée (AQVA) offers disabled children as young as 10 years old the opportunity to experience the joys of the open water. The association offers an introductory program that teaches children basic sailing skills while providing them with some time where they are not bound to a wheelchair.
Sam Tilden, 10, started sailing last summer, after his mother Amy Tilden learned about the program from one of her son’s physiotherapists. The first time Sam went sailing, his mother was more nervous than he was.
“I’m not a big water person, and it was a bit scary to see my child go off in a boat into the horizon,” says Amy, who added that by the end of Sam’s first lesson, she felt fully confident in the instructors and the program.
Sam has spina bifida, a condition characterized by an incomplete closure in the spine that has varying degrees of severity. In Sam’s case, he has been paralyzed from the waist down since birth. Being in a wheelchair has not prevented him from living his life to the fullest. He attends a local school in his community and practices several sports, such swimming, skiing and sledge hockey.
His mom attributes Sam’s active lifestyle to the many services available in Pointe Claire that are adapted for handicapped people.
“There is the assumption that someone in a wheelchair can’t do the same things as others, so when Sam can go to school and tell the other kids that he skis or plays hockey, it makes him feel really good,” says Amy.
Freedom on the lake
The organization runs its Montreal program from the Pointe Claire Yacht Club, located on the banks of Lac St. Louis. Participants pay $15 for each outing and can go out as often as two or three times a week throughout the summer.
“The benefits (of adapted sailing) include an increased sense of autonomy and competence, social integration and the opportunity to leave their wheelchair or walker on the dock and explore the lake,” says Paula Stone, an occupational therapist and program co-ordinator with the AQVA’s Montreal program.
The association has three adapted sailboats, each capable of accommodating sailors who have a variety of disabilities such as cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy. Stone explains that the controls for the sail can be adjusted to the person’s mobility. For example, a person paralyzed in the arms and legs may control their wheelchair with what is called a sip and puff system, where the chair is steered by the person sipping on or puffing into a straw. The same mechanism can be attached to the controls of the sail to guide it.
Stone says security is always a priority and several measures have been put into place to ensure the safety of everyone. First, participants always receive an assessment by a therapist before they can board the sailboat so that the association is aware of the person’s capabilities. To get into the boats, sailors sit in an electric sling and are lifted into the sailboat and then lowered into their seat. The boats are heavily weighted to ensure they don’t tip or sink, and the depth of the seat makes it impossible for the passenger to fall out. Furthermore, children are always accompanied by an instructor who is equipped with a walkie-talkie that provides constant communication with the shore.
For Sam, the program has provided him with another source of confidence: the knowledge he has gained about sailing. He doesn’t hesitate to correct his mom when she uses the wrong sailing terminology and he talks enthusiastically about his experiences from last summer.
“Steering the boat can be hard,” he says. “It can be rough on the water, so you have to make changes all the time. There is a lot of strategy and you need to know what you’re doing. It is a blast.”
Clearly caught by the sailing bug, Sam says he can’t wait to get back out on the water again this summer. The sport could potentially open several exciting doors for him if he chooses to continue.
Stone explains that the association offers Canadian Yachting Association certification courses and there is the possibility of eventually competing in races. National and international regattas are held in cities all over the world and, as Stone adds, adapted sailing is a paralympic sport.
So there is no saying how far a sailboat can really take a person with a physical disability. As they are rocked by the waves toward the unending horizon, the possibilities seem to be endless.
For more information, call (514) 694-8021 or go to www.aqvaqc.com.