Citation: Sarkissian, A.(2003, March). Making headway against the tide. The Link. Retrieved from

Making headway against the tide
Clinic for sailors with disabilities

by Anna Sarkissian

Sailors, non-sailors and volunteers alike will have the opportunity to find out more about adapted sailing for people with disabilities at a clinic this Saturday. The Association québecoise de voile adaptée is joining forces with Dawson College Services for Students with Disabilities to host the day-long bilingual workshop, which includes demonstrations with the specialized boats in the school's cafeteria.

"I've been sailing all my life. I've seen amazing things, you know, incredible storms, near hurricanes. But I've never seen anything as amazing as these kids when they're sailing," said D'Arcy O'Connor, a Dawson teacher, who spends his summers teaching adapted sailing to people with disabilities. "I've never been so inspired by anything as watching disabled people say, 'Yes, I can sail.' And they go out and they do it."

Daniel Lamb, the associate project manager of the Adaptech Research Network, is one of many with a mobility impairment who have sailing experience, thanks to the AQVA. Adaptech specializes in incorporating computer technologies into the lives of people with disabilities, and giving them greater access to education. Lamb fondly remembers the first time he went sailing, "It was a stinky day, it was howling, it was rainy, it was overcast, but it was a blast."

René Dallaire founded AQVA, a non-profit association, in 1995, after having been introduced to sailing at a regatta in Vancouver. The experience had such an impact that on the plane ride home, Dallaire made plans to start an adapted sailing program in Quebec, "You leave the wheelchair on the dock and just go," he said.

Thirty-three years ago, Dallaire was one of Quebec's top downhill skiers. "I used to be a water skier too; I would see sailors and I didn't know why those guys were waiting for the wind." Shortly after, he had a serious accident in which he lost the use of his arms and legs. Dallaire longed to return to his active lifestyle, saying that he missed the challenge, the risk-taking, and the adrenaline in his blood. Over the years he experimented with scuba diving and returned to the slopes for adapted skiing, but was unsatisfied, "The level of assistance needed in order for me to do those sports was too high; I wanted some independence."

Dallaire admitted to being skeptical before having tried sailing for himself. "I used to say, I'll believe it when I see it." Likewise, O'Connor said people have asked, "Well, how can a quadriplegic sail? They can't do anything, right?" Remarkably, Dallaire is now able to sail on his own in the Martin 16, a boat which incorporates advanced technology. Using the "sip and puff" method, Dallaire either pushes or pulls air in a small tube with his mouth, which activates a pneumatic switch to direct the boat. "If I puff, the sails are let out, if I sip, they are pulled in," he explained, "It's so easy."

Though the boats are tip-proof, experienced volunteers accompany sailors with disabilities as a safety backup. Alice Havel, Dawson's coordinator of services for students with disabilities, said that many parents are apprehensive about sending their children out on the water. "They want to know how safe it is and how do you do it?" In the event that anything goes wrong, sailing companions are able to take control. "It's a thrilling activity, but at the same time, you feel safe," said Dallaire.

In the past, Dawson has organized outings for students with disabilities, including horseback riding and downhill skiing. "Often, many of our students with mobility problems can't take advantage of the physical activities offered at the College, like basketball or rock climbing," said Havel. "So if there's anything that we can make more readily accessible to them, we want to promote and encourage it. Sailing this year, who knows what next year. Skydiving?" she offered in jest.

AQVA is currently based in the West Island, at Pointe Claire Yacht Club. Dallaire hopes that adapted sailing will one day be accessible at most of the sailing clubs in the province, saying, "There's water everywhere in Quebec, so there's no limit in this matter."

The technology is still advancing, and AQVA is trying out new measures to give more people access to the sport. Dallaire mentioned that there are currently five or six sailors in Canada who are dependent on ventilators and use the sip and puff method. "The technology is there, but to assemble it in such a fashion is a real 'coup de génie,'" he said.

At the clinic this weekend, specialists will demonstrate how the high-end equipment works; there will also be introductory workshops for absolute beginners and advanced sessions for competitive racers.

"It's time to get into that sailing frame of mind, since I haven't set foot in a boat since October," said Daniel Lamb, adding, "Let's face it, you get rusty." He encourages people not to think twice about attending the clinic. "I've never known anyone to go and be disappointed," he said.

Lamb emphasized the freedom that many feel when they are able to control the boat themselves, and sail within their own skill and talent. "For people with disabilities who might be confined to a wheelchair, the feeling is incredible. You may have airplane traffic in the distance and the city ahead of you, but here you are in the middle of this lake."

Clinic for Sailors with Disabilities is open to beginners, racers and volunteers. Saturday, March 8, 2003, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dawson College (4001 de Maisonneuve W, room 301) Registration fee of $12 (lunch included) payable at the door, but it is vital that participants call to pre-register. For more info, contact René Dallaire at (514) 846-2171, or