When Dennis Fletcher (affectionately known as ‘Fletch’) co-founded Quinte SailAbility over 20 years ago with the late John Gower, he could not have known the impact this program would have on the community today.
Quinte SailAbility (QS), a sailing program using a fleet of adapted boats, allows people with disabilities the chance to sail independently. For those with disabilities, it means an experience like no other.
Sandy Watson, one of the program’s very first sailors, had no sailing experience. Sandy, who uses a power wheelchair, was terrified at the thought of being on the water, but after only 30 minutes of being in the boat, she was hooked.
“Sailing with QS gave me the confidence I needed to do things I would never have done before. I now travel independently, and went back to school to the School of Social Work Program at Loyalist College which I successfully graduated from in 2017.”
QS first began with a three-day sailing demonstration using a borrowed Access Dinghy – a simple plastic sailing dinghy – from the Ontario Sailing Association. After seeing its initial success, Fletch realized he could not just walk away, and so he formed QS. Having dedicated countless hours to growing the program, QS is now a full-time summer program with a fleet of Access Dinghies & Liberties, specially designed Martin16’s for racing and an accessible Catamaran.
Sailors can either self-transfer into the boats or be transferred using a lift and sling system. The boats are all counterbalanced with leaded keels (they do not capsize!). They can be further adapted with electronic systems to allow those who use power wheelchairs to steer the boat using an electronic joystick, and to operate the sails with electric winches. Sailors can even control the entire sailboat using only their mouth (called a Sip n’ Puff system), meaning a person with a high-spinal cord injury or who does not have the use of upper limbs can sail completely on their own!
The Importance of Sport for People with Disabilities
With less than 3% of children with disabilities participating in organized sport, and many barriers to accessing recreation such as equipment, cost, transportation and staff & volunteer capacity, programs like Quinte Sailability are vital to those who use them. Research shows that those who participate gain confidence, improved social connectedness, better health outcomes and an overall higher quality of life and well being as a result.
Brett Lyons, a QS sailor who began sailing in elementary school, has now sailed well into his adult life and is successfully challenging traditional mobility solutions with his innovative adjustable grab-bar design, which recently won a Queen’s Innovation Center Pitch Competition to help them bring the product to market.
Although Fletch has recently retired from his role as QS President, he has 20 years worth of stories similar to Sandy and Brett’s, and has seen what QS sailors have been spurred on to accomplish. I too, am a product of this program, having spent my teenage summers as a sailing instructor with QS and now work in the disability sports field delivering training and education around the inclusion of persons with disabilities.
A Move on the Horizon
The program is healthy, but the 2019 season is facing some serious challenges. An ongoing battle with weeds at their current location out of CFB Trenton Yacht Club makes getting in and out of the docks difficult. A new environmentally-friendly weed system could be the solution but may take up to five years to take full effect.
Secondly, sail training in Canada is under pressure from new Sail Canada and Ministry of Transportation regulations that make instructor certifications a challenge for small-town instructors to acquire. Small clubs like QS have difficulty sourcing instructors under these new regulations and simply cannot operate without them.
Lastly, this year’s high water levels in the Bay of Quinte has meant that most sailing clubs have had to delay their seasons, eating into precious sailing time.
Having seen the need to find a sailing area with significantly fewer weeds and an existing program to share instructors and administration with, Steve Brown, Director of Operations for QS, is leading the discussions around a possible partnership and move to the Bay of Quinte Yacht Club. There is no formal arrangement as of yet, but Steve, a former QS sailor and instructor himself, sees the added benefit to pursuing such an arrangement as better integration with the able-bodied sailing community.
These challenges are a reminder of how vulnerable grassroots programs can be to external obstacles. But, with some great individuals at the helm, and a feeling of excitement about what lies ahead for QS, Sandy hopes to see the community come together.
“Without the assistance from the community and volunteers, the program cannot run. When you help sailors get into their boat and see the smiles on their faces because of the joy they are having, you are able to really see the amazing sense of freedom they experience in the boats. I will be sailing for as long as I can!”
You can find Quinte Sailability on Facebook for season updates and more about the program. To support QS with a donation or volunteer time, visit their website. To read about Brett Lyons and Your Mobility Innovations, read QuinteVation’s Maker Profile.