x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Sailing scheme for disabled seeks Abu Dhabi club

An Abu Dhabi group wants to help the disabled by opening a sailing club where they can feel liberated from their everyday constraints. There's already such a club in Dubai, and the Volvo Ocean Race could provide just the push the capital needs.

Sailability, a nonprofit organization that helps disabled people sail, offer festival goers a taste of the sea with trial runs in their access dinghy boats off the pontoon at the Volvo Ocean Race 'Destination Village.'
Sailability, a nonprofit organization that helps disabled people sail, offer festival goers a taste of the sea with trial runs in their access dinghy boats off the pontoon at the Volvo Ocean Race 'Destination Village.'

ABU DHABI // The first weekend Destination Village was opened to the public carried a strong message: sailing is for everyone.

Among the myriad groups of sailors from ages six to 60 were a group of volunteers who hope to open a sailing club for people with disabilities in Abu Dhabi this year.

Volunteers for Sailability, a non-profit volunteer organisation of the Royal Yachting Association, hope to help hundreds of people with disabilities in the capital.

Miguel Contreras first presented the idea of an Abu Dhabi group in April 2010 -there has been one in Dubai for three years now.

Mr Contreras hopes that after the Volvo Ocean Race, there will be enough support for a club to open in the capital before the summer.

"There are so many people, they are hiding," said Mr Contreras, a professional yachtsman from Portugal who now works as a marine consultant and began sailing at age 10.

"We want them here in the water, having fun with the other kids and the adults too."

"We have such a good life, why not give five hours per month? It's very easy to understand that."

A man of easy nature and jokes, Mr Contreras could coax even the most reluctant landlubber into a boat and make them feel at ease on the water within minutes.

"The other day with a deaf man, I said, you come with me and if you feel afraid we will be out of the water in a minute. He sailed for one hour."

Volunteers are ready but before anything can begin, Sailability Abu Dhabi needs a host club and sponsorship money to buy six specialised boats for people with disabilities.

This week, Sailability's volunteers have been offering all festivalgoers, not just those with disabilities, a chance to try out the dinghies for themselves in the hopes of raising support.

Emily Walster, aged 8, thought that slow sailing on a day with an imperceptible breeze would be easy.

Then she stepped onto the boat. Despite her fears that she would sink herself and her instructor, within a few minutes the grade four pupil from Brighton College was sailing across the harbour like a pro.

"It was really nice just going on the water and being there," she said. "I thought that I wouldn't be able."

The Australian-designed access dinghies are modified for easy sailing. The sails unfurl themselves, the rudder is a bar amidships and the dinghies are almost impossible to capsize. For added comfort, there is ample legroom, and two seats so that there is room for an instructor.

The brightly coloured boats cost about Dh25,000.

"This is an introduction," says Mr Contreras. "It's very easy, it's very simple. This must be fun. Essentially, it must be fun."

The emphasis is on fun but disabled competitors who start on these dinghies could eventually compete in the Paralympics. The athletes from the Volvo Ocean Race are to join Sailability and children with disabilities today and might even give a few lessons themselves.

"The name concentrates on people's abilities," said Carol Canning, 57, the head of the Dubai branch of Sailability. "Anyone can sail."

The Dubai club opened three years ago with Dubai Offshore Sailing Club and now works with children and adults with all types of disabilities. The club runs one day a week. Three schools come in the morning, and the afternoon is open.

"It teaches them so much and what it teaches them depends on their disability," Ms Canning said. "For someone that's got a physical disability, that's very restricted on land, it's complete freedom. For children with autism, the movement of the water is a very calming experience, once they come back they're much more receptive to learning."

Ms Canning comes from Lymington, a UK community where she said everyone sailed, no exceptions. "Any child, no matter what, could come and sail," she said. "It's basically just a sport that so many of us love and we want to give that love to different people."

azacharias@thenational.ae