Dedicated to Improving the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired People

Ship Ahoy!: Adaptive Sailing in the United States and Beyond

by Daniel Parker, RDPFS Intern

In our continuing coverage of blind sports, this week we explore the world of adaptive sailing. It’s another sport that developed as a result of the rehabilitation needs of veterans. Adaptive sailing is unique in that, unlike some of the blind sports covered here previously, veterans still make up a large portion of those involved. Some programs are particularly geared toward those with vision impairments, an example being the Carroll Center for the Blind’s SailBlind program. It received national and international attention after it was covered in the 2013 documentary film Sense the Wind, produced by Christine Knowlton. However, many adaptive sailing programs include those with vision loss within a wide range of people with disabilities.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview the directors of two adaptive sailing programs, both fitting into the latter category, Tony Stephens, executive director of the Downtown Sailing Center (DCC) in Baltimore, Maryland, and Bob Bailey who runs the Sailability program in Antigua. During the interview with Stephens, he stressed the importance of veteran rehabilitation to his organization, as well as the benefits of sailing for others with disabilities. “There are studies that show that being on the water decreases stress levels,” he said. “It’s a really special sensation to be out there and feel the wind on your face and feel yourself moving.” Bailey’s program in the Caribbean runs during the winter season (October to April), when many U.S. programs do not operate. During the rest of the year, he teaches out of Peterborough, England. Bailey describes his program as the only one of its type in the Caribbean. In describing his philosophy he explained that: “If I can teach you to sail, then I can certainly teach the person next to you with a disability as well.” Both programs employ the Hansa 303 dinghy, which is specially designed for people with limited mobility and is steered with a joystick, and a variety of boats steered with a tiller. Instruction is typically one-on-one, sometimes with a skipper and one to two crew.

In the United States, US Sailing’s page on adaptive sailing provides a list of local sailing programs, as well as several guides for sailing instructors and for organizations wishing to start offering this service. For sailors with vision loss specifically, Blind Sailing International, also covered in Sense the Wind, is another resource with a focus on organized sailing events such as international sailing championships and the Paralympic Games.