When parents of challenged children at a local school in Antigua heard about a program to get their kids sailing, some were concerned. After all, even the most able-bodied, fully trained of mariners have met their fate on the sea. Yet, all it took was for one of the Parent-Teacher Association board members, a well-respected Caribbean sailor, to sign-up his daughter up for the newly launched program, and others followed suit. That happened in 2014 and today, Sailability Antigua, directed by Bob Bailey, serves nearly 90 participants each week, all of which are differently-abled.
Sailability is a national program of the UK-based Royal Yachting Association aimed at helping disabled people learn to and go boating regularly. Many years ago, Bob Bailey and his wife Sue founded the Sailability program’s location in Peterborough, UK, one of over 200 across this European country. When Bailey retired, the couple went cruising and in due course dropped anchor in Falmouth Harbor, Antigua. Bailey got wind that the 2010-founded National Sailing Academy was moving into its own headquarters on Dockyard Drive and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to start a Sailability location in the Caribbean. He networked with colleagues in Peterborough to purchase two of the specially equipped Challenger Trimarans. These were paid for by the Antiguan community of Leicester, shipped to Antigua, and thus Sailability Antigua was born.
“We knew from our experiences that there were many disabled people on Antigua. The World Health Organization claims 15 percent of the world’s population has a disability. When we learned that there was going to be a school opened to teach school children to sail, we had a meeting with the founder Elizabeth Jordan and asked if we could open Sailability Antigua alongside the National Sailing Academy. The answer came back: Yes, we could,” says Bailey.
Since then, the program has grown considerably. The fleet is now up to seven dinghies all purposely built for those who are challenged. Specifically, there are three RS Venture Connect boats with a plug-and-play sailing system and four Hansa 3030’s with joy-stick control. The dock at the National Sailing Academy has been purpose-built with a hoist to help sailors into the boats, and the program has a new Minibus with two wheelchair accesses to help students get to and from the Academy. On staff are five local instructors, including chief instructor Sylvester Thomas, who are trained and experienced in disabled sailing. Best of all, the program is free to students. Sailability’s funding is entirely based on charitable donations. There’s a large list of sponsors, strong support by patrons including the Governor-General of Antigua & Barbuda, His Excellency Sir Rodney Williams, and overwhelming community support shown annually for the Sailability Super Sunday charity walk in which nearly 350 people have participated.
“The word disability puts all with a disability into one hat. So, we have an achievement scheme where every sailor with the caregiver and instructor is assessed and a program is designed accordingly. We currently have 10 sailors sailing solo. Last year we did nearly 3,000 launches. We have never failed to send a person with a disability out sailing,” says Bailey, who adds that the program is open every morning Monday through Friday.
What are the benefits to the sailors of participating in Sailability?
“This is a huge question. I really don’t have a direct answer to this, but perhaps a description in words is more to the point. We have been dealing with the Sailability program for nearly 20 years and it has, on some days, been hard and one asks the question: ‘why are you doing this?’. The answer is: to see the faces, the excitement, the joy, the interaction, and the smile. That is enough.”
Parents of children enrolled in the Sailability Antigua program also see the benefits in their offspring. Just ask that instrumental PTA father, Franklyn Braithwaite.
“To me, her being in the program meant quite a lot,” says Braithwaite, who represented Antigua & Barbuda in the Finn in the 1992 Olympics and is currently president of the Antigua & Barbuda Marine Association, Commodore of the Antigua Yacht Club, and a director at A&F Sails in Nelson’s Dockyard. “I’d sit on the shore and watch. I deliberately stayed out, so she could learn on her own with the instructors. For me as a sailor, it meant I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel for her to learn. The Sailability boats are quite steady and safe. What I saw in her over time was a growing confidence. Sailing, in addition to other programs and field trips at her school, was yet another way she gained skills and confidence that will last her into the future. In fact now, if I say we’re going boating, she’s out the door before me.”
Looking ahead, Bailey says Sailability Antigua is planning to host the first Para Sailing Regatta in the Caribbean.
START A SAILABILITY PROGRAM
There are RYA Sailability program locations around the world, including over 200 in the UK and countries such as Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai and Antigua & Barbuda. To kick-start a program in Trinidad & Tobago, Sailability Antigua gave one of its Challenger catamarans following the 2019 Para Development Seminar hosted at the National Sailing Academy for Group O of World Sailing, which includes Central American and the Caribbean. For those island nations who would like to start a Sailability program, Bailey suggests considering the following:
- Do you have a venue that will take a Sailability program?
- What dinghies are you going to use? Are they going to be able to accommodate people with a range of disabilities?
- Consider funding. Most people who are differently-abled are also short of money. So, the program needs to be funded. To do so, raise your profile to get sponsorship and government support from Ministries of Health, Education, and/or Sport.
- Recruit students. To locate potential sailors, find out if there are any groups or schools that have special needs units.