Sailing for All at the BVI Watersports Center

Sailing lessons at the BVI Watersports Center (BVIWSC) are anything but ordinary. Extraordinary is a better adjective. That’s because founding members Alison Knights Bramble and Colin Bramble truly follow the mission of this Royal Yachting Association (RYA) recognized facility, which is, ‘For Fun, For Life, and for All the people of the BVI’.

All is the operative word here. Over the past four years, children and adults restricted on land by disabilities and special needs, and previously unaware of the delights of the marine environment around them, have been launched in the sport of sailing through the BVIWSC’s ‘Sailability BVI’ program.

‘Sailability BVI’ is the only overseas-recognized RYA site of its kind and it comes under the protective umbrella of the BVIWSC, headquartered at Manual Reef in Sea Cows Bay, Tortola. The program does not completely segregate special needs from non-special needs students, but rather integrates all students into able-bodied courses where possible. This makes for a previously unusual sight, which today is perfectly ‘normal’ to both the primary and secondary students that attend the BVIWSC.

Knights Bramble says, “The Principal and Sailability students alike really don’t think of it as a ‘big deal’. The approach to each lesson is exactly the same as all the other groups that learn to sail, swim, kayak or handle powerboats at the Center. Safe, structured, hands-on sessions that are fun are what works. The achievements and rewards are just as important to a challenged student as they are to one who is able-bodied.”

The best part is watching ‘ordinary’ teenagers have to delve into their imaginations to figure out a way of communicating on the water with a sailor who cannot hear or speak, but in some cases can handle a boat better than they can.

“How do you explain to an intellectually-challenged young man who cannot read, write, or remember his left from his right, how to apply the racing rules of sailing?” says Knights Bramble. “Drawing pictures and moving toy boats around the floor are all valuable methods, but they didn’t work. However, a team of young racing sailors, a large space ashore and two lasers on trolleys, wheeled around in a hilarious jousting demonstration did work!”

The BVI program has created a general awareness within the local community. Case in point, at the beginning of 2008, two 16-year-old local boys were selected as candidates for a pilot Sailability Apprenticeship Scheme.

Knights Bramble explains, “Approved by the BVI Government, these boys with physical and intellectual disabilities attend their schools just three days a week now and spend another three days divided between the BVIWSC and Horizon Yacht Charters. A work experience program at the major charter company in Nanny Cay complements the development of personal sailing and powerboat techniques along with learning how to help beginners at the BVIWSC. Here the apprentices are working alongside experienced riggers and maintenance staff, learning the commercial side of the yachting industry.”

The aim of the pilot scheme is to ensure that by June 2009 the boys will be valuable employees of any marine-based firm and that others will be allowed to follow in their wake.

Steps have been taken to bring other sports up to the standards of sailing among the special needs people of the Territory.

“The ‘Special Olympics BVI’ will begin providing individuals with intellectual challenges access to activities and social opportunities that Sailability has made available through water sports,” says Knights Bramble. “Not one Caribbean country entered a sailor in last year’s Special Olympics Summer Games in China. The BVI will change that in 2011 in Athens, Greece.”

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.