“Sailing is a sport where disabled and non-disabled people can compete on equal terms in the same event,” says Val Millward, who certainly knows a thing or two about racing – and winning. An experienced sailor and instructor, she’s triumphed in the likes of the Ogston Handicap Open, the Exmoor ‘Beastie’ and the single-handed class at Grafham Grand Prix. And is consistently in the top three Lady Helms of the Seldén SailJuice Winter Series.
Val is a below-the-knee amputee who competes in her Challenger trimaran at every opportunity. “Its speed means it fits well into club dinghy racing and is competitive within the slow fleet,” she explains. “In sailing, it’s the boat that’s given the handicap – not the person.”
When autumn draws to an end, Val is one of the hundreds of sailors preparing for the Seldén SailJuice Winter Series, which includes the UK’s biggest seasonal open handicap events. While most class racing circuits hibernate throughout the colder months, this dinghy series springs into action.
There are nine nationwide fixtures, attracting big fleets – often in excess of 100 boats – and sailors of exceptional skill. Its 2023/24 calendar began with the Fernhurst Books Draycote Dash in November, and is set to culminate in the Oxford Blue in February, via races in Datchet, Yorkshire, Rutland and more.
“I launched the Series in 2008 as a way of unifying standalone events such as the Bloody Mary, Tiger Trophy and Grafham Grand Prix into one winter championship,” explains founder and sailing journalist Andy Rice, who now runs the series in partnership with SailRacer’s Simon Lovesey, with photography of all the events taken by Tim Olin. “The idea immediately took hold and has gone from strength to strength ever since.”
But it hasn’t only rejuvenated the winter sailing scene. The series is widely recognised as one of the most welcoming opportunities for disabled and non-disabled sailors alike. “Its aim is to be as inclusive as possible,” explains Andy. “We see no distinction between any sailor, disabled or otherwise. We want everyone to be able to take part.”
For many sailors, the key to participation is the Challenger, a 15ft single-handed trimaran favoured for its stability, versatility and optional ‘buddy seat’ for instruction and assistance. It’s widely used by Sailability groups, and the Challenger Class Association shares details of clubs and events where it can be sailed.
“The Challenger is fast, but you don’t have to move from side to side to control it, which opens up racing for a number of people,” explains RYA Sailability Manager Joff McGill. “The Seldén SailJuice Winter Series plays an important part in a thriving racing scene; it’s brilliant that the format and the warm welcome for the Challenger Class create a level playing field.”
But it hasn’t always been this way. “When I first started sailing in 2003 before the series began, the Challenger was seen by most clubs as a multihull, so wasn’t permitted to enter races,” reminisces Graham Hall, a Challenger Class Association member and accomplished sailor, who’s paralysed from the chest downwards. “However, we argued that it’s more like a Laser with stabilisers, and so we were able to take part. It doesn’t sail like a multihull, nor a monohull for that matter: you can’t roll tack it, for example, but it does have a similar performance to a Laser if given the right conditions.”
Fellow Challenger enthusiast and Association treasurer Alex Hovden is also well-versed in the boat’s ‘sweet spot’ – and the rush of adrenaline that comes with it. “It lets you know when you’ve got it right, with spray flying everywhere, and a soft hum that comes from the rudder,” he explains.
“You can easily make up lots of ground on other boats around the race course. Seeking that thrill – as the sponsons begin to kick up the spray – is what makes the Challenger sailing so enthralling to me.”
Alex is a decorated sailor, who won the European Championships with his partner in Lake Garda in 2011 and was on track for the Paralympics before sailing was removed in 2016.
“I have cerebral palsy, which means I can’t control or use my right limbs properly, if at all,” he explains. But the Challenger is fully adaptable to Alex’s requirements: “I can only use my left arm for controlling the boat and I’m often having to brace with my left leg, so all of my controls are on the left-hand side – and I can control the tiller with my knee if necessary.
“Refreshingly, I can also be actively involved in rigging it: not solo, but to a significantly greater degree than other boats, so I’m more aware of what’s going on and can identify any issues before going on the water.”
Graham, who competes with the assistance of his partner, Marion, is looking forward to the competitive camaraderie of this year’s series. “When I’m racing, I’m just another person in a boat,” he explains – but underestimate him at your peril. “Over the years, sailing has become so much more inclusive: on my first competition around 20 years ago, I could tell the rest of the fleet really didn’t expect much from us at all – until we beat them,” he laughs. “Now they come hunting for us!”
The Seldén SailJuice Winter Series runs from November to February, find out more about the 2023/24 series. For more information about opportunities for disabled sailors, visit RYA Sailability and the Challenger Class Association.
‘Up for the challenge’ was first published in the autumn 2023 edition of RYA magazine.