Boating for all: Making sailing accessible for everyone

25 Mar 21
Rickham and Birrell at Paralympics

The RYA has reaffirmed its commitment to equality with the launch of the new Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Strategy. Aimed at ensuring all boating activities are as accessible, diverse and welcoming to as many participants as possible. 

To help achieve those aims, we established an Ethnicity in Boating Focus Group last October. Alexandra Rickham, British double Paralympic sailing bronze medalist and five-time World Champion, took part in the group and here tells us about her hopes for a more diverse future in boating.

When did you first try sailing?

I was initially introduced to sailing during my rehabilitation following my diving accident in 1995 when I was 13. I spent some time on the water with the Shake-A-Leg charity in Miami but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I began to take it seriously.

As someone from an ethnic minority background, what challenges do you feel you've faced within boating?

I feel that I’m in a pretty unique situation. As a black, disabled woman I’m representing a lot of under- represented groups. I don’t feel I’ve faced extra challenges particularly.

But it has always been noticeable at events and when I’m racing that there aren’t a lot of people who look like me. Diversity is currently limited within the sailing community, but it would be nice to have more participants who share similar experiences. I’m so pleased the RYA has introduced its Diversity Strategy to tackle this, and aims to have open and honest conversations with people within the boating community.


What encouragement would you offer people from diverse backgrounds who are considering trying boating?

We’re lucky that we have so much access to water here in the UK, with sailing clubs even in built-up cities. So join a club – they’re welcoming and friendly. I joined Queen Mary Sailing Club in London when I was in my twenties and some of my best days have been spent on the water there. The Sailability Group there, in particular, has been incredibly supportive, especially when I started learning and training. Whether it was offering advice and help with boats or general training, they have helped me a lot. You don’t always have to have a lot of money to start sailing – the RYA has a range of initiatives aimed at helping everyone get access to all kinds of boating.

Looking forward, what changes would you like to see within boating?

The development pathways are currently quite limited, but it’s the responsibility of national governing bodies, such as the RYA, to work collaboratively to offer those networks of development and funding opportunities at a grassroots level. We really need to look at the structure within sailing to facilitate more opportunities that can help people reach the next level. There needs to be a huge focus globally to work together to solve the problem and stimulate change.

As a boating community we need to look at the development opportunities that we offer to women, for instance. Women can often be juggling several responsibilities, so are there practical ways that participation across the sport can be more accessible to women?

Perhaps more virtual training needs to be available. The sport is starting to evolve at higher levels but we need to establish how to bridge the gap between the grassroots and progressing in the sport. There must be more that we can do to engage people across the board.

What are your hopes for under-represented groups within in sailing in particular?

It would be fantastic to see a multicultural, diverse community as the future of boating. Change may not happen overnight, but it can happen. As a mixed-race Paralympian woman, I hope to help change the talks the RYA Diversity Strategy Group has with the boating community into definitive action to welcome and encourage participants from all diverse backgrounds.

Follow Alexandra on Twitter (@ARickham) and Instagram (@ahrickham)