Sheer joy as Swarkestone Sailability gets back on the water

07 Jul 20

“There wasn’t a lot of wind and just keeping the boat was moving was a challenge, but it was a lot better than looking out of the window!”

Inclusivity has always been a byword at Swarkestone Sailing Club. So when the club started to ease back on to the water that included Sailability.

Returning to sailing with COVID-19 still with us has presented every club with their own challenges. But for Sailability sites, the challenges are heightened, with many of the participants and volunteers in the groups at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. Yet when Derbyshire-based Swarkestone found a way to gently re-open to full club members that had to include their Sailability members as well as everyone else. 

Ken Butterfield is one of those members. In isolation for more than 90 days, Ken had a number of false starts in getting back afloat due to the weather. But when that moment finally arrived, despite the lack of wind, he rediscovered a contentment he had been missing.

Ken continues: “It felt like a putting a little bit of life back together. I know it’s not the like it used to be, but it’s a start to hold on to for the future. Afterwards I just felt a bit more upbeat about life. It also felt good to be getting a bit of Vitamin D again.”

Ken is a wheelchair user, and although not personally at higher risk, he is supported by a care agency that works with 50 other clients, many of whom are. This saw Ken experience stricter levels of isolation to keep everyone else safe too. To get back sailing meant a responsibility to look after them as much as himself.

Typically a double-handed sailor, Ken returned to the water solo in an Access 2.3. His carer, who he often sails with, was the only person to operate the hoist, get him in and out of the boat and help him with wiping down and disinfecting the equipment and boat before and after use. A mask and gloves have also been added to Ken’s sailing attire. For Ken, sailing is about being part of club life and the real buzz he gets from taking part in full club racing. But for now, just being back on the water is enough.

“At Swarkestone I’m treated as a sailor, rather than a disabled person,” he explains. “It’s about integration. That first time sailing again seemed very special. Not being in my wheelchair and feeling the freedom of being on the water is enough for now. The social aspect of club life is very nice, but I’m trying to keep away from all that at the moment, because I need to keep everyone else safe. That’s all for the future.”


‘Special’ is what Swarkestone were aiming for.

As they got back sailing, the club identified six club members from Sailability who could potentially get afloat in accordance with their COVID-19 policy. This includes sailors being allocated their own boat and lifejacket, while a rescue boat and shore lookout are always available when Sailability members are on the water.

Jon and his carer, Vanya, were the first Sailability members to get back on the water and the experience is providing more than anyone ever imagined. Vanya, an enthusiastic sailor herself, picks up the story.

“Jon has profound autism, with very little verbal communication, but he has good comprehension and understanding and can follow simple instructions. Normally we turn up and the boats are ready to go. But these circumstances have meant Jon's helped me get the boat out and me showing him what we need to do together. He’s taking a more active part and we’re all learning a lot about what he’s capable of, which is lovely.”

Collage of Swarkestone Sailability's Jon sailing with carer Vanya and preparing the mast on the pontoonVanya describes sailing as having a “massive impact” on Jon and he missed it during lockdown. Because his behaviour can be challenging, he requires one-to-one care. But that behaviour is calmed when he is sailing.

Routine and familiarity are key to Jon’s comfort and so before he returned to the club, Vanya met up with Swarkestone Sailability’s David Waters and Terry Radford to make sure everything was in place to limit his stress, including the toilet situation. When the moment arrived for him to get back afloat, it was "sheer joy".

She adds: “Jon was jumping up and down, twiddling my hair and pulling my bobble hat off! Because he doesn’t communicate, it can be hard to see what he likes and dislikes, but that was clear excitement. He’s always got a lot from sailing. In the boat he will hold the sails or take the helm and I’ll tell him where to point us. He just loves it. But since we’ve been back, he’s done things like change his shoes without prompting, and has started to anticipate what’s coming next, which he’s never done before. It’s been great for us both.”

David Waters is just thrilled all club members are getting the same opportunities. He concludes: “We’ve been taking it very gently, but the key for getting the Sailability sailors has been having someone they are allowed to spend time with and be in close proximity to during the pandemic, e.g. someone from the same household. It’s been wonderful seeing those who have been able to sail getting so much from being on the water again.”