Do they enjoy the challenge of learning new skills to sail? Or is it more about how being on the water makes them feel?
As we continue into our second lockdown, if we ask the same question will we get the same answers? Possibly not.
It is hard to know where we will be in the Spring. Yet another lockdown, a gradual opening of activity again, or new reality based on successful vaccines? Either way, it is important to reflect on the impact that coronavirus has had up and down the country – and just how important being outside and on the water is for well-being and happiness.
One sailor summed up what his return to sailing meant to his life: “I have a great feeling of well-being; satisfaction and I really enjoy thinking about what I’ve done. It’s funny how that works – but it just changes you.”
Not being able to get out on the water certainly impacted on one sailor from Frensham Pond Sailability: “It was great to be back sailing after so many months and to restore some normality to life. My mental health took a battering over lockdown, and hopefully it will become more of a social event, as it always has been for me.”
A fellow Frensham sailor added: “I have really missed the freedom Sailability gives me. To get out of my wheelchair and to be active has been lovely – and just to be able to feel the wind in my hair.”
When Derbyshire-based Swarkestone Sailing Club started to ease being back on to the water, Jon and his carer, Vanya, were the first Sailability members to get back on the water. The experience provided more than anyone ever imagined, as Vanya explains: “Jon has profound autism, with very little verbal communication, but he has good comprehension and understanding and can follow simple instructions.
“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.”
Fellow Swarkestone Sailability member Ken Butterfield spent more than 90 days in isolation before he was finally able to get back out on the water: “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.”
Catherine, a mum to a 15 year old boy and 9 year girl, both with autism, at Whitefriars Sailability said: “It’s been a long time waiting. My son was a bit scared to begin with, he wouldn’t go out on his own. He then went out with me and he was a different person. He was calm, in control and confident. It’s been brilliant. My daughter also came back in buzzing and happy and smiling, calm and in control. It’s been wonderful.”
Tony, Whitefrairs Sailability Treasurer believes that being with people is just as important to the enjoyment to the sport as sailing itself. “You forget how much dialogue you have when you’re boating and that’s one of the things that I missed. I think we spend as much time talking as we do boating.”
George at Whitefriars added: “The ability to socialise with everyone is very important. One of the hardest aspects of lockdown was being stuck inside with very little contact with anyone. That loss of independence again. Sailing has been one of those huge parts of my life that’s allowed me to have the independence to sail in whatever direction I want to. It’s that level of independence and ability to be sociable that important and really nice to have again.”
Stuart from New Forest Sailability simply said: ‘I missed sailing and it’s so good to see some friends and colleagues.”
Rowenna from New Forest Sailability appreciates the lake she sails on now just as much as sailing itself: “It’s been fantastic to be back here sailing. The lake is just so beautiful here and we also have the geese and swans here. It’s not just about the sailing - it’s the whole ambiance, which is a beautiful setting here.”
Learning new skills
Many disabled sailors are now getting more involved in other aspects of preparing the boats – and are relishing the challenge. As Vanya added: “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.”
Louise, a blind sailor at Whitefriars added: “It’s absolutely fantastic to be back on the water. I’m learning so much having to do so much myself. I do end up in a spaghetti of ropes but I soon sort myself out.”
Louise added: “Sailing for me is a very therapeutic experience as well as a sport. Not being able to sail made things really very difficult as I wasn’t able to have that freedom of being on the water and just being by myself. Not being able to do that was hard.”
Hard work but worth it
Kate at Frensham believes that the hard work that they put in this year is well worth the reward of getting people back out on the water: “There is lots of organising but it’s worth it when I see and speak to the sailors once they are off the water. The mental health of our members, both volunteers and sailors, is important and lockdown has been extremely hard for some of us. Although our sailing season was short, hopefully for some members the three months of being able to sail has been worthwhile and reparative.”
Mark Harden from Staunton Harold Sailability added: “A number of families have said how tough their children had found lockdown and how much they missed Sailability as it’s an escape for them and something they love doing. Hearing those comments is what makes it all so worthwhile, we are confident of the mental health benefit we have provided by working to get people out on the water.”
Gill at All-Aboard added: “Some of the people coming down to us hadn’t been out of the house the whole time and seeing people they know in a familiar environment is obviously a huge relief for them, and very moving. To know that helps us get through all the challenges.”
Joff McGill, RYA Sailability Manager, added: "People tell us how important getting back to activity is, the barriers they face because of Covid-19 and when they are not ready to go sailing yet but want to stay engaged. It is really important we listen. Not everyone has had the same opportunity to get back on the water, but we are learning all the time.
“This year has been a very real challenge for many. Looking ahead to next year is equally uncertain, but we are committed to listening to what people want to do, learning from what does and doesn’t work in these Covid-19 times and opening up as many opportunities on the water as the virus allows."