When Solent University’s James Loosemore took to the start line at the British Universities Sailing Association (BUSA) Fleet Racing Championships on a windy November weekend in Plymouth last year, it was a defining moment. James is a wheelchair user and a Hansa was racing at the UK’s biggest student sailing event.

His participation wasn’t shouted about that loudly. But it laid the foundations for what it’s hoped will become viable pathways for more disabled young people to come through Sailability, schools and university sailing and into adulthood. The 2021 Special Olympics in Liverpool are already being earmarked as a ‘focus’ event.

Karen Thomas, BUSA ChairIf you attended the RYA Sailability Conference, you might have caught one of the two sessions delivered by Karen Thomas. Karen is the BUSA Chair, and alongside completing a PhD in Post-Stroke Fatigue at Cambridge, the Chartered Physiotherapist is on a crusade to get more young people involved in Sailability.

Why? Because having seen first hand the impact the Special Olympics can have on teams of young sailors - both as a sailing coach at the last Games in Abu Dhabi and in a professional capacity before that – Karen wants to help give more young people a reason to continue sailing around that age where so many start of drop out.

Exploratory conversations have taken place, feelers have been put out to Sailability groups, and a few tentative plans are starting to take shape. But Karen believes the biggest thing is that we’re talking about it.

She explains: “After discussions with Brett Cokayne (Sailability Disability Development Officer) we saw last year’s Fleet Racing Championships as an opportunity to start trying to make BUSA events more inclusive. We want to keep the momentum going from sailing at school age to university and that’s probably not happened enough in Sailability.

"And it’s not just sailors, it’s getting more young people involved in volunteering or coaching, for example, too. The feeling from clubs and associations at the Conference was they were really keen to get young people more engaged and to start looking at developing youth and junior pathways a bit more.”

So what’s the ambition?

Solent University's James Loosemore competed at the 2019 BUSA Fleet Racing ChampionshipsSpecial attention

The prospect of sailing being included in the 2021 Special Olympics is a great reason for Sailability clubs to think about how they could develop young racers. The mission of the Special Olympics is to provide year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Last year, a Special Olympic Sailing Team GB, comprising six Scottish sailors and led by David Hill, Senior Instructor of Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park and RYA Sailability Regional Organiser (Scotland), competed in Abu Dhabi, with Jamie Cairns and unified partner, Darren MacGregor, winning a bronze medal.

But outside of Scotland, this sort of structured youth and junior racing is limited.

Developing young racers within Sailability clubs not only creates a pool of sailors who could potentially have the opportunity to take part in the Special Olympics, but it opens the door for sailors to get involved in National Schools Sailing Association (NSSA) and BUSA events, bridging the gap between school and university sailing. This matters as if they stay sailing through university they are more likely to continue as adults.

Sailing is yet to be confirmed as a 2021 Special Olympic event, but James Wheeldon, Sailability Disability Development Officer (North), is working with organisers to look at its viability. The signs are promising and fingers are being firmly crossed.

Taking action

Giving young people more opportunities to be competitive sits at the heart of this ambition. James’ Fleet Racing Championship debut was the first step. But this year BUSA decided to include accommodating Sailability as part of the criteria to hosting the 2020 event. This will take place at Datchet Water SC on 14-15 November.

Equally notable is the Hansa class association have agreed to make their fleet of six Hansa 303s and trailer available for this year’s event. This opens the doors for disabled sailors at British universities to go along, with race officer, Tom Rusbridge, committing to run a separate start for the Hansa fleet if all the boats are filled.

With team racing seen as one possible way to make racing more fun and appealing to younger sailors, conversations are also underway about whether the format could be included in this year’s RYA Sailability Multiclass Regatta at Rutland – Hansa are kindly providing the boats and trailer for that too so up to 12 sailors could compete - and/or be incorporated into the Saturday Hansa TT Series events.

Could team racing be a way to get more young people into Sailability?Independently, NSSA have also been making waves towards greater inclusivity. Having introduced a new Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity team, their flagship National Youth Regatta, scheduled for 26 July - 1 August at the Mount Batten Centre, Plymouth, is set to see young Sailability sailors representing their counties, schools or organisations at the event.

After consulting with their NSSA members, a number came back to say they were interested in bringing disabled sailors to the event, with the plan for Sailability venues to provide them with the advice, training and guidance they need to participate in the regatta. Conversations are already taking place with Grafham Sailability around the 2021 event at Grafham Water too.

Getting involved

So where can you start?

Following her Conference workshops, Karen encouraged clubs to take some immediate actions. One thing she asked was, if you share your water with a university sailing club, to connect with them. She insisted there’s no disadvantage to doing it and it will probably make both clubs better.

She continues: “I was also surprised how few clubs ran any race sessions within Sailability. Even if your sailors don’t want to race or compete now it’s something to work towards. So if you can include even a monthly racing session for people who might want to progress and do more, that’s brilliant.

“And having a young person on your committee or giving them a voice within the club can be very powerful. There are barriers for young people to get involved in Sailability, not least that much activity happens on weekdays. But we’re looking at ways to break these down, and you can too by giving young people representation.

“I was really proud we got James on the start line last year. It’s early days but hopefully this becomes the norm. The vibe I got from the Conference is clubs want this too.”