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Adaptive sailing with the Disabled Sailing Association of Alberta (DSAA). Photo courtesy of DSAA.

Disabled sailing navigates the tides of growth


Two Sonars, six Martins and four Dinghies. These 12 impressive vessels make up the adaptive sailing fleet that take to the water over 840 hours per season for the Disabled Sailing Association of Alberta (DSAA). The fleet is maintained and programed by staff and volunteers who are oriented and trained to provide a safe and fun experience to all users of the program.

The DSAA will be celebrating its 30th anniversary next year and operates from the Glenmore Reservoir, providing opportunities for individuals with disabilities to take part in the rehabilitative benefits of sailing and experience the independence that comes with the sport.

“We are the only accessible sailing program in all of Alberta, and one of the largest in Canada,” says Lindsay Shearer, Business Manager, and the only full-time employee at the DSAA. “People come from all over the province to access this facility. We're trying to tear down all these barriers because this community faces them every single day for every single thing that they do. They should not have to face it for something as simple as recreation, to get out and do something active and independently, and do something fun.”

The DSAA relies on grants, donations, and fundraising to hire summer students and to operate and repair the fleet. The City has leased land to the organization since 1994, and continues to provide access to the reservoir, enjoying a longstanding relationship with the association. The City also assists the DSAA in maintaining the accessible docks and with the mooring of their larger boats. Training and mentorship of DSAA staff and volunteers is enhanced through the knowledge shared from The City’s Glenmore Sailing School.

We had a family that was in tears last season when they went out on the water for the first time, because this was the first thing that they could do all together. Sailing is an activity that families can experience together, so a disabled child is not isolated in his or her activities.”

Lindsay Shearer

Disabled sailing is popular with organizations such as Between Friends, Universal Rehabilitation Service Agency (URSA), autism and cerebral palsy programs, as well as elder care homes, introducing their members to sailing and the therapeutic and rehabilitative aspects associated with leaving their disability on the dock.

“Our main programming comes through our community partners,” says Lindsay. “We do some outreach as we find there are some groups who still don’t know we exist. Last summer, we started with Alberta Health Services and their day program, their outpatients that are experiencing mental health distress. We want to be inclusive to everybody.”

For those sailors who do not have use of their arms or limited movement and strength, an ingenious ‘sip ’n puff’ system allows the vessel to sail using only the power of their breath through two straws that control the sail and the rudder. These innovative adaptations allow children and adults with physical disabilities to easily manouever vessels on their own, or by using power assisted technology. Boats can be equipped with a joystick similar to those found on power wheelchairs and have multi-adjustable seats that can accommodate any special postural needs. A hoist, which can be fitted into the pontoon is also available, to assist in securely and safely transferring sailors to the boats.

“The number of adaptations we have is quite extensive so participants have that independence,” explains Lindsay. “It is also important to note that you do not have to know how to sail. We provide a qualified sailing companion for you if needed. Others are just wanting the sensory experience, who just want to feel the wind and the waves.”

DSAA by the numbers

During the 2022, May to September season, DSAA saw:

For the DSAA’s 30th Anniversary, Lindsay says they are planning a rebrand to make their name more inclusive, and a large fundraising campaign.

“The need is only growing and we are in difficult spot right now, in desperate need of a new location and a new building,” says Lindsay. “It doesn’t make sense for us to continue to renovate or repair the existing structure - it is without heat or running water. The truth is that we are just not that accessible. To get to our boatyard the slope is very steep, and we are without washrooms so we use The City’s Glenmore Sailing School’s facilities. We are hoping to work with our partners to find a solution to having a facility and program that is accessible to all.”

Lindsay says the wider sailing community has been extremely supportive and the DSAA looks forward to collaborating more with other sailing schools and clubs.

“The reception and the response from the rest of the sailing community when these boats go out is incredibly welcoming,” says Lindsay, “At the sailing school and Glenmore Sailing Club, they have people with disabilities or mobility issues inquiring, who want to take the sailing classes with all of their peers. They can partner with us because we have the accessible boats and equipment, and then they can be out and participating with their peers, not isolated. We're trying to really come away from this silo and do a lot more in collaboration.”

Did you know?

  • The Glenmore Reservoir is the only facility in Calgary for sailing, disabled sailing, dragon boat racing, rowing, canoeing, and kayaking.
  • The City’s Glenmore Sailing School is the largest sailing school in Canada.
  • Adaptive sailing first began when then Prime Minster of Britain, Margaret Thatcher, presented Canadian track and field athlete (Paralympic Games), activist, and philanthropist for people with disabilities Rick Hansen with a modified sailboat following his famous Man in Motion World Tour.  The boat, aptly called the Iron Lady, enabled Rick to collaborate with the Mayor of Vancouver to create a disabled sailing program so that others could use the boat as well, and inclusive and accessible sailing became a world-wide movement.
Photo courtesy of DSAA.

Categories: Community, Recreation

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