The World of Adaptive Sailing

adaptive sailing

When it comes to exciting adaptive sports, nothing comes close to the thrill of adaptive sailing. Sailing by its very nature is an adaptive sport being that humans were not built for the water. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that sailing began to be adapted for people with disabilities, with the first International Sailing Regatta for Athletes with Disabilities held in Switzerland.

To make sailing possible for people with paralysis and other disabilities, a variety of adaptive equipment was created, from specialized seats to adding Hoyer lifts to the dock. By 1988, the International Handicapped Sailing Committee was formed and in 1991, the International Sailing Federation recognized the organization.

By 1996, adaptive sailing (also known as "para sailing") made its first appearance at the Paralympic games, and at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, it was an official sport. Adaptive sailing in the last 20 years has exploded, with several organizations and nonprofits around the US offering adaptive sailing.

To learn more about this sport and the equipment that is available, and to find a location near you to try adaptive sailing, check out our list below.

How Sailing is Adapted

Boats are no strangers to being modified for humans. For people with disabilities who want to sail, the modifications available are endless as well, and they enable people of all levels of spinal cord injuries to try the sport. And when it comes to the kinds of boats that are used, there are several.

The most common boats you will see people with disabilities manning are the following: Martin 16, SKUD 18, Sonar, J/70, 303, Ideal 18, Independence 20, Weta Trimaran, Illusion Mini 12, and 2.4mR. Smaller boats are preferred since they are lighter and easy to sail, as well as to modify. If a sailor with a disability needs assistance getting into the boat, lifts are utilized, with Hoyer lifts used right on the dock.

And there are different steering adaptations available depending on your ability. For those with limited arm function, Sip 'n Puff steering is available on certain boats, otherwise waterproof joystick steering is possible. A sailing joystick controls the rudder and can also enable the mainsail to be trimmed in or out. And for those with hand function, stability bars are added throughout the boat as grab points.

Seating is also critical for sailors with disabilities since they have to leave their wheelchairs on the dock. Typically, a powered seat is used so the person has the best experience possible, and the seats do vary depending on the boat. They all however generally do the same thing: Help keep the person stable and safe while they use the controllers to sail. Some of these seats will have features such as a chest strap or headrest as well.

Where Can You Try Adaptive Sailing

There are several adaptive sailing organizations across the US. One of the oldest is Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating. Founded in 1989 by Don Backe, a man who was paralyzed, he was a fan of sailing and went on to found this legendary adaptive sailing organization headquartered in Annapolis, Maryland.

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BAADS (San Francisco, CA)

The Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors is located in San Francisco, California, and has a large fleet of over 27 Hansa Dinghies and five keelboats.

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​​​​​​Challenged Sailors San Diego (San Diego, CA)

Located in San Diego, California, this adaptive sailing organization has a large fleet of over 18 sailboats.

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Community Sailing of Colorado (Boulder, CO)

Located in both Boulder and Cherry Creek, Colorado, Community Sailing of Colorado offers free adaptive sailing clinics in both cities during the Summer. They have a fleet of Access 303 sailboats and RS Venture Keel 18's.

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Sailability Greater Tampa Bay (Tampa, FL)

Located in Clearwater, FL, Sailability was founded in 2001 and has a fleet of six Access Dinghies, including a boat that can be sailed by a full quadriplegic on a ventilator.

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Freedom Waters (Naples, FL)

Located in Naples, FL, the Freedom Waters adaptive sailing program is available from October through April, with all participants invited to the annual Murdo Smith Adaptive Sailing Regatta.

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Shake-a-Leg (Miami, FL)

Located in Miami, FL, Shake-a-Leg was founded in 1990 and is one of Florida's biggest adaptive sailing programs. They have a fleet of 10 sailboats and 30 kayaks.

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Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Foundation (Chicago, IL)

Located in Chicago, Illinois, this adaptive sailing organization is one of the oldest in the country. It was founded in 1990. They have a fleet of 20 boats, including eight Independence '20s.

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The Downtown Sailing Center (Annapolis, MD)

Located in Baltimore, Maryland, this adaptive sailing program is completely free and offers racing opportunities on the Hansa 303.

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Piers Park Sailing Center (Boston, MA)

Located in Boston, Massachusetts, this adaptive sailing program is located in East Boston and offers a great youth program.

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Traverse Area Adaptive Sailing (Traverse City, MI)

Located in Traverse City, Michigan, this adaptive sailing organization is run by Traverse Area Community Sailing.

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Lake Harriet Yacht Club Adaptive Sailing (Minneapolis, MN)

Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this adaptive sailing organization takes people with disabilities sailing on an inner city lake.

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Sailing for All (Duluth, MN)

Located in Duluth, Minnesota, Sailing for All is a part of the Duluth-Superior Sailing Association and offers adaptive sailing from June through September.

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Sail to Prevail (Newport, RI)

Located in Newport, Rhode Island, Sail to Prevail has seven 20-foot Independence sailboats and their docks are located at Fort Adams State Park.

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South Atlantic Yacht Racing Association (Charleston, SC)

Located in Charleston, South Carolina, the South Atlantic Yacht Racing Association offers an adaptive sailing program.

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Footloose Sailing Association (Mercer Island, WA)

Located in Mercer Island, Washington, the Footloose Sailing Association was founded in 1991 and is the Northwest’s premiere adaptive sailing program.

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Hoofer Accessible Sailing (Madison, WI)

Located in Madison, Wisconsin, Hoofer Accessible Sailing is a part of the legendary Hoofer Sailing Club that was founded in 1939 and includes students and community members.

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SEAS (Sheboygan, WI)

Located in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, SEAS Boating for Everyone offers an adaptive program that includes US Sailing Certified instructors. Lessons are conducted on Sonar sailboats, which can be heavily modified.

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Topics: Spinal Cord Injury, Research, Adaptive Sports, sailing, adaptive sailing

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