Sailors with disABILITIES put volunteers on the high seas

It’s a sunny and warm day in Melbourne and a class of students with disabilities is about to embark on a Winds of Joy sailing program run by Australian charity Sailors with disABILITIES (SWD). The class from Springvale Park Special Development School arrive at Docklands Marina where SWD volunteers meet them and, together, they walk down to the boat, students excitedly asking the volunteers questions about the boat, sailing and the Yarra River. After they slip into their lifejackets and board the boat, the students are quiet and attentive while listening to the Skipper’s welcome and safety briefing.

Within minutes of setting off, however, sun shining on them, wind in their hair and the Skipper telling pirate jokes, the quiet students crack a smile and the more outgoing students stretch their hands up to be chosen to steer. The boat’s name is Ninety Seven, a 47 foot racing yacht and Sydney Hobart Yacht Race winner, so accepting the challenge to take the wheel is quite brave!

For the next two hours, quiet or outgoing, each student is coaxed out of their comfort zone and even the quiet ones have a go at steering or winding winches.

The SWD program gives students a huge boost in self-belief which is all because of the volunteer crew and the chance to get involved in a safe space outside their comfort zones. SWD volunteers have been trained to work with children with disabilities to develop teamwork and self-confidence in students with disabilities  

“It’s the ultimate confidence boost and far beyond anything most students who come on board have ever done before,” says Richard O’Hara, SWD’s Melbourne Coordinator. “For most, it’s their first time on a yacht and, for some, it may be their first time on a boat.”

SWD has run the Winds of Joy program for children with disabilities in Melbourne since 2016, operating every Monday and Tuesday during school terms. SWD programs are fully volunteer-led and attract all types of volunteers, young and older, retired and working, from individuals who’ve sailed all their lives, through to beginner sailors who simply want to give something back to society while learning something new.

Beginner volunteer sailors often relate well with many of the first-time student sailors. They experience the same curiosity and hesitation as the students—they’re “in the same boat” (pun intended) metaphorically and literally and they form a bond from the shared experience of overcoming nerves and fears together.

Eddy Borg is one such volunteer. Eddy had no experience on a yacht when he started volunteering with SWD. “I felt intimidated to rock up at a sailing club as a novice volunteer sailor,” he said. “But volunteering enables me to learn a new skill and bringing joy to others is my main goal. The smiles and laughter I’ve seen on the students’ faces is priceless—that’s an acknowledgement that you’ve succeeded.”

Eddy explained that the beauty with SWD is that it’s about engaging with students; learning to sail is a bonus, but not the aim.

“Having said that,” Eddy says, “one of my realisations since joining SWD is that sailing is a skill that can be learned and enjoyed by anyone.”

Eddy says, “Sailing allows me to give back. Depending on the students’ disabilities, sometimes it can be difficult but I’ve found that simply sitting beside them can be enough. Other times, we chat and I’ve had lots of fun especially at the front of the boat chatting and showing students how the bow works and how to keep a look out for ships and land.”

Cruising down the Yarra River is a special experience for participants since much of the sailing in Melbourne occurs within Port Philip Bay at many of the local yacht clubs. The typical route on an SWD sail is to start at Docklands and sail down the Yarra until it meets the bay where it heads back towards the city. On the boat, the crew assist and instruct on how to tack and navigate along the river as well as engage with students on a personal level.

Even for some of the veteran crew members, these sails are a unique and rewarding experience. Paul Commins, who is a member of the Sandringham Yacht Club and one of SWD’s seasoned skippers, started sailing when he was thirteen years old and has sailed on and off for the past forty years.

 “Every time I go out on the water,” Paul says, “It’s different. When you’re sailing, you hear the boat cutting through the water. It’s an amazing feeling how the boat moves and responds as it’s being pushed by the wind and I get satisfaction from sharing the experience with other people.”

Paul explains that the greatest joy, though, is the response from children.

“I enjoy telling stories and giving them a unique experience, which can help change their lives. Each group and student is different, so each time we go out it’s a unique experience as they respond and interact with the conditions on that day with their own set of skills and gifts,” Paul says.

The feedback from schools has been overwhelmingly positive. SWD Melbourne Coordinator, Richard O’Hara explains, “I have heard students say that this is the best day of their life. We hear so many positive comments when we sail. And we’re following up afterwards and teachers tell us that kids still fondly recall their experience months or even a year later,” he says.

SWD is having an impact on the lives of students and, by extension, their teachers, classes and families.

“We hear from teachers how the experience gives students perspective and confidence. For some students, it’s a turning point which helps propel them outside their comfort zones in their day to day lives, taking on challenges they wouldn’t normally ever do and tackling obstacles they’d normally find frightening in their daily life,” Richard says. “They think, ‘well, I sailed on a racing yacht, so I can do this—like make new friends or stand up and talk in the classroom’.”

When he looks back at the inaugural season, Richard explains, “We gave over 600 participants a life changing experience and chance to learn new skills, challenge themselves and gain in confidence. This was all thanks to our patient, committed and caring team of volunteers. Our programs are free of charge so attracting enough volunteers to give up their time and help on board in on-water programs is critical.”

For SWD Melbourne, the next few months will be about preparing for the next sailing program season, starting in September. The aim is to increase the number of sail sessions per week and more volunteers are needed to do that.

SWD Melbourne also hopes to start running the Winds of Change program for disadvantaged students, which is run one day a week for eight consecutive weeks.

“It offers young people who are disengaged or disconnected from school or home the opportunity to participate in an inclusive, challenging and team oriented program which is designed to build leadership and teamwork skills and increase their self-confidence,” Richard says. “It’s been running in Sydney successfully for years and we hope to offer it to students in Melbourne who are experiencing disadvantage. To make it happen, we need more volunteers to join up.”

If you would like to change young lives and make a difference through sailing with children and adults with disabilities and those who experience disadvantage, please head to www.sailorswithdisabilities.com or contact Richard O’Hara at info2@sailorswithdisabilities.com.

ABOUT SWD: SWD is a tax-deductible charity founded in 1994. It’s fully funded by the generosity of donations from the public and is run by volunteers, some of whom have a disability. Since 1994, SWD has established permanent operations in Sydney and Melbourne, has grown its fleet to 5 yachts, developed 3 sailing programs, and improved over 47,000 lives through sailing.

SWD also runs annual Winds of Joy outreach programs in Hobart in February, as well as multiple areas throughout Queensland and northern NSW during the winter months.

Besides running sailing programs, SWD has also successfully competed in major ocean races and, in 2003, SWD achieved a world record as the fastest mono-hull yacht in recorded history to sail nonstop unassisted around Australia. The nonstop circumnavigation took just over 37 days. That SWD happened to be a disabled crew was a bonus and a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness of the capabilities of people with disabilities.

By Winnie Yu and Gayle Pescud

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