Sailboats going in and out of an Oak Bay yacht club with a water coach in tow is not an unusual sight.
What was different this summer at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club was the increase in the number of sailors embarking on adapted outings as the Victoria Disabled Sailing Association (DSA) settled in for a while.
The disability accommodation program has navigated through choppy waters over the past few years between the pandemic and the reorganization of the former home base of CFB Esquimalt.
It nearly disappeared from existence earlier this year, said Jim Russell, chairman of the five-person board. Since the 1990s, DSA had a home on base with the Canadian Forces Sailing Association (CFSA) which moved this spring to make way for remediation and future development of the previous site.
This left a vulnerable class of sailors homeless.
“When it became clear to us that we couldn’t run a 2022 sailing program outside of ACSA, one of the options was to see if the yacht club was okay with it,” Russell said. A member of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club for over two decades, he has spent much of his life there sailing and racing.
Russell contacted the sailing club’s manager and head coach, Stephen McBride, who saw a great opportunity.
It was important to “straighten out” the program, McBride said. “We felt we should step in, even a little bit, to help facilitate this program.”
With a signed memorandum and appropriate insurance in place, they set out to ensure that people of all abilities have the opportunity to set sail – alongside the 700 summer sailing programs the yacht club offers sailors of all ages. Club coaches McBride, Hannah Stevens and Fraser Smith added him to their workload.
“They really put their heart and soul into it,” Russell said. “We were all scrambling to put in place all the pieces we could put in place to get this thing off the ground.”
They started running adaptive navigation sessions from Friday to Sunday and Steven really took the helm, McBride said.
A passionate ambassador for the sport, Steven said she saw it as an opportunity to do as little or as much as they wanted.
She called to make sure organizations such as the Cridge Centre, Autism Network Victoria and the Deaf community were aware of the opportunity.
“We ended up booking all summer in the first two weeks,” Steven said, adding that it was one of his favorite things about the summer.
“We need to bring people to sailing who might not have had this opportunity otherwise,” she said. “It’s the coolest thing. It’s so much fun.”
On the DSA side, they pulled boats out of storage – two Martin 16s designed to be used by people with accessibility issues and two other smaller vessels also designed to be adaptable, plus a zodiac coach boat .
“If you start thinking about the freedom and the empowerment… of getting out there and sailing, I don’t understand how delicious and empowering that would be,” Russell said.
Nanaimo sailor Douglas Hugill, who is deaf, knows that feeling well. He helped organize a sailing weekend for 15 people from the waters of Oak Bay and it was far from his first trip.
Hugill wanted to sail all his life but attended school in a South African town away from lakes and the seaside. After school he started windsurfing, and after immigrating to Canada and landed on the West Coast, Hugill naturally began kayaking around Vancouver, Nanaimo and Ladysmith.
After his retirement, he began taking courses from the American Sailing Association in Los Angeles. From September 2021 he took a series of courses – one-day programs aboard a Capri 22 and another on a 35ft catamaran as well as five nights on a 34ft Catalina. With course completion under his belt, Hugill moved from Jericho to Vancouver with the BC Adaptive Sailing Association. This program ran from May until the end of September, when it was presented at the DSA in Victoria.
Hugill brought all of that experience with him when the band set sail this summer. He said it was amazing to see a breakthrough for some of them who had never sailed before. They may have wondered if they would be able to sail, and knowing that it is possible, they want to go back.
He was impressed that Steven knew American Sign Language with others eager to learn. The Martin 16, he explained, is an excellent vessel for a deaf person to steer while volunteers or coaches monitor and instruct. He plans to continue volunteering and sailing with the adaptive sailing programs in Vancouver and Victoria.
Russell said he saw joy in other interactions as well. He remembers seeing Steven leave with a young woman with autism who doesn’t speak. Not far from the wharf, the two hit each other’s hand and left smiling ear to ear.
The Royal Victoria Yacht Club is happy to welcome, McBride said, and to go with the flow as the association adjusts to find a new home.
“We want it to be facilitated for as long as necessary so it can continue and grow in the future,” he said.
In an ideal world, Russell sees the club having two home bases – CFSA and RVYC – but there are intermediate goals to achieve.
The DSA is not off the hook just yet as it seeks to gain independence under the BC Societies Act while looking to 2023 as the year to improve the board and add administrative staff.
To learn more about board membership or the water, contact Russell at [email protected]
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