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Windsurfing with disabilities is challenging, but the barriers are being broken down with new programs and developments, the RYA tell us more.

Words & Photos  RYA

For those of us who are passionate about windsurfing, it’s fantastic to hear it’s becoming an increasingly popular activity for people of all ages and abilities. Over the past few years, the majority of barriers which have previously prevented people with disabilities from experiencing windsurfing have now been removed. Whether it be mobility issues, amputees, visually or hearing impaired individuals or people with learning disabilities, all abilities are now being catered for at clubs and centres across the UK. RYA Sailability Disability Development Officer and windsurfer Sarah Sibley has been researching how the sport is becoming more accessible. “With no need for special adaptations or costly equipment, it’s easier than you think to get out on the water. Many windsurfers have learnt to adapt to their disabilities and many windsurfing instructors and clubs throughout Britain have found innovative ways to accommodate everyone into their sessions. This ensures that if someone with a disability wants to windsurf, they will find a way to make it happen,” Sarah commented.

Windsurfing magic

One club that has done just that is Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre in London who have opened up a new world for nine year old Sonny. Sonny has cognitive and peripheral vision issues and when his mum Laura wanted to find an activity that could help her son become more independent and develop self-awareness and confidence, she didn’t imagine it would be windsurfing. She explains: “I wanted Sonny to become more ‘free’ and able to do something that takes him away from dependency on myself and others. To find a way for him to build his personal inner strength as well as physical strength. I feel being close to nature builds inner strength. Sonny can’t follow the rules of a game, but with watersports there’s a natural understanding of the immediate environment he can tune in to.” His instructor James Hardy also plays a huge part in this and tailors the sessions to specifically suit Sonny’s needs. Laura continues: “Sonny loves boundaries, real and perceptual, and likes to be challenged so long as he feels safe. James has great natural understanding, care and ability to work around Sonny’s difficulties. There is great forward planning with Sonny’s time slots and consideration is given to the fact he can get overwhelmed, so starting with one-on-one sessions at quiet times put him more at ease. There’s also planned goal-setting, with the aim for his integration, when it’s right, into small group learning. The strategy is discussed and planned and James has excellent communication skills. He just gets it!”
Sonny is now a regular at the centre and those close to him can absolutely see that the sport is having a really positive effect on him. “It took time for Sonny to be able to listen to and trust someone other than family. But there’s been an unreal amount of improvement in many ways – physical strength, stamina, social skills, focus and being able to question. Most of all his confidence has improved so much and he’s more self-aware and self-assured. It’s magic. The muscle feedback when windsurfing also helps his OT and proprioception difficulties,” Laura explains. Next step for Sonny will be owning his own kit – possibly an inflatable board which can be taken on holiday with his family. “The next stages are to probably introduce more skills and strength, so perhaps doing more and creating waves and more challenging scenarios on the board. The benefits are so visible we’re keen to offer Sonny more opportunities to pursue his newfound love of wind and water,” concludes Laura. His instructor James also believes there’s plenty more for Sonny to discover: “He’s got windsurfing down to a T and is trying a few ankle drags and other basic freestyle moves. His favourite bit is catching a gust and moving as fast as he can go. Next we’ll move on to some simple downwind steering. Further down the line we’re looking to get him involved with other children in more of a group session. I’ve also thought about trying to make some type of tandem windsurf board from what we have at the centre so he and I could windsurf together to maybe help his learning.”

Continuing to grow

RYA Sailability is about getting people of all abilities on the water, enjoying the freedom and buzz of windsurfing and sailing. There are over 200 accredited Sailabiliy sites across the UK and many are fully equipped with hoists, launching ramps, specially adapted changing rooms and qualified instructors.
“Sailability’s ethos is about removing barriers and we are really excited about the developments in the sport. We are currently making plans to ensure that windsurfing continues to be available as an option for everyone,” Sarah explained. We’d love to hear from you if you know of any disabled windsurfing activity happening, whether it’s adapted equipment, a teaching method or an inspirational story. Email Sarah at [email protected]

If you’d like to find out more about RYA Sailability and the options to get out on the water visit www.rya.org.uk/sailability

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