Val Millward started sailing at the age of 26, when she was invited to join a group of students and amputees on a yacht on the Norfolk Broads for a week one summer. “I was totally absorbed in the process of capturing the wind to make the craft move to where you wanted to go,” she said to me over email. “It was a whole new world and by the end of the week I was completely hooked.” Val is a lower leg amputee and wears a prosthetic leg; yachts were brilliant for her at the start as she didn’t need to worry about getting her feet wet!

Jane Scott came to sailing later in life at Grafham Water’s Sailability branch. Profoundly deaf while on the water, she initially learned to sail on a Challenger, a trimeran (a three hulled boat) with a buddy seat for an instructor. “From the first moments I was completely hooked – I had been on various recreational boats in the past but this was the first time I was actively involved in the sailing process itself.”

Sailing is a dynamic sport, exciting and adrenaline filled; very little can beat the feeling of the wind across your face or the sun on your back. It can also be leisurely, as Vanessa Weedon-Jones, RYA coach assessor and senior instructor, told me: “Sailing, because it happens outdoors, offers a fantastic opportunity to connect with nature, which in turn helps you relax, unwind and just enjoy the freedom of being afloat.”

The freedom of sailing brought Val some incredible opportunities during her sailing career. She’s competed in her Mirror dinghy at club and national level, become a senior instructor focused on supporting Sailability centres, and has competed internationally as part of the Paralympic Squad. As Val said: “Have a boat, see the world.” Val has also been involved in the Great British Sailing Challenge since it began, and in 2019 was overall second lady helm and second over 60 helm: she’s not letting any barriers get in her way.

Freedom also comes from sailing’s ability to adapt. Sailing, at whatever standard and ability, teaches you adaptability, flexibility, intuition and awareness. You hear the wind direction and alter your course when it (inevitability) shifts; you’re always looking out for other boats around you; you’re feeling the tide’s pull against the boat and working with it. These are all skills that we need in providing inclusive opportunities for others.

Sailing is also unique in providing an equal platform in which to compete, using the ‘handicap’ system, which is judged based on the boat you’re sailing. Each boat is given a PY number (known in sailing as the handicap) which means that when you’re racing someone in a much faster boat, the two boats’ speed difference is removed. As Val says: “The handicap of the boat means that I am recognised by all those competing as a sailor, not as a disabled person in a funny-looking boat.”

But most importantly, sailing brings community. I’ve had the privilege of sailing with Hunts Sailing Club in St Ives for several years, particularly with the ‘Women on the Water’ group, set up by Vanessa to provide a low pressure and welcoming space for those busy with families at weekends, and who may prefer cruising to racing. It’s a space where we can sail just as we want to and can stay and chat afterwards with coffee and cake.

Jane also goes to ‘Women on the Water’: “It’s a place where I can be myself and people understand me. It gives me extra strength for the communication challenges I face every day.” Everyone is always supportive and willing to help.

It’s the same mindset that we need to provide inclusive coaching too. Val and Vanessa both encourage empathy, as did Adrienne in our previous piece about inclusive golf. Val says: “don’t do it for, do it with your students.” “There are plenty of opportunities,” says Vanessa, “but if you don’t find them, make them.”

Sailing is a really powerful sport, and one that is uniquely inclusive through the handicap system. According to Val, sailing needs to embrace this more: we can all help promote sailing as a sport for everyone, and a sport for life.

For Jane, inclusive sport is “people willing to be adaptable and flexible, so that you feel positively enabled and encouraged in trying out new things. It’s a ‘can do’ approach as opposed to people perceiving someone with a disability as being unable to do things. For me at Sailability it means we can all support each other to do as much as we possibly can.”

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Anna Willis

Freelance journalist and story teller; on Twitter @annawillis101