It's plain sailing for everyone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am


Computer engineer Michael Leung Kim-ming has been an avid sailer for more than two decades. He loves the sport for many reasons -the feeling of freedom on the open water, the wind breezing through his hair and sun shining above; the chance to get away from the throngs of the city; and most importantly, because sailing is a sport dictated less by physical strength and stamina than strategy and skill.

That last part is important to 50-year-old Leung, a polio victim.

He was diagnosed with the disease at the age of one, and it left his legs at less than full strength. For the most part, he has overcome the disability to excel in sailing, but his condition has deteriorated in the past few years, due to age.

'Soon I think I won't be able to sail on a normal boat,' says Leung.

Fortunately, there's Sailability Hong Kong, so to continue sailing, all Leung has to do is change boats.

Started in the 1980s by the Royal Yachting Association in England, Sailability is a non-profit organisation that trains the disabled to sail in customised craft.

It has since spread across the world, with over 350 clubs in countries ranging from France to the Philippines. The Hong Kong chapter, started last year by members of the Hebe Haven Yacht Club, has recruited 40 members. It is a diverse group consisting of both the physically and mentally disabled, as well as cancer survivors, who get use of club facilities and sailing lessons in customised boats.

The programme is comprehensive, providing bilingual classes and hands-on training using specialised Access dinghies, designed for the disabled. A ballasted centreboard means the Access dinghies are nearly impossible to capsize, a concave hull adds stability, and a joystick in place of the usual crank-like winch makes operating the sails easy - and fun.

'The joystick makes controlling the boat like a video game,' says Edward Bunker, a 36-year-old with an intellectual disability. 'It's like sailing without all the hassle.'

Of course, there is still plenty of traditional technique involved, such as trimming the sail - the art of adjusting the sail to take maximum advantage of wind power - which the group has been learning from Rob Allen, Hebe Haven sail training manager and coach of the Sailability team.

'I've spent time with the team every week the past year, teaching them a course called Assisted Helm,' says Allen, who has been with the club for six years. 'They've developed an understanding of wind direction and speed and learned how to communicate with partners on the boat.'

Bunker, who only has full use of one hand, says the training has turned him and his fellow students into great sailors. They'll have a chance to prove it soon - nearly all 40 members of Sailability will participate in the 24 Hour Dinghy Race next week.

The race, a tradition at Hebe Haven Yacht Club, is in its ninth year as a fund-raising event that draws nearly all of Hong Kong's major yacht clubs.

Held in Sai Kung's sheltered waters, the race involves teams of 20 to 40 people sailing in shifts of two, continuously for 24 hours. The team with the most laps at the end of the 24-hour-period wins. Last year the race, through sponsors, advertisers and revenue from an associated carnival, raised HK$1.1 million for charities Children's Cancer Foundation, the Intellectually Disabled Education and Advocacy League (Ideal), and Enlighten Action for Epilepsy.

The race has always featured diverse participants - locals and expats of both sexes and all ages, and even a dog one year - but this is the first year with a team of disabled sailors. The joy of sailing and the spirit of competition seems to have ignited a passion among crew from Sailability.

Edie Browne, mother of Sean, an intellectually disabled 22-year-old, says she has never seen her son so focused on something before.

'I was worried about him joining Sailability initially because his balance isn't too good,' says Browne. 'But I've seen him practice in the waters and it's very impressive.'

Sean, who also plays soccer, says he feels free and powerful when sailing in the open water.

Another team member, Patrick Yip Chun-kit, is counting down the days to the race.

'I've always been competitive and I can't wait for the day to come,' says the 21-year-old investment student at Polytechnic University.

Yip's competitive nature stems from his desire to overcome the odds. At the age of 10, his right leg was amputated to prevent the spread of cancer. Doctors told him he would never play sports again.

'I remember I was very upset, and since then I've put extra effort into excelling in sports,' says Yip, who, using a prosthetic leg, represented his secondary school in badminton. 'I had never sailed until recently, but in a short time I've learned how.'

The Sailability programme has won enthusiastic reception from many charities. Ruth Page of The Nesbitt Centre, an organisation that provides English-speaking educational programmes for adults with learning disabilities, is a volunteer with Sailability.

'Five of our students are part of the Sailability team so I wanted to join them and show support,' says Page. 'They're so excited.'

Rosita Lie Kuen-bo, chairman of the Children's Cancer Foundation, says the sport has lifted the spirits of several cancer survivors. Stephanie Wong Suk-fong, senior social worker for Enlighten Action for Epilepsy says many from their group wanted to participate too.

'Unfortunately, it was a bit tricky getting medical clearance for epilepsy sufferers to get out in the open water,' Wong says. 'But I'm confident we'll have it all worked out for next year's competition.'

Mike Rawbone, a human resource consultant and Hebe Haven club member, serves as the chairman of Sailability and is working on expanding the programme for next year. He has been in talks with Dr James Lam, president of the Hong Kong Paralympic Committee, to introduce sailing as a sport in the Paralympics.

For Leung, who's been devoted to the sport for so long, sailing in the Paralympics would be a dream come true. But for now he's focused on leading Sailability in the upcoming race. 'I have the most experience on the team so I have to take on a leadership role,' he says. 'We're just going to get out in the water and try our best.'

His team will race against 39 others from every major yacht club, a few schools, and even a team led by actor Chin Siu-ho.

'It's going to be an all-out event,' says Robert Mortimer, chairman of the race. 'In addition, there's the carnival village with food, games and live entertainment.'

Regardless, Kay Rawbone, who helped start Sailability, expects the number of participants to exceed 100 next year. 'When you put someone with a disability in a sailing boat, that disability disappears,' she says. 'It's one of the few sports where the disabled and non-disabled are on equal ground.'

24 Hour Dinghy Race, Hebe Haven Yacht Club, Hiram's Highway, Pak Sha Wan, Sai Kung, October