Sailor shares his love of the sea with disabled

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 6:18am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 6:18am

Some people give their all for a good cause. This is the last in a series of interviews with benevolent souls who use their love of sport in charitable ways.

Mention sailing to Mike Rawbone (pictured) and his gaze drifts upwards while his face breaks into a smile. "My love affair with sailing has been going on longer than my marriage," says the 70-year-old, who has been married to Kay for 45 years.

But while he loves to sail, he gets more joy from teaching other people to sail, in particular those who are less able.

"Sailing is very good for people; it's very calming," says Rawbone, the chairman and co-founder of Sailability Hong Kong, a not-for-profit which makes sailing accessible to the disabled.

"You're able bodied and I'm disabled. Sit us in a boat and what's the difference? The answer is, 'extremely little'."

The idea for a Hong Kong arm of the worldwide charity was born over a glass of wine five years ago with the then-commodore of Hebe Haven Yacht Club, Mark Houghton. It has since grown to supporting more than 400 sailors.

At first there were four sailors and they went out on the water on Tuesday evenings. Now, Rawbone says Thursdays are the only day they don't sail. The youngest Sailability sailor is eight; the oldest is in their early 50s.

"You've got the sailors who just want a relaxing day out in the sunshine, with a bit of wind and fresh air, right up to some very competitive sailors," he says.

"It's becoming my life. My own sailing has taken a back seat as I spend more time fixing boats than sailing them these days."

At the 2014 Asian Paralympic Games in Korea, Foo Yuen-wai from the Sailability racing team won bronze; teammates also finished in fifth, sixth and seventh place.

Now, Rawbone has set his team's sights set on the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil.

To qualify, they will compete in the 2.4mR Open World Championships in August in Finland against able-bodied sailors, and then the key qualification championships in Australia later in the year.

"Really competitive disabled sailors are now sailing against good able-bodied sailors and they're absolutely staggered to the point that you suggest to the able-bodied sailors they go for a race and they hesitate," he says.

To be a good sailor you need a good sense of which way the wind is coming. You need tactics. You also need to know how to deal with tides and waves and obstacles such as passing ships and other boats. You have to have your wits about you at all times and have confidence and a willingness to give it a go. It can be learned, of course, but some people are naturals, they just get it.

I most enjoy seeing the way the sailors adapt and learn; we have some people who are severely disabled who are able to sail on their own. Some of the parents can't believe it. Once a mother called to say, "Our child has come home with some 'cock and bull' story that he can sail the boat on his own." And I said, "Well he can, why don't you come down and we will show you?" She did, and she still couldn't believe it. She stood on the pier crying.

The boats are adapted so they can be sailed with the arms or the feet. We start all sailors with an instructor on a small boat, but once they get a bit more confident we put them in a slightly bigger boat. When they get more comfortable, we'll let them sail in regattas, and when they're really good we'll put them in our Paralympic boats and they can join our sailing team.

The biggest obstacle for these sailors is often not the sailing, but access. In some of the sailing centres we have to carry some of our sailors to the boats; you can't get wheelchairs there.

I started on little boats and went on to sail the bigger ones, but my passion is the little ones. It's more exciting in the smaller boats. In large boats you're part of a crew of up to 15 people while on a small boat, you're in charge.

If you'd asked me five years ago where Sailability would be today, I never would have dreamt we'd be preparing to qualify sailors to compete at the Paralympics. I'd like to see consolidation; I'd like to see more Sailability centres around Hong Kong in the future.

Sailing has not been included as a sport at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. There is a global petition going on at present with a view to get the sport re-instated. It is hoped the decision will be changed of course, but in the meantime Rio will be the last opportunity for some time.

You can contribute to Sailability's HK$1 million target for their quest for Rio 2016 at simplygiving.com/Appeal/Sailability2015Appeal