A 15-year-old from a single-parent family stepped into a new class of boat for the first time – bigger and faster than he was used to. He raced it against more experienced sailors and finished third, second and first in three races. A disabled person who had never sailed until late 2013 went on to win a medal at the 2014 Para Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. Then there was the woman with muscular dystrophy who was hoisted from her wheelchair on to a sailboat. Within an hour, she was teaching her husband how to sail. The sailors are all part of the Sailability Hong Kong charity foundation programme at Sai Kung’s Hebe Haven Yacht Club, which has a partnership with Sun Hung Kai Scallywag to give underprivileged and disabled people the opportunity to learn sailing. “We have sailors with all sorts of disabilities,” said Englishman Mike Rawbone, who with his wife Kay founded Hong Kong’s first Sailability foundation in 2009. “It may be physical – someone who has had polio or may be an amputee – through a whole range of intellectual disabilities. “We also provide a opportunity for people who are in rehabilitation, typically people who have had bad accidents, a car accident for example, to use sailing as part of their rehabilitation. “And also those who may not be able to afford to sail, who can benefit from the Sun Hung Kai Scallywag programme.” Sailability is a global charity that offers coaching instructions to those less fortunate and offers a pathway to sailing as a sporting and lifestyle pursuit. Scallywag is Sun Hung Kai’s world-famous flagship ocean racing franchise, which has taken part in the Ocean Race and Sydney to Hobart races under skipper David Witt. The company, headed by Lee Seng Huang, has donated three boats to the programme, with the fleet at around 35-strong. The beginners start on special dinghies that are extra stable and do not turn over before moving on to more advanced vessels that require greater skills. “We started the foundation because we believe sailing helps nurture skills that are important in life and we wanted more people to have access to sailing. So it’s great to see our sailors back on the water,” said Lee, referring to the long break from sailing because of the Covid-19 pandemic. For Witt, the main focus of the programme is to give youngsters an opportunity to sail while possibly laying the foundation to groom a future Hong Kong sailing star. “It’s been going pretty well, we have got 156 kids going through the course so far,” said Witt, who led Scallywag to victory in leg four of the previous Ocean Race from Melbourne to Hong Kong. “We have around 60 kids going to the second level, they’re all certified because they are receiving proper instruction and you might get someone coming through who will become more involved in sailing and end up sailing at the top of the tree. “The main thing is to give underprivileged kids in Hong Kong a chance to go sailing when normally they wouldn’t have that chance.” The Rawbones initially came to Hong Kong during the construction of the Tsing Ma Bridge, with Mike – who has been sailing since he was eight – involved in recruiting workers to build the structure. After construction was completed the couple were “dragged back to the UK kicking and screaming” before another opportunity in Hong Kong presented itself and they returned in 2003. Kay specialises in working with people who have intellectual disabilities and she said the sailing programme has helped to boost self-confidence, especially when representing Hong Kong at international level. “Oh yes, definitely,” said Kay. “We have many that naturally sail by themselves and one of our medal winners [in the INAS championships in Australia] was intellectually disabled with special education needs. “We’ve taken children from one school to Japan and they were intellectually disabled. They have represented Hong Kong and the parents are so proud, never thinking that their child will be able to reach this level. “For our Saturday programme, many of them travel from Hong Kong Island or Discovery Bay. Many of them actually take volunteers out on the boats and show them what sailing is about and I love that. “We see guys in a very depressed state, going out on the water and they come back and are able to stand up and talk about how different it’s made them feel. And that is a special thing.” Mike Rawbone said more than 2,600 sailors have passed through the programme since its 2009 launch and increasingly diverse groups have shown interest. Apart from those with financial difficulties and the disabled, elderly groups, members of ethnic minority groups, charities and NGOs have undertaken courses. He said Sailability did not even exist when they first came to Hong Kong. The United Kingdom has 202 centres with Australia boasting more than 180. But in the 11 years of the Hong Kong branch, it has become one of the top 10 busiest programmes in the world. “In what we do and the numbers and types of challenges, if anybody wants to come to us, we will help,” said Kay.” Anti-government protests in Hong Kong forced Sailability to cancel an international regatta in December, having staged a successful event one year earlier. Financially, the programme relies on individual and corporate donations and much of their work involves fund-raising to ensure they can cater to any group that needs help. Their expansive fleet allows them to introduce a variety of groups of youngsters into sailing. They are given five days training in special boats before being able to move to the next level. “We have started offering Sailability opportunities to all sorts of groups – society for the blind, we have the deaf, we have people with mental challenges,” Mike Rawbone said. “We have the elderly, those with brain injuries, the whole programme as opened up.” Kay said 97 per cent of their sailors were local and most of them were intellectually disabled, a condition she said was being added to the World Sailing programme so future international events would cater for such sailors. “Sailability Hong Kong is one of the most inclusive programmes [in the city] and is something that we are very proud of,” Kay said.