If someone with a disability wanted to learn to sail in this country the reaction of most people in the watersports business would be: ‘No worries!’

Sailability is a mainstream RYA grassroots sailing programme, while the British Sailing Team is fully inclusive for its Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

But windsurfing?

Finley Heys at the OTC

People still view the accessibility of windsurfing as a little different.

Maybe it’s because of windsurfing’s more physical nature, compared to the perception of sailing being a more sedate ‘sitting down’ sport. Whatever it is, windsurfing doesn’t yet have the same status within disability sport as sailing.

Yet, scratch the surface a little and you find there is actually some healthy windsurfing activity being run for people with disabilities nationwide.

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Like the other kids at Weymouth’s Budmouth Technology College about to tackle Start Windsurfing at the OTC at WPNSA, Finley Heys is relishing the chance to do a sport he had been intrigued by growing up in the seaside town.

The fact the teenager, who turns 15 this summer, was born without the forearm and hand on his left arm made no difference to him, nor the instructors at the OTC.

Now Finley knows what he wants for his birthday.

Disability and windsurfing -- Finley Heys at the OTC.

“Maybe some windsurfing kit would be good!" he says. “Windsurfing is the most fun sport for me and so different to the other sports you get to try at school. I always want to try sports that are challenging to me.

“I’ve always seen the windsurfers at Weymouth and Portland and wanted to give it a go. Now I can see it becoming a hobby and something I can do with my mates."

Over the years Finley has adapted using his elbow for grip, and when it came to windsurfing his approach was no different. He started on a 2.5 sail but progressed to a 4.5 before the end of his initial six-week course.

He says although his elbow can’t provide the same strength in holding the boom as a hand, “it does the job enough," and the more time he spends on the water, the more he finds ways to adapt his windsurfing to improve further.

“Because my left arm isn’t as strong, to start with if the wind suddenly got stronger I couldn’t hold on and I fell off. Now, if I start to feel the wind picking up I hook my arm around even more to give me better stability and control."

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Think Outside The Box

Finley’s story isn’t as uncommon as you may think.

Just as he has learned to adapt, so many of Britain’s windsurfing instructors and clubs have taken the approach that if someone with a disability wants to windsurf, they will find a way to make it happen.

Whether it be mobility issues, amputees, visually or hearing impaired individuals or people with learning disabilities, all abilities are being catered for. It just requires a bit of common sense and empathy.

“As with everyone who learns a new skill for the first time, you have to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t," says Richard Beardsley, Training Principal at Oxford Sailing Club at Farmoor.

“Everyone struggles with something to start with, and everyone learns how to overcome it to improve. The process of learning is exactly the same for everybody."

Richard has taught windsurfing to individuals with a range of disabilities, including a visually impaired man, a profoundly deaf woman and an autistic teenager.

With the visually and hearing impaired windsurfers, Richard admits the fact they had sailed before, and had wind awareness, gave them a good grounding, but others have started from scratch.

He insists teaching is just about getting to know what each individual needs.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching someone one-to-one or in a group, you adapt to suit a particular need.

“My profoundly deaf student was an exceptional lip reader. I learned if she looked down during demos, I had to pause or repeat what I was saying until she looked at me again and could see my mouth.

“For the visually impaired student I had to think all the time about being close enough for him to see what I was doing. For example, during tack or gybe drills I couldn’t be more than 5-metres away. For both students I had to consider where to position the RIB or my board in relation to their sail to they could see or hear me.

“The autistic student was more about recognising he wasn’t very socially aware and there wasn’t going to be much two-way communication or feedback. He needed to know I was on his side and I had to take decision-making out of the process."

Gavin Davis at Fairlands Valley Sailing Centre in Stevenage added an 18-inch tether to the uphaul so a student whose arm was amputated from the shoulder could grab it more easily with his other hand without getting tangled.

“We have a lot of experience working with disabled people as a Sailability centre," explains Gavin. “In our experience where people have lost a limb they have amazing strength in the other to compensate. We didn’t need to adapt much for this amputee student, as his attitude was he wanted to do it and he had amazing balance too."

Using wider boards, matching fin and rig size, is popular practice in adapting kit. Other advice includes using trainer rigs or battened sails with less outhaul for visually impaired windsurfers as they have more feel to them, as does using a board on land instead of a simulator for demos. Reducing instructor/student ratios depending on ability and an individual’s need should be considered.


Spreading the windsurfing word

All of these are just examples of some of the activity going on under the radar, there is plenty more too.

Sarah Cartwright, RYA Disability Development Officer, windsurfer, instructor and coach, admits she is encouraged by the windsurfing community’s ‘we just get on with it’ attitude to disabled students.

She hopes other centres, principals, instructors and individuals with disabilities will realise windsurfing is a viable option for all.

Sarah added: “There is this preconception that if you have any disability you can’t windsurf, but you can.

“Sailability is there to help you whether you are a centre that might like to run windsurfing activity or someone who wants to try the sport for the first time."

For more information on disability windsurfing contact sarah.cartwright@rya.org.uk