A tale of hope and ingenuity from a local sailing club

Opening Out the Sails

Standing on the edge of Thames Water’s Farmoor Reservoir, David Newton, a Senior Instructor with the disabled sailing group Oxford Sailability, gives me a challenge. “Look out there” he says, pointing to the two dozen or so small craft out on the water, “and tell me which one is piloted by someone who is disabled”.

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. In a suitably equipped boat, sailing is one of the few sports where disabled and able-bodied people can and do compete on an even footing. On Tuesday 12 July, over sixty members of the public came to see some of the sailors going through their paces at Oxford Sailability’s Pontoon Project Open Day.

The weather was perfect and many of the families and children who visited had the chance to get their first taste of sailing with the help of some of the experienced volunteers who were on hand. The disabled sailors took to the water in one of two types of specially designed boat; catamarans called Challengers or smaller Access Dinghies.

Oxford Sailability has been operating at Thames Water’s Farmoor Reservoir for the last 23 years, helping children and adults with disabilities to sail. However, the facilities at the reservoir for launching disabled sailors are limited and in September 2002, a generous grant from Thames Water allowed Oxford Sailability to commission the design of a pontoon to provide disabled access.

With the help of Thames Water and the Oxford Sailing Club, Oxford Sailability is encouraging local people, businesses, schools and clubs to get directly involved and buy a plank for £200 or half a plank for £100. These planks will be used to construct the pontoon and it is hoped that work will start from the end of 2005. Planks have already been purchased by a wide range of companies, including Wilkinson, the high street chain selling DIY products, kitchenware and everyday essentials.

Pam Gee has been a helper with Oxford Sailability since it was set up. She co-ordinates a dedicated team of nine volunteers who turn up every Tuesday to help the disabled sailors get their boats launched. “It’s all about independence,” she explains. “We have two types of boats here for disabled sailors and they’re quite difficult to launch from the beach. The new pontoon will make it much easier for the helpers and the sailors.”

Luke, aged 17, has cerebral palsy. Still at school and hoping to go on to university to study physics, he has been sailing at Farmoor for three years and has already won a silver medal at a national disabled sailing championship. “I saw an advert for Oxford Sailability and thought it sounded fun,” he explains.  “I came down to have a look and everyone was really helpful. They put me out on the water straight away and I’ve loved it ever since.”

He continues: “The Pontoon Project will give all the sailors here a lot more independence and it will make it easier for us to get into our boats. It will also increase disabled sailing activity at Oxford so people from other clubs are more likely to come and race.”

Jan, aged 20, is autistic and has been sailing at Farmoor for the last five years. His mother Caroline believes that sailing has made a big difference to his life. “Jan is supervised every minute of his life except when he is in a boat,” she says. “It’s the only situation where he is completely free and independent and he loves it. The whole ethos of Oxford Sailability is to be accessible to the maximum number of people with the widest range of disability and level of need. The Pontoon Project would extend that to a much wider range of people.”

William is 33 and a solicitor with Collard-Chamberlain in Wantage. He is paraplegic and has been sailing at Farmoor for the last twenty years. “For me it’s about the excitement when we’re racing and the freedom of being out on the water” he says. “The Pontoon Project is important because it will make it safer for us to get on and off the water”.

Once the pontoon is constructed, it will be owned by the Oxford Sailing Club. For more information on the project and details of other fundraising events, please contact Bill Proctor of the Oxford Sailing Club on 01235 815943 or Liz Sale at Thames Water on 01189 744596.