Tag Archives: Adaptive sailing

Adaptive Sailing: Complete Empowerment on the Open Seas

Seen above: An adaptive tiller extension arm.

One of the oldest sports in the world, sailing is also one of the most popular. And among people with disabilities, sailing is just as loved, which may surprise some. Sailing, however, at its essence is all upper body, making it the perfect sport to adapt. Plus, technological advancements in recent years have made this sport an option for nearly anyone. In fact, vent-dependent quadriplegics are even racing in regattas.

What’s great about adaptive sailing is that it allows ALL people with disabilities to master it, even those who don’t have a strong upper body. This isn’t true for most other adaptive sports. Hilary Lister, a quadriplegic from the UK who has no movement from the neck down, became the first quadriplegic in the world to sail around her country. And many other people with disabilities have begun to race competitively. It’s a fantastic sport!

Below are the basics on adaptive sailing for both paraplegics and quadriplegics. The boats vary, but they must be designed to not capsize and they must have an easy customizable cockpit design. Most adaptive sailing centers carry the Martin 16, the Freedom 20 and the SONAR, all deemed safe. For more in-depth information on everything adaptive sailing, please follow the links at the end of the article.

How Paraplegics Sail

When paraplegics arrive for their first day of sailing, they are always concerned about one thing – how will they get on the boat. But it is actually very simple with transfer boxes. Transfer boxes have a slide that you can maneuver into position, then slide down to get into the boat. Once in, you either transfer to a bench or seat depending on your balance ability.

For paraplegics without full torso control, a seat is used to provide more control of the boat while sailing. Most also use a strap across the lap to keep fully secure. To steer the boat, paraplegics can easily grab and maneuver the rudder with a tiller extension arm. For the most part, paraplegics can pull on the ropes just fine, but for those who need assistance, power winches are utilized.

How Quadriplegics Sail

For quadriplegics, a few more pieces of equipment are needed to sail independently. For transferring, a Hoyer lift is used. Once in the boat, they’re strapped into a chair that swings to different sections of the boat while sailing, giving them independent mobility. Not all seats, however, move like this. Some are stationary.

Several straps are used to keep quadriplegics in their seats securely. A chest wrap and lap strap are typically enough to keep a quad in position even in rough waters. And the type of steering equipment a quadriplegic uses depends on the severity of their injury. For low-level quadriplegics, many can steer the rudder with a tiller extension arm and can operate the ropes by pulling on them, but some may need to use a power winch to supplement their strength.

For those that really need assistance with gripping onto the tiller extension arm and/or ropes, ActiveHand gloves are used (or even duct tape by some). For quadriplegics with less movement in their wrists and arms, joysticks are used to steer. Joystick steering offers full control of the boat, from the steering to the sails. Splashelec is a well-known manufacturer of sailing joysticks in France.

For those with a high-level quadriplegia, a Sip ‘n Puff steering system is used that’s quite intuitive. There is one straw to control the rudder and one for the sails. You sip to starboard (to move right), puff to port (to move left). And to operate the sails, puff to let the sails out and sip to let them in (a skipper is behind you if help is needed).

Visit the following link to shop adaptive sailing equipment: Accessible Sailing Technology

Adaptive sailing offers people with SCI the rare opportunity to feel completely free from their disability. To leave their wheelchairs on the dock and be in control of where they’re going is a great feeling. And with more than 75 adaptive sailing organizations throughout the country (and counting!), the opportunity to try it may be closer than you think.

Have you tried adaptive sailing?

Learn more

US Sailing Adaptive Sailing Resource Manual

List of Adaptive Sailing Programs in the US

The largest adaptive sailing program in the US, Shake-a-Leg

Adaptive Sailing Videos

Vancouver’s Disabled Sailing Association

Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Foundation – 2015 Video

C.R.A.B. Clinic/Regatta for Persons with Spinal Cord Injuries video

Adaptive Sailing in Boston

AQVA – Our Adaptive Sailing Programs

Shake-A-Leg Miami – The Adaptive Sailing Experts

Sailing and the ocean doesn’t necessarily bring the term “wheelchair-friendly” to mind, but Shake-A-Leg Miami for the last 26 years has been intent on changing this. One of the most well-known adaptive sailing organizations in the world, Shake-A-Leg Miami thrives on bringing disabled individuals out onto the water and so much more.

From offering adapted kayaks and guided sailing lessons to providing summer camps and youth programs, Shake-A-Leg Miami’s offerings are impressive, and everything they do is housed in their equally impressive home base – a large facility right on the water in Miami, previously owned and operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

To renovate the facility into one that is universally accessible, Shake-A-Leg Miami entered into a partnership with the City of Miami, giving in-need youth and others access to this wonderful facility. Many able-bodied kids from economic-hardship backgrounds sail for their first time because of Shake-a-Leg Miami.

Shake-a-Leg’s origins did not begin in Miami, but rather was founded in Newport, Rhode Island by Harry Horgan (a paraplegic and past SCI Superstar). In 1990, Harry’s surgeon at the Miami Project, Dr. Barth Green, persuaded him that his program should be moved to Miami so that it could be open all year round, and that is exactly what he did. The program has expanded immensely since moving to Florida.

Harry on-board one of Shake-A-Leg’s ships.

A 501(C)(3) nonprofit, Shake-a-Leg Miami offers a huge variety of water-related activities and services. They offer several programs for kids. One of the most popular is there We Can Sail program, where every Saturday they offer a sailing and sports day for kids with disabilities and their families. They also offer their nationally recognized initiative, Spirit of America, which provides boating and water safety education to middle school students with and without disabilities.

And for those with disabilities, Shake-a-Leg Miami offers a Wellness Center where you can do yoga, strength training in an accessible gym and pilates all in a barrier-free environment.


They also teach sailing instruction and kayaking to people with disabilities and they offer a variety of social activities. If you’re interested in competing in sailing on an international scale like the Paralympics, you can train at their sports center and/or wellness center as well.

Not only do they have accessible kayaks, they also provide rides on accessible powerboats and sailboats, including the latest addition to their fleet – The Impossible Dream – a 60 foot catamaran financed and lead by Deborah Mellen.

Deb Mellen on the Impossible Dream.

The Impossible Dream is on a mission of showing how purposeful design and technology can open up the water and improve the quality of life of people with disabilities. Impossible Dream will be sailing up the east coast this summer. Visit impossibledream.us and learn how you can go for a sail.

Harry on the Impossible Dream while docked in Rhode Island.

Meaning to literally get a move on it, “Shake-A-leg” is doing just that; helping people get out on the water and do something that seemed impossible, over and over again all year round.

Visit them online: Shake-A-Leg Miami

Watch the Videos

Shake a Leg Promotional Video Final Cut HD

Dr. Mitchell Tepper, a quadriplegic, visits The Impossible Dream @ Shake-A-Leg Miami