Sailing access program takes people with disabilities into waters where all are equal
Alone in a boat, blind, missing a leg and needing to return to shore — it’s a situation Perth sailor Kylie Forth has been in many times in the past 12 years, yet she remains undaunted.
At age three she lost her sight to cancer; at nine it also claimed her right leg.
But the disease hasn’t stopped the 32-year-old from becoming a top sailor who in 2015 won the Blind Match Racing World Championships in the United States.
Ms Forth said disability was no barrier to being able to sail a boat.
“You could have no arms, no legs, you could be old, you could be six years old — it doesn’t matter because once you’re out there on the water, you’re just another boat in a race.”
Losing an eye and leg to cancer hasn’t stopped Kylie Forth becoming a champion sailor. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
Other senses take over
Ms Forth learned to sail when she joined the Sailability program at the Royal Perth Yacht Club in 2006, and said her disabilities initially presented a challenge to her teachers.
“It took a bit of ingenuity to come up with ways to learn how to sail without being able to see the sails,” she said.
“The people who were teaching me would sometimes close their eyes and try and think: ‘I know how to sail as a sighted person, but how am I now going to try and pass this information on to a blind person?’
“It took a lot of people a lot of thought to try and pass that information on to me.”
Paul Borg and Kylie Forth training for an international competition back in 2006. (Supplied: Blind Sailing Australia)
Ms Forth said she had learned to use her other senses to perfect her craft.
“You can listen to the water sloshing around the side of the boat and that is your speedo; if the gurgling speeds up you’re going faster, and if it quietens down you’re going slower.
“It’s really just practising all the time to hone those skills.”
The ‘most inclusive sport’
Using their hearing and a few adaptations means vision-impaired sailors can readily take on their sighted opponents.
“We have audio signals on our buoys and on our boats so we can hear where everything is and we can sail around the course without any sighted help,” Ms Forth said.
“That’s the amazing thing about sailing; it’s the most inclusive sport there is because once you’re in a boat, you are just another sailor.
“You can have abled and disabled people, sighted or blind, old or young — everybody sailing together equally on the same course and having just as much of a chance to do well in the race.
“There’s no other sport out there that you can do that.”
Monica Lim says her son Mark is enjoying learning how to sail. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
Injection of positivity and calm
The Sailability program has become a huge success for the yacht club, and every week dozens of people with disabilities take to the Swan River.
Mark Lim, 22, was born with Fragile X syndrome; he has learning difficulties and intense anxiety.
His mother Monica said being on the water was a soothing experience for her son.
“He’s just so much more lucid and calm and happy just being out there on the water by himself,” she said.
“When he was given his diagnosis, all hope was gone but we chose to hold on in faith and he’s doing very well today.
“It just injects so much positivity in our lives.”
Mark Lim suffers from anxiety and learning difficulties but feels at ease on the water. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
Llew Rubenheimer’s son Edward is autistic and has been involved in the program for nine years.
He said sailing was the highlight of his son’s week.
“He gets very anxious; he always has to ensure he has the right boat and the right colour. He’s very autistic.
“But our carers always report that after he’s sailed, he’s very relaxed.
“We find the therapeutic benefits of sailing once a week is very good for him.”
Sailing has a calming and therapeutic effect for the participants. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
Confronting an elitist image
Lou Chambers, the coordinator of the Perth Sailability program, said there was a huge range of opportunities for people who participate.
“It’s a charity that aims to get people of all abilities out on the water sailing,” she said.
“I think it improves their quality of life and I think their carers and loved ones would say the same as well.
“It’s amazing where it can take you — from somebody who’s never been sailing right through to becoming an elite sailor through dedication, drive, training and mentoring.”
At 80, Mike Cull still loves sailing and uses a purpose-built hoist to get in and out of his boat. (ABC Radio Perth: Gian De Poloni)
Ms Chambers said the program challenged the perception that sailing was an elitist activity.
“I think some clubs are seen to be quite elitist, and Royal Perth would be one of the elite clubs around Perth, but they’ve embraced Sailability well and truly.
“We’ve integrated very well with the able-bodied members.”
Ms Forth is now focused on competing at international sailing tournaments as skipper of the Australian blind sailing team Lost At See.
She is also preparing to compete in a national sailing competition in Bunbury in 2019.