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Specialized sailboats create 'level playing field' for disabled racers

There are 34 sailors from across Canada and the United States competing in Halifax this week in the Clearwater Mobility Cup.

Sailors from across Canada and the U.S. are competing at the Clearwater Mobility Cup in Martin 16s

The Mobility Cup is considered the Olympics for disabled sailors from clubs across Canada, says one organizer. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Kevin Penny guides the course of a Martin 16 sailboat using only his breath. 

Penny, who lost the use of his arms and legs in a bicycling accident as a teenager, puffs into a small tube attached to a machine that allows him to steer the five-metre-long boat.

The pressure from "puffs" or "sips" — sucking air back — into a switch in the mouthpiece also allows him to trim or release the boat's jib or mainsail.

"The feeling that it gives you, it empowers me. It's really the only time other than when I'm in my wheelchair that I can control where I'm going," Penny said Tuesday after racing in the first heat of this year's Clearwater Mobility Cup. 

"It's therapy. I get to clear my head, I get away from the world. I get out there, I have fun and I after I come home, it's like being on a 24-hour high after."  

Kevin Penny, who helped organize the regatta, is racing in the Gold Fleet. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

This week, Penny and sailors with a range of abilities are competing out of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron in Halifax, sailing a type of sailboat designed specifically for people with disabilities.

Some skippers like Penny are quadriplegics. Others have suffered strokes, have multiple sclerosis or have lost limbs.

"Once we're there on the water and we're out there with the setup that works for us, we're all on a level playing field and the skill takes over," Penny, who's in his early 40s, told CBC's Mainstreet Halifax.

"It's like a family that comes from all across Canada for one week of a great competition."

Jay Everett, who co-chairs Sail Able in Nova Scotia, racing with Judy Lugar on Tuesday afternoon. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

The Martin 16s have a 300-pound lead keel for increased stability and specialized equipment that can be adapted to different people's needs, including power motors for people who may be unable to steer and a cushioned, movable seat with straps. 

CN Rail transported boats from clubs across the country to the event in Halifax. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

"We have equipment that we can put on the boat that makes everyone equal out there. If you don't have a lot of arm strength, you could use a joystick. If you can't use your arms at all, you can use straws," said Paul Tingley, one of the co-organizers of the event.  

Tingley, himself a five-time Paralympic sailor, said the event is like the Olympics for disabled sailors from clubs across Canada.

There are races every morning and afternoon until Friday. Organizers say people are welcome to drop by the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron or watch the races from the shoreline along places such as Fergusons Cove. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

This year's event has attracted 34 competitors, including sailors from seven provinces and two Americans, one of whom drove an RV from California. The youngest participant is 13, the oldest 82. 

While some skippers have been training for years, many are new to the sport. Less experienced racers are competing in the Silver Fleet, which cast off Tuesday afternoon and competed not far from the mouth of the Northwest Arm. 

Competitors range in age from 13 to 82 years old and hail from seven provinces and a couple of U.S. states. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Penny, who also helped organized this year's regatta, started sailing in 2006 while attending a Mobility Cup in Vancouver with Tingley.  

Once he got out on the water, he said he "got the bug right away."

Colin Smith of Vermont skippers a Martin 16. Each sailboat has been adapted to meet people's individual needs, from a seat that has buckles to a 300-pound lead keel to prevent too much heeling. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

He'd been athletic before the bicycling accident at age 15 and sailing brings out his competitive drive. Penny said since the local club only has three boats, competing against a full class Tuesday in the Gold Fleet was a welcome challenge.

"Everyone was smiling. We had some difficulties with the wind but that's what sailing is all about," he said. 

"I can't imagine what my life would be without sailing."

Skipper Vicki Morton prepared to cross the starting line in one of the afternoon races Tuesday. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Earlier this summer, Penny took CBC's Colleen Jones out for a sail.

With files from Mainstreet Halifax

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia 

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past nine years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca