How this sailing program is changing the lives of people with disabilities

Able Sail Toronto, a program dedicated to providing people with disabilities the opportunity to enjoy sailing, is having a huge impact.

Able Sail Toronto was launched this summer and currently has 20 members and 20 volunteers

Able Sail Toronto, which currently has 20 members and 20 volunteers, is dedicated to providing people living with a disability the opportunity to enjoy sailing. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

Jacqueline Czernecki and her friends are no ordinary sailors — each lives with a physical and/or neurological disability and they want to help other people like them get out on the waves and feel the wind at their backs.

Czernecki says their program, Able Sail Toronto, which currently has 20 members and 20 volunteers, is dedicated to doing just that.

"When I was young, the sailboat was the only place I could actually feel safe in my life. It was my refuge. Sailing in the summer kept me from killing myself in the winter because I had a very unfortunate upbringing," Czernecki told CBC Toronto.

"There are no differences anymore once we’re in the water." says Jacqueline Czernecki. She, and three others, helped launch Able Sail Toronto this summer. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC)

In 2000, Czernecki damaged her upper right arm during a fall. She also has PTSD, which she says involves a lot of anxiety and makes everyday situations difficult to handle.

When she finally did get back on the water after her accident, she said "hope was reborn, life came back in."

She wants others with disabilities to experience that same feeling out on the water.

"With things like sailing — and a couple of Chihuahua service dogs — I was transformed," Czernecki said.

'The disability just melts away'

Able Sail Toronto - which operates out of the National Yacht Club - uses boats that are adapted specifically for sailors with a variety of disabilities.

The keels are designed so the craft won't tip or sink. Members with wheelchairs are lifted into the boats with harnesses, while controls in the boat are adapted to make sailing easier. In some cases, an electronic system is used, allowing those with very limited strength and dexterity to control the boat.

Those adaptations make it possible for people with disabilities to experience the freedom of sailing, Czernecki says.

"Without them, it would be almost impossible for them to sail."

Able Sail Toronto member Linda Clarke demonstrates how those in wheelchairs are lifted in a harness into the sailboat. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

She adds, "Once they get out on the water, they leave their wheelchairs behind. Once they're out on the water, the disability just melts away. They're the same as every other sailor out there."

Linda Clarke was already a very experienced sailor before getting Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).  She was diagnosed eight years ago and lost the ability to speak six years later.

"I had to find a way to sail again," said Clarke, who now communicates by typing on a device, which then turns the text to audio.

When asked what she loves most about being out on the water sailing, Clarke replied: "The freedom it gives me and I can leave the wheelchair behind."

Linda Clarke will be competing in the Mobility Cup Championship in September, the Canadian national sailing championship for people with disabilities. (Paul Borkwood/ CBC)

Able Sail Toronto says its goal is to provide sailing opportunities to people with disabilities of all ages throughout Ontario.

Approximately 80 per cent of members are in wheelchairs, including paraplegics and quadriplegics.

Sofia Kanibolotskaia is a quadriplegic due to spinal cord injury she suffered in 1998.

Adapting to her new life was hard, but sailing gave her purpose.

"When you have a physical disability, inevitably, it becomes 'I cannot do this, I cannot do that.' But sailing makes me feel I can do something. It's a beautiful feeling," she says.

"I can harness the wind and make it take me in the middle of the lake. I can fly on the water."

Program co-founder, Sofia Kanibolotskaia, was left paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. "When you lose something, it is hard. But then you realize you still have a lot. And you try to make the most of it. For me, sailing is invigorating physically, emotionally, mentally," she says. (Paul Borkwood/ CBC)

Friendships have also been formed. 

Candice Drescher has been sailing since 1968. In late 2005 she suffered a head injury in a car accident, and was injured in another car accident six months later.

She suffers from degeneration of the vertebrae in her neck, fibromyalgia, fatigue and constant pain.

"Sailing was an integral part of my life but after the accident I was thinking there was no way I could handle it," Drescher told CBC Toronto.

Jay Allison, pictured here in her wheelchair, has formed a tight friendship with Candice Drescher, who was left with chronic pain following two car accidents. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

But she proved herself wrong, and through sailing, met Jay Allison.

Allison has cerebral palsy, and uses a wheelchair following a botched knee surgery.

The two have since become inseparable, sailing together a few times a week.

"We just have a wild time!" Allison says.

"What's more, you forget that you even have a disability, that you're even in a chair. You're out there and you just feel human, normal.  The feeling of the waves, the wind in your face."

"There's no greater feeling," Drescher chips in.

"When we're on the water, we are totally enabled."

Candice Drescher (left) and Jay Allison go sailing together a few times a week. "We're crazy out there!" they say. (Paul Borkwood/ CBC)

With files from Kelda Yuen


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