Annie Wong speaks to chairman and instructor of Sailability Hong Kong, Mike Rawbone.
Based at Hebe Haven Yacht Club in Pak Sha Wan, Sailability offers the chance for disabled individuals to sail or at least to get out on the water with experienced sailors. “It’s about getting on the water, having fun and a few laughs”, says Mike Rawbone, Chairman of Sailability Hong Kong. “We have many examples where kids with a disability have come to us, being able to do very little, and now they can sail by themselves.”
Sailability is growing rapidly with the headcount currently standing at 660 people. “Sailability is open to everyone that has a love for sailing. We have members from seven- to 70-years old from organisations like The Nesbitt Centre, Jockey Club Sarah Roe School, and other NGO’s and charities”, explains Rawbone. Sailability is open to participants whether they are looking to sail for fun or hoping to have a more competitive experience. Receiving their first set of adapted boats in early 2010, which come with both hand and foot steering, beginners start on a Hansa 2.3 – a simple sailing boat – before progressing to a Hansa 3.03. Competent sailors can then advance to a 2.4mR, an Olympic racing boat.
“My wife works with the disabled community, and I have always sailed since I was young, so we combined the two and brought Sailability to Hong Kong in 2009”, says Rawbone. “It’s extremely successful in the UK and we would like to expand further in Hong Kong, but the difficulty is where. We need a place that is easily accessible for wheelchairs.”
Sailability has called Hebe Haven Yacht Club home since 2009 and Rawbone is thankful for the many years of support and resources he has received from the club, in particular its ideal location and its wheelchair access. “We wouldn’t have been able to come this far without the help of Hebe Haven Yacht Club. They have given us support and space for our sailors. There are no steps and we can get the sailors onto the pontoon quite easily. They are installing a lift soon too”.
Besides the help of instructors and coaches at Hebe Haven Yacht Club, Sailability has a large group of volunteers that lend a helping hand at training, fundraising events and competitions. As well as on-water volunteers, on-shore volunteers help rig the boats and get the sailors in and out of the water as well as launch and recover the boats. “We are always looking to involve people”, says Rawbone. “ We need a team with a range of skills, from making sure the sailors get onto the pontoons to sewing the badges on the uniforms.”
It is with the tremendous help and support from Sailability volunteers, instructors and coaches that the para team excelled at Hebe Haven Yacht Club’s 24 Hour Charity Dinghy Race. The team clinched first place in the competition, a huge improvement from placing third in 2014. The race saw 29 teams compete in the club’s annual event, with two teams from Sailability. “The sailors knew they were in the lead and stayed in the boat for 12 hours with no changeover just to maintain their lead”, says Rawbone. “They showed pure competitive spirit, determination and commitment. It’s remarkable”. Thoughts are already turning to next year’s event with the aim to defend their title.
A team of four sailors is currently in Australia hoping to qualify for a spot in the Paralympics in Rio, 2016. If they qualify, it will be the first time Hong Kong has a paralympic team representing the SAR in sailing. While the team has spent many hours out on the water (they train three times a week) and strategised race tactics, some things remain unpredictable. “Weather conditions in Hong Kong are generally pretty good so we are not that familiar with rough seas. It’s a small disadvantage but it’s all part of the challenge.”
For more information, to donate or to volunteer for Sailability, visit www.sailability.org.hk