Smooth sailing for boaters with disabilities

Fijian-born Ravikash Prasad has spina bifida, making it difficult to get around on land.


But once he hits the water, it’s best you get out of his way.

He’s one a group of clients from the The Bridge disability services, who come to Albert Park Lake every week to sail. It may not be the open seas, but there’s no lack of courage.

“We have people who started off needing support the whole time now they’re able to get out there and do it themselves. So when they finish they feel really good about themselves,” said The Bridge’s Fiona Curran.

The boats are specially designed to be easy to operate. They have one sail and are steered with a single joystick-style tiller, and come complete with lead-weighted keels to prevent them tipping over.

“The lead in the bottom weighs about 15 kilos, so when the boat starts to tip either side it can’t capsize,” said The Boatshed’s Chelsey Taylor. “It just keeps it floating and steady in the water.” 

Sailors new to the sport begin with an assistant as they learn the ropes, but like Ben Gartside they soon take complete control over their vessels.

“I had someone with me at first. When I became independent I became more confident,” he said.

The sport gives many of the participants an independence they lack in their everyday life.

“A lot of them when they’re on the land they can need carers 24/7 but they don’t when they’re on the water. When they’re out there they are fully functional sailors,” Ms Taylor said.

The Sailability program at Albert Park Lake was the first of its kind in 1990. It was introduced from a similar program founded in the UK, and in the last 25 years its popularity has prompted offshoots to every state in Australia.

Ten thousand people take part each year in Victoria alone.

“This is great, I can do it on my own. So I can tell everyone whoever wants to do it, they can do it,” said sailor Ravikash Prasad.

“It’s a can-do attitude. When you come into something like this you’re scared, you ask, ‘Can I do it? Am I going to stuff up? Am I going to fall in the water?’ All those sorts of things,” Ms Curran said. “This is a wonderful thing they can transfer into their life.”