I’m out on a quiet lake, surrounded by the Melbourne Grand Prix track, and sailing the nautical equivalent of a go-cart.
My ‘inner rev-head’ — who I rarely hear from — is urging me to go faster.
While everyone else is stationary in peak traffic, a few tame black swans are the only obstacle to my carefree cruising.
‘Sailability’ is an introductory sailing program for people of different ages and abilities, taught by volunteers and staff at The Boatshed since 1991. (Seventy clubs offer the program Australia-wide.) As a local, I can hardly believe this experience is available right on my doorstep.
I arrive at The Boatshed at the northern end of the lake with more than enough time for a coffee at the centre’s café before the 9.30am session. (There’s an accessible toilet and showers, and although the café isn’t accessible from the front, you can reach it through the Sailing Centre main door.) Next door are the boats, shelved and resting on trolleys and milk crates.
Suitably caffeinated, I roll out from under the umbrellas into morning sun and am shown to the Hansa 2.3 metre ‘access’ dinghies, for disabled participants. (Two-person access dinghies are also available.) I’m told they’re sturdy, easy to sail and impossible to capsize, with one control line for the sail and a joystick-like controller for steering.
A hoist is brought from The Boathouse and dropped into place on the side of the jetty. This allows another participant in a motorised wheelchair to transfers into a dinghy. I opt for a ‘step’ approach, climbing onto a milk crate before the jetty and into my own boat.
As I bob about for a few minutes, Liv my instructor gives me the run-down on the controls then tows me out a short distance in her inflatable motor-boat. After unwinding the tow rope, she gives me further instructions as she putters alongside. For example, how to ‘tack and jibe’, or steer either side of the direct wind force. Oh, and ‘try not to hit things’!
So, with the sun in my eyes and a 20-kilogram centre plate, or keel, ensuring I won’t end up in the drink, I start off around the lake. Or rather, the wind starts me off. That’s the first thing you notice — how the force and direction of the wind determines where you go, regardless of the direction you intend, or how many swearwords you mutter.
...the wind determines where you go, regardless of the direction you intend, or how many swearwords you mutter.
(On YouTube, there’s a NASA aeronautical engineer who explains tacking — heading at a slight angle to the wind, so the air pressure actually pulls you forward. This is ‘lift’ — a magical force made real to me in this smallest of boats on an artificial, 1.3-metre deep inner-city lake.)
The wind picks up and I’m sure I’m gliding over the miniature waves like a pro. To prove my rate of knots, I pick a palm tree and restaurant as visual reference points and confirm it — no one before me has moved this fast in this boat!
Then I round the lake’s Gunn Island and am faced with a dozen kids in training (part of the Boatshed’s ‘Tackers’ program). They manoeuvre around buoys with distracted ease, some almost touching the water as they lean back to stabilise their boats, while steering with one hand.
I’m left slightly less cocky, but still undeterred — they had at least 20 hours’ practice on me!
Sometimes the wind changes abruptly, leaving my sail fluttering and my boat motionless. At other times, I swear my boat is going sideways. But then I make a sharp turn, the mast swings left-to-right above my head and thuds into place — water splashes in my face and I think: ‘I am definitely doing this again!’
After about an hour, my time is up (too early!) and Liv tows me back to the jetty. Transferring on to my wheelchair, I watch the Tackers dismantling their boats. Two kids at either end of a mast carry it to the Boatshed. They are the very picture of responsible, independent youngsters. (The future of Victorian sailing is in good hands: stats suggest that more than one in ten of today’s Tackers will go on to join a local club.)
Back at the Boathouse, I chat to Adam Gristwood, who heads the Boatshed, and certified instructor and volunteer Jack Woods, from nearby Albert Sailing Club. ‘Pumped’, as the motorheads might say, I organise with Adam to return soon. Separately, Jack offers to give me a one-on-one lesson to pin down the fundamentals further.
The Hansa is, I’m am surprised to learn, a recognised sailing class. The Hansa Class Combined World and International Championships are in October in Japan. (Disabled Brisbane teenager, Angus MacGregor, won the 2010 and 2012 world titles against able-bodied competition.)
I also learn in more detail the pathways Sailability offers, to social sailing, racing and even international representation. Para sailing, to my dismay, has been bumped from the 2020 Tokyo games, but looks likely to be reinstated by 2024. If my enthusiasm remains, I’ve got six years to make the grade!
The Boatshed’s Sailability sessions are on Friday mornings; book through the website.
There are three disabled carparks near the Albert Sailing Club and the nearest public transport is the tram route 12, stop 130 (Albert Road/Clarendon Street)
The Boatshed at Albert Park
3 Aquatic Drive
(03) 9686 2571