Freedom and fresh air: charity helps wheelchair users to go sailing

PUBLISHED: 12:18 16 January 2017

Anne Bailey, in charge of the charity's publicity and Andrew Cushen, former Principal

Anne Bailey, in charge of the charity's publicity and Andrew Cushen, former Principal


A charity is offering wheelchair users the chance to go sailing in Devon, as Chrissy Harris discovers

Messing about on the river is a simple pleasure that must seem out of reach when you’re confined to a wheelchair. Here on the Dart, however, anything is possible, thanks to a charity devoted to helping people with a range of disabilities enjoy sailing.

There’s much talk of freedom and fresh air as we follow members of Dart Sailability down to the organisation’s fleet of dinghies and boats in Noss Marina.

There are ropes and clips to help wheelchair users down to the pontoon and a hoist to lower sailors into their purpose-built vessels. Volunteers are on stand-by every step of the way to make sure the groups get the most out of their sessions on the open water.

One sailor preparing to race his teammates is 69-year-old Colin Whymark. The former businessman suffered a stroke 10 years ago and his life changed forever.

“My neighbour, an occupational therapist, told me about this charity but I’d never sailed before,” he says. “That was seven years ago and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve done really well. It’s definitely helped my confidence. Sometimes I do get scared but, as someone here said to me, at least if you’re scared you know you’re alive!”

Sitting next to Colin in the dinghy is Brian Hignett. He was left wheelchair-bound three years ago after a devastating paragliding accident.

“Coming here is a bit of freedom and of course the company is lovely!” he says, as he nudges his co-sailor.

Brian is said to be pretty decent on the water and does well in the charity’s race events.

“Yes, I’m better at sailing than I am at flying,” he laughs, as they set off across the river.

(purple) Stephen Oakey and Jo Heaton (yellow)(purple) Stephen Oakey and Jo Heaton (yellow)

There’s plenty of good humour here and lots of praise for a charity that has spent nearly 20 years encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones, whatever their circumstances.

Chief sailing instructor Bob Miller says it’s a principle at the core of the charity’s work.

“There’s huge satisfaction in seeing other people enjoying themselves and pushing themselves,” he says.

“They are doing something they never thought they would be able to do. We have one member who is blind and paraplegic, and she’s there, sailing a boat on her own - with someone to keep her safe - but doing it on her own. It’s remarkable. It’s about having fun – for everybody.”

Dart Sailability is the largest coastal disability sailing organisation in the country and has helped hundreds of people over the years.

There are sessions every Tuesday and Saturday and race events on Wednesdays.

Members can get afloat alone or with an instructor and there are three RIBS to provide safety cover.

It’s a well-run operation and a real credit to the lovely team of dedicated volunteers that turn up here in all weathers to supervise, fundraise and maintain the fleet of boats.

“Some of us live down here five days a week but it’s great,” says Dart Sailability former principal Andrew Cushen. “The charity has gone through a lot of changes but we’re due to celebrate our 20th anniversary next year. We’ve had so much support from the local community and from the marina (owned by Premier Marinas).”

It’s hoped such firm backing will help Dart Sailability stay afloat for many more years to come.

“It’s brilliant and everyone that runs it is brilliant,” says Anne Blood, a wheelchair user who is helping to sail a beautifully bright pink dinghy across the river.

“There’s just something about being out here, in the fresh air, on a boat. It makes me feel like I’m in control of something.”

That’s enough to put the wind in anyone’s sails.

To find out more, see

Latest from the Devon Life