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A Condensed History of the Sail Able Association of Nova Scotia
Written by Judy Simms

In the spring of 1989, a man by the name of George Lutz picked up a local newspaper in his home town of Moncton, New Brunswick. An article on a sailing program in New Brunswick called ‘Able Sail New Brunswick’ caught his attention. The program was designed to teach physically challenged individuals to sail. Upon his return to Halifax, George contacted the Nova Scotia Yachting Association to find out if a similar program existed in Nova Scotia. He was informed that there wasn’t such a program in this province.

George returned to New Brunswick and contacted the president of ‘Able Sail New Brunswick’. Michael Dunbar then took George out for a sail in their 20 foot, 3 inches long Freedom Independence sailboat called the ‘Gordon McRae’. George was very impressed with the modifications that had been made to the boat in order to make it accessible for persons with physical disabilities.

George returned to Halifax and immediately contacted the Canadian Paraplegic Association to find out if they knew of individuals who may be interested in the same type of venture as ‘Able Sail New Brunswick’. Several people were contacted and a meeting was set up. Those who attended were very keen about the idea so this set the wheels in motion.

The Freedom Independence sailboat was brought to Halifax on 7 October 1989 by Michael Dunn, along with two physically challenged persons who were already involved in the ‘Able Sail New Brunswick’ program. The event that followed was held at the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron and was open to everyone. Videos were shown on the safety of the craft, etc. and then individuals were taken for a sail on the boat. The positive responses were overwhelming and you could feel the excitement in the air. As a result of this demonstration, a number of people decided to set up their own sailing association modelled after the ‘Able Sail New Brunswick’ group whose home was in Shediac, New Brunswick.

The new group decided to call themselves ‘The Sail Able Association of Nova Scotia’. Members of the association consisted of members of the sailing community, persons with disabilities, resource individuals, plus other interested persons. The members went on to compose a Constitution and By-Laws for the new association. As a result, the ‘Sail Able Association of Nova Scotia’ was incorporated under the Societies Act of Nova Scotia on December 1, 1989.

As part of a public awareness campaign, in February 1990 the new Association had a display set up at the International Boat Show held in Halifax. Many people stopped by the booth, asked questions, and wanted to show their support for the new sailing group for persons with disabilities. The group even took on new members as a result of their display at the Boat Show.

The next step was to make presentations to local yacht clubs in the Halifax area who had welcomed the concept. A decision had to be made as to where ‘home’ would be for Sail Able. In order to increase the public awareness of this program, presentations had to be made, displays set up, and articles had to be written for magazines, etc. Then the ultimate goal was to purchase a ‘Freedom Independence’ sailboat of their own so that members would be able to fully participate in local sailing events locally, nationally, and internationally.

On June 30, 1992, the sport of sailing in Nova Scotia was changed forever. That’s when the Sail Able Association of Nova Scotia kicked off its first fundraising campaign with the launch of its first boat ‘Bittersweet’. The boat was a bright red, 19’ Rhodes day sailer and it proclaimed a new beginning for Nova Scotians with physical disabilities. George Chisholm, the Vice Commodore of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, welcomed the guests and pledged his support saying the club would be more than pleased to help Sail Able members whenever they could. ‘Bitterweet’ was christened by our renowned Nova Scotia artist, Tom Forrestall, who also presented one of his limited edition prints to Dan MacLellan, who was the Chair of ‘Sail Able’ at that time. Wheelchairs and crutches were left behind as ‘Bittersweet’ cruised by several times that day taking several persons with physical disabilities out for their very first sailing experience. Experienced sailors from the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, including former Olympian sailor, Judy Lugar, agreed to take Sail Able sailors out to teach them the basics of sailing. Sail Able members continuously sailed out of the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron from June of 1992 until the summer of 1994.

A 30’ racing hull had earlier been donated to Sail Able from the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth. Sail Able had hoped to be able to raise enough funds to restore it to a racing boat. However, the hull was sold when plans changed and Sail Able decided to put all of its efforts into raising funds to cover the costs of a $30,000 specially-adapted ‘Freedom Independence’ sailboat.

Following four years (1990 to 1994) of intensive fundraising initiative and a $15,000 donation from the Abilities Foundation of Nova Scotia, Sail Able members were rewarded with the June 1994 arrival of their $30,000 boat. Built by Freedom Yachts in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, ‘Free Spirit’ is a Freedom Independence sailboat, extensively tested to accommodate a wider range of physical disabilities while ensuring optimum safety. The purchase of ‘Free Spirit’ had now increased the fleet of Sail Able boats from one (Bittersweet) to two. As a result of the new addition, Sail Able members and volunteers worked throughout June and July of 1994 sanding and coating the hull, rigging the boat with parts and accessories and installing swivel seats in preparation for ‘Free Spirit’s first sailing season. A coordinator and instructor were provided for the program from a Department of Community Services grant which enabled several people to experience their first outing on the water.

The christening of ‘Free Spirit’ was held on 11 September of 1994 at the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron. It was well attended and the boat looked fantastic adorned from bow to stern with dozens of fresh red roses and with champagne trickling down her bow.

Taking another step toward a fuller integration into the sailing community, a number of Sail Able members, and its boats, joined the ranks of the Shearwater Yacht Club in 1994 at the invitation of the Executive members of that yacht club. Sail Able members joined in by attending the social events held at Shearwater Yacht Club, participated in regattas, frequently crewed on other sailboats, and even became Executive members of Shearwater Yacht Club. Each of the boats now had its own marina and Sail Able had attained one of its goals – full integration of its members into a yacht club community. The many friendly and supportive members of the yacht club got very busy trying to make the marina ramps and building entrances as accessible as possible for their newest members. For their many efforts towards accessibility, Shearwater Yacht Club was awarded the ‘Hour Glass Award’ during Access Awareness Week the following spring.

‘Bittersweet’ was sold a few years later due to its lack of use and the cost to Sail Able of having it on a marina. The ‘Freedom Independence’ sailboat was now the boat of choice for Sail Able’s members. 

Members of the Sail Able Association of Nova Scotia never rest when the sailing season gears down for the winter. Fundraising is always a year-round activity with a constant search for private and public sector funding to cover program development and capital equipment costs. For four days in February of most years, Sail Able’s booth has to be prepared and staffed for the Halifax International Boat Show. The Association’s Annual General Meeting is held usually in November of each year and requires the Executive members to write reports and prepare financial statements, etc. for presentation to all members attending its meeting.

In the spring of 2007, the decision was made to move ‘Sail Able’ and its boat to a new home at the Dartmouth Yacht Club. It was hoped that the move would attract more members and volunteers to the program due to Dartmouth Yacht Club’s location on Bedford Basin, its proximity to a Halifax transit bus stop, the easier access from Halifax, and the ability to increase its fleet of boats.

As a legacy to the 2007 Mobility Cup Regatta, which is being held at Dartmouth Yacht Club this year from 27-31 August, Sail Able has now added another boat to its fleet. The Dartmouth Yacht Club is steward to an accessible Martin-16 sailboat equipped with Sip `n Puff technology. This boat is the type being used in all one-design Mobility Cup regattas.

If you would like more information on the history of the Sail Able Association of Nova Scotia, please contact me, Judy Simms (Past Chair) at 463-4161. If you would like to become a member of, or a volunteer for, Sail Able please contact James Stewart(Present Chair) at 422-0911.

Prepared by Judy Simms
23 August 2007