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Free at sea: Individuals with disabilities enjoy smooth sailing with Challenged Sailors San Diego
Each group sail relies on a chaser volunteer who moves around the bay in a power boat to provide a quick trip back to the dock if needed. (Credit: Russell Hart)

Free at sea: Individuals with disabilities enjoy smooth sailing with Challenged Sailors San Diego

POWAY, Calif. — Every Friday and Saturday afternoon, a group of sailing enthusiasts gathers at the Safe Harbor Sunroad marina to set sail on San Diego Bay. The sailors board eight two-seater Martin 16 sailboats designed for a special kind of outing known as adaptive sailing. As they push off from the dock and into the open water, the next few hours are filled with unlimited possibilities and freedom for all on board.

This group is sailing with Challenged Sailors San Diego (CSSD). Its mission is to provide therapeutic and recreational adaptive sailing opportunities for people of all ages with disabilities to enhance their dignity, well-being and independence. The organization pairs these individuals with volunteers who have sailing experience, from professional maritime captains and sailing instructors to competitive and recreational sailors.

Teresa Valenzuela with her companion sailor before setting off in the bay. (Courtesy: Teresa Valenzuela)

Life-changing excursions

A fourth-generation San Diegan and President of the Board of Directors of CSSD, Peter Phillips, became involved with the program in 2018. “I have saltwater in my veins,” he shares. He has been sailing his entire life and has also worn lower leg braces since the age of 17 when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Phillips shares that CSSD has a core of 40 adaptive sailors and adds, “Our participants include paraplegics and quadriplegics, people who are blind and others who are deaf. There are a broad range of diagnoses. Historically we focused on individuals with physical disabilities, but we can also take sailors with cognitive disabilities, as long as they are medically stable and able to safely follow instructions.”

CSSD facilities are accessible and equipped with a lift for transferring sailors from wheelchairs into the boats. The Martin 16s can be rigged with a Power Assist Unit to enable steering and trimming of the sails via a small electric joystick or a Sip and Puff mouthpiece. It costs approximately $50–100 per sail to operate the program, but there is no charge to participants. The group says donations and volunteers are always appreciated.

In addition to their twice-weekly recreational sails, CSSD also participates in several races during the sailing season. “Last year, during one of our races, we had an exciting milestone in our history. It was the first time we were in a class sailing as sailors and not as a special category of adaptive sailors,” Phillips says, “my companion sailor and I took a first and a second place.”

Summing up the feeling of sailing on the bay, Phillips adds, “Walking with braces and a walker is challenging and sometimes painful. Sailing in Challenged Sailors’ boats is powerful and empowering and graceful at the same time. It’s a great way to exercise, get a little wet, and have fun! Sailing changes peoples’ lives.”

Challenged Sailors San Diego sails twice weekly on a fleet of eight Martin 16 specially adapted sailboats. (Credit: Russell Hart)

Liberating experiences

Adaptive sailor Teresa Valenzuela says she has gained inspiration from her time on the water with CSSD. “There is a whole world that has opened up to me now that I am involved in adaptive sports—so much is available here in our area. I am out on the water with Challenged Sailors San Diego every other week.”

A partially paralyzed paraplegic, Valenzuela describes her feeling when sailing: “I don’t feel disabled when I sail—how liberating is that? I love unplugging from the world and taking in all the beautiful scenery in the bay—sailing opens my mind up to all the possibilities in my life.”

Valenzuela learns more about sailing through the different companion sailors she pairs up with during each trip. She shares, “I take the knowledge gained during sailing and use it as a metaphor for life: everything is going to be ok, just adjust your sail to the wind, but keep going, don’t stop moving forward.”

To learn more about getting involved with Challenged Sailors San Diego as an adaptive sailor, companion sailor, or additional volunteer opportunities such as dock support, boat maintenance, ASL interpreters, and more, visit CSSD board encourages new sailors to complete a waiver and try sailing—no previous sailing experience is necessary.

This is an unedited user writing submission. The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Best Version Media or its employees.

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