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The charity Sailability uses the sport of sailing to give people with physical and intellectual disabilities a rare opportunity to compete with able-bodied athletes on the same level, boosting their self-confidence and self-esteem

By Channy Lee

After a two-hour long sail, boats instantly recognizable with neon colored sails glide back to the Hebe Haven Yacht Club. Waiting for them at the floating dock in anticipation for what he calls “boat-catching” is Mike Rawbone, co-founder and Chairman of Sailability Hong Kong and recipient of the 2015 Ira Dan Kaye Community Service Award from the AmCham Charitable Foundation, along with his wife, Kay.

Sailability is an international organization with numerous branches operating independently around the world that facilitates sailing for the physically and intellectually disabled. When introducing Sailability, Rawbone always starts with, “You need to be able to answer this question to understand how Sailability works. If you put me in a boat and somebody with no legs in another one, what’s the difference? I can tell you there is very little difference.”

After every sailing session, the chairman along with other volunteers grab onto the returning bows before they hit the dock while Kay coaches the sailors on a safety boat before heading onto the dock to help with the boat-catching. The yachts are then lined up at the dock and volunteers help the sailors out of the boat, who excitedly chatter about how well they sailed today or how much wind there was out on the ocean.

On the same field

When the Hong Kong chapter of Sailability was established in 2009, the organization started with six sailors and two boats. Today, the total number of disabled sailors they have trained is 650, sharing between them 24 boats adapted for a variety of special needs.

The sailors come from various backgrounds, consisting of local residents and expatriates from seven-year-olds to those in their seventies. Their disabilities range from Down syndrome, autism, blind, deaf, non-verbal to paralysis. Many of those trained return to sail regularly.

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Rawbone explains the wide appeal of sailing to the disabled lies in that it is one of the rare sports where people with disabilities can compete against the able-bodied.

“We took our racing team to Finland in August and there were 102 boats that took part. In the top 10 winners, six were disabled. That’s the point about sailing. You can compete on a leveled playing field. Their self-esteem, confidence, everything about them is so much better because they’ve never been allowed before. You see these people in wheelchairs with a big smile on their face because they are beating able-bodied people.”

Outside of Sailability

The Rawbones moved to Hong Kong in 2003 for work. Despite their tireless dedication to Sailability, the organization is not their only responsibility. Mike is the owner of a human resources consultancy firm, while Kay works with the disabled community in Hong Kong as the Operations Director at the Nesbitt Centre.

Juggling their two demanding jobs and Sailability have become an exhausting struggle for both of them, especially with their responsibilities at Sailability swelling rapidly. “Kay and I work about seven days a week,” Rawbone jokingly adds. However, they continue to do it as they see the need and importance of their work.

Kay was exposed to people with special needs at a very early age, leading up to her passion in working for the disabled community. Her commitment is reaffirmed by her work at the Nesbitt Centre.

“Through my wife, I started to have interest. And with the interest, you start to see that many places do not cater to their needs. We don’t have a lift here [at the Hebe Haven Yacht Club] – although we will very shortly – but they don’t make allowances forpeople with disabilities very easily,” Rawbone explains.

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Kay and Mike Rawbone

So in 2009, when Mark Houghton, then commodore of the yacht club, suggested to Rawbone that the club should get more involved in community work, the chairman volunteered to take the initiative. Houghton supported the process of setting Sailability forth with the Hebe Haven Yacht Club as its home ground without a moment of hesitation.

Challenges faced

Despite its ambitious beginning, Sailability faced early problems revolving around consolidating its daily operations like securing equipment and getting sailors in the program insured because people questioned the plausibility of the initiative. And after six years in operation, it is still no smooth sailing for the organization. The challenges posed have shifted to pressure on the limited resources they have.

Their sailing sessions are increasingly overloaded and it has far exceeded the extent to which the Rawbones and the yacht club can account for. “I am really excited about how it has grown because I knew it would, there are lots of people with disabilities,” Rawbone says. “But we have got to have a day off in a week to inspect the boats and do repairs. We have three schools waiting to send their students to sail and we don’t know to cope [with the amount of people].”

Compounding the struggle is that Sailability is a not-for-profit, charitable organization that receives no government funding. They keep their administration costs to approximately seven percent of their revenue. There are no employees other than professionally qualified sailing instructors. The organization is run completely reliant on donations from local residents, corporate entities, schools and other non-governmental organizations to fund their activities.

It helps that family members of sailors at Sailability have offered to volunteer for the organization, being principal witnesses to how sailing can empower those with special needs. But even with the continued support, supply outstrips the demand. They always need more volunteers, boats, safety equipment and space. “We are hoping to spread to other sailing clubs now. We are really cramped here, I’ve been repairing boats at the carpark,” Rawbone says.

But in the midst of strenuous work, the Rawbones keep their morale high.

Photo 33“You see these people, what they put up with and they just get on with it. Never complain. That’s where Kay and I get our satisfaction.” The chairman’s personal philosophy is to never say no which is thoroughly exemplified by the organization and its sailors. They have come a long way and the sense of achievement precedes the ordeal.

“[Because] we don’t have the expertise yet to communicate with the deaf, we teach their teachers to sail. As such, we can’t do everything now but we can always find a way to do it,” Rawbone says.

Getting recognized

One of the most widely recognized achievements of Sailability Hong Kong is the bronze medal that one of their sailors, Foo Yuen Wai, brought back from the Sailing Division of 2014 Asian Para Games as a representative of Hong Kong. They are now preparing for qualification to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, while looking forward to launching new boats like The Spirit of Hong Kong to their current fleet of 24.

Like the Operation Santa Claus I and Operation Santa Claus II, Sailability’s boats are named by their sponsors and adapted to suit different needs. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are for beginners while larger 7.9-foot boats like the Courageous, MischiefXi Wang(Mandarin for hope) and Spirit of Hong Kong are for those more experienced.

These names each have their stories and reflect the spirit of their sailors, Rawbone points out.

“People with disabilities are very resilient, very determined. When you see some of the sailors, when you see what they can do – climbing in and out of the boats, you’ll think it’s amazing. They just get on with it. I am full of admiration, I really am. They never complain and I’ve learned from it. What right have we got to complain when they are not complaining?”

Sailors and parents on Sailability

Joshua Winslow, a sailor
“I have been sailing for six years now since Sailability started. I enjoy sailing because it makes you focus. When you are on the boat, you have to focus to see where you are going and know what you are doing. And I see my friends here. We sail together and have lunch together. We talk and laugh while having lunch. I come every Saturday to sail.”

Simon Mountain, a sailor
“My favorite thing about sailing is being on water with my friends.”

Daniel Faizullabhoy, a sailor
“More people should sail because it’s a good water sport. It relaxes people.”

Penny Mountain, a volunteer at Sailability and Simon’s Mom
“The first time we came to Sailability, he needed help from the beginning. He couldn’t get out of the car alone, walk across alone because he would trip over all these things. He needed help all the way around, with everything. Now I can stop the car, he gets out of the car, do all the things he needs to do. He can sit down on his own and move into the boat. He has gone from totally dependent to almost independent. At this point, I can probably drop him off at the [Hebe Haven Yacht] club, leave, come back to pick him up when his sailing session ends and he would be just fine.”