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Damian Bannon

The significant health and social benefits of participation in sporting and recreational activities are widely cited. Understandably like most other parents, and as someone who had benefited greatly in my own childhood and adult life in being involved in sport, I was keen to get my young son Eoin involved in a team or sporting activity from an early age and assumed this would happen pretty naturally. However as Eoin suffers from ADHD and dyslexia, he had a narrow circle of friends and finding an activity that he wished to participate proved to be a bit of a quest.

Eoin’s attention span being as short as it is meant he had difficulty in taking on board any coaching offered and also had difficulties socially integrating into groups and teams. Unlike other children who hung on every word of the coach, orderly lined up in front of the coach and made best efforts to follow through on coaches instructions to kick/catch/swing or strike, Eoin found alternative methods to occupy himself and his interest. Coaching sessions invariably involved encouraging Eoin not to climb the fence, swing on the goal posts, or trying to catch up with him and return him to the group, and lasted only a short spell of a few weeks or months before Eoin insisted he didn’t want to go. By the time we had reached Eoins 11th birthday, and after trying soccer, Gaelic football, rugby, boxing, hurling, tennis, airsoft, to name but a few, we had almost resigned ourselves to the fact Eoin’s disorder meant he hadn’t the capacity or desire to participate and benefit from team based sporting or social activities.

A chance conversation and invite from a Sailability Volunteer, however, gave us an opportunity to try out sailing. After a gentle introduction of a few trips out on the lough on the fantastic range of boats, Eoin was captivated. Notwithstanding the friendliness and patience of the exceptional group of volunteers, the reason for Eoin’s engagement in this activity is unclear. But what is clear is that his involvement with Belfast Lough Sailability has immeasurably boosted his confidence and self-esteem, and provided him with a focus and an opportunity to compete, socialise and, more recently, volunteer in a sport and with people that he loves. After being given the opportunity to pilot Rubber Inflated Boats, and taking to it like a duck to water after only a number of weeks, he was asked if he want to get some further training to allow him to compete in the Northern Ireland Regional Honda challenge. Lacking in confidence, he didn’t wish to take part initially, bu,t after ongoing and gentle encouragement to participate by many of the volunteers, he had a few weeks training and entered into the competition. To everyone’s surprise he finished 3rd in the competition. He has since moved onto Hansa 303s and has competed in Sailability events in Galway and Kinsale. His confidence has been boosted no end and he lives to sail and meet up with his friends in Sailability. Watching him now compete successfully in these events fills me with great pride. But what is even more rewarding is to witness him on a weekly basis, sailing, competing and confidently engaging and integrating with the Sailability team, and assisting his friends and other participants – from pushing their wheelchairs to helping escort his blind friends to and from the harbour. A truly remarkable and life changing turnaround.


Belfast Met

On average twice a week we host “Group Visits” from other charities and organisations. Here are the thoughts of Belfast Met’s James McGrattan after a visit in the spring of 2015:

Just discussed our visit to Sailability on 24th of April with the student group. Just thought Id let you know how they felt about it. Below I have listed some of their comments:

– They all thought it was fantastic.

– They really enjoyed steering the boats.

– Being out in the sea.

– They all actually would like to do it again and I must consider this for next year.

On a personal note your team were fantastic couldnt do enough for us and I would like you to pass on our gratitude to your team.

Belfast Met sailpast in Sea Rover (Christine Harper)


Thomas Bruton

Thomas aboard the Hansa 303 Freedom with Elizabeth and Barnaby. (Mike McNeice)

On Tuesday 6 December, our friend Thomas Bruton was presented with the Presidents Award Gold Gaisce by the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins five years after learning about the Award from Duke of Edinburgh Award volunteer Alex Palmer at The Lighthouse Trust, Donaghadee, and working through the Bronze and Silver Gaice. Thomas had attended Sailability sessions with us before and decided to join our Halifax Foundation for Northern Ireland supported 2016 Summer Scheme at Carrickfergus last July for the Awards Adventure Journey module. This is Thomass story…


Finding my Adventure Journey was not easy. I wanted to find something that I was able to do but was also a challenge. My sister, Liz, looked at cycling for the disabled in the Peak District in England, but I decided that I would not have to do much as most of the pedalling would have to done by a companion. Out of the blue, I was contacted by Belfast Lough Sailability in Carrickfergus. Sailability is an organisation which promotes sailing for people with disabilities. I had sailed with them for several years, but this summer they had received funding to organise a certified sailing course. The organiser, Geraldine Duggan, asked me if I would be interested and I said yes, immediately. The course was held in July over five days (Monday to Friday), mornings or afternoons. I chose afternoon, as I could do a stretching exercise programme to help me sit for the two and a half hours of the course.

I sailed on a Hawk 20 called Arica, another called Tamarind and on the Sea Rover. My mum came with me to take notes and also, when there was not special seating, to help me balance. I learnt what to do before setting sail:

  • Check the forecast, especially the wind strength.
  • Check the tides as the first three hours and last three hours are the strongest in a twelve hour period.
  • Check life jackets are working properly; know where the manual cord is: check all have gas cylinders: they have to be serviced every two years.
  • Check that clothing worn is appropriate: bring sun cream and water.

When on board before sailing, check the contents of the safety box. It should contain an emergency blanket, first aid, kill cord and flares.

When sailing with others, it is important to answer instructions by saying ready. At sea, we were told that we should consider the following:

  • Boat trim look up and set sails according to the wind.
  • Sail trim small movement to keep sails trim. Tell tales should be at right angles. Tell tales are ribbons on sails.
  • Boat balance look down and check that boat is flat.
  • We learnt how to read the tides, winds and currents and to adjust the sails accordingly.

I was able to use my hearing (which is very good) to listen to the sound of the sea and be able to identify the currents and tides. Sailors call ropes sheets. It is very important that there are no knots in them as then they would not run smoothly. Some sheets are used to unfurl the sails e.g. the jib sheet unfurls the jib sail. To make things simpler, each sheet is a different colour, but there is no standard so this can vary. Sheets are very important as you cant raise a sail without one. My job was to check that the sheets had no knots. We learnt what the sails were for and how to set them, e.g. a jib is for turning and a main sail is for power. The main (large) sail is winched up by the halyard (a type of sheet) first, right up to the top of the mast to raise it up and then the jib (small) is unfurled and raised.

One day, I realised that I could sit independently for a short time because I could balance myself and correct my position, if necessary. I had not been able to do this before.

We were told easy ways to remember what to do, e.g:

  • A floppy sail is not a happy sail.
  • Bring it in to make it grin.

We sailed on Belfast Lough where we saw ferries and large ships. There is a special channel for them. Even though it was July and even though it was warmish on dry land, it could be quite cold at sea so we had to dress warmly. One day, it had rained in the morning and when I was winched into my seating position on the boat with my mum beside me, I realised that I was sitting in a pool of water. This got colder as the afternoon went on but I was having such fun that I did not mind. Joanne who was in the clubhouse always had a cup of tea for us when the session finished.

On one of my sessions, Mike McNeice came and took photos. I was delighted when I saw the photos as they showed what I did. Thanks, Mike. I am very grateful to Lex, Jenna and all the other instructors for their patience. I really learnt a lot and would love to do another course in 2017, if Sailability get funding.

On the last day, I was awarded a certificate. This was great! Thank you, everyone in Belfast Lough Sailability.

Thomass Adventure Journey is extracted from his full Gold Gaisce Award Portfolio, which is a must read. You can read and download it as a PDF file at the following link: gold-gaisce-award-portfolio-thomas-bruton-november-2016

Elizabeth Black

Elizabeth and Barnaby (BBC Northern Ireland)

I was delighted to be asked if I would be interested in joining Belfast Lough Sailability about 6 or 7 years ago. When I went along with my Assistance Dog, Barnaby, we were made most welcome. I started learning to sail in a Hansa 303 – a small two-seater sailing boat which was specially designed to enable people with paraplegia to sail competitively. They are a very popular boat and BLS now has six. It was a great thrill when I was deemed safe enough to be asked to take a visitor out for their first sail! Barnaby always comes with me and sits at my feet. He has a red life jacket and always comes running up to me when he sees his life jacket in my hand, because he knows he is coming too. Sometimes if children are reluctant to put their life jacket on, once they see Barnaby in his, they are usually willing to follow suit!

We have all sorts of opportunities in Belfast Lough Sailability: after doing the necessary training I have become a Disability Awareness Instructor. All our volunteers are offered Disability Awareness Training and this is a good opportunity to get to know our new members.

In 2014 a team went to Galway to the Hansa 303 Championships and to Kinsale to the first Presidents Cup Competitions. A great time was had by all.

Every opportunity is taken to celebrate a special occasion with a party or BBQ, either the launching a new boat or celebrating some of our members qualifying as RYA instructors – and even birthdays. We all look forward to our annual dinner, usually in March. There is always much fun and laughter.

Belfast Lough Sailability is an amazing organisation everyone, no matter what their disability, is welcome, and everyone, even people using a power wheelchair, can get out on Belfast Lough in a boat. Our Sea Rover has a special drop down ramp to facilitate easy boarding and gives people the chance to see Carrickfergus from the Lough and to see sea birds and seals. (I, myself, use a power wheelchair and can be lifted so easily with a hoist into whatever boat I am going out in.)

Please do come down and meet us this summer and have an outing in one of our boats you will be very welcome.


Owen Murray

The Murrays (Gillian McAdam)

My family have been coming to Belfast Lough Sailability in Carrickfergus for nearly a year. I was really pleased to see how welcoming and family oriented BLS are. On our first visit, all five of us, myself, Diane and the three boys, were invited to go out on the boats. So we climbed on board Sea Rover and left the marina and motored along the shore front for about half an hour before returning to the marina and taking to a Hawk sailing boat.

One of my sons, Aled, is nine years old and a wheelchair user. He is learning how to sail in one of the Hansa 303s, an incredibly stable training boat. He is hoping to participate in the Hansa Championship Gala at the beginning of August. Aled enjoys sharing the Hansa with a volunteer crew member on Saturday mornings which he finds very relaxing.

Caeden is six with ASD and is happiest when he is sailing in one of the Hawks. Sailing provides him with all the sensory input that he craves, from the noise of the sails filling, the shimmering reflection of the light on the water and the pitch and roll of the boat, particularly when it picks up a bit of speed. Caeden really enjoys hanging his arm over the side of the boat to trail his hand through the water.

Sailing with BLS provides a wonderful family activity for a couple of hours on a Wednesday evening and Saturday morning and it is all made possible by the extremely generous, dedicated and patient volunteers.

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