Rigid Inflatable Boats : RIBS and Inflatables
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  # 065
Boating and the Disabled
By: Andrew Thomas
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Sam Sullivan accepts
Olympic Flag


Rick Hansen
(Man in Motion)


The Advantages of a Rigid Inflatable Boat for the Disabled
An interesting thought occurred to me while I watched the closing ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. It is tradition for the head of the International Olympic committee (IOC) to hand over the Olympic flag to the mayor of the city that will be hosting the next Winter Olympic Games. In 2006 that meant Jacques Rogge of the IOC would hand over the Olympic flag to Mayor Sam Sullivan of Vancouver, British Columbia Canada. Vancouver has already been chosen to the 2010 Olympic venue.

This presented some unique challenges for the organizers however. Mayor Sam Sullivan has been a quadriplegic since he was 19 years old. He was involved in a ski accident that left him without the use of his legs and with minimal use of his arms. The organizers and Sam Sullivan came up with a solution. A special holder for the flag was attached to Mr. Sullivan's wheelchair. He was able to wave the flag back and forth (as was the tradition) by rapidly moving his wheelchair back and forth. This was no small feat as the flag itself is nearly 5 metres high (15 feet) and is difficult for a healthy person to handle easily. Mr. Sullivan practiced in an empty Vancouver parking lot for many weeks prior to the event at odd hours. This unusual "exercise" attracted the attention of the police on one occasion until they recognized who this person was and what he was doing.

One press account of the flag waving event mentioned that during the closing ceremonies Mr. Sullivan and his wheelchair rolled onto the stage. There was an audible gasp from the crowd. Apparently local press reports had not mentioned Mr. Sullivan's disability. Whether this was true or not, I have to say from personal experience that I cannot recall any other high profile event such as this that had the active participation of a disabled person.

Perhaps to provide levity to the situation in Turin, Mayor Sullivan who is never short on quips said: "Some have questioned the wisdom of Vancouver sending its worst skier to Torino." I had an epiphany at that moment because I actually felt a touch of patriotism for my country. For a Canadian this is not as common an event as it is in other countries. From my own personal experience, patriotism is not encouraged or practiced in this country.

Since the flag waving event the portrayal of people with disabilities is on my personal radar. I pay particular attention to the national media and in popular shows. For the most part these portrayals are positive but rare.

Sam Sullivan's influence doesn't stop there however. One of the nonprofit groups that he has founded over the years, the Disabled Sailing Association British Columbia (DSA), which is part of the disability foundation ( reachdisability.org ), provides the sailing experience to "high quads" like himself. Those with little or no upper body mobility through pneumatic switches can control the boat. Essentially, the boat uses "sip and puff" technology - "sip to starboard and puff to port". Today courtesy of his efforts and the efforts of others the Martin 16 - a sailing vessel designed and built in Vancouver is becoming standard for disabled sailors everywhere.

The Disabled Sailing Association British Columbia was founded in 1989 after Rick Hansen donated a 16 foot custom-built sailboat in the organization. Hansen received the sailing boat in 1986 from then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in honor of the wheelchair athletes Man in Motion world tour. At the time he was in the middle of his legendary Man in Motion world tour which spanned more than 40,000 km in 34 countries and took over two years to complete. This tour raised over 26 million for spinal cord injury research.

Mayor Sullivan regularly sails the Martin 16 among the cargo ships, tankers and sea kayaks in Vancouver harbor and looks up at Cypress Mountain where the ski accident occurred.

Food For Thought
If Sam Sullivan is able to sail a 16 foot sailboat by himself is not too far a stretch of the imagination to think that with docking assistance it is not unfeasible that a "high quad" could manage going out on a rigid hull inflatable boat by himself. In fact because they stand lower out of the water than a traditional fishing boat and are definitely more stable than a sailboat, than this selection may be easier.

At times while sailing Sam Sullivan has to hold the lines with his teeth which is something his orthodontist has complained about. He himself states that he really has to grip it hard with his molars in order to prevent slippage. This is definitely not a problem that would occur with a rigid inflatable boat.

There Is One Major Problem
The only problem for some disabled people may actually be obtaining a license. Last time I checked a license was not required in the UK, but was required on continental Europe. Both Canada and the US require licensing. For the US it is generally regulated state-by-state. This situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. If anything the licensing requirements are likely to become more stringent as the authorities are moving from the no license situation that was prevalent before the 1970s and 1980s.

Given the no licensing situation it is perhaps too big a battle for the disabled community to undertake. However, this does not mean they should give up on the boating experience altogether. The rigid inflatable boat is a superior choice for them in many regards so they could still join friends and family in enjoying their time on the water. It is definitely a far better alternative than staying at home.

About the Author:
Andrew Thomas is a successful author both on and off the Internet. He is a regular contributor to best-inflatable-boats.com, other websites and publications.

June 2007

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Rigid Inflatable Boats : RIBS and Inflatables