The Reality of Disabled Sailing

Posted on October 1, 2012

Phil Vardy dreamt of a National Organisation for Disabled Sailors in Australia.

It didn’t start as a dream. Rather, it started as a desperate attempt to sound intelligent.
The scene was a dinner party hosted by friends Niels and Beulah Warren at their home in Balmain, Sydney. John Doyle (of Roy & HG fame), Ross Gittens and I were guests. John regaled us with a few hilarious stories. I thought, “How can I possibly compete with such verbal dexterity?” And then my heart sank: John asked, “And what do you do, Phil?” I explained that I taught biology at the University of Western Sydney. When he asked what I did in my spare time, I mumbled that I sailed a small keelboat on Sydney Harbour.
As a 21-year-old, I wintered in Antarctica and sailed an ice-yacht constructed from scrap steel. During the long winter nights, I had pored over a dog-eared copy of Bristow’s Book of Yachts. I dreamed of sailing on liquid. After returning to Australia, I joined the University of Queensland Sailing Club and crewed in dinghies. I was a poor athlete, more seaman than sailor; nevertheless, I loved the wind and the waves. But in 1974, I broke my back in a motorcycle accident. Confined to a wheelchair, I gave up all thought of ever sailing again.
Fifteen years later, my love of sailing was rekindled. In a chance meeting with Peter Aspinal, a blind sailor, I learned that people with disabilities sailed in the UK. Peter added that a friend of his was seeking someone with whom to share a small keelboat. As it happened, that friend was Niels Warren. I subsequently bought a half-share in Niel’s boat and enjoyed many sunny, salty days with him and other friends.
“Where would you like to take your sailing?” John asked at the dinner party. Stumped for something to say, I replied that I would like to gather a group of disabled sailors to complete the 50th Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race the following year. John, who hosted an afternoon talkback session on Sydney ABC radio, said, “What a great idea. Why not come on my program and discuss it.” My heart sank.

Read more of Phil’s inspirational story in Overcoat Issue Three: Dreams.

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