Sailor likes to brave seas on his own
By Paul Gowan
The joy of the open water, the sun on your face,
a little wind and an overriding sense of freedom: these are feelings
associated with a sport that reaches out across boundaries to embrace
both disability and ability.
For Dave Symington, it's the closest
thing to recreational nirvana that he can think of.
Dave, now 48, took up sailing when he was 16,
living in Kingston, Ontario. He took lessons for a month but after
dropping out of high school, moved west. He didn't re-encounter the
world of sailing again until the Disabled Sailing Association hailed him
aboard in 1988.
In between, he met with an event that changed
his life. He remembers the date: "June 1, 1975." He was
"hanging out" down at Wreck Beach with some friends as a
19-year-old when he rushed into the water, dove innocently into a
shallow wave and somehow hit his head on the bottom. It was
"something I'd done a million times before, and I just happened to
hit my forehead in a certain way and jammed my neck. There were lots of
people, but there were no lifeguards, and I didn't know what had
happened … I wasn't stabilized or anything, they just dragged me out
of the water, you know." The accident left Dave a quadriplegic.
He was forced to make a decision. He went back
to Kingston, where he underwent rehabilitation and entered university as
a mature student, "finishing off a couple of degrees." He
moved back out to the Lower Mainland in 1984.
About a year later, while working at the
Disability Resource Centre on the North Shore, he met Sam Sullivan, who
was a student at SFU at the time. "We were meeting about issues
like transportation and adapted buses," says Dave. "We kind of
hit it off and had a lot of mutual interests, with the music [they later
formed a band called Spinal Chord] and so forth. We continued to see
each other and brainstorm ideas." Sam later founded the Disabled
Sailing Association (DSA).
Although Dave wasn't directly involved with
starting things up, he was ready to tack and trim when the mainsail went
up. "I was there, and participated from the get-go. And I have
every year since. Well, that's not totally true," he adds. "I
did miss at least one summer, when I didn't do any sailing at all, for
some strange reason. I think I was playing a lot of music and doing a
lot of travelling and stuff, so I never really got around to it."
With that one exception, Dave has been sailing
regularly with DSA for the last 16 years at the Jericho Sailing Centre.
He prefers facing the waves by himself, because by nature, he says,
"I'm a solo sailor."
When sailing, he feels connected to a world beyond his disability.
"There's an acute sense of freedom and being one with nature, if
you like. And such a variety - you go from the extreme adrenaline rush,
when the wind is big and the waves are up, and you're getting soaked and
you're kind of on the edge of your abilities, in a way, [to] these
really serene, peaceful times. Basically, it sort of comprises the whole
spectrum of human emotion and moods."
"The process part of it, like getting in
and out of the boat, and using the lift, is not the most enjoyable, but
once I'm out there … I think the first few times I would actually
hesitate, and might not go, because I didn't feel like being manhandled
and being exposed to the world when you go up on the lift and
everything. But [gradually] you become more aware of what the outcome
is, that you're actually in a boat and you're out there on your own, and
its usually a very beautiful day."
Dave says he enjoys the empowerment. " I
think I've always been a fairly independent person, and there's limited
opportunities that I have to engage in something that I don't need any
kind of assistance with. I used to love riding my bike, and going
skiing, where you're really in control of the situation on your own …
it's not really a control thing. I think that's just a portion of it …
about being in control of your destiny almost in those couple of hours
[out on the water]. Whatever happens there is totally up to me."
"I just like being on the water, I always
have. Any other problems that I have seem to be left on shore, that's
Dave usually sails 10 to 12 times a year. He has
also raced, including "three or four" Mobility Cups, a major
regatta welcoming the international world of disabling sailing to Canada
each summer. While professing enjoyment of some aspects of competition,
Dave proclaims he's not really that competitive when it comes to
The bottom line is: he just likes to sail, and
sail alone, though he admits, "there is something really satisfying
about having a good race, feeling like you really hit the mark, and that
you know what you're doing."
"I usually equate it to when I was doing my
undergrad and took a film study course, and it was getting so technical
and everything that I found myself watching films in a very different
way, that it was kind of detracting from my enjoyment of it. So I
dropped the course. Sailing's like that. I like to have a certain
knowledge and a certain skill, but I don't really care that I'm the
Dave says, "The kind of things that we're
participating in and have access to are like fantasies for people in
some cultures and some countries that don't even have basic health care
or housing or some of these fundamental needs. So we're kind of
fortunate, to say the least, that we're able to develop these sorts of
programs. It's like a really good example, maybe, of how the world
When doing something like travelling, he says, he's usually up against
barriers he doesn't encounter very often. This makes him more aware of
his disability and the limitations he has, as well as the negative
attitudes and problems out there in the community that limit
participation for people with disabilities. Down at DSA, he says, those
barriers tend to evaporate.
DSA staff and volunteers help to remove the
obstacles. Dave says they're fortunate with people that they've had
volunteering and working down at Jericho. "They're very
accommodating, and I think a lot of people with disabilities are
sensitive, or perhaps hypersensitive, to being patronized, or talked
down to, or being treated as sort of the old stigma, of being
institutionalized and needing to be cared for and not having a strong
"And I do get that from time to time in
other environments. But I think at the sailing centre there's a strong
sense of true integration. We've been there for so long. The trick of
changing attitudes is to be confronted and exposed to [new paradigms] -
whether it's people with disabilities or other races, or whatever. Your
attitudes are more resistant to change if you're never exposed to
anything that could call them into question. I think [it's the fact
that] we're there, and [people] see us out there competing and
Dave's accident happened more than half of his
life ago. His life then seems disconnected from the one he lives now.
"When you cross certain markers, significant signposts - when you
get past those - you don't think about things the same way as you do
early on. You know, it's just who you are now. I am this guy. Nobody
knows me as the 19-year-old anymore. Most people that I hang out with
have just met me as a quadriplegic, not as anything else, aside from my
family and some old friends."
For Dave, sailing is one activity that helps to
reinforce new values and new reality systems. "Sailing's the main
thing that I enjoy," he says. In terms of outdoor recreation, he
says, it's at the top. "The sailing component is pretty close to
perfect." Nirvana is just around the point, over the next wave.