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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 for sure."

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 sailing.

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 best."

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 should be."
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 independent personality."

"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 socializing."

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.

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