Renee Smith overlooks a yacht tucked towards the back of a Sydney marina and confesses to having had “a bit of a sporting hole in my life”.
That is, until the scientist, 31, discovered sailing two years ago.
“I just remember going out, they put up the sails, turned off the engine, then I felt the boat lift and take off with the breeze and it was this freeing movement,” Renee recalls of her first stint sailing.
If you like the idea of traveling at exhilarating speeds with the feeling of sea spray in your face and the wind in your hair, head to the nearest body of water and get yourself some wind-powered transport immediately.
Renee uses a wheelchair but doesn’t use it when she’s sailing. Instead, she relies on her upper body strength to move around the yacht.
She used to compete as an equestrian but following a spinal cord injury 10 years ago, Renee began to compete as a para-equestrian.
She was looking towards competing in the Paralympics when a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis meant a change of sport was required.
Renee attributes her transition to yachting to Sailors with disABILITIES, a not-for-profit organization that gives people with disabilities, or those who have had a life-challenging experience, the chance to sail.
Since then, she has volunteered with them, traveling to Coffs Harbor, Newcastle, and Hobart to help with sailing programs.
“It’s a physically demanding sport so you need to be quite fit to move around the boat and pull ropes,” Renee says.
“And when we go out racing, it’s an all day thing [so] it definitely helps with my fitness.
“I used to be a massive workaholic until I found sailing.”
She says it’s quite a technical sport too and she’s had to learn to read the wind and the weather and how it affects the yacht.
“There was also a lot to learn about how to manage my body on the yacht and the best places for me to sit… but the challenge of trying to learn something new can be pretty invigorating as well,” she says.
Her advice for people thinking of getting into sailing is to “go for it”.
“It can be a little overwhelming at first, but the sailing community in general is pretty welcoming because everyone is passionate about the sport and loves what they do and love sharing,” Renee says.
Is sailing for you?
You need to like wind and water – lots of it – and it would help to know how to swim.
Sailing boats tilt in the wind and the more wind, the less horizontal the deck will be, so you need to be confident of your ability to move about.
You can sail on your own, but most sailors like to have one or more companions.
Crewing on a yacht is a great way to meet people.
Most clubs encourage new members and there’s usually a boat looking for crew on racing days.
Benefits of sailing:
Endurance and concentration skills.
Increased upper body strength.
Improved awareness of weather and wind patterns such as fronts, pressures, and changes in wind-direction.
Great for socializing.
Equipment needed for sailing:
Sailing gloves will protect your hands from rope burn and help you grip.
Rubber-soled shoes will help you grip the deck.
A spray jacket, hat, sunscreen and a good pair of sunglasses will help to protect you from the elements.
Even if you are a strong swimmer, you should wear a life jacket.
Common sailing injuries:
Sailing can cause sprains and strains in any part of the body as body position often needs to change very quickly.
Injuries from impact with ropes and parts of the boat can occur.
Ankle injuries can be common if using ankle straps.
We thank Dr Tracy Kolbe-Alexander of the School of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Southern Queensland, and Nardine Presland of Exercise and Sports Science Australia, for their expert input.
This is general information only. For detailed personal advice, you should see a qualified medical practitioner who knows your medical history.
This story, which was originally written by Maryke Steffens and published by ABC Health and Wellbeing, was updated in 2019.
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