Sails of the spirit: inclusive sailing, freediving and a round-the-world journey

Audio description: This is a colour photo. Eight yachts with white sails are lined up on a calm water surface. Each yacht has 3 to 5 crew members. An inflatable motorboat with three passengers is approaching the yachts. The clear sky is covered with cirrus clouds. On the horizon to the right, there are electricity pylons.

Who of us hasn’t dreamed of the sea in childhood? Probably, every boy once wanted to be on a yacht, go up to the captain’s bridge and command loudly: “Set sail!” However, for blind boys, it was an unrealistic dream. It was unrealistic only until the White Cane organisation appeared in Russia. It holds inclusive regattas around the world: from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok and from Sweden to Kenya.

It turns out that sailing can be accessible even to a totally blind person. A blind sailor cannot become captain yet, but can control the sails. It is essential to feel the wind, carefully listen to the skipper’s commands, be able to tie nautical knots, have thorough knowledge of the structure of all the masts and sails, and distinguish the numerous ropes by touch. In other words, sail control requires some of the main competitive advantages of the blind: excellent senses of hearing and touch, as well as exceptional memory and alertness.

White Cane has managed to prove that blind sailors can compete with sighted yachtsmen and even surpass them in certain tasks. Members of the inclusive teams of White Caneoften became medallists and winners of regattas participated by people without disabilities. One of their last trophies was the Kruzenshtern Cup in Poland. I asked Oleg Kolpashchikov, the leading specialist in inclusive yachting in Russia, to tell us more about the sailing sport for people with disabilities.

Photo by Tatiana Dzhemileva

Audio description: This is a black-and-white photo. The team of the Sails of the Spirit project are standing on the shore. In the foreground, there are three men in black sweaters with the logo of the project, and two of them are each holding a white cane. The first on the left is Oleg Kolpashchikov – a big man with dark hair, a mustache and a full beard.

“As part of the Sails of the Spirit project, we are developing inclusive sailing – expeditions and races on sailing catamarans and yachts with the participation of disabled people. It turns out that someone totally blind or in a wheelchair can be indispensable on a yacht. Blind yachtsmen handle the sails and are called sail trimmers. Wheelchair users can also handle sails or steer the boat. That is during a race. On an expedition, there are a lot more responsibilities onboard: one person is in charge of the kitchen, another is responsible for public relations, a third one is managing food supplies etc. Regardless of the type of disability or whether they are disabled or not, each participant learns to contribute to the common cause,” Oleg Kolpashchikov says.

As a rule, an inclusive team consists of two or three sailors with disabilities and five or six abled crew. During the expeditions, the team participates in inclusive social and cultural events in the cities en route, where the team members also show what they are made of.

“Some organise a concert onboard, others meet with the city administration or hold meetings with local organisations of disabled people and organise training sessions on inclusive interaction. In this way, the expeditions help people with disabilities manifest their capabilities and hidden talents, which we call ‘extrability’.”

– Does 'extrability' open up only in people with disabilities?

“'Extrability', of course, prevails among people with disabilities due to their physical limitations. People with disabilities have increased these capabilities after experiencing a deep psychological crisis and emerging as winners. However, abled members of an expedition also work on their 'extrability', particularly as they are witnessing such powerful motivational examples of people who have overcome their physical barriers.”

– Why was sailing chosen to develop these capabilities?

“Sailing is a natural environment for an activity where effective teamwork is required to achieve a good result. Here you won't be able to skip work as some disabled people like to do. Every team member matters here, therefore, realising their own value, the guys feel liberated and become more confident and more sociable. During long crossings, storms, yacht races, events and master classes onshore, their competitive advantages (or 'extrability') open up. This applies to both abled and disabled team members.”

Photo by Tatiana Dzhemileva

Audio description: This is a colour photo. Three men are standing in the stern and tightening the white sail of the yacht. They are wearing dark trousers and blue zipped sweaters. Two of them are wearing black caps while the third man is dressed in a yellow cap and green vest. The last man in the chain is wearing sunglasses and is standing in the hatch. Next to the mast, there are coloured ropes tied in bundles.

“Would you like to go on a round-the-world trip?”

The Sails of the Spiritproject was launched in 2011, when Oleg received a text message saying: “Would you like to go on a round-the-world trip?” It was impossible to refuse such an offer.

The idea to sail on a yacht ​​around the world with people with disabilities as part of the crew came to para-athlete Sergey Burlakov, of Taganrog. The first trip took place in the autumn of 2011 on the Adriatic Sea. It showed that a person with disabilities can be useful on a yacht, and that the format of inclusive travel has a beneficial effect on the development of each participant and the team as a whole.

“After the first stage, there was Thailand, then Baikal and Cuba. Over time, we realised that it’s not about setting a record or travelling around the world, but about the opportunity of spreading this unique experience around cities and countries. So the Sails of the Spiritproject turned into a humanitarian mission. Every year, we hold one or several stages, which consist of yachting training camps, inclusive regattas and expeditions. Along the expedition route, we actively engage in educational, social and cultural activities. We arrange round tables, seminars, master classes, concerts, art performances, flash mobs and exhibitions.

During its 15 stages, the project has been participated by representatives of 17 countries and 24 regions of Russia – a total of more than 400 people, including people with disabilities, many of which became our regular participants. Inclusive crews covered more than 14 thousand nautical miles and conducted events in 31 countries.”

Photo by Tatiana Dzhemileva

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A man in a black windbreaker and sleep eye mask is inspecting the yacht rigging by touch. Oleg Kolpashchikov in a red-and-black jacket is steadying him by the shoulder.

– How to join this type of expedition, and what kind of preparation is required?

“First, you need to receive training. You can do this as part of amateur regattas in different cities of Russia or in a training camp. Inclusive regattas are held by us and our partners in Yekaterinburg, Sevastopol, Kaliningrad and Latvia. Last year, Tyumen held its first regatta. There is an annual training camp on Lake Sevan in Armenia. The first inclusive yachting centre in Armenia was opened with the support of our partners – the Armenian National Sports Federation for the Physically Challenged (ASFPC) and the Rosatom State Corporation.

During ten days, our experienced skippers teach beginners how to handle a sail and a boat. Everyone undergoes a training course in different water disciplines: they learn to provide first aid on water, row kayaks and practise breath-holding techniques at the inclusive freediving sessions. At the same time, camp participants hold cultural events, conferences and round tables throughout Armenia.

We take everyone on board in the towns en route and either offer a short first training in open sea or just go to the next nearest town. This way, everyone has the opportunity to learn the basics of sailing: to control a sail, stand behind the wheel and meet our team. After a few training sessions, you are ready to take part in a long crossing or fully fledged regatta.”

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A yacht is in the water by the shore. A boy in a sleep eye mask and Oleg Kolpashchikov are standing on all fours in the stern. Oleg is holding the boy's left wrist with his right hand. They are inspecting the stern surface by touch. Behind them, there are three more people. Each of them is wearing either a blue zipped sweater or windbreaker. Oleg has a dark baseball cap with the logo of the Sails of the Spirit project. On the shore, there are low-rise blocks of flats and a pine wood.

Inclusive sailing changes lives

Participation in the Sails of the Spirit project helps sailors to believe in themselves and discover new facets and talents within themselves. Visually impaired Alexandra Lazareva, of Sevastopol, is a prime example. For the first time, she tried sailing in 2015. The same year, she got a job, the next year she won an international cooking contest, and in 2018 she became the main organiser of the All-Russian Congress of People with Disabilities in the Crimea.

Another participant in the project, Hamburg-based artist Pavel Ehrlich (without disabilities), was inspired by his adventures in the Baltic and North Sea, and created a large sculpture from scrap metal The Ship of Life, which won the main prize at the Lom International Festival. The sculpture was unveiled and installed in Yekaterinburg.

– Who else would you like to mention?

“Last summer, during our 15th expedition, which was across the Baltic Sea, we visited Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Poland and Kaliningrad on a catamaran. After that, one of our participants, blind journalist Nastya Proskuryakova, of Latvia, launched a nonprofit organisation. By the way, one of our two expeditions this year will also be across the Baltic and will be led by Nastya.

Another participant, Johannes Marcel, of Sweden, was a handicraft teacher at a school for the blind. He recently retired and joined our project. After a couple of expeditions, he underwent a professional yachting training course and is now racing for the Latvian team.

Blind person Pauli Valle, of Finland, continued to travel after the expedition and, in spite of himself, ended up making a speech at the Second Tajik Congress of People with Disabilities.

Visually impaired lawyer Yulia Shumova, of Chelyabinsk, who has repeatedly participated in our training camps and expeditions, has also opened a nonprofit organisation. In the summer of 2019, she is going to head an expedition from Taganrog to Sevastopol, where she and Alexandra Lazareva will hold several important social events.”

Audio description: This is a colour photo. It is a sunny summer's day. A man and a woman in their 60s are talking to a tall thin man of about 50 years of age. The woman, with short blond hair and wearing glasses, is looking up at the tall man and is smiling. He is talking to her, with his hands on his hips, and is smiling. The man in his 60s, in sunglasses, is standing in the middle and is tying a nautical knot with a red rope. A young man in sunglasses is standing behind him.

– These examples are truly inspiring. What about the plans? I presume they are no less ambitious?

“Throughout the 15 stages of the Sails of the Spirit project, we have seen and felt that the project is changing the social roles of all the participants in a positive way. This especially applies to people with disabilities. Therefore, in 2019, we are focusing on a more in-depth study of this role-changing process. Our task is to develop a specific technique and understand what is required for a 100% positive change to happen: how much training is required, how many races and social events to hold, how much seawater to swallow and how many decks to swab.

This year, we will organise a training camp in Armenia, regattas in various cities of Russia, expeditions across the Baltic and from Taganrog to Sevastopol. In 2020, the second stage of the round-the-world trip across the Atlantic will be held. We did the first stage a few years ago, when we sailed from St. Petersburg to Paris. The Pacific and Indian Ocean will be next. We do one stage per year. The round-the-world trip will consist of six stages in total.”

Uldis Mežulis (Latvia), professional yachtsman and catamaran captain:

“I've been participating in the Sails of the Spirit projectfor seven years now. During this period, we have made five long trips with inclusive crews. Sailing is not easy, but when there's proper teamwork, it’s easy to reach the goal. It’s like a clock: when all the parts are in the right place, the clock works. So are we – in the right places, regardless of disability. After a two- or three-day trip, people who come on our catamaran for the first time say that they have completely changed. They leave happy. After sailing with us, blind people begin getting around their towns independently whereas, previously, they constantly sat in their flats and went out only to the local store or, once a month, they would go for a walk with their assistants. That is our goal – to change people’s lives for the better.”

Samvel Rostomyan (Armenia), president of the Armenian National Sports Federation for the Physically Challenged (ASFPC):

“Sails of the Spirit is a unique project that enables people to overcome themselves and become not only socially adapted, but also socially successful. Participation in the project reveals your hidden talents and special skills and helps to build up self-confidence. The development of such human talents is a new quality of living that people with or without disabilities help each other to discover.”

Anastasia Proskuryakova (Latvia), journalist:

“I’ve been involved with the Sails of the Spirit project since 2013. Back then, I was in year 10 and was planning to go on a short, two-day crossing. The Sails of the Spiritteam had planned to stop in my hometown of Ventspils. But the sea is unpredictable – that’s the beauty of it: because of the strong wind, we couldn’t go out to sea, and it was decided that I should stay on the yacht. So I was sort of in my hometown, but it felt like a journey. During the four days, we held different events, met interesting people, and I can say with confidence that the expedition had a positive impact on my life. I think the greatest value of Sails of the Spiritis people because the project unites people of different professions, nationalities, ages and social statuses. While organising the regatta, I met a wonderful girl, Vlada Khmelevskaya. After Sails of the Spirit, we decided to hold master classes on interaction with the blind in Latvia. After holding a few events in schools, we realised that we should launch our own organisation – that is how Extrability Latvia appeared.”

You can join the Sails of the Spirit project by filling out the form on the White Cane website following the link or during daytime expedition crossings.