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March 2002

Sailing ... Ahoy there! Look! No hands!

By Judith A. Geppert,
Sailor with a disability.

Judith Geppert sailing independently in the Access Dinghy.


You can't do that!

You might hurt yourself, or even drown. Of course all boats sink. Just look at what happened to the Titanic even that sank.

These were just a few of the comments that were made to me when I decided to take up sailing in 1997.

I have a form of cerebral palsy, which means that I have no controllable movements from my neck down. I drive an electric wheelchair with my left foot and I use a headpointer strapped to my head, enabling me to operate a computer, work, and whatever else I wish to do.

In the summer of '97, I decided to try my head at sailing. I joined the NSW Sailability, which has a fleet consisting of 2.5 Access Dinghy. (These small yachts are manufactured especially, for disabled people, who want to experience the thrill of sailing. With a lead centre-board, this enables the boat to stay afloat, there is no chance of it capsizing.)

Inside the Access Dinghy with joystick strapped to chest.

Exhilarating freedom ...     

After some figuring out, a lot of perseverance and assistance from volunteers, we found that with a joystick strapped to my chest, then connected to a battery, I am able to control the rudder and mainsheet by using my chin. With this invention I am able to point the rudder, steer the dinghy and work the sail in the right direction. Once I had mastered these controls I was able to take to the high seas on my OWN!

As I am only a social sailor, I enjoy the sailing experience. I have had excitement, fun and that sense of exhilarating freedom something that sailing has given to me (which I once thought could never be).

Over the years I have participated in the NSW State Finals held at Chipping Norton in December 1997. I came third and received a Bronze Medal. (Something, which I had never even dreamt of doing.)

Judith Geppert with Sir William Dean, Australia's Governor General.

National Access Dinghy Championships

Then in February 1998 I entered the National Access Dinghy Championships held in Canberra. I was able to share stories, ideas and meet sailors from other states. My aunt travelled up to Canberra from Eden to share my weekend with me. At the end of the second day, the Governor General of Australia, Sir William Deane, awarded me the Silver Medal! That was a great honour.

I hope to continue with NSW Sailability for many years to come, enjoying the fun and friendships that I have encountered along the way, not only with sailors with disabilities, but also with the numerous volunteers. Without their support and encouragement I would be sitting in my wheelchair thinking about what I would like to be doing, but rather participating and knowing what I can do.

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