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Inaugural Australian Para-Sailing Championships celebrates inclusiveness at Sail Melbourne

by Michael Martin 20 Dec 2018 22:03 PST 12-16 December 2018
SKUD 18s were sailed with hiking crew in Melbourne - 2018 Australian Para Sailing Championships © Beau Outteridge

The inaugural Australian Para Sailing Championships wrapped up successfully at Sail Melbourne International 2018 on Sunday (16 December 2018) after some competitive racing across the fleets. The first-time event featured Australia's best para-sailors with Australian Para-Sailing Champions determined in four classes, including the Hansa 303 one-person, Hansa 303 two-person, the 2.4mR as well as the SKUD 18.

It's great to see sailors from all corners of Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Tasmania descending on Brighton for the first Para nationals. I see this being the beginning of a great tradition and another dynamic to Sail Melbourne," local 2.4mR sailor Neil Patterson said.

Challenging weather conditions only made two days of racing possible across the four-day event. But with two races on Friday and three races on Sunday, all fleets managed to get a good race series in.

2018 Para World Sailing Championships gold medallist Chris Symonds (TAS) in the Hansa 303 proved to be unbeatable in Melbourne's conditions and added the national title to his medal tally after a straight set of wins.

"I loved the conditions on Sunday, they were amazing. The wind was mostly around 14-15 knots which is ideal and shifty which was great. I love the conditions in flat water so I really enjoyed it," Symonds said.

Symonds, who is aiming for another World Championships in Spain next year, won the fleet ahead of able-bodied Liberty World Champion Bob Schahinger (SA) in second and Alison Weatherly (VIC) in third.

"We had a world champion sailing in my fleet with Bob and he's a very good sailor so to win was not easy. But I've done a lot of training over the winter and sailed at the World Champs overseas recently (September), so I had some good preparation."

But for Symonds, who has Kennedy's Disease, which is a progressive Motor Neuron condition effecting muscles throughout the body, sailing at the nationals was about much more than just winning.

"In Australia we have many people with disabilities. I used to be able bodied but had a condition called Kennedy's disease recently, but I still sail and I'm sure many people can do the same. It's all about never giving up and following your dreams. I'm sailing and travelling the world which is very special."

"Our para-group has been very lucky to be part of Sail Melbourne and we're very fortunate and appreciative that Australian Sailing invited us to the first Para-sailing nationals for Australia and I hope there will be many more," Symonds thanked the organisers.

Integrated into the overall Sail Melbourne International event, para-sailors competed alongside their able-bodied colleagues -- a fact that was a big motivation for fellow Hansa 303 sailor Alison Weatherly (VIC).

"It was really good to come along to a regatta like Sail Melbourne and see the other classes and the coaches and the people that you read about and you've grown-up reading about. It just makes it more exciting and a really good atmosphere. It also shows where we can go in our sailing and makes that goal more real."

The local Geelong sailor, who was the second ranked para-sailor in the event and top female is also aiming for the World Championships next year and praised Symond's sailing talents and the level of the fleet.

"Chris is always the pinnacle in the class and I am going to chase him for a while. But when we were out practicing, I got a race off him, so I know I can do it and I am going to keep chipping away at that gap and making it smaller. It's good to have a competitive fleet, also with Genevieve in there, and we will all just improve from training and sailing together."

2018 Para-sailing World Championships silver medallist Genevieve Wickham (WA) finished the regatta in overall eighth and as the second ranked female.

The Hansa double was won by father and son duo of Colin and Bradley Alderton (NSW).

The Hansa 303, designed by Australian Chris Mitchell, has been sailed in Para World Championships since 2017 and is popular with inclusive sailing programs around the world.

In the 2.4mR local Royal Yacht Club sailor Neil Patterson was up against a strong mixed-fleet of able-bodied and disabled sailors with Michael Leydon (ACT) taking out the overall win. Patterson finished third, but as the top ranked classified sailor took out the Australian para-sailing national title.

"Yes, I did win the para-division in the race. I didn't quite beat the able-bodies but it was still a really good competition and the fleet was really good. We had seven boats here, which was an excellent turn out and we had very good racing on the final day. It's been good to see that there were some decent fleets in all three classes, so it's been a successful event," Patterson said.

"It's also been a great event from the inclusive side of things. Sailing is an inclusive sport and that's why we have both able body and para athletes competing together. We all sail the same boats and we all compete against each other. Sailing is a unique sport that allows people with a wide range of disabilities to compete on an even level with able bodied people. Plus being able to leave the dock and be in control of a boat is more freedom than some of the athletes have in their daily lives. I'm proud that the first Para-nationals were hosted at my home club and about the support we've had from the sailors and volunteers at the event," Patterson added about the significance regatta.

This sentiment was echoed by Matt Speakmann (QLD), who together with crew Emma Bailie (QLD) finished third in the SKUD18. The fleet was won by their fellow Queenslanders Ross Manning and Maximillion Quan ahead of Neil Rowsthorn and Peter Shepherd in second.

"The inaugural para-sailing championships here in Melbourne have been an absolutely fantastic event and the big thing for us has been the inclusive side of it. We've been included just as another fleet, and even in the SKUD18 we are able bodied and disabled sailing together," Matt Spearman said.

"The big thing for us is to be included, and to be included in this event has been absolutely fantastic. We feel just like any other of the sailors and the skill level required for us to helm our boats and to get our boats around the course are exactly the same as everybody else's. We have a little bit of adaptive equipment that goes along with that to make it possible for us, but as far as we are concerned, we are just out there like everybody else and having a great time sailing."

Former Australian Sailing Youth Team representative Emma Bailie agreed, "This fleet is great, it's got the competition and it's got the fun side of sailing. These guys have the same determination that is required for any type of sailing, it is very competitive racing, and it's great to watch and be a part of. Just to see everyone out on the water and being able to enjoy is a really good thing. The Parasailing academy across Australia is really good at that, getting people into sailing and hopefully having them there for a long time."

It was not all smooth sailing for Spearman and Baillie this Sail Melbourne International regatta though with their 2016 Paralympic Games gold medal winning boat catching fire on the transport down to Melbourne.

"Unfortunately, we had a crazy thing happen on the way down. We think someone threw a cigarette out of the window of a car or a truck, and our boat caught fire, which was a real shame. It was the gold medal winning boat from the Rio Paralympic Games, that Dan (Fitzgibbon) and Liesl (Tesch) sailed and sadly that boat was completely destroyed," Spearman recapped the events on the way to Sail Melbourne.

"Liesl is aware of what has happened, and she is quite devastated about it obviously. I am devastated too, as I was so proud to be sailing that boat up in Queensland, being the gold medal boat. Thankfully we got some great support and 'Sailing for Everybody Foundation' and Hansa Boats Australia came on board and lent us a boat so we actually managed to get down in time for our first race. At least we will also be able to continue the SKUD18 program of the Queensland para-sailing program, which is a good thing."

Sail Melbourne International (13-16 December 2018) wrapped up on Sunday after four days of competition across Olympic and Invited classes. The regatta attracted close to 400 competitors from 18 countries and the best of the best in the Olympic, para-sailing and Youth classes. See full event media release here.

See all results here.

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