Sail Away

Adaptive sailing isn’t part of the official schedule of events for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, but participants at July’s 37th annual Games in Cincinnati got a chance to virtually set sail

By Andy Nemann

Jennifer Graebert explains how to sail during a virtual trail of sailing at the NVWG. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)

Adaptive sailing isn’t part of the official schedule of events for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, but participants at July’s 37th annual Games in Cincinnati got a chance to virtually set sail.

A joint effort between a spinal-cord injury research coordinator at the Cleveland Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and a University of Michigan graduate brought an Active Sailing Simulator to Cincinnati’s Duke Energy Center during the Games to give participants and others a taste of the sport. Researcher Jen Graebert from Cleveland and Michigan graduate Brent Courson from Ann Arbor, Mich., brought the simulator to the Games to gauge interest and spread the word about starting adaptive sailing programs in their respective areas. An active sailboat racer, Graebert says it didn’t take her long to become interested in starting a program in Cleveland.

“One day while sailing, I saw a researcher from the VA who brought one of his spinal-cord injury clients out, and I saw him lowering her into a boat with a crane, she took the helm, raced a race, and I thought, ‘This is incredible,’” Graebert says. “I had only recently begun working with spinal-cord injury patients and thought, ‘Why is this not a thing here?’ We have a perfect facility for it, and that became my goal at that point.”

Ru Gakhar tries virtually sailing. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)

Created by Virtual Sailing in Australia, the simulator allows anyone to develop and practice sailing maneuvers in a roughly 7-foot long model boat while looking at a large video display. A special seat, harness and mechanical and electronic joystick controls are added to make the simulator adaptive, which was the setup being used at the Games. Graebert says they’re using the simulator to help teach people the principles of sailing, which can translate well to actually sailing on the water. Courson says the simulator’s ability to teach anyone how to sail is just like the inclusive nature of the sport and one of the reasons he became interested in starting a program in his area.

“What really attracted me to it was that sailing, unlike most other adaptive sports, can accommodate everybody. No matter what your disability is, you can compete on a similar performance level as long as you’ve got the right equipment,” Courson says. “The other beauty of it is you can compete with anyone who is able-bodied, including family and friends. It’s very inclusive.”

Graebert’s next step after the Games is hosting a free adaptive sailing clinic Aug. 15-19 at the Edgewater Yacht Club in Cleveland. Courson will begin working with CS Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan with the simulator and then eventually working with veterans. Both Graebert and Courson have also been working with Adaptive Adventures in Sandusky, Ohio, which has a veterans’ adaptive sailing program and will be helping at the August clinic. The bottom line is that Graebert and Courson want to get everyone involved in sailing.

“It’s something people with SCI (spinal-cord injury) can do along with able-bodied people, and they can all play an equally important role in the process,” Graebert says. “It’s one of those things that can really be inclusive and bring two groups of people together, or people can sail with their families, all sorts of opportunities.”

For more information on the August sailing clinic in Cleveland, contact Graebert at 330-697-5591 or

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