Elke Paatz is the responsible person for inclusive sailing at the German Sailing Association (DSV). She is an enthusiastic sailor and handicapped since a sports accident. We talked to her about her experiences.
Ms Paatz, at the beginning of 2021 the German Sailing Federation (DSV) founded the Inclusion Committee. The DSV enables sailors and clubs to receive practical assistance and the chance to network. You’ve been on board since July 2021. What exactly is your task there?
Elke Paatz: "Basically, my work is divided into two areas. On the one hand - and this covers the largest part of my duties – it’s my task to inform, enable and support the sailing clubs in setting up and/or expanding inclusive best practices. To this end, I provide information on adaptive sailing through various channels, advise the clubs and create opportunities for exchange between the clubs. I also integrate inclusive sailing into training and further education measures and organise "Inclusive Sailing Day".
On the other hand, I’m responsible for informing people with disabilities about the great inclusive opportunities in our sport and making it easier for them to find their way into the sailing clubs. For this I have set up a database of sailing clubs with inclusive offers to help them find suitable clubs."
Barrier-free or low barriers in watersports are important so that everyone can participate. Can you give examples?
Elke Paatz: "Depending on the type of disability, different things can be a barrier. To give a few examples: For a person in a wheelchair, a staircase on land is a barrier; for a person with impaired vision, it’s an obstacle that is not colour-coded. For someone with a cognitive impairment, a theory paper full of complicated technical terms is a problem. So theoretically, many things can constitute a barrier.
Therefore it’s important to create barrier-free access in the sailing club that corresponds with the actual needs of participants with disabilities. It makes sense to start with a small barrier-free basis on the club premises, to enable people in wheelchairs in particular to use the toilet and transfer from the jetty to a boat. Then other barrier-free elements are usually added over time as required.
Adjustments are also made to boats according to the actual needs of participants - often without having to buy new boats. In many cases, barriers on land and on board can already be removed with a bit of inventiveness and craftsmanship."
What should be considered when introducing inclusive sailing in the club?
Elke Paatz: "The clubs have very different prerequisites regarding the number of members, the available boats, the club premises and the level of knowledge regarding inclusive sailing, etc. Accordingly, it makes sense to implement inclusive sailing in the club according to one's own prerequisites – there’s no set agenda here.
The clubs shouldn’t feel under pressure regarding the scope of the inclusive offer and the speed of implementing an inclusive club design. The point is to move forward together with the club members, step by step, with a good feeling. If one or two people with disabilities are on the water at the beginning, that's a good thing!"
How great is the demand from the clubs at the DSV? Are there many clubs that want to offer inclusive sailing?
Elke Paatz: "We notice that more and more clubs are interested in offering inclusive sailing. In a survey that we conducted last year among our member clubs, almost 50% of the clubs surveyed indicated an interest in principle."
Do the clubs have to purchase new, special boats so that people with disabilities can also sail or can existing boats be adapted?
Elke Paatz: "It’s possible to buy boats that are already equipped with specific adaptations at the shipyard - but this is not a must. Existing club boats can also be adapted accordingly. Our club survey showed that 33 boat classes that are sold by the shipyards without such adaptations are currently being used inclusively in Germany - from the Opti to the 420, the Pirate, the J70 and the X46. Whether or not a boat class can be used in a specific case must be decided individually, in keeping with the needs of the interested person with a disability."
Can all people with disabilities sail or learn to sail?
Elke Paatz: "The great thing about inclusive sailing is that there are basically no limits as far as disabilities are concerned. People with a wide range of physical, mental and psychological disabilities go sailing all the time, as do people with impaired vision or hearing.
Even people with the most severe physical disabilities can sail independently. For example, steering is possible via a joystick, which requires only a little strength in one hand. If someone is only able to move their head, they can also steer the boat with their breath. While a solution can be found for many physical limitations, such adaptations are of course not available in every club with inclusive offers. But the good thing is, they do exist and they enable people with disabilities to set sail!"
How do people with a disability find their way to the club?
Elke Paatz: "Generally speaking, it’s a challenge for people with disabilities to find their way into a sports or sailing club. They first need to know about their possibilities and often also depend on support from friends or family, for example for the journey from home to the club.
Inclusive sailing in particular requires a certain amount of explanation, as people with disabilities often find it difficult to imagine that sailing with their limitations really is possible. That’s why we try to reach people with disabilities as directly as possible with our information and also give the sailing clubs the tip to visit disabled participants and see where they spend their time, for example in schools or workshops. We have also set up a database of German sailing clubs that offer inclusive sailing. Interested people can use this database to find a suitable sailing club."
What positive contribution can sailing make for people with mental disabilities?
Elke Paatz: "Anyone who has ever sailed - whether with or without a disability - knows that the moment you set sail, you’re immersed in another world where you can leave your everyday life behind with all its problems and worries. These are often not small for people with a disability. People with mental disabilities also benefit greatly from sailing, as it opens up a new world for them, a world in which the interaction with wind and waves, the feeling of freedom and belonging to the sailing group are in the foreground. Making progress in handling the boat and the wind generates self-confidence. And everyone in the crew on board finds a task according to their own cognitive abilities. Even someone with an easier task is indispensable for the team. For example, how can the boat sail well if the jib sheet isn’t run or if no one is watching for container ships on the Elbe? All this boosts self-confidence and creates a feeling of joie de vivre."
On the DSV website it says "Hardly any other sport offers greater potential for inclusion than sailing". Can you explain what exactly is meant by that?
Elke Paatz: "Sailing makes it possible to discard in particular physical disabilities while practising the sport - hence the often-used saying: "the disability remains on land". This is because a wide variety of limitations can be compensated for by adaptations to the boats. On the one hand, this leads to the fact that someone who constantly encounters barriers on land and has to ask for help can sail independently on the water and freely make decisions without their disability being an issue. At the same time, this leads to sailors with and without disabilities meeting on the water at eye level. In sailing – unlike other sports - joint competitions between athletes with and without disabilities are possible."
The last time para-sailors competed in the Paralympics was in Rio 2016. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) justified the removal of sailing from the Paralympics by saying that too few countries were participating in sailing and that there was a lack of global reach. Now the World Sailing Federation has sent a renewed bid to the IOC and launched an initiative #BackTheBid #SailToLA #SailToLA2028, which is also supported by the DSV. What do you think are the chances compared to other inclusive sports?
Elke Paatz: "Our big plus in sailing is the high potential for inclusivity and the fact that even people with very high support requirements can participate.
Basically, we’re much more confident about the decision than we were about the bid for the Paris 2024 Games. Although people with disabilities were actively sailing in 26 countries back then, that number had already risen to 41 before the Corona pandemic.
In addition to the rising numbers, sailing has also grown in scope due to new disciplines such as para-kiting. In addition, sailing for people with mental disabilities now also plays a much bigger role."
At boot 2023, the DSV is organising the "Inclusive Sailing Day" for the first time. What can we expect?
Elke Paatz: "The 'Inclusive Sailing Day' will take place in the form of a conference. The event is intended to give all people interested in adaptive sailing - whether skippers, coaches, sailing instructors, helpers or club officials - a forum for exchange, advice, information and further education.
In lectures and workshops, various topics related to inclusive sailing will be explained and presented with examples of best practices from active sailors, coaches and clubs. There will be a panel discussion and many opportunities for exchange."
Will we also meet you at boot 2023?
Elke Paatz: "We are planning to be present at boot 2023 with an exhibition stand in conjunction with clubs offering inclusive sailing.
I have a physical disability that will not allow me to be present at the boot in the conventional sense. Inclusion means not resigning to your circumstances as they are, but rather finding a solution - even if that may seem unusual at first glance. This applies to inclusive sailing as well as to my presence at the boot. So we came up with the idea that I’ll be on site in Düsseldorf with a telepresence robot that I control from my home. This robot will enable me to see and hear the visitors - I can talk to them and advise them individually. So yes - you will see me at boot 2023."