Jason East sits behind the steering wheel of a pontoon boat with nothing but the gentle breeze off the water and the passing sailboats to distract him.
“When you’re out on the water it’s like leaving your disability behind,” Mr East says.
“We’re all equal on the water and there’s a real freedom in that.”
Mr East, who ordinarily uses a wheelchair, manoeuvres through the calm waters of Cairns’ Trinity Inlet in Far North Queensland.
It’s his second trip of the day taking a boatload of passengers with disabilities for a gentle, afternoon sail.
Being on the water is second nature for the 46-year-old skipper after growing up on his family’s yacht and working on boats in the Torres Strait.
But that idyllic lifestyle was up-ended 14 years ago after a motor vehicle crash left him using a wheelchair.
It took years of soul-searching and physical therapy before Mr East was ready to get back on the water.
Accepting and embracing change
At 32 years of age doctors labelled Mr East’s injury as “incomplete”, meaning the spinal cord was not severed completely, but he did lose all movement from the neck down.
It took 12 months in hospital and three years of depression before he was ready to come to terms with his injuries.
“It was a big adjustment coming home, trying to fit back into my old life and learning to accept myself,” Mr East says.
He discovered Sailability, an Australia-wide club that takes people with a disability sailing, and despite being “quite scared” initially it reignited his passion for the water.
“I’d been a commercial crayfish diver, and then after the accident I couldn’t swim,” he says.
“But once I started coming down to the club I fell back in love with the water all over again, and it’s actually strengthened a lot of my muscle groups and given me more mobility.”
Mr East has developed movement in his arms, the trunk of his body, and partial movement in one leg.
He is passionate about using his life experiences to help others, giving talks at schools, youth justice, and for the last eight years volunteering with Sailability.
“I love sharing my passion [for sailing] and taking others out on the water and watching them smile,” he says.
“When we’re on land we have a visible disability, but when we’re on the boat we can leave our chairs and our walking aids back on land and we’re all equal.
“There’s no judgement and their smiles tell a million words and that’s all you need.”
Inclusive not exclusive
Jennifer Crellin is one of the passengers on Mr East’s boat who cannot wipe the smile from her face.
She’s always been captivated by the water, she explains, but after a water slide accident at Lake Placid in Cairns 33 years ago left her using a wheelchair and an incomplete C6 quadriplegic, it took years before she had the courage to get back on a boat.
“On the day of my accident I had been coming down the water slide and a boy was climbing up at the same time and we collided,” Ms Crellin said.
“I actually grew up around water and sailing with my dad so after my accident I didn’t think it was possible I could sail again.
“The very first time I did get back into a boat it was really emotional for me.”
The 56-year-old now regularly sails with Sailability, often in a two-man sailboat with one of the volunteers for support.
“I love not being bound by a chair,” she says.
“I love everything — the feeling of the wind and just hearing the water beneath me.”
Ms Crellin has now started taking her grandkids out with her some days, hoping to pass on her love of sailing.
“It’s hard to explain, but the sense of freedom is incredible,” she says.
A community on the water
Sailability is a national charity with 70 clubs throughout Australia.
Geoff Grace, the president of Queensland Sailability and volunteer with Brisbane’s Bayside Club, says each state has its own organisation but all operate with similar programs.
“We take out school kids as young as eight, all the way up to people in their 90s living in nursing homes,” Mr Grace says.
“The only must-have is a competent skipper and then the sky is the limit.”
In Cairns, between 15 and 30 people with a range of disabilities take to the water each week, says local Sailability president Jeff Crofts.
“We have people sail with us that are paraplegic, quadriplegic, have intellectual disabilities or physical challenges,” he says.
“Our club also has a special hoist that uses a sling to lift people out of their wheelchairs and over into the seats of the sailboats so they can enjoy sailing like the rest of us.”
The Cairns club is one of 15 in Queensland.
“We just have to give them a boat so they can get out and enjoy themselves. The problem is getting them to bring the boat back,” Mr Crofts says.
“That’s why they call us ‘smile-ability’ because people can’t wipe the smiles off their faces.”