Able Sail’s programs and growth stymied by boat theft

An old “picture of a picture” that has been shared many times. Members of Able Sail Kingston, a program dedicated to offering sailing experiences for people with different physical abilities, say the image above pretty much sums up their organization: two wheelchairs sit empty on a dock, which means the users of those wheelchairs are out on the water. Submitted image.

A local organization that aims to give new freedom and independence to people with physical disabilities has had the wind taken out of its sails.

Able Sail Kingston, established in 2002, operates out of the Kingston Yacht Club and offers an accessible, adapted sailing program for people with disabilities. Over the past decade or so, the organization has worked tirelessly not only to fulfil that mandate, but also to grow its programming and offer more experiences to more sailors by acquiring a “coach boat.”

A 550 Zodiac Pro with a 115-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor was finally obtained last year as a result of extensive fundraising efforts. With this boat came the promise of new options and experiences for Able Sail participants, as John Curtis, Secretary of Able Sail Kingston, and Audrey Kobayashi, President of Able Sail Kingston, explained to Kingstonist.

But before the benefits of the coach boat could be realized, it was gone — apparently stolen from Portsmouth Olympic Harbour, where it was being stored, sometime between the afternoon of Friday, May 24, 2024, and the following day around noon.

Able Sail’s coach boat on the day the organization picked it up in Toronto. Submitted photo.

According to Curtis, the coach boat was acquired to help Able Sail Kingston expand its programming and options for its sailors.

“The way I’ve described it is that in order for our program to move to the next level, we needed a coach boat,” he said, explaining that currently the sailors sail in the same 24-foot boat as the Able Sail instructor.

“It’s adapted, and they can all be in the boat together… And so that’s how we get people out and starting to participate in the actual… sailing.”

The next level of sailing, Curtis explained, is to be able to go out and do it by yourself. “This is true for anybody sailing.”

“And we can do that to some degree with this 24-foot boat: we can, you know, call our hands away and let [the disabled sailors] do more of the activities. But there comes a point where, if you’re really going to be doing it independently, you have to be in a boat by yourself.”

Further, both Curtis and Kobayashi pointed to the sense of freedom and independence participants gain through operating a sailboat on their own.

“For any sailor, when you start to understand how to use the boat, how to be proficient in the boat, the boat literally becomes an extension of your own body. I know that a lot of disabled sailors will just revel in this experience of suddenly being one with the boat and not feeling that they have any sort of disability. Because there they are, in the boat; they can manipulate it, they can go left, they can go right, they can put the sails up, take them down, all this stuff, because it’s adapted,” Curtis said.

“And so for us to move to that next level where people really can enjoy the sport independently, that’s what we lose with the [loss of the] coach boat.”

Kobayashi chose someone else’s words to perfectly sum up the sentiments Curtis expressed.

“One of our sailors said, ‘The only time I forget I can’t walk is when I’m sailing or dreaming,’” she shared.

Able Sail Kingston has the boats to allow their coaches and sailors to move to that next level, but, as Curtis explained, “there has to be a transition where, yes, you’re in a boat, you’re doing it independently, but there’s a coach out there that can swoop in if there’s a problem, or control you in if there’s no wind, or help with things.”

“And obviously also coach [and] give instruction and ideas from the water,” he concluded.

It was the coach boat that was going to make all of that possible.

But the importance of the coach boat in growing the Able Sail Kingston program is also in the organization’s operational side of things, Kobayashi expanded.

“There’s also a revenue aspect… After COVID, of course, our numbers fell and we were down to one instructor, and that instructor was always on the Sonar [sailboat], which takes six or eight people. But we’ve moved back up to two instructors, which means that one of them can be on the Sonar, and the other one can be on the coach boat, and we can have more boats on the water,” she said.

With the ability to offer more on-the-water spaces comes the opportunity to bring on more sailors, and with more sailors comes more revenue, Kobayashi continued. “And the more revenue we have, the more programming we can offer, and it just keeps going, right?”

Both Curtis’s and Kobayashi’s names may be familiar to Kingstonians (as well as to sailors and scholars across the country and around the world). Curtis, a 16-year veteran of the Canadian Sailing Team, represented Canada at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 (Sailing – Tornado Class); he is also a lawyer and a mediator, and the current President of Wind Athletes Canada. Dr. Kobayashi, a multi-award-winning paralympic sailor herself, is also a celebrated author, distinguished University Professor Emerita, and Queen’s Research Chair in the Department of Geography and Planning, also serving as president of the Canadian Association of Geographers.

But the pair’s focus when meeting with Kingstonist was to discuss Able Sail’s coach boat — and, more importantly, its sudden disappearance.

Curtis said he saw the coach boat, which was sitting on a trailer in the spot they’d left it at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour, on the afternoon of Friday, May 24, 2024. The next day, he was going to move the boat when he found that it was no longer there.

He immediately contacted Kingston Police, who he said were very prompt and helpful. While speaking with the detective who responded to the call, Curtis mentioned that Peter’s Drugs (which is located adjacent to the area where the coach boat was stored) has security cameras that may have picked up what happened to the vessel. The detective went to Peter’s Drugs and pored over hours of footage, something Curtis said impressed him.

“They’ve been very prompt and thorough,” said Curtis. “It felt as though police were genuinely concerned.”

Unfortunately, the security cameras at Peter’s Drugs had not picked up any relevant activity.

For their part, Kingston Police confirmed the reported stolen boat, noting that Detective Jason Lachapelle is leading the case, which remains an ongoing investigation. Anyone with information on the theft of the 550 Zodiac Pro with 115-horsepower Evinrude outboard motor is asked to contact Det. Lachapelle by email at [email protected].

At the same time, those with Able Sail are asking people in the community to keep their eyes open for the stolen boat. Curtis said he figures the boat was stolen for its motor, so it’s possible the boat is being sold off by whoever took it, or is simply in the area.

Curtis said, “We don’t want to have to ask people for money to replace something that we’ve already asked them for money for. It’s just sick — it makes me feel sick. So it would certainly be easier if we could just get the boat back.”

“I feel like I was sort of looking after this boat and moving it around, and I… yeah, I feel like I just lost $14,000 that took us a long time to raise. I haven’t cried about it yet, but…,” he trailed off.

Kobayashi picked up on her colleague’s words, expressing how difficult it is to swallow having this dream be made into a reality, only to have it stolen away.

“And when there are so many people counting on this program, right?” she exclaimed.

Able Sail Kingston has partnerships with around 10 area organizations, including Ongwanada and Community Living Kingston, all centred on offering accessible, adaptive sailing to people in the community with different abilities. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 175 sailors took part in the program in one summer. And it’s those people — the ones the program was designed to benefit — who truly suffer from the theft, Kobayashi emphasized.

“Some selfish sod has got our boat, probably up at a cottage somewhere, and they’re fishing off it,” she said, her distress evident.

“It’s just so selfish.”

While Wind Athletes Canada has set up a secure fundraising portal for Able Sail Kingston with a goal of replacing the stolen boat, Curtis and Kobayashi also pointed to another way the community can help them out that isn’t financial.

“We’re always looking for volunteers,” said Kobayashi eagerly.

“The community supports this program; that’s really what allows it to happen,” said Curtis. “We appreciate that support, whatever form it takes.”

For more information on Able Sail Kingston, visit their webpage on the Kingston Yacht Club website. To donate to the fundraiser to replace the coach boat, visit the Able Sail Kingston webpage on the Wind Athletes Canada website.

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