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Tom Scott

Sailor's Corner with Tom Scott

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In the next instalment of a regular blog from a host of New Zealand sailors, Tom Scott writes about how sailing has given him an outlet following an accident that left him a paraplegic and what it can do for other people with disabilities.

I sailed in my first regatta in January, when I had my backside handed to me on a plate, but I hope to one day be the best in New Zealand.

That might sound like a big jump for someone with relatively limited experience but I've been the best in New Zealand at two other sports - hand cycling and a national aviation title - so I'm a pretty determined sort of character.

I have always been like that but I've been even more determined since an accident on November 19, 1995, that changed my life forever.

I was a firefighter working an overtime shift when we responded to a call for backup to help control a fire near the Wairakei resort. As we drove up Huka Falls Rd, the fire appliance went out of control and we rolled.

I spent a week in a coma and woke up in Waikato Hospital where I spent a month before I had stabilised enough to be transferred to the spinal unit in Auckland. The upshot was I was a paraplegic.

I wasn't really angry about the accident but there have been times since when it's been very difficult. I have rebuilt and coped as best I can.

Initially my outlet was handcycling then came blokarting, essentially sailing on land. I really enjoyed that because, of all the sports I participated in, it was the only one where I could get into the blokart and I was equal with all the able-bodied drivers.

Unfortunately, I broke my leg three years ago and my blokart is in storage under my son's house. But I would rather sail anyway.

I had done a little bit of sailing before my accident, largely through the sea scouts and some social sailing on Lake Taupo, but I was very much a rope puller. I went to a Sailability have a go day in Auckland a few years ago but it wasn't until a bit later that it gained some momentum in Tauranga. Now I am a formal Hansa skipper, a racing sailor and a patrol boat skipper as well.

I love it. I love the feeling of being out on the water and love the competition but, more than that, I love the sense of community with both sailors and volunteers.

We have some people with very severe disabilities - they might be blind, deaf, autistic or have severe physical disabilities - and you can see them light up when they go out sailing. I'm told it's similar to riding for the disabled and that sailing has the same therapeutic effect.

It would be difficult to go sailing without the amazing volunteers. Sometimes my disability can be frustrating because I hate needing the help of others.

If there's not a boat available I'll sit back because the logistics of getting one of those boats, especially a Liberty boat with its 70kg keel, on the water is something I just can't do. I really appreciate those people there to help us.

For anyone reading this who doesn't think they could sail, there's really no excuse if you have a disability. We have the infrastructure now at Tauranga, with several cranes, that people can be in and out of the boats in minutes. It's just a matter of booking your time and coming on down to have a go because there are so many people willing to help. The only thing we can't rely on is the wind.

I can often be found out sailing with my dog beside me, a bichon-cross bitza named Pipi, even during racing. I was fourth at this year's national championships sailing the very unfamiliar Liberty - I had sailed it about three times before the nationals started - but it was really good to be sailing against some top-class competitors and to be learning from that.

There was one competitor with severe disabilities and she runs a Liberty with a puff machine. She came last in every race but finished every single race. She was absolutely inspiring.

I'm off to Samoa soon to compete in next month's inaugural Oceania para sailing championships, which is also being sailed alongside the Pacific Games. It will be in the more familiar Hansa 303 and I will look to continue my education as I, hopefully, develop my skills enough to compete in the world championships one day.

It certainly won't be through a lack of trying, anyway.

  • There are a number of Sailability organisations around the country. If you're interested in taking part or volunteering, see here.
  • Pic: Tom Scott takes Kerehi Maxwell sailing. Photo: Brian Clark.