Paraplegic sailors take full roles in yacht club

When Lake Wanaka's Etchells fleet goes head-to-head this autumn sailing season, two of their number will have paraplegic sailors on board.

But Quentin Smith and Geoff Wilson are not just along for the ride.

Mr Smith is helmsman aboard Point of Sail, the No2 boat in the fleet, and Mr Wilson is helmsman of Ace of Spades which, until it broke its mast recently, was always handy.

Mr Smith has also recently taken over as Commodore of the Wanaka Yacht Club.

''It is good to be able to sail alongside able-bodied people in the same boats and to be competitive,'' Mr Smith told the Otago Daily Times recently.

''Sailing is a good equaliser because you are using the power of the wind and your technical and strategic thinking to outsmart the other people, and you are not reliant purely on physical things.''

Mr Smith is a familiar figure in Wanaka, sometimes acting as taxi for daughter Madison.

He grew up in the Northern Beaches area of Sydney, racing Flying 11 dinghies from high school age.

As the member of a family involved in aviation, it was not a great leap for him to become involved in paragliding, and in 1999 he obtained his licence after completing a training course at Manilla, in New South Wales near Tamworth, an area regarded as the Australian Mecca for the sport.

''Paragliding is the simplest and purist form of flying.''

''Your first flight, when your feet leave the ground ... you really do feel like an eagle with the wind in your face.

'' It's a real buzz.''

Having visited Wanaka at times and paraglided from Treble Cone, he decided in 2003 at age 23 it was time for a permanent shift across the Tasman.

''It was really the mountains and the lifestyle; to get out of the big city and into the mountains. I enjoyed the paragliding and the skiing and the tramping.''

Then, in 2008, on rising, rough ground he crashed while approaching the landing field at Treble Cone, and severed his spinal cord.

''It's hard to explain it, but it was a little bit of bad judgement and a lot of bad luck ... a minor error with big consequences, I suppose.''

Mr Smith acknowledged the crash was a painful memory but ''I certainly look back on paragliding with fond memories as well''.

He spent about two and a-half months at the Burwood Spinal Unit, in Christchurch before returning to Wanaka.

Six months after the crash he was back in the air flying tandem, and within a year was flying solo.

However, he is no longer flying.

''I suppose the sense of freedom and independence was lost to me just with the logistical difficulties launching and landing.''

Mr Smith was already involved in sailing as part of the crew of three or four on board the Noelex 25 of Wanaka cafe owner Roger North.

They had worked their way up through the fleet over a period of two years to be one of the most competitive boats in their class.

Mr Smith said after the crash, Mr North and the crew were ''keen to get me back out.

''We did that reasonably early on.

''We got back on the boat and I was able to participate as part of the crew.''

The crew have moved on to the bigger, 30-foot-long Etchells keeler and continue to feature in race honours.

''We seem to be able to cope with a wide range of conditions and sail competitively with the other boats despite someone being in a wheelchair.''

Aside from there being far fewer boats on Lake Wanaka than on Sydney Harbour, Mr Smith said there were bigger wind shifts.

''Here, not only can we get the wind arriving quite quickly, it can also shift from northerly to southerly within a matter of a few minutes.''

Mr Smith runs his own business importing wheelchair parts and says while he is probably not the first person in a wheelchair to act as commodore of a yacht club, having two helmsmen on wheels would probably make the club unique.

- mark.price@odt.co.nz