Dave Whalen, front, takes part in the Coupe du Quebec for the Association quebecoise de voile adapte, with Mike Hall on Sunday at the Pointe-Claire Yacht Club. Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette
Bryan Cuerrier lights up when talking about sailing. The athlete describes himself as a racer with a competitive spirit.
His passion is particularly evident when he explains that he commutes four hours from his Belleville, Ont. home each week to train with what he calls the the best adapted sailing club in the country, the Association québécoise de voile adapté (AQVA) in Pointe-Claire. He, like all of AQVA’s members, has a disability: he lost most of his limbs to a flesh-eating disease when he was 50 years old.
When asked what he was most looking forward to ahead of last weekend’s regatta, the AQVA’s 17th Coupe du Québec, he jokingly responded, “Being number one.”
The Coupe du Québec is the club’s annual race, with fleets for both experienced competitive athletes like Cuerrier and more recreational sailors, explained the regatta’s chairperson and AQVA’s head of operations Paula Stone.
Stone, a retired occupational therapist, began volunteering with the association 19 years ago. She had been sailing since she was six years old and became involved after another occupational therapist asked for some help at the Pointe-Claire Yacht Club, where the Montreal chapter is based.
“It was a natural fit,” Stone said.
While she was still working, Stone said she’d often recommend sailing to clients. Often faced with apprehension, she’d ensure them that their adapted sailboats, the Martin 16, cannot sink or be tipped over and can be modified to suit anyone’s specific needs.
“We even have people on respirators who go sailing,” she said. “You don’t need to breathe on your own to go sailing.”
Cuerrier explained that he controls his sails with the help of button that he can push with what remains of his left arm. He also said he once had a prosthetic fitted that would allow him to use a joystick like the ones found on motorized wheelchairs to control the sails.
Stone also offered the example of their “sip ‘n puff” system: a set of straws that brings the sails in or out and pushes them left or right depending on inhales and exhales, allowing quadriplegic sailors, such as AQVA’s founder René Dallaire, to go out on the water on their own.
Because of the sports adaptability, Stone explained, “when people are in the boat, they’re competing on a level playing field.”
Cuerrier echoed Stone, saying each individual’s level ability doesn’t matter. “We get out on the water and we’re all equal again,” he said. “It’s like going to bed at night, I’m not disabled when I sleep. I’m not disabled when I’m sailing a sailboat. I can make it go just as well as an able-bodied person.”
Stone also explained that sailing can help contribute to improving an athlete’s quality of life. John Szilagyi and Marie-Lyse Dubois, the parents of 18-year-old David Szilagyi, said their son gets excited when they arrive at the yacht club, knowing that he’s going to get out onto the water.
“When he comes back from the sail, he’s smiling,” John said of David, who is non-verbal and lacks mobility.
Elliot Laberge-Brooks, an instructor with AQVA, said it’s incredible to watch the progression of the athletes he’s worked with over the last three years.
“It could a challenge at time (for some sailors), for sure, but it’s so gratifying too,” said Laberge-Brooks about watching the athletes pick up the concepts needed to excel in the sport.
Cuerrier said he was humbled by how challenging the sport can be. “You can’t see the wind, you can’t see the start line, you can’t see anything. It’s a learning process, for sure.”
This year, Stone explained that the regatta was smaller than in past years, with only 23 sailors competing. With water levels four feet higher than normal, due to heavy rainfalls, one of the docks at the yacht club is inaccessible. It would have been too difficult to have the 30 sailors who normally compete at the Coupe du Québec all leave from one dock, she said.
For Cuerrier, it’s being surrounded by other sailors that makes AQVA and the regatta so appealing. Despite his high hopes, he said a first-placed finish is unlikely, but it’s getting to reconnect with his friends from near and far – Stone said some sailors travel from Western Canada and northeastern United States to race – that makes the weekend so enjoyable.
“I’m definitely here for the sport, absolutely, but I do truly love the people and I truly love the experience this place offers up,” he said. “They’re the best.”
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