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Adaptive Sailing Program Launches In Stonington

David DesRoches
Connecticut Public Radio
Kiera Dawding steers a sailboat as part of an adaptive sailing program at the New England Science and Sailing Foundation.

It's a warm, Saturday afternoon on the water in Fishers Island Sound. There are three of us in the 20-foot long sailboat. At the helm is Kiera Dawding. She's almost 17, and she's from Westerly, Rhode Island, which we can see from the water. From our position, we can actually see three states, including New York, points out Kali Cika, Kiera's sailing instructor.

"We might be able to see Taylor Swift's house now,” Cika says. “If we had more wind we could sail to it."

There's definitely not enough wind to take us to the Rhode Island house paid for by pop hits, but there's just enough breeze to let Kiera learn how to tack and jibe the boat.

"Kiera's been picking a point on land, and aiming towards it,” Cike says. “And we've actually been sailing upwind, which means that we have to zig-zag, tack back and forth."

The boat is adapted to help people with disabilities learn to sail. It's fitted with an extra-heavy keel for stability. That's the fin that runs under the boat to keep it from tipping over. It's fitted with special swivel-seats that lock into place in different positions. The seats also have a securing harness if it's needed.

Kiera’s autistic, but she doesn't need any of the adaptive equipment. She's cruising along, steering the boat with a tiller and rudder system. I ask her what she's learning out here on the water.

"I just learned to be a captain,” Kiera says.

She's watching the wind, looking ahead at potential obstacles. As powerboats zip by, Kiera angles the boat away from them. She also makes sure to hit their wake after they pass.

Cika asks her what she likes the best about sailing.

“Riding the waves,” Kiera says.

She's clearly comfortable out here on the water, at the helm. Cika sees it, and gives her more responsibility.

Credit David DesRoches / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Kali Cika, left, talks to Kiera Dawding about areas in the Fishers Island Sound that they can sail toward.

"Remember we were talking about the main sheet? This controls the main sail,” Cika says. “So right now, Kiera, it's cleated, so you don't need to hold onto it, but if it was uncleated like this, then you would be in charge of holding onto it."

Cika hands the rope that's attached to the main sail to Kiera.

"Now you're kind of controlling everything, and I'm just around for the ride,” Cika says.

As the wind changes or they need to fix a sail, Cika goes into instructor mode.

"We can let it out a little bit,” she says, “so go ahead and let it out a little bit. There we go, awesome... Ready Kiera, flip that hand around, put your knuckles up, yeah, that's awesome."

Cika tells Kiera that she's a natural out here.

Kiera's mom, Maria Bucchino, is in another boat taking pictures. Eventually they ride up to us and ask how we're doing. Everything is great, so they take off.

Seconds after they leave, it starts to drizzle. Then it starts to pour. Cika has to sail us back to the dock. Bucchino later says that she loves watching her daughter do different things.

“It gives me a lot of joy to see her in her element,” Bucchino says.

Kiera’s the first student to go out on a boat as part of a new adaptive sailing programrun by the New England Science and Sailing Foundation, or NESS. The foundation’s Nick Ewenson says this program has been in the works for a while. 

"Well, one of our core values here at NESS is inclusively,” Ewenson says. “And I don't think you could really have a program that really embodies that as much as adaptive sailing."

Later this afternoon, NESS expects to host a man in his 60s who's beginning to experience the early stages of Alzheimer's. Ewenson says learning how to sail can teach self-confidence, and it can instill an appreciation for the ocean and being outside.

"I see every day how transformative it can be for a variety of different people, whether you're racing or learning to sail,” he says.

Watching Kiera smiling out there on the boat, he says, was truly gratifying. He's pretty sure she'll be back, and maybe she'll bring some friends.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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