Paraplegic sailors take full roles in yacht club

Mr Wilson is a long-time Wanaka resident who has been sailing on Lake Wanaka since he was a child. He severed his spinal column when he fell from a tree eight years ago. Wanaka Yacht Club commodore Quentin Smith.
Paraplegic helmsman Geoff Wilson.
Wanaka Yacht Club commodore Quentin Smith sails Roger North's Point of Sail on Lake Wanaka. Photos by Mark Price.

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

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

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

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

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.


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