Sip-puff adaptive sailing
Natasha, 22 from Cowes, got her first taste of sailing at 9 years old on the lake at Kielder, Northumberland. As a wheelchair user with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, Natasha has little control of her limbs and speech, so she could only enjoy the experience as a passenger. But this was enough to fuel her determination to sail independently.
So Natasha’s father Gary, an electrician, looked to sip-puff technology and set to work developing a unique system that enables Natasha to race her boat using her breath and a single straw. ‘I had to have a baseline to start from,’ Gary explains, ‘and Natasha’s is her breath control. That is a function she can rely on.’
The concept for sip-puff sailing first came from Steve Alvey and Sam Sullivan, founders of DSA Alberta, and the world’s first sip-puff sailboat the Sunbird sloop Royal Spirit debuted at the 1994 Mobility Cup Regatta. More recently, British Sailor Hilary Lister (d. 2018) used sip-puff technology to become the first woman with a disability to circumnavigate Britain.
After spending weeks in the garden shed learning how to code, Gary began to develop the first phase. In 2010, the family bought second-hand Artemis 20 keelboat Miss Isle and spent 6 months installing the prototype.
‘In this initial phase, the system was helm-only,’ he describes. ‘We installed a canting seat to keep Natasha in a vertical position, and we fitted the controls which connect to the boat’s rudder. By blowing (puffing) into the straw, the breath directs the rudders to the port while inhaling (sipping) directs them towards starboard.
‘The controls rely on a couple of switches which are the reactors to Natasha’s breath. As she’s sipping or puffing, the breath goes through a series of microprocessors, which comes out onto the RAM and actions the steering.
‘When we first took Natasha out we were nervous about how she would take to it, but she was completely unfazed. Within 6 months she’d outgrown it and we needed to move forward.’
‘We began to consider what Natasha would need to control the entire vessel,’ Gary says. ‘So, with our second boat, we tried to interface winches. Natasha’s limited neck control means she can only use a single straw, so we devised a mechanism where she could diversify the function. I installed a light-sensitive switch under the straw which Natasha can activate with her tongue – this switches the control from winches to helm and means she’s entirely the driving force behind the boat.
‘Every time Natasha goes out, it stuns me. It’s great to watch. We’ve sailed in so many places around the UK and it’s exciting to see her every time.’
The sip-puff system up close
The heart and hub of the action
Natasha’s straw is attached to a standard safety helmet, providing simple and easy access to command the boat using sip-puff technology. Her father, Gary, modified the helmet himself.
Natasha changes between helm and steering using a light-sensitive switch under her helmet’s straw. Activating it with her tongue, she changes the direction of the rudder or adjusts the sails – giving her full driving control.
Natasha’s breath goes through a series of microprocessors that action the command to change direction of the rudders or the sails. Pictured is one of many on Blown Away – the catamaran for her winter Atlantic crossing.
Boom angle sensor
This allows the processors to determine the specific boom and sail angle. The processors operate the winches to maintain the boat’s momentum throughout a turn.
The next challenge
Natasha is setting her sailing sights on wilder waters so Gary and his team are developing their third iteration of the sip-puff system in a much larger boat: the 14m catamaran Blown Away, which Natasha will helm when she makes history as the first person ever to cross the Atlantic using sip-puff sailing.
Next November, she will compete in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) – a race where over 200 yachts will journey from Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to St Lucia in the Caribbean.
At just under 3,000 miles, the crossing will take approximately 3 weeks to complete and will be the longest distance Natasha has sailed. She’s taking on the challenge to raise funds for three charities close to her heart: the RNLI, the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust and Natasha’s own charity, Miss Isle.
Adaptive sea survival training
‘We’re doing a lot of preparation for ARC,’ explains Natasha’s mum Amanda. ‘Including a sea survival course donated by Flying Fish (a marine training centre based in Cowes).
‘The course was adapted specifically for young people like Natasha to learn how she can get into a liferaft in case of emergency. Around 4 years ago, we had a similar session in the Survival Pool at the RNLI College.
‘Safety is incredibly important for us, and Natasha is keen to learn from and be involved with the RNLI. We speak to the volunteers at Cowes for advice about our sails and weather forecasting, and we also speak to a lot of professional sailors like Pip Hare.’
Opportunities for everybody
‘We’d put so much effort into the original keelboat Miss Isle, we thought it could be used to help others too. It’s an ideal first boat to learn on,’ Amanda says. ‘So Natasha set up a sailing school charity. Since we started, we’ve helped around 12 people learn how to sail.
‘This whole experience has been lifechanging for Natasha – it was never in her plans to learn to sail and cross the Atlantic, but she became driven and wants others to be able to feel the same.
‘She really enjoys being able to contribute to the local community in this way – she’s showing the world what’s possible.’
‘Give people the right tools and they are just as capable as anyone’
Allen Stevens, Senior Engineer and Head of the RNLI Disability Network says: ‘Small boats and yachts have traditionally been quite problematic if you’re not able-bodied – particularly for wheelchair users. I’m 100% behind the sip-puff system and I don’t see why the technology couldn’t be applied to a whole manner of things. It has the potential to be applied for all sorts of everyday solutions – wheelchair users could use it to turn on lights, for example. It’s these simple things that make such a massive difference to the quality of someone’s life. Give people the right tools and they are just as capable as any able-bodied person.’
- Take a training course. Sailability is run by the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and the Irish Sailing Association (ISA), and offers courses for sailors of all abilities.
- Whenever and wherever you choose to head out, always check the weather and tide conditions.
- Always tell someone where you’re going and when you intend to return.
- Carry a means of calling for help and a mobile. If you get into difficulty, call 999 or 112 and ask for the coastguard.
- Always wear a lifejacket on deck and a harness when appropriate.
Visit our sailing safety pages for more tips.
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