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Culture and research

A DIFFERENT SAILING TEAM - Competing has to do with competences

17 Jun 2021

Alessio Bernabò

The sailboat slowly enters the slipway: there’s no way around it, even looking at it from below, it looks enormous for a 12-metre sailboat. First the keel disappears in the water, then the whole boat: launches are always emotional but today is even more special, because the Vaquita will be our new boat. We’re a strange crew; we’ve defined it as “mixed” and it’s certainly atypical. We’ve chosen this ocean-going Class40 for the Crossing Routes: a Different Sailing Team project. I’m the creator and skipper, the one who really wanted this boat and this project.

Today we’re setting sail from Monfalco, destination Livorno (there is also a bora wind: a good omen or a warning?). The boat will certainly be travelling fast. But I look at my crew: their eyes are lit up, like people who are chomping at the bit in spite of their fears; they’re there by choice, out of a sense of responsibility and the will to fully experience a project they believe in as much as I do, and the seeds of which have by now turned into something concrete.

The seed was already planted in 2016, to the cry of “if not everything is possible, much of the impossible is”, which has since developed in an increasingly clear way: competing in the most important offshore Italian regattas with at least half of the crew made up of people with disabilities. The poliomyelitis in my left leg already provides a good starting point for reaching this percentage. The association Diversamente Marinai (Different Sailors), which I recently became president of, had tried to plant this seed, because in terms of inclusion it had something to say and wanted to say it louder and louder. But why compete? I’ve always been fascinated by the etymology of the word – “to move towards – to meet”. If abilities and capacities have individual meaning, the development of competences is necessarily mediated by exchanges, meetings and sharing.

And why sailing? In addition to being a great passion of mine, offshore sailing is a context in which disability is more than just a fish out of water. But as the context for meeting and socialising, few environments need to be as inclusive as a crew that is training and competing. The crew is a microcosm, a miniature world, an accelerator for all the dynamics that we find ourselves experiencing in everyday life. Compared to relationships with the outside, on the other hand, the looks, surprise, support, esteem and disapproval of the other participants, of the media, the public, had confirmed for us over the years that we were on the right track to removing important preconceptions.

The hardest part is not so much acquiring the abilities, capacities and skills, but has always been the possibilities: the struggle, because that is what this is often about, to obtain space, resources, confidence. Having opportunities to learn and demonstrate that you are capable. Having opportunities like other people, on an equal footing. The path to growing one’s competences is not the same for everyone: the opportunities and possibilities are different and for those who are different, they often don’t exist at all. Or they are restricted, like an upside-down funnel where, as you rise to the top, at the extremes nothing that doesn’t have the right characteristics passes through anymore. In our case we have claimed those opportunities, we looked for them and created them for ourselves, from the ground up and with a lot of effort, aware of our role and objective: to breach and break down barriers and chart paths that others – we hope – will also take and do better on. Maybe with us. 

It has been three years since that launch, on a windy morning in Monfalcone, when the paths of people with many different sets of experiences and journeys crossed, each with their uniqueness. Vaquita, an ocean-going sailboat – safe, fast, demanding, extremely distinctive – became our special boat. Thirty people, including the shore crew, athletes and management, worked to enable an inclusive crew to compete on an equal footing in the main offshore regattas in the Mediterranean. And incredible experience for those who participated, and gained nautical, organisational, interpersonal, sporting and in some cases even professional skills. It was an experience that contributed to changing perspectives on disabilities for those we met on the water, possibly competing against us until the last mile to then discover that only able-bodied and competent sailors and mariners were on board their vessel. Everything else, since they are there to sail, is not useful and remains on land. After all, maybe that is what it means to be capable: to be seen for what you can do, rather than for what you are. Not everything went well: there was the frustration of dealing with institutions that should support a project like this and instead were not interested in taking concrete and inclusive action. Partners and sponsors who still see the Different Sailing Team as the recipient of charitable handouts and not as an investment opportunity. A good part of the press that seems to be too embarrassed to give column inches to something they consider “too strange”. 

It is certainly possible to do more and better, and being honest with oneself is indispensable. We should have been more careful when it came to communication: in these times where everything is image-based, Crossing Routes, which is fully of stories and content, should have attracted more and better coverage. Since I chose the ocean as a lifestyle and for my work, nothing has been easy or straightforward. To create opportunities for myself I have often had to use unorthodox methods, sometimes anticipating legislative change – this time, too – together with my crew: we were ahead of our time, maybe even a little bit too much so, by proving that this crazy idea could be carried out. And we did it.

In conclusion: I find it difficult to define competences, abilities, skills, as well as their opposites. As far as I am concerned, they’re a little bit like poetry: I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it, and in order to be able to see it, I invite everyone to look further.

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