Bringing smiles and a sense of freedom on the water for people with disabilities

Jason East sits behind the steering wheel of a pontoon boat with nothing but the gentle breeze off the water and the passing sailboats to distract him.

“When you’re out on the water it’s like leaving your disability behind,” Mr East says.

“We’re all equal on the water and there’s a real freedom in that.”

Jason East might need a wheelchair on land but on the water he says he is free.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

Mr East, who ordinarily uses a wheelchair, manoeuvres through the calm waters of Cairns’ Trinity Inlet in Far North Queensland.

It’s his second trip of the day taking a boatload of passengers with disabilities for a gentle, afternoon sail.

Being on the water is second nature for the 46-year-old skipper after growing up on his family’s yacht and working on boats in the Torres Strait.

But that idyllic lifestyle was up-ended 14 years ago after a motor vehicle crash left him using a wheelchair.

It took years of soul-searching and physical therapy before Mr East was ready to get back on the water.

pontoon boat on water

Jason now volunteers with Sailability and loves seeing the joy on people’s faces when they are out on the water.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

Accepting and embracing change

At 32 years of age doctors labelled Mr East’s injury as “incomplete”, meaning the spinal cord was not severed completely, but he did lose all movement from the neck down.

It took 12 months in hospital and three years of depression before he was ready to come to terms with his injuries.

“It was a big adjustment coming home, trying to fit back into my old life and learning to accept myself,” Mr East says.

Man on left close up of face and man on right in wheelchair

Sailing has strengthened a lot of Jason’s muscle groups and given him more mobility.(Supplied: Jason East)

He discovered Sailability, an Australia-wide club that takes people with a disability sailing, and despite being “quite scared” initially it reignited his passion for the water.

“I’d been a commercial crayfish diver, and then after the accident I couldn’t swim,” he says.

“But once I started coming down to the club I fell back in love with the water all over again, and it’s actually strengthened a lot of my muscle groups and given me more mobility.”

Mr East has developed movement in his arms, the trunk of his body, and partial movement in one leg.

two sailboats on the water

The volunteers get much enjoyment from seeing the smiles on the faces of their passengers.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

He is passionate about using his life experiences to help others, giving talks at schools, youth justice, and for the last eight years volunteering with Sailability.

“I love sharing my passion [for sailing] and taking others out on the water and watching them smile,” he says.

“When we’re on land we have a visible disability, but when we’re on the boat we can leave our chairs and our walking aids back on land and we’re all equal.

“There’s no judgement and their smiles tell a million words and that’s all you need.”

Man in walker walking down ramp

The ramp ensures people in wheelchairs or with walkers can access the pier.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

Inclusive not exclusive

Jennifer Crellin is one of the passengers on Mr East’s boat who cannot wipe the smile from her face.

She’s always been captivated by the water, she explains, but after a water slide accident at Lake Placid in Cairns 33 years ago left her using a wheelchair and an incomplete C6 quadriplegic, it took years before she had the courage to get back on a boat.

“On the day of my accident I had been coming down the water slide and a boy was climbing up at the same time and we collided,” Ms Crellin said.

“I actually grew up around water and sailing with my dad so after my accident I didn’t think it was possible I could sail again.

“The very first time I did get back into a boat it was really emotional for me.”

lady on left in wheelchair and lady on right close up face

Jennifer Crellin is grateful to Sailability for helping her get out on the water again.(Supplied: Jennifer Crellin)

The 56-year-old now regularly sails with Sailability, often in a two-man sailboat with one of the volunteers for support.

“I love not being bound by a chair,” she says.

“I love everything — the feeling of the wind and just hearing the water beneath me.”

Ms Crellin has now started taking her grandkids out with her some days, hoping to pass on her love of sailing.

“It’s hard to explain, but the sense of freedom is incredible,” she says.

Lady in orange hat with child cuddled up to her

Jenny loves sharing her love of sailing with granddaughter Zoe.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

A community on the water

Sailability is a national charity with 70 clubs throughout Australia.

Geoff Grace, the president of Queensland Sailability and volunteer with Brisbane’s Bayside Club, says each state has its own organisation but all operate with similar programs.

two men helping a sailboat coming back to the pier

There are plenty of volunteers on hand to help with getting sailors in and out of the boats.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

“We take out school kids as young as eight, all the way up to people in their 90s living in nursing homes,” Mr Grace says.

“The only must-have is a competent skipper and then the sky is the limit.”

Two men on a boat.

Jeff Crofts catching up with Jason East before he takes his second boatload down the inlet.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

In Cairns, between 15 and 30 people with a range of disabilities take to the water each week, says local Sailability president Jeff Crofts.

“We have people sail with us that are paraplegic, quadriplegic, have intellectual disabilities or physical challenges,” he says.

“Our club also has a special hoist that uses a sling to lift people out of their wheelchairs and over into the seats of the sailboats so they can enjoy sailing like the rest of us.”

Man in sling being lifted into boat

The Cairns club has a special hoist to lift people over into the seats of sailboats.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

The Cairns club is one of 15 in Queensland.

“We just have to give them a boat so they can get out and enjoy themselves. The problem is getting them to bring the boat back,” Mr Crofts says.

“That’s why they call us ‘smile-ability’ because people can’t wipe the smiles off their faces.”

Sailboat on water with mangroves behind them

Perfect sailing conditions for an afternoon on the water.(ABC Far North: Amanda Cranston)

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In a traumatic accident, Sean’s skull dislocated from his spine. He now lives with ‘the invisible disability’

Sean Gardner probably shouldn’t be alive.

The 43-year-old Gold Coast man suffered horrific injuries in 2019 when he fell while waterskiing at 180 kilometres per hour in New Zealand’s Waikato River.

The impact was like hitting concrete, and his skull dislocated from his spine.

Sean suffered fractures to his spine and ribs, a collapsed lung and bleeding on the brain.

Thanks to a series of almost unbelievable coincidences, he survived.

But while Sean’s body has healed, his brain has not.

The former specialist welder is now among roughly 2 per cent of Australians living with a brain injury.


‘Stay with me’

Sean can only recall snippets of the trip to compete in the Bridge to Bridge waterski competition in New Zealand.

When he woke up after the fall, he was face down in the water and unable to move.

“I remember seeing the glow of my wetsuit, the darkness underneath me and the light above me,” Sean said.

“I just thought, ‘This is what it feels like to drown’ … It was very peaceful.”

Sean Gardners skull was dislodged from his spine.()

When he next opened his eyes, Sean was on a rescue boat, and a voice was repeating in his ear, “We’ve got you. Stay with me”.

Another blink, and he was in an ambulance with his wetsuit being cut off.

Sean doesn’t remember feeling pain or making the sounds that haunt his wife and friends.

“I remember being calm, but obviously I wasn’t on the outside,” he said.

“Everyone said it was the noises of a man just trying to survive.”

The trauma has left his wife, Fiona Daggot, with post-traumatic stress disorder and hazy memories of the ordeal.

The entire experience has haunted her, from the endless waiting and the relentless clock ticking as hours passed to the sickening suspense and the not knowing.

High-speed waterskiing left Sean Gardner with life-threatening injuries.()

“I was pretty much in survival mode,” Fiona said.

She has since learnt that no one knew what to say back then when everyone thought her husband would die.

But after he woke from the coma and took his first step toward his wife with a gentle kiss, time stood still for Fiona.

“It wasn’t until after he had got into a ward that we found out about all of the amazing coincidences that allowed him to survive,” she said.

Keeping Sean alive

Sean’s odds for survival were slim, but thanks to some fortuitous factors, the emergency and specialist care he received gave him a fighting chance.

“It’s like everything that happened was just for me to survive,” he said.

When Sean was rescued from the water, he was retrieved without moving his neck.

Also, a highly experienced team of paramedics who were first to the scene had a combined 70 years of experience with trauma incidents.

The accident also happened near one of only three hospitals worldwide with a trauma unit that specialised in caring for patients without moving the body.

Sean Gardner with wife Fiona Daggot.()

And finally, a prominent neurosurgeon was in town for a conference and was available to operate.

“They gave me a 5 per cent chance of surviving with no idea if I was going to have brain damage, or if I was going to walk or even talk ever again,” Sean said.

“I ended up walking out of the hospital 13 days later.”


‘Life-changing’ support

Recovery has been physically and mentally brutal for the couple.

Sean’s brain injury affects his memory, mood and attention.

“It’s like you’re trying to spit something out and you can’t quite get it,” he said.

“Brain injury is the invisible disability because nobody can see it.

“If you saw me and spoke to me, you wouldn’t even know until you saw the big scar on the back of my head.”

Sean Gardner with his wife in hospital following the accident.()

It’s an issue Fiona initially struggled with as well.

“The hospital wasn’t doing anything [for the brain injury],” she said.

“They didn’t think it required any clinical intervention because nothing was showing up on their cognitive screenings.”

Fiona said brain injury symptoms could often be attributed to depression, pain or medication, and sometimes it felt like living with someone with dementia.

Marriage breakdowns not uncommon

Fiona contacted Synapse — a brain injury support service — to talk about her experience and frustrations.

Here Sean also found a community of other people living with a brain injury.

“It has been life-changing for both of us,” Fiona said.

“The physical therapy helped him walk, but this is the thing that probably helped our relationship the most.

“Having your life completely changed and the person you’re married to essentially become a different person — it’s really, really hard.

“But I guess I’m a different person too now.”

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