Sharing a love for sailing with people of all abilities
By Sara Hall | Contributor
JAN-FEB 2022 ISSUE
Photo by Christian Buhl / courtesy of California Inclusive Sailing
Anyone can enjoy being out on the water. With this belief top of mind, the leaders of a local organization have made it their mission to share their love of sailing with people of all abilities. Offering free outings on sailboats with adapted accessibility features, Newport Beach-based nonprofit California Inclusive Sailing helps people with cognitive or physical disabilities enjoy the freedom and empowerment of the sport.
“We harness the wind, soak in the sunshine, and lift our spirits,” says co-founder Christian Buhl. “That seems to be true every time we sail with somebody.”
California Inclusive Sailing (CIS) customizes every sail according to each person’s abilities. Its services are available to people of all ages, with no prior sailing experience necessary. On their customized voyages, sailors can learn the ropes or sit back and enjoy the ride.
With a dedicated volunteer team, CIS transfers sailors safely and comfortably onto a fleet of 16-foot RS Ventures for an enjoyable adventure around Newport Harbor. The adaptive boats have a unique side-by-side bucket seat configuration, and each seat has its own vertical tiller that allows for joint steering. The connected tillers allow people of all abilities to take control, while being supported by another passenger in case they need a break or have limited arm strength. Including the sailor and CIS instructor, the boats can also accommodate a total of six people, so physical therapists, family members, and service dogs are invited along for the ride.
Sailing encourages independence, boosts quality of life, and brings joy, Christian says. A lot of instincts on the boat transfer over to land-based activities, he notes — like coordination, communication, and awareness of your surroundings.
It’s also personally transformative for CIS co-founder John Pascal “J.P.” van Houden, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease more than two decades ago at the age of 32. On the adapted sailboat, if his muscles start to stiffen or he becomes paralyzed, he won’t fall overboard.
“It’s mentally therapeutic, for sure, and physically, [the therapeutic benefits] come naturally,” he says. “When I go sailing, it calms my whole body.”
Because it utilizes the power of wind and there’s a team on board to help, sailing doesn’t require a lot of strength, he explains. Anybody can enjoy themselves out on a boat.
“I haven’t met anybody who didn’t like sailing,” he says. “I feel freedom [on the water].”
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Since 2014, the organization has sailed with hundreds of people from all over Southern California, connecting with individuals and other groups with similar missions. There are a lot of repeat sailors who want to come out again and again. The greatest reward for Christian and J.P. is seeing the joy in the eyes of participants who are facing a variety of challenges in life.
“It’s magical when you have the ability and opportunity to help,” says J.P.
J.P., who grew up in Holland and was an avid sailor and windsurfer, met Christian while snowboarding in Switzerland. Years later, they reconnected when they ended up living in Newport Beach. They realized that even here, with community resources and waterfront access, people with disabilities still had limited opportunities to sail. Working with members of the Newport Beach Sunrise Rotary Club — including local pro Berkeley Green, who still supports CIS as an instructor — a team of volunteers launched California Inclusive Sailing.
“The catalyst was our passion for sailing and to help people get out on the water,” Christian says.
The nonprofit raises funds to purchase boats and then donates them to clubs in need of an inclusive sailing program. The first boat went to Life Sail, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides underserved youth with character-building programs through the art of sailing and seamanship. The second and third boats were given to yacht clubs in Richmond and Half Moon Bay. CIS currently sails with the fourth boat in Newport Beach.
On Nov. 25, 2021, it received a pledge for a fifth boat, which will stay in Newport. The current boat will be donated to a different club; more than a dozen between LA and San Diego have expressed interest and have a volunteer group behind them.
The goal is to give a boat to any club in need, Christian says. Eventually, they hope to see several of these adaptive sailboats cruising around Newport Harbor.
“We want to really create a big inclusive sailing revolution down here,” Christian says. “We’re working on one boat at a time right now.”
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With Southern California’s yearlong moderate weather, CIS can sail in any season. Newport Bay is an ideal setting, Christian says, calling it “Champagne sailing.” The average wind speed is 8 knots and there is a 5-knot speed limit, so it’s slow sailing, making it easy for those new to the sport to feel comfortable. The bay is also well protected from the stronger winds and bigger waves they face out in the ocean, but there is still plenty of room to sail. And if you ask J.P., he’ll be the first to tell you it’s never boring.
Most trips stay in the bay, but if participants are feeling, they can sail out to the ocean adventurous (weather and time permitting). J.P. has ventured out into open water a few times himself.
“I’m a daredevil in that sense,” he says. He was even part of the CIS crew that participated in the 2021 Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race. The team completed the shorter competitive event to Dana Point in just over four hours. He definitely plans on racing again, he confirms.
CIS sails out of A’maree’s boutique on Coast Highway. It’s hard to find a place that works, Christian notes, because ramps are often too wobbly or too short for people in wheelchairs. Low tide can also be tricky, but he’s bought a handheld, fold-up ramp to help.
Currently, the team has to hand-transfer people from wheelchairs onto boats using a few different tools, including a transfer sling with six handles. They make it work, but J.P. explains it could be much easier with a mechanical lift.
Getting a mechanical lift at a local, public dock has been a goal since they started the program, Christian says. This year, it’s finally coming true. A lift is scheduled to be installed at Marina Park on the Balboa Peninsula sometime in 2022.
Owned by the city of Newport Beach, Marina Park has a lot of sailing amenities, dock and dine restaurants, accessible features, plenty of parking, and a long, wide dock. Once installed, it will be the only public dock in California with a boat lift compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act; currently, the only transfer lifts in the state are all on private docks. The adaptive hoist would support boating programs, like CIS, and be available to all boaters utilizing the harbor — thus expanding opportunities for the public to learn how to sail and providing equitable access in the harbor.
“Newport Beach will be proud to be the first city in California to provide this opportunity for greater access to the water,” says Newport Beach Mayor Kevin Muldoon, who brought the idea of the lift at Marina Park forward to the city council.
Kevin, who’s been on the CIS boat a few times with his son, says the organization has really made a difference for a lot of people. “[CIS] is a great program and really changes the lives for those with issues accessing the water.”
The ADA transfer lift is a big local milestone for CIS, and one step closer toward its ultimate dream to see the program go nationwide or even international.
“We’ve been pretty clear on what we want to do since day one,” Christian says. “The goal is to get more people out on the water.”
To learn more about CIS, visit: