Disabled sailor Frank Novakowski (left) and his nurse

Disabled sailor Frank Novakowski (left) and his nurse

Disabled sailor navigates waters of Okanagan Lake

Frank Novakowski, who has ALS, operates a sailboat with a sip-and-puff method

From the vantage of Hot Sands Beach, or the heights of the WAC Bennett bridge, the small, sleek Martin-16 sailboat rounding some race markers may seem unremarkable.

Until you meet the captain, his crew of one and the support team in the Boston Whaler steadily bobbing along in the sailboat’s wake, you won’t realize precisely how remarkable a sportsman has taken to the water of Okanagan Lake.

The captain of the boat named ‘Shredder’ is Frank Novakowski and he operates the sail boat with the tiniest puffs of air.  The Martin-16 is specially outfitted to respond to Novakowski’s every gentle yet directed exhalation to turn the rudder and maintain course and speed. Novakowski takes part in the Disabled Sailing Association of B.C. (DSA) program in Kelowna, run out of the Kelowna Yacht Club.

Seven years ago Frank Novakowski found out he had ALS, and five years ago Novakowski became fully quadriplegic and moved to Kelowna from Nanaimo. It was a major life change in a progression of big choices made to cope with his ALS.  He took up sailing with the DSA in response to a newspaper advertisement. With wry understatement Novakowski can recall his motivation to become a sailor, “I decided I needed to get out more.”

This summer, rain or shine Novakowski hits the waves once a week. His coach Tracey Delorme, support staff and volunteers are dedicated to getting Novakowski out on the water safely. Each excursion is a culmination of organization, effort and love from those around Novakowski. Everyone involved is deeply committed to the enterprise.

Gathered in the shade, near the sheds at the north end of the Kelowna Yacht Club everyone gathers around Novakowski as he gives an interview and is prepped for the sail. Everyone goes quiet when Novakowski starts to speak, it costs him tremendous effort to form the words around the tracheotomy he had this spring.  The device required a multi-month stay in the ICU and hospital, plus recovery. After five minutes of talking Novakowski’s care aide and nurse, Emily, brings out a head set and speaker to amplify his voice.  His thoughts and determination remain crystal clear.

“When I sail I am the boss,” says Novakowski.  “It doesn’t feel like any real time at all when you are out there, it flies.”

Novakowski was a long term employee of TelusBC, living in Dawson Creek and then Nanaimo, where he and his family took to the water in a power boat.  Sailing with the DSA is, “A great opportunity,” says Novakowski and not just for himself. “Of all the activities available this is the biggest one.”

Miriam Van Keening is the Executive Director for the DSA in Kelowna and she is looking to meet the needs of a group of people in Kelowna many citizens will never see.  “I would like people to see this opportunity.  It is important for severely disabled people, who might be scared to see Frank do this.  Maybe they will say if he can do it, I can do it.”

Currently about 35 people participate in DSA’s Kelowna programs, there are sailing slots available for more (call 250-300-5833 to inquire).  The program has three Martin-16 sailboats, a coach boat and two instructors, Tracey Delorme and Kathleen Hutton.  The Martin-16 has a specially designed keel for amazing stability in the water while remaining agile.

The design of the boat is important.  Last summer in a freak storm, the coach boat, a Boston Whaler could not get close enough to the Martin-16 to make certain Novakowski could make it back to the Yacht Club docks.  Novakowski’s wife Michelle remembers the moment vividly, “He got in trouble where we couldn’t get to him, but when we get back to land, Frank was never worried, he just knew he could do it.”

Watching Novakowski expertly navigate ‘Shredder’ around the buoys, it is easy to see his mastery.  His coach Tracey Delorme exudes absolute confidence in his ability while keeping watch from the bench of the support boat.  Delorme only calls out instruction to remind Novakowski time is running short and to keep an eye out for boating traffic he might not be able to see.

It is now simpler for Novakowski to operate the boat with a ‘sip ‘n puff’ of air than it is for him to speak, the ALS is advancing. It is a change from last summer, when Novakowski was on the water several times a week and occasionally racing. This year, Novakowski is out on the water once a week. Emily his nurse, who by sheer luck is also an avid and well-trained sailor, is in the boat with him every single time.

“There is an immediacy now,” explains Michelle. “He has a ventilator; he has to have someone with him 24 hours a day.”

The team around Novakowski has a routine drilled in to make the process smooth. After the hoist lowers Novakowski into the sailboat, Emily follows and she is handed a large back of emergency breathing equipment should things go awry.  The hoist is waiting at the end of the sail and Novakowski is gently placed in his wheel chair. The effort is made easier by the contentment radiating from Novakowski, “He is just joyful after a sail, I can’t even describe how happy this makes Frank.  After he was in ICU we weren’t certain he could do this again, but here we are,” says Michelle.

Novakowski has no problem describing the experience of a quadriplegic sailing a boat, he says it is, “A lot like freedom from disability.”

For more information on the Disabled Sailing program visit www.disabledsailingkelowna.ca, or call 250-860-7990, 250-300-5833.


Kelowna Capital News