Terry LeBlanc’s Story

Technology Equals Freedom For Tetraplegic Sailor

Part of the joy for Terry LeBlanc is working the entire experience by intuition as much as by mariner’s skills. He merely needs to bite, breathe and think to sail his boat and gain an intense feeling of freedom on the waters of Vancouver’s English Bay.

It’s mostly due to the Sip ‘n’ Puff technology of the Martin 16 sailboat that LeBlanc uses. These are untippable craft, provided by the funders of the Adaptive Sailing Association of BC. Sip ‘n’ Puff controls enable sailors to chose either trimming the sails or directing the tiller, simply by biting the plastic straw. The interface of hardware and firmware allows a tetraplegic to operate a sailboat. 

The sailboat was developed in 1993 by ASABC in conjunction with Alvis Marine. The Neil Squire Foundation was instrumental in developing the sailboats Sip ‘n’ Puff electronic control system, which allows a person with little or no movement below the neck to sail independently. All functions, including setting the sails and steering the boat, are controlled by the sailor’s breath. 

LeBlanc sips on the straw to head the boat to starboard and he puffs when he wishes to turn to port.

The boat has been getting a lot of attention since it was first launched in 1993, and many sailors with severe disabilities are enjoying the sport of sailing through ASA. 

The Martin 16 looks like a miniature America’s Cup yacht. With a narrow beam, a plumb bow, bulb keel and an open transom, it has all the signs of a pocket racing keelboat. But up close, the Martin is steered like a small plane, with a joystick that is positioned between the helmsman’s legs. The pilot, so to speak, sits facing forward in a fully adjustable, moulded, fiberglass seat. 

The helm is responsive and light and the boat sails like it’s running on steel wheels. Although the Martin 16 was designed to be sailed using Sip ‘n’ Puff interface which operates electronic sheeting and helms control, this is a no-compromise, performance keelboat that would also be great for 30- to 70- something club racers.

LeBlanc sips on the straw to head the boat to starboard when he’s in the tiller mode and he puffs (or exhales) when he wishes to turn to port. He bites on the straw when he wants to go into ‘sail’ mode, hauling in the sails for example, when he wants to tack, or sail against the wind.

“It’s quite simple,” he said recently. “Now in a racing situation, when you have to jockey about for position at the start line, it can get tricky. But I find it really quite intuitive, really.” LeBlanc a native of Moncton, New Brunswick, left the Maritimes years ago to find work in his occupation of the time, as a land surveyor. He moved to Calgary, but while on holiday in 1978, he was injured diving from a raft on a lake near Pentiction, BC.

Later, while searching for a new way to get out on the water again, this time as a tetraplegic, he discovered ASA. Over the years, LeBlanc has made many friends through his sailing, either through racing or the social activity that is synonymous with boating.

“The whole social aspect is quite neat,” he said. “I like to hang out on the second-floor deck at the sailing centre, and you can never tell who you will meet.”