Sailing with a disability: an interview with yachtsman Jakub Koutský

Sailing with a disability: an interview with yachtsman Jakub Koutský

Sailing can be a fantastic sport and form of relaxation for people with disabilities. Check out this truly inspirational story.

Jakub Koucký is an adventurer who dives into everything head first. He never gets bored, enjoys the rush of adrenaline and especially loves the water and sea. Despite the fact that he has been in wheelchair since early childhood, he can do more things than most able-bodied individuals and has become an expert sailor, overcoming all limitations on board. We chatted about what it's like having a disability on a yacht, but also about travelling, sharks, scuba-diving and barriers — the ones in cities and the imagined ones in our minds. He is a real inspiration. And proof that setting sail and realising your dreams are easier than you might think!

Editor's note: Jakub Koucký unfortunately passed away on September 2, 2021, but his approach to life remains an inspiration to many people.

Jakub byl v jedné z posádek populární expedice Trabantem napříč Tichomořím

How did it come about, sailing for the first time? Was it always a dream of yours?

It was many years back. I’ve always enjoyed the water and all sports. 11 years ago we founded a non-profit organization dedicated to adrenaline activities which that led me to the water more and more. I started to ride on water skis, on rafts ... 

And then came scuba diving and everything water-related. All I had left to do was yachting. It was relatively inaccessible at the time, and nobody had much experience doing it. And then, by chance, I met a man who went out on a yacht every year. So we agreed to give it a try.

How did it turn out?

About 9 years ago, we were together in Croatia for the first time. It was an autumn voyage, so sailing with all the trappings, no relaxing holiday or sunbathing, it was really all about sailing. 

And it’s there that I found out that it didn’t take much to be able to control the whole sailing boat. Just have the winch and everything else to hand at the back, and then a wheelchair user can not only ride, but be actively involved in everything — in steering and in controlling the sails. Which, of course, I do regularly.

Stačí docela málo, aby vozíčkář mohl ovládat celou loď

Do you have a captain's license?

I plan on doing it in the autumn. I'm curious if there are any restrictions on wheelchair users doing it. In other sports, such as scuba diving, it’s been dealt with a lot.

Limitations when scuba diving are probably less than on a yacht?

Diving is incredible freedom. It doesn’t matter how much you weigh or drag on your back, you can move easily in all directions.

And how do you get around on a yacht?

I get on board, throw the chair to the stern and move about with my hands. For me it isn't a problem, I don't mind it at all.

Being used to it since childhood makes it natural for you?

Yes, and I’ve done a lot of sports and different activities, so I can handle it. For many, it's unimaginable being a week without a wheelchair, moving about only minimally. But is that any reason not to go? I've persuaded people to do a lot of activities and they’re always looking for reasons why not to do it. Eventually they do it and they love it. They discover they can manage it.

So it's possible for several disabled people to be on board, even when it's beyond their imagination?

Definitely yes. I usually go with a crew where half are able-bodied and half have disabilities. I'm the wheelchair-bound one. And then there are things that have to be dealt with. Maybe someone can't get from the sea to the boat, so a solution will be found. They could build boats which have a type of crane, but I think it all part of the fun and there's no need to modify absolutely everything. It is just all part of yachting. 

Úzká lávka na loď dělá někdy hendikepovaným problémy

I dive headfirst into everything and see for myself

What took you by surprise being on a boat for the first time?

Almost nothing… The only thing I didn't really know was if I was going to suffer from seasickness. Well, of course I did in big waves. Like anyone else. I don't spend too much time below deck, I’d get sick very quickly. I spend the whole week above deck and mostly sleep there when the weather allows.

And what causes wheelchair users the biggest problems on a boat?

Probably the tight spaces. It's hard to get around properly. And getting across the gangway can cause difficulties. And the toilets on a boat are a problem for some people. I can fit, but I have to go sideways as my shoulders are wide. Otherwise, I just go into the sea. With everything that goes with it. In the end, it's the best.

You don’t have to deal with these problems yourself much….

Nothing's really a problem for me. I've always tried things. And you can't go into with the attitude that if it doesn't work, I'm done. I've never really thought about what it might or might not come up. Because I can think for hours and one thing still seems to escape me — the most important one.

I'm the type who goes headfirst into everything and sees what happens. And when there's a problem, I don't call it a problem but a challenge. It's not a problem that can't be solved, it's a challenge and a solution has to be found. And that's how I try to approach everything and there's always a solution. It's all about that positive attitude. But a lot of people tell me that I am a “special case", an exception that can’t be used as an example. I can't judge that myself.

Koupání v opuštěné zátoce

And what would you recommend to other disabled people who want to sail?

It's really important to be more active throughout your life. To have the strength to cope. But you can always do it, always.

What boats have you been out on, is there a better option for disabled people?

We never went the route of the expensive boats, where there is more space to put a wheelchair and move around a bit. We've always taken out classic boats, the Bavaria 45 or 55 for 8 people — 4 able-bodied and 4 with disabilities.

Is there anything a boat charter company could do knowing that a wheelchair user will be boarding?

A wider gangway option would be nice. People on crutches can’t make it on the gangway. Or someone has to transfer them, and that doesn't really work on a narrow gangway anyway. And I always feel like a nuisance wanting an engine on the dinghy. Lots of wheelchair users can’t paddle and if you have to pull a wheelchair ashore, you have to go back and forth four times.

I can't imagine dedicated mooring spaces for the boats. But the charter could anchor the boat as close as possible, perhaps even sideways. Or reserve a short-stay place just to board the crew. But I don't really know if the benefit would be so great. But I can't speak for everyone. I'm a bit of a health nut. I don't care about stairs. I'll just get out of my wheelchair, but it might be undignified for some people...

Do you take anything special along on the yacht?

Well... swimmers. And in the spring, a sailing jacket. And that's about it. So, I don't really take anything extra. It's best to restock when you're there. It's often cheaper and I don't have to drag it along. As a result, I find that I don't have to take half the things others do. I'm probably a minimalist. And I take a body board with me, but it's nothing specifically sailing related.

Pohoda na jachtě

Where's your favourite yachting destination?

Croatia. We circumnavigate the Kornati islands, then we sail to Vis and along the coast. We look for hidden coves where we aren’t packed in with others. Much of it is about us adapting. When it's hot, we sail at night and swim during the day. When it’s windy, we ride on the sails for pure enjoyment.

How often do you sail?

Once or twice a year. I sail with two captains — one likes the wind and proper sailing, which would be more challenging for most wheelchair users. Even for me it is tough to move when at full heel. But so far, I haven't fallen overboard yet. In truth, those who need more help would probably have a problem at the extreme end — you have to help yourself. Especially in precarious situations. For example, we got caught in a hurricane the year before last, and that was pretty funny....

What did you do, did you shelter?

We couldn't. In the evening, we had stayed in a poorly sheltered bay. In the morning we found out that something was coming and we knew we had to get out. And of course we got caught. We were the only boat at sea, with only a helicopter following us above. But it turned out well in the end.

We shone a torch on the wheelchair and sea urchins were already gathering

What are the barriers in marinas?

The problem is getting off the boat to the marina. Once we sank my wheelchair. We were returning in the evening and the pier was higher than the stern. I can cross the gangway using my hands, but somebody has to take my wheelchair. My friend was carrying it for me, stepped onto the gangway, and as he was poised to take a second step he suddenly disappeared along with the gangway and wheelchair into the black hole between boats. We were worried whether he would surface or not, he might have hit something.

First, the gangway floated up, then him... but, of course, not the wheelchair. We shone a torch on it and the sea urchins were already gathering. In the end, we fished it out with a hook on a line. The wheelchair survived. Therefore for disabled access, it’s always best for the pier or jetty to be at the same level as the stern. And for some, mooring sideways is best. That way you're right at the pier. 

And the marinas themselves?

They have barrier-free toilets or pretend to have them, they aren’t always properly equipped for the disabled. Some places have superb showers and toilets. Other places have a disabled sign, but then there are still stairs. There’s work to be done.

Jakub nejčastěji plachtí v Chorvatsku

How do you break down barriers? How do you help others with disabilities to overcome their fear and go for it?

When people are scared, I always try to get them to focus on positive experiences. But it is different for yachting. Rather, people find it strange to be in one spot for a week. They think it's boring. As if you’ll just be lying around like on an ocean liner. They don’t understand that you get to go where you want, and experience great sailing when the wind allows…

Are you ever afraid of getting bored on a boat?

I can't say I ever get bored, even when there is no wind. We toss out a rope, dragged ourselves behind the boat, cast off to Neptune ... Or you just look at the beautiful scenery, other boats, learn, try the sails... For me it's a piece of cake.

Pro nudu není na lodi místo

I generally don’t understand how someone can get bored. But nowadays, you can do whatever you want, nothing limits you. You don’t need to be rich to be able to do something... you can go running, bike, pick mushrooms, read, walk, learn new things. There are numerous options available today. In the evening I'm sometimes upset that I have to go to sleep. That I'm losing x number of hours when I could be taking in new information or progressing.

What else do people fear?

A lot of people think it's so expensive. They don't believe me that if you book a boat in advance and have your captain, you'll pay less for it than a beach holiday. And so I try to rope my friends in. Let's get a bunch of us together to go and get the word out. That it's a possibility. And no problem at all. A lot of things were exclusive in the early days, and are nows a common thing. Like golf. Or scuba diving.

You like scuba diving a lot?

I love diving and it's a shame I couldn't combine sailing with diving. It would have been an amazing diversion for me. But it's true that if I want to fully enjoy cruising under sail, I wouldn't have the thought or the time. I'm really into diving with sharks. I was diving with them in an aquarium in New Zealand and there were maybe forty of them, one was about four metres long and had a mouth like the shark from Jaws.

Weren't you scared?

I really like and admire sharks, they are incredible animals. And having been to Australia, I'm not afraid of them. Once a shark came up to me and tapped me on the forehead with its snout. I definitely had a white streak between my mask and my mouth. Well, and my eyes were bulging with the mask on. When it found out I wasn't fit to eat, it swam off. 

Potápění a neskutečná svoboda

Do you sail anywhere other than Croatia?

I've been to the Cere Yacht Club in Prague. They have single-seater racing yachts there, they race them in the Paralympics. I was tempted to try out racing, we do not have a lot of yachtsmen in the Czech Republic. But then the opportunity came to travel came so I had to give it a miss. Maybe I'll get back to racing, at least recreationally.

Where did you train to sail?

In Prague on the Vltava River, it's great. One time I was sailing and the wind stopped, so I was there waiting for a gust, and suddenly a steamer was roaring up behind me. That was a bit hairy.

What kind of boat was it? Very different from a recreational yacht, I guess?

It was a single-seater sailboat, small, no engine. It's very technical, lots of rigging, lines — it's great. I wouldn't mind having it in Croatia. But I have so many opportunities that I always jump at what’s most feasible at the time. 

It's sometimes better on the road than home

You're very active, what else do you do?

I'm always rotating between work and charity, coming up with projects and contributing to others. I used to work in a non-profit and it's not really my thing, I'm more of a business type. A few years ago, I founded my own non-profit Adrenaline without Barriers

Is that still going?

Not much anymore, no time. We do water skiing and surfing once a year, but that's the only event left. We often had to figure out how to adapt it to people with disabilities. We built this wheelchair motorbike and that was our goal. To show that it can be done! Before then, there were other sports — athletics, indoor sports but nothing outdoors, it was breaking new ground. Then it took off. The Paraple Centre started an outdoor club... For me, this is a success.

Jedna z akcí neziskovky Adrenalin bez Bariér

But we are just small fry. There is a core of people, who are active in all sports and the rest can’t be persuaded. Is it about laziness? Or don't they want to deal with the hassle? I see it all the time. Even in travel. And I don't understand why... It's actually often better on the road than at home. 

When you compare the two, what's the difference?

I never had a problem getting work, through people I know, but you can't always count on help. In New Zealand, me and my friend tried to find a job. Within a week an agency found me a job — a part-time job, but with the money I had at home as a programmer. It wasn't a problem.

In Australia, everything is wheelchair accessible and there is a level playing field for wheelchair users. But then you go to East Timor, where they subsist solely on agriculture and fishing ... Those people don't really have anything. And there is nothing barrier-free. But everything’s still possible there. There you feel a sense of family cohesion, harmony with people who simply have not been so lucky in life. And they are nice and friendly people. I went all across town and when there was a step, somebody helped...

What's it like here in the Czech Republic? The past? People's reluctance, disinterest?

I don't think you can hide it behind the fact that we're 20 years behind. People already have a comparison, it's not new to them. Rather, I think we're drifting away from family and "human" values. Everyone is looking to make money and provide for their family. Which I find hypocritical.

In what way?

Everyone wants their children and grandchildren to do well, but they still don't stop using plastic bags. Which I find strange! I don't have any children, but I think I care a lot more about how it will be here after me than people who have children and will leave them with a completely destroyed planet.

And if people can’t even take care of this, then why would they bother creating jobs for people with disabilities or making their life easier? So I don't want it and I don't even think it would be the way to go.

I like Australia's system. Wheelchair users pay for public transport. But the transport is properly barrier-free. Why let a pensioner, a wheelchair user and all these people go for free? Why not use the tax and money to redo the stations? I miss the logic here. And of course, if you get something for free, you don't appreciate it.

What are you looking forward to this summer? What are you going to do?

I wanted to go to Croatia. By car because I only know it from the deck of a boat. And because I'm tireless, I wanted to add something meaningful and map the barrier-free facilities. And I would like to change one thing that really gets to me — a lot of people are looking at barrier-free needed solely for wheelchair users. There are also parents with children, prams, seniors. Why separate it? Wheelchair accessibility is for every single person. Everyone can end up on crutches, in a wheelchair and grow old.

You've done a lot of travelling, are you able to keep up with more demanding travel now?

Hm... I've been planning to travel somewhere for almost two years. I always wanted to take part in a trip for a foundation. I wanted to shoot video and photos, the proceeds would go to foundations and companies would also contribute. But I enjoy travelling, I don't want to spoil it. So I'm saving up now so I can go without any obligations and travel where I want.

Na cestách v Bangkoku

Where to?

Australia. I've been there twice and I've always been through one part. Now I want to connect it all and drive around it. And I want to go alone. I want to have time to take photos, fly drones and shoot video. If I went with someone, it would limit me or them. And I want to pick up on the pitfalls by going alone. How to get around, what to take ... There will be no one to help me with a heavy suitcase. Plus I have contacts there, if I get stuck, I’ll always have someone to turn to.

If it goes well, you'll move on?

This will be a kind of test run for me. And then I want to continue. South America appeals to me, Africa, I’d love to go to Alaska. I’ll save Europe for my retirement, although I’ve kind of been in retirement since I am 18... I’ve already travelled a bit, but now I want to explore more distant places. I enjoy independent travel. Meeting the locals. Spending time with them. It enriches you. You realize that they have nothing to eat but are still very happy. But here people don't know what to do with all their money, and they're unhappy.

Jakub Koucký v Thajsku

Apart from the hurricane, have you had any other edgy sailing experiences?

One night sailing in a storm. You can see absolutely nothing and just disappear into a black hole between the waves. I'd ended up sleeping in the stern.. And we went adrift. It’s good to experience it, at least you know what to expect. Every experience like this moves you on. That's why I throw myself headfirst into everything. To jump to conclusions, whether something will work or not... we could all still be in the trees.

Jakub má vodu a moře hodně rád i na cestách

Can you share your best experience at sea?

I can't say. It's just the best on a boat. I love sailing a butterfly (a one-design sailing dinghy). At that moment, the boat looks absolutely divine. And I enjoy the speed, the heel of the boat. When you see the limits of where the boat can go. That's great, and I love it. Playing with it, tweaking it, tuning it… that is incredible fun for me. 

And the sea, the fresh air, the physical activity and the good mood. In any weather. I don't mind if it rains. Just water to water. It belongs together. We're fully-equipped for it. Although I've been on voyages where I had all the gear and it still ran down my neck anyway — but it was great. I really enjoy it. And I'd like to compete in a race. Something amateur.

Come with us next year for our Easter meet-up. There was a successful tourist boat this year.

So I'd love to do it next year?

We'll look forward to it. Thank you and we wish you many sailing and travelling adventures!

Among other things, Jakub works with Revenium, a company that helps people with medical, social or psychological disabilities to live their dreams.

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