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Adapting a boat and racing techniques for sailors with a disability - the Challenger class

by Magnus Smith 27 Jan 12:00 GMT
Alex Hovden in his Challenger © Andy Foulsham

We spoke to Alex Hovden, who sails a Challenger trimaran, about how he feels this is the right class for him, and what modifications he has made to the boat, and to his technique, to be more competitive and get more enjoyment from sailing.

The single-handed Challenger is a very stable boat which, perhaps surprisingly, does not sacrifice any speed to achieve that stability/safety. It has a PY of 1173 putting it on par with the Firefly and ILCA 6 (Laser Radial). The helm stays in a front-facing seat within the centre hull, and this means sailors of all ages and physical abilities can race competitively against one another. There is no hiking out!

Adapting the boat to suit the sailor

After many years' hard work as a Chartered Accountant Alex can afford two Challengers; one is kept ready to race at Rutland SC, and the other is on a road trailer at home, ready to leave. In this way he can do all the open meetings on the circuit, but still turn up for club racing with the minimum hassle. With the aid of his family's DIY skills, both boats are set up exactly the same, so whichever one he uses, it feels familiar.

One of the main factors which dictates how Alex sets up his control lines is his right arm, of which he says, "it misbehaves a bit". His left arm is also stronger, so the kicker, downhaul, outhaul and centreboard control lines are all led down the left side of the boat. The mainsheet goes through a Spinlock jammer also on the port gunwhale.

Compare Alex's port side control lines (above) with the more standard Challenger (below) which uses both sides, and has a central mainsheet jammer.

Alex has deliberately chosen to have a fixed seat, rather than an adjustable one. He says the tracks upon which the latter runs on raises him up too much; he prefers to be slightly lower down. This also means he can wedge his leg under the crossbeam and feel more secure.

Other sailors find they can get into the boat more easily with the seat slid right back, and then bring it forward to sail.

One-handed sailing

The most difficult manoeuvre for Alex is a leeward mark rounding in a pack, trying to sheet in and steer at the same time as worrying about overlaps. Anticipating the situation before you get stuck in it is crucial! Alex accepts that letting others go first, but getting a better, tighter rounding himself, means he doesn't really lose out.

The windward mark in comparison is easier; with the mainsheet and tiller in one hand you can let the rope slip through your fingers in a controlled manner. Actually letting go of the tiller isn't too bad - you have a few seconds grace in the Challenger - but a better option is to jam the large metal loop at the end of the tiller over your knee, to maintain a little control.

He has been working with a personal trainer to improve his upper body strength, which will hopefully help him be competitive in 2024.

Capsizing and other dangers

Falling out of the boat is rare; Alex suggests it might happen once every 5 years. He described one such event at Oxford SC where a very gusty wind caught him out. On the beat, just about the hit the lay line, when a gust hit which he wasn't able to respond to in time. Out he fell, and the boat didn't capsize, but sat back down and rounded up. The rescue team were quick to respond. Alex had a drysuit on, so felt comfortable, and wasn't worried in the water. He has since got a loose seatbelt, just for peace of mind.

Alex feels it is important to pay attention to the conditions before launching, before there's a problem, so as to avoid 'pushing it' and risking getting near a capsize. It requires two RIBs to un-invert a Challenger, which means his race would be over anyway. What is nice about the fleet is the lack of bravado, he reports. There is no judgement if you call it a day; the sailors will often congratulate each other on the bravery of making that decision.

During a Challenger-only open meeting, the fleet will vote whether or not to race, which is another pragmatic example of solidarity.

Alex's sailing career

As a teenager in the Scouts Alex had a tester session in a Hansa dinghy (back then the class was called the Access). The instructor commented that he was a natural sailor, and it wasn't long before Alex was bitten by the bug. He was able to join his nearest club, Papercourt SC, and sail a Hansa there, upgrading to the Hansa Liberty (a larger hull with a more complex rig). After a year he moved to Queen Mary SC and tried the Challenger.

After a few top ten race wins at the World Championships in Portugal, Alex was asked to race the SKUD 18 (used in the Paralympics at the time) and in this two-man class he ran a successful campaign, won the Europeans and came second at the Olympic Week in Hyères.

When sailing was dropped from the Paralympics Alex was prompted to reconsider the SKUD 18. There was the issue of finding the right crew, and it was very labour intensive to rig; Alex's wheelchair is so low down he cannot even get involved at all! Whereas with a Challenger he can stay in charge and just get one person to help him at times.

He describes himself very much as a competitive sailor, focussed on speed, even wanting to be first to leave the shore so he can practice the course (especially those leeward mark roundings, as mentioned earlier).

He also enjoys virtual sailing, and feels that this focus on tactics has really helped him improve in this area. Going to the gym is a second thing that has been helpful on the water.

The class

Alex reassures everyone that the Challenger fleet is welcoming to new members. Whatever your age or ability, it could be great for your racing!

Class association:
Latest race reports and photos:

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