Despite a sporadic training schedule at home, and with only a couple of weeks in Nova Scotia waters, two teams of Israeli sailors entered the World Disabled Sailing Championships in Halifax with great optimism.
“We’re here to win,” says Dror Cohen, skipper of the three-man crew sailing a seven-metre Sonar. “The only enjoyment is to win.”
The other team consists of husband and wife Hagar and Moshe Zahavi on an SKUD 18. Thier coach Alon Dagan says Halifax is the first competitive race for the couple in the 5.8-metre boat. He thinks they “can be around the middle of the 15-boat field.”
The week-long event starts tomorrow and ends August 24.
The Sonar team, with Arnon Efrati and Shimon Ben-Yakov joining skipper Cohen is rightfully confident. Cohen, 46, a paraplegic from a 1992 car accident while in the army, was on the 2004 gold medal-winning team at the Athens Paralympic Games. He also won gold at worlds in Weymouth, England in 2011 and a silver at the 2009 worlds.
Cohen, who works in real estate, admits hearing Hatikvah played at the gold medal ceremony in Athens was a proud moment. “There were no guns, no F16s. It was a ‘Wow’ moment. For me as an athlete and all of us for our country, it’s something we’ll remember all our lives.”
His teammates then were Efrati and Benny Vexler who has since retired. Ben-Yakov, 57, with many years of sailing experience, joined the 2014 team.
Efrati, 62, lost his right arm while an officer in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Ben-Yakov suffered left leg damage from a bullet wound in the Lebanese War of 1982. “I walk, but not well,” he says.
Ben-Yakov, a building inspector and father of four, said he spent a year in hospital after his leg was wounded but says, “I have a wonderful life, even with the disability. The disability is small. Life is big.”
Sonar coach Israel Altman, a social worker with veterans and youth at risk, explains training was halted for the crew that sails under the auspices of Beit Halochem Haifa, the Veterans Association of Haifa.
“We weren’t allowed to train because of the Gaza War and, besides, we were in rocket territory and had to be near home. Each hour was different. You couldn’t plan anything.”
Finally they received clearance to travel to Canada, spent 10 days training and sailing in Lunenburg N.S., then came to Halifax.
The Zahavis have sailed together for only 10 months through Beit Halochem Tel Aviv. Moshe, 46, who contracted polio at seven months and is in a wheelchair, sailed Sonar for six years, with a best finish of 5th at the 2010 worlds. A construction materials buyer, he jokes it’s mostly peace and love on the water with Hagar.
“Sometimes we shout but we always seem to get to shore safely,” he smiles.
Hagar, 44, and mother of their four children ages eight to 15, became a paraplegic in a car accident in 1990. She played wheelchair basketball on Israel’s national team but when Alon needed a female and called her to sail SKUD, she accepted and gave up hoops.
“I knew she had sailed a bit of Sonar and was very capable,” says coach Dagar, a sailmaker by profession.
Hagar says she likes participating with Moshe. “I’m the captain on the boat. Moshe says ‘Yes, dear!’”
The Sonar is a seven metre one-design keelboat for three to five people, crewed by three when being sailed by disabled sailors. The first seven countries of 17 competing in the Sonar class qualify for the Paralympics in Rio De Janiero in 2016.
SKUD 18 debuted in the 2008 Paralympics. It was the first Paralympic class to specify a severely disabled sailor and a female in the crew.