Sailing, a history

Sailing has been used as means of transport since prehistoric times but its’ development as a sport started in the early 17th century when the Dutch started racing 65-foot (approx. 20 metre) yachts.

After Charles II was restored to the throne he was given a yacht by the Dutch and the sport gained popularity in England and America. The Water Club of the Harbour of Cork (Ireland), now called the Royal Cork Yacht Club, was founded in 1720 by William O’Brien, the 9th Lord Inchiquin, and five of his friends who established rules covering sailing, membership and ‘dining affairs’. Its’ claim to be the oldest yacht club is challenged by the Neva Yacht Club (or Nevsky Flot, literally "Fleet of the Neva"), Russia, originally founded by Tsar Peter the Great on April 12, 1718.

In 1851 the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes offered the Hundred Guinea Cup as the prize for a race around the Isle of Wight. The race was won by American, Commodore John Cox Stevens in a 100-foot (30-metre) schooner from New York called America. In 1857 the cup was donated to the New York Yacht Club as the prize for a perpetual international challenge, known today as the America’s Cup, one of the oldest international yacht racing competitions.

Sailing was planned for the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 but was cancelled due to bad weather. The 1900 Paris Olympics Yachting Regatta was held in large yachts on the River Seine. There were few competitors as they needed to fund the entire campaign, boat and crew, themselves. Women also competed and British women, Frances Rivett-Carnac (1908 London) and Dorothy Wright (1920 Antwerp), both won Olympic titles with their husbands.

The world governing body, the International Yacht Racing Union (IYRU) was founded in Paris in October 1907 to provide racing sailors to have a uniform set of rules and boat measurement standards. Its’ name was changed to the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) in 1996 and then World Sailing in 2015.

12 Foot and 18 Foot dinghies were introduced at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, these had the benefit of making the sport more accessible as they were much cheaper. To reflect modern terminology the sports’ name was changed to 'Sailing' in 2000 and today, all Olympic competition is in dinghies using increasingly high-speed boat classes, with racing on shorter courses adding to the spectacle for spectators.

Sailing for disabled people became increasingly popular during the 1980s and the first international sailing competition for athletes with a disability, the International Handicap Trophy Regatta, was held in Switzerland. In 1988 the International Handicap Sailing Committee (IHSC) was formed. In 1990 sailing made its debut as an exhibition sport at the World Games for the Disabled and in 1991, the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) recognised the IHSC and the organisation was re-named the International Foundation for Disabled Sailing, which remains the international organisation today.

Sailing, a Paralympic sport

Sailing first appeared at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta 1996 with a demonstration class for Sonar only. The competition took place at the Aqualand Marina, Lake Lanier in the foothills of the Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains. It is reported that the location made for unpredictable sailing conditions which, in such a close fleet, translated into dramatic place changes and medals being decided in the final race.

It became a full medal sport at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games where it included Sonar and 2.4mR and in Beijing 2008 also included SKUD.

Sailing is not included in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President saying it ‘did not fulfil the IPC Handbook’s minimum criteria for worldwide reach.’

Sailing at the Paralympic Summer Games

  • 1996 Atlanta, USA - 1 demonstration event mixed crew boat. 15 countries and 59 athletes (56 men and 3 women) participated.
  • 2000 Sydney, Australia - 2 events. 22 countries and 62 athletes (60 men and 2 women) participated.
  • 2004 Athens, Greece - 2 events. 19 countries and 61 athletes (58 men and 3 women) participated.
  • 2008 Beijing, China - 3 events. 25 countries and 80 athletes (67 men and 13 women) participated.
  • 2012 London, GB - 2 events. 23 countries and 80 athletes (65 men and 15 women) participated.

British sailing medal winners

  • 1996 Atlanta, USA
    Andrew Cassell, Kevin Curtis, Tony Downs and Ian Harrison - gold in Sonar.
  • 2012 London, GB
    Helena Lucas - gold in single-person keelboat 2.4mR
    Niki Birrell and Alexandra Rickham - bronze in two-person keelboat SKUD18

Disclaimer -
Some information from earlier Paralympic Games (i.e. 1960-1988) such as relay and team members are not presented in the IPC source data. Therefore, final results, medal standings and derived statistics may not be complete.
Important note on the definition of participants: Only athletes that appear in the official results books in the section of final results are included in the database and counted towards participant statistics. Data for 2014 and 2016 are accurate. Statistics for previous Games are under review by the IPC.
Important note on competition partners: Competition partners eligible for medals are included in the combined participant statistics until 2014. Statistics for 2016 and beyond consider athletes with an impairment and their competition partners separately. 

How para sailing has evolved

In 1992 the International Foundation for Disabled Sailing (IFDS) World Disabled Sailing Championship was sailed in Spain to coincide with the Barcelona Paralympics.

 The demonstration event at Atlanta 1996 used the three-person Sonar class. A two-sail, single-hull boat, 7 meters (23 feet) long and weighing almost 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds). The crew of three must not exceed 14 classification points.

Sydney 2000 saw the introduction of the single-person 2.4mR class, with male and female athletes competing against each other. A dual-sail, single-hull boat, 4.16 meters (14 feet) long and weighing 260 kilograms (573 pounds). The sailor must meet the minimum disability (MD) criteria.

At Beijing 2008 the two-person SKUD-18 was introduced. A three-sail (the only Paralympic class with a spinnaker), single-hull boat, 5.8 meters (19 feet) in long and weighing about 400 kilograms (882 pounds). There must be one male and one female competitor in each boat. One sailor has to be in sport class TPA (classification level 1 or 2) and the other in class TPB (the athlete only has to meet the minimum impairment criteria, so athletes from all 7 classification levels, including athletes with visual impairment qualify).

Rules of para sailing

The Racing Rules of Sailing, Rule 78.1 applies in the same way as it does for able bodied sailing -

78.1 A boat's owner and any other person in charge shall ensure that the boat is maintained to comply with her class rules and that her measurement or rating certificate, if any, remains valid.

The technical specifications for each boat type, e.g. length, width and weight, are set by the Class Association. Boats must be measured by an official measurer and have a valid Class Association Measurement Certificate to enable competition on equal terms, as factors such as size of the sails, hull length, weight and shape affect the speed at which it can complete a course.

Single Person Keelboat (2.4mR) -

Two Person Keelboat (SKUD18) -

Three Person Keelboat (Sonar) -

During competition The World Sailing Racing Rules of Sailing apply with additional specific information in the Para World Sailing Race Management Manual.

Olympic sailing courses vary slightly depending on the class, but generally follow a trapezoid, 'windward-leeward' or 'slalom' format, aiming to test each point of sail (these refer to the boats’ direction of travel in relation to the direction of the wind). Boats are usually sent upwind (against the direction of the wind) for the first leg of the course, with the finish usually being downwind (the boat travels in the same direction in which the wind is blowing).

11 races are sailed for each class (weather permitting) with the number of points scored being the same as the finishing position i.e. 1 point for first place, 2 points for second place etc. Overall placing is determined by accumulating points over the race series, with one race discarded (the boat’s worst placing), the boat with the fewest points is the winner.

Governing bodies

The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) is the UK national governing body for para sailing. You can find out more on their website here.

Regional clubs

UK Wide

The BPA have created an online directory, Parasport, where you can search for and find out about sport and physical activity in your area.

Sailability is the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) national disability sailing programme, open to anyone, no matter what age or disability (you don’t have to be a strong swimmer). Sailability approved locations have boats and facilities to cater for everyone and can be found through the RYA website. Also, for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

UK International 2.4 Metre Class Association

Skud 18 Sailors UK


  • RYA Quick Guide to Classification in Disabled Sailing
  • World Sailing -
  • US Sailing, in conjunction with the Para World Sailing Committee (PWSC) of World Sailing, have created an Adaptive Sailing Resource Manual with ‘the goal of providing resources and suggestions for organisations looking to develop an adaptive sailing program or expand upon an existing one’.