Sail on with Parkinson’s

Darlene Hildebrand, Steve’s partner in crime, on their Cloud, a Niagara 31. Darlene, who has been incredibly supportive to Steve, developed a love for sailing in 2005 when she met Steve.

Darlene Hildebrand, Steve’s partner in crime, on their Cloud, a Niagara 31. Darlene, who has been incredibly supportive to Steve, developed a love for sailing in 2005 when she met Steve.

Steve Van Vlaenderen is an amazing and inspiring man who struggles with Parkinson's Disease as did my own father. He is convinced that sailing is helping control and even slow down the progression of Parkinson's disease.

Steve first came to my attention in the Spring 2015 edition of "Porthole" a sailing magazine published by Sail Manitoba. This article was published in the Fall 2015 edition. Sail Manitoba can be found at

Sail on with Parkinson’s

By Steve Van Vlaenderen

It has been four and a half year since my neurologist strongly suggested that I should consider giving up sailing , advising me that balance and mobility may become problematic. I decided to challenge that advice and decided to sail on regardless of the fact that I had Parkinson’s disease. This year will be my sixth season sailing.

On July 12th 2015 my partner Darlene and I set sail from Gimli Harbor for a twenty three day sailing vacation north on Lake Winnipeg, our second trip north this year. Our destination was Princess Harbour and Matheson Island. It was a challenging trip to say the least. The condition of the lake changed constantly on us. For eight days out of the first thirteen days we experienced severe thunderstorms, as many as three times per day, with winds at times registering 45 knots.

I quickly learned that respecting Lake Winnipeg was as much about understanding the natural elements we were facing – wind and waves – as it was about the unexpected effects that those natural elements can have on both sailboat and crew. I also learned patience - tied to a dock, unable to sail anywhere on those days we were becalmed by no wind and 34c plus temperatures !

Shortly after our return from our trip, I was asked : were we ever scared ? Thinking about it for moment, I remembered a quote from Louisa May Alcott I once read : ‘’I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship’’ . Sailing for the past six years has been a life altering experience for me. I quickly came to realize how similar the required knowledge of sailing is to dealing with life issues.

We all have our own challenges in life, our own obstacles to overcome. In my case it is Parkinson’s Disease, a degenerative neurological disease with no known cause or cure. Sailing has taught me that we all have the power to face these challenges. Because in daily life, as at sea, we have to learn to adapt to situational changes

Sailing requires many things . It requires tactical skills. Team work is critically important. Good communication and clarity is paramount. You must know how to develop long term strategies when laying out your course in order to arrive at your destination on time and safely. Sailing requires flexibility when things like wind shifts or unexpected storms completely change your plan.

Over the past number of years sailing has taught me that It is very important to have a well prepared plan in both sailing and in life. As the Captain I am tasked with making multiple decisions : development of a sail plan, reviewing the weather conditions and forecast, route options, when to sail and when to stay at a safe harbour, provisioning , the condition of the equipment to mention only a few.

I have to make sure that I don’t lose focus in critical situations. I need to spend less time dwelling on unimportant issues. Outside influences beyond our control will often force a course correction, both in sailing and in life. It has become very important for me to recognize subtle changes and revise my strategy quickly when it comes to dealing with my own health issues.

The motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease –tremors, muscle stiffness, slowness of movement , balance problems, to name a few, are not the only symptoms I have to contend with day to day. Depression and anxiety are also common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and I’ve experienced both . I’ve actually found these “non -motor symptoms” to be more challenging and disabling than the motor changes that I experience.

But what has become obvious to me is that when I’m sailing I don’t experience these symptoms. No depression or anxiety. I have gained a greater height of awareness of the people and things’ around me. To use a sailing metaphor: I’m constantly adjusting my sails in order to accomplish what I want to accomplish in a given day.

Sailing has been for me a spectacular experience in life and has taught me a lot. . Sailing has taught me that I am capable of more than I, and my doctor, thought I was . I’ve learned to slow down and enjoy the moment. Because of sailing, my confidence about the future has grown and I know I’m capable of “sailing on” with Parkinson’s disease.

If you enjoyed this post, I'd really appreciate it if you could help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on Twitter or Facebook. Thanks & Cheers! Daryl