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Sailors With Disabilities Ready to Tackle Classic Australian Yacht Race

Blind and physically disabled sailors will crew a boat at the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race, expected to be one of the toughest competitions of its kind anywhere

Blind and paraplegic sailors as well as others with physical disabilities will crew a boat in one of the world's great ocean events, the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race. The race, which starts on Saturday, is one of the toughest competitions of its kind anywhere.

The Sydney to Hobart race is a test of character. Crew members go sleepless, suffer seasickness and fight monster waves on their journey down Australia's southeast coast.

And, as the novices on board the Sailors with disABILITIES vessel Kaz are learning, they have to get used to cramped surroundings below deck.

Badly injured in a cycling accident as a teenager, Liesel Tesch is the captain of the Australian women's wheelchair basketball team.

She only began sailing a few weeks ago and hopes her fierce competitive streak will make up for a lack of experience.

"Mate, I don't think my disability is going to get in the way in any way, shape or form out there," Tesch said. "I don't think disabilities is going to be an issue out there. It is just getting this boat from one place to another and whatever the wind throws at us is going to be the challenge out there, nothing to do with what we live with every day."

Final preparations are being made for the 1,163 kilometer journey to the Tasmanian capital. Alan Grundy, who suffered polio as a child and wears a brace on his right leg, is competing with the Sailors with disABILITIES crew in the classic for the tenth time.

He says the race is worth the discomfort.

"Sailing is a wonderful thing. If the times that it was horrible outnumbered the number of times that it was really nice, I probably wouldn't be doing it anymore," Grundy said. "There is too much joy in it. There is a lot of camaraderie, great friendships that last forever. You certainly test the mettle of human beings and with this particular crew - most of them being disabled - it is a very interesting crew. They've all been mettle-tested before. They've been bullied and harassed and have to put up with their own little incapabilities. So, they're pretty strong, pretty strong."

Sailors with disABILITIES was started in 1994, and has competed in the Sydney to Hobart race 15 times. It has a simple mission; to transform the way Australia perceives those with disabilities.

Although the annual yacht race is its most high-profile undertaking, founder David Pescud says the organization's work with children gives some of his most satisfying moments as he seeks to change attitudes.

"Society in general doesn't know how to deal with differences, society's not good with differences," Pescud said. "We are all frightened a little bit of things we don't know, things we don't understand. But I think it is the responsibility of disabled people to take on that challenge and say 'hey guys, you know, I've got a mortgage, I've got a missus, I've got two kids who won't go to sleep at night time blah, blah, blah. I'm just the same as everybody else.'"

It is estimated that about four million Australians - or 20 percent of the population - have a disability.

Ruth Robinson, of the Physical Disability Council of New South Wales, says the endeavors of those on David Pescud's yacht send a powerful message.

"I think the statement that his crew is making is here's a boat that is made up all of people who have perhaps different limitations for one reason or other and he is saying 'Hang about, even though we might be considered by some folk in society as being not as good or not as complete as other people, I'm telling you that as a group we can get out there and we can mix it with other teams of people who are considered to be by broader society to be very complete.' and I think that's a bit cool, really," Robinson said.

The fastest boats aim to complete the trip to Hobart in less than 48 hours. If past performances are anything to go by, the Sailors with disABILITIES yacht will not be far behind. Its crew aims to cross the finish line within three days.

The race, however, can be a deadly enterprise. In 1998, six people died when a savage and prolonged storm battered the fleet.