Virtual Sailing Simulator in Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury

Principal Investigator: Albert Recio

The benefits of sport and recreational activities for the disabled are well recognized from the standpoint of health and quality of life. Yet there remains a lack of options for most disabled people, especially the young. Sailing is an attractive sport that can be pursued at recreational and competitive levels. We outline a pilot therapeutic sailing program using the VSail-Access Sailing Simulator system.

This program is a good fit with our current Activity Based Restorative therapy practices, and we expect that findings will add to our understanding of recovery from spinal cord injury and how to promote it. Participation in sailing by people with disabilities, particularly in small sailboats, is widely regarded as having positive outcomes on self-esteem and general health for the participants. However, a major hurdle for people with no experience of sailing, even those without disabilities, is the perception that sailing is elitist, expensive and dangerous.

Real time "ride on" sailing simulators have the potential to bridge the gap between dry land and on water sailing. They provide a realistic, safe and easily supervised medium, in which non-sailors can easily and systematically learn the required skills before venturing on the water. The task of sailing on a simulator can take place under specified conditions (eg wind strength) and be taught as individual components (e.g. steering, sail trimming) in a way that is not possible on the water where there is a large number of interacting variables.

The individual components can then be brought together so that the novice sailor rapidly achieves a degree of competence that would take much longer on the water. The aim of this project is to establish protocols for effective use of a simulator by people with disabilities and then to conduct a pilot trial to test two hypotheses: (1) That the use of the sailing simulator technology enables people with spinal cord injury to learn the skills required to sail on the water in a safe, non-threatening environment; (2) Teaching patients with SCI to sail using simulator technology will provide them with a safe, effective introduction to a healthy, environmentally-friendly, lifelong sport and recreation that will have measurable improvements on their physical health and psychological well-being, including their confidence (self-esteem), morale, and optimism about the future.

In this pilot trial 20 subjects with spinal cord injury will be recruited, assessed medically, and with questionnaires to establish baselines for evaluation of quality of life and self-esteem. All subjects will follow a course of instruction leading to mastery of basic sailing techniques such that at the end of the course the subjects will be able to perform a series of standard sailing maneuvers and navigate competently a triangular racecourse on the simulator's display in 12 knots of wind within a preset time.

The deliverables will be a detailed protocol for the use of sailing simulators to prepare people with disabilities to start sailing on the water. A secondary deliverable will be a structured protocol for use by sailing centers working with people with disabilities who enter sailing by direct participation on the water. Once the participants have completed the 12 week course they will have the opportunity to sail on the water with the assistance of the Downtown Sailing Club (DSC), Baltimore; however, this is not part of the formal pilot trial, which is aimed primarily at determining the optimum use of a sailing simulator for training purposes. The information from this pilot trial will be used to formulate a future more comprehensive study, which will include a major on water component in collaboration with the Downtown Sailing Club.

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