One of North America’s finest sailors in the singlehanded 2.4 mR class, Siobhan MacDonald is a perennial – and popular! – competitor at the C. Thomas Clagett, Jr. Memorial Clinic & Regatta, an amazing event hosted by Sail Newport in Newport, Rhode Island. She also co-founded a sailing club in her Cape Breton hometown, despite being born without a right leg, most of her left arm, and part of her right hand.
“I grew up in Mabou, Nova Scotia and started sailing around seven years old when my uncle, Danny MacDonald, bought his first sailboat off Kijiji [a Canadian online advertising website],” says Siobhan. “It was a bright red Albacore.”
Soon after, Siobhan and Danny started the Mabou Sailing and Boating Club. “We had a mobile sailing club come to our town when I was young, organized by Danny,” she explains. “This came around every year for three years and each time the interest from the community grew exponentially. When we learned that the club would no longer be coming every summer, we knew we had to create our own.”
“Our club is a humble one. It’s located in a cove off Mabou Harbour, and we have a small fleet of twelve Optimists, four Lasers, and a few doublehanded boats. We run a CANSail program from levels 1-3 and when we have the resources we run a small racing program and adult sailing. We have high hopes to grow the club, build a new facility, get more docking space, open membership to larger boats, and most importantly build the fleet. It’s not often in a small town that a new activity like this grows so quickly. It was a really special moment having kids see their home from the water and be so excited. We’ve even had kids go through the program and pursue Coast Guard college and other sea-based professions.”
Paul Tingley, a Paralympic champion and Halifax native, has helped guide Siobhan’s competitive path. “I connected with Paul when I was around 14. He introduced me to the 2.4mR and coached me at the 2013 Canada Games. Paul was extremely pivotal in my sailing career as he continued to mentor me for many years. He helped me gain the confidence I have today, and I always enjoy the opportunity to be on the water with him whenever I can.”
Siobhan did her first Clagett Regatta in 2016. “I’ve attended three other Clagetts and this year will be my fifth. The amount of support The Clagett gives to sailors is unlike any event I’ve ever been to. From the on-shore volunteers, organizers, race committee, jury and coaches to the media crew, everyone is so happy to be there and to assist anyone with anything! I’ve grown so much as a sailor by attending the Clagett Regatta, and I’m sure all past Clagett competitors would say the same.”
Sailors in The Clagett learn from the best coaches in the sport, including David Dellenbaugh and Dave Perry. “The Daves have been an incredible addition to the Clagett family,” says Siobhan. “Not only do they bring their vast expertise of the sport, but they are also incredible coaches. They somehow manage to focus on each competitor throughout the event, and allow us to elevate our racing skills. I’ve learned great tips on how to make my boat sail faster, but the most important thing I’ve learned from The Daves is how to think on the racecourse. So much of sailing happens outside the boat, with keeping track of wind patterns, current, and other boats. How you manage this huge amount of information and use it to execute tactical decisions can really separate sailors on the course.”
Siobhan was Team Nova Scotia’s flag bearer at the 2018 Canada Summer Games, where she won the 2.4mR bronze medal, and she’s sailed in two Para World Championships. “These were incredible experiences with world-class sailors from all around the world,” she enthuses.
In 2019, Siobhan was awarded a 2.4mR through the Clagett Boat Grant Program, replacing an older, breakdown-prone boat. “I was able to focus more on the big picture, making better decisions on the water and improving my strategy and tactics. I want to thank the Clagett Regatta for providing me with a huge amount of support since I joined the sport. I also owe many of my successes to the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron, and specifically George Archibald, who saw potential in a young sailor and continues to support me along my sailing journey.”
Siobhan graduated from Queen’s University in Toronto in 2020 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, and was captain of the Queen’s Keelboat Team her senior year. “The 2022 Para Worlds are in Florida next year, so that will be my main focus. Further down the road, I would love to get some offshore sailing experience. I’m working on getting my Professional Engineer certification, and hope I can use this in the health care industry or somewhere that keeps me close to the water!”
“The best thing about sailing is that once you hit the water, it is an even playing field. It doesn’t matter if you have all limbs or none. Whatever your physical ability we all, literally and figuratively, leave our identities on the dock and on the water we’re all sailors.” ■