May 14 - 20  2023: Issue 583


Sailability Manly's Eli Demeny OAM

Eli with daughter Beth and husband Ivan. Photo: Caroline Holdstock photos

National Volunteer Week runs 15-23 May 2023. The theme for National Volunteer Week in 2023 is The Change Makers. This National Volunteer Week Volunteering Australia are asking, what kind of Change Maker are you? You may be a Caregiver, Guardian through your local Residents Association, Nature restorer and Bushcarer, Wildlife Rescuer and Carer, a Rotary club member, Surf Lifesaver, RFS or Marine Rescue member, Zonta girl, Communicator on local radio or a Speaker at U3A or Council meetings, or a combination of these, or a different sort of Change Maker altogether!

The week-long event recognises the vital support that the millions of volunteers in our country provide to their communities and encourages people to consider volunteering. National Volunteer Week 2023 is a celebration of our volunteers' power to drive change and ensure volunteering is inclusive of all members of the Australian community.

The vision is for volunteering to be at the heart of Australian communities as all our volunteers are the Change Makers.

This Issue we'd like to share an insight into Sailability Manly's Eli Demeny OAM. 

Sailability Manly, like Sailability Pittwater, commenced over a quarter century ago, and was among the first NSW chapters of this great organisation, and Eli was one of those founding members. 

You can find out more about Sailability Manly at:

Sailability organisations are “not for profit”, volunteer-based, and through the activity of Sailing enriches the lives of people of all abilities – the elderly, the financially and socially disadvantaged as well as people with physical challenges.

The Vision and Motto is:

Freedom on the Water, regardless of ability

Sailability Manly is a part of Sailability NSW, which in turn is part of the worldwide Sailability organisation. Their principal aim is to facilitate sailing for people with disabilities, on what is acknowledged as one of the most spectacular waterways in the world, Manly Cove and North Harbor.

Eli Demeny OAM, after 27 years at the heart of Sailability Manly, is stepping back from the multiple roles she has held within this chapter. Eli’s involvement with Sailability began when she retired from her career in teaching students with severe disabilities, and her daughter announced she had ‘found a new project for her’. 

Sailability was then in its infancy in Australia and, within a year, Eli was deeply involved in the fledgling organisation, devoting long days of service to this cause where her skills and experience meant she could have a huge impact. Eli takes pride in bringing a brand new activity to people with disabilities but most of all she has loved meeting so many incredible people. 

Now 81 and a great-grandmother, Eli is stepping back from many of her duties to spend more time with her growing family and enjoy some well-deserved rest. She officially steps down from her leadership roles in August but will still be at sailing days from time to time. 

Manly MP James Griffin said this week;

''As the Member for Manly, I have seen the extraordinary work Eli Demeny has done for Manly Sailability since 1996!  She has been an unassuming powerhouse who has been instrumental in guiding and growing Manly Sailability to the level it is today, with sailing dates for the disabled running twice a week (weather permitting) from their site in Manly Cove.  

I am very honoured to have Manly Sailability in my electorate and know that as Eli steps back from her roles, her dedication and expertise will be sorely missed.  All the best Eli and thank you for all you have done for the Manly Sailability community!''

Federal MP for Warringah Zali Steggall said

''For 27 years that’s what Manly Sailability have been providing to members of our community living with a disability. I’m so proud to have such a compassionate and dedicated group right here in Warringah.  It is particularly lovely to acknowledge the work of Eli Demeny - the heart and soul and “bulldog” of the organisation! ''

In 2009 Eli's was recognised with the awarding of an OAM, 'For Services to people with a disability' for her volunteer role at Sailability Manly and schools throughout our area. Eli was instrumental in establishing and running community initiatives such as schooling programmes for children with special needs prior to retiring from teaching. In 1997 she became a founding member of Sailability Manly, and has been the Club Secretary, ran the bookings programme, coordinating the individual disabled sailors and the sailing commitments of various disability organisations, contributed to and edited the Sailability Manly newsletter “Signals” and helped with the website, and you will even find her on the radio 'Comms' during sailing sessions.

But wait, there's more!

In 2017 Eli organised a Sailability Australia on day sail on tall ship Tenacious. This was 40 Sailability NSW members from eight branches, including seven in wheelchairs, on board Tenacious. This ship belongs to charity Jubilee Sailing Trust UK with their purpose being to enable disabled and able bodied folk to sail on equal terms.

Participants said 'A wonderful, unforgettable experience!'

Virginia chats with Eli and Judy Wall (with son Marcus who loved the whole day). Pilot boat in background. Photo: Graeme Adam

Each May Sailability Manly hosts its Volunteers Recognition evening which is also a birthday celebration for the Manly chapter of Sailability. Although there were speeches of recognition of Eli's work given by Sean, representing Zali Steggall; past Manly Yacht Club president Keith; past Manly Yacht Club commodore Maz; daughter Beth and Mayor Michael Regan, and MP for Wakehurst, who is also the Patron of Sailability Manly, Eli was focused on handing out the awards to those named.

Sailability Manly's Junior Volunteer of the Year: Sophie, pictured here with Eli

However, after all this talk about the lady and her passion - how about a few insights by Eli herself:

Eli, you’re thinking of retiring after putting almost 3 decades in as a volunteer at Sailability Manly?

Well, I’m trying to (laughs). It’s not as easy as it sounds. 

How did you first become involved in Sailability Manly?

I was retiring from, my teaching job, I’d been teaching for 38 years and thought it was time to retire. My job then was working with children and young adults with severe disabilities, physical and intellectual disabilities. Today we call people who need this help people with very high needs. So, this was children who were in wheelchairs and children whose intellectual abilities were very limited, so people who couldn’t speak in some instances. One of the things you do with them is when you’re a teacher is number 1 you’re teaching them to rise as high as they can in the skills they need to live; so things like feeding themselves or being out in the community and so on. To do this you have to write a program of the things you’re going to do. My great job was getting people outside somewhere. We used to go rowing, we used to go camping, we used to go bushwalking – in a limited way with wheelchairs on bush tracks. 

One of my daughters was going through her first year at University and one of her friends was doing Occupational Therapy. The girl doing this was invited to get involved at Sailability Dobroyd at Rodd Point in Five Dock. My daughter said ‘My friend Kern is doing this and this is a project that you would really like.’

I said ‘ok, but I can’t do it over there as I’m not a good driver, it’s got to be here at Manly.’ To which she replied – ‘I think they are opening a Manly branch as well.’

So I went down there and thought ‘oh my gosh, I can do this and I can learn a new skill as well – sailing!’ I’m not a sailor, I’ve never been a sailor, but I thought I can learn to do this and also help them as I have those skills with a particular group of people. In fact, the people that they were on the beach with at Manly Cove were actually my kids. So I knew how to lift them into the boats and how to settle them so they would be comfortable. It seemed like I was fated to do that.

So you had to learn how to sail?

Yes, but I’m a terrible sailor (laughs). My great joy is messing around in boats. I started there in 1996 and I’m 81 now. 

I like to fix the boats that they need. I like to make sure the people are seated comfortably – it’s all individual in the boats we use. I like making seats for them. It used all of the skills I’d been learning on the job for so many years, so I fitted in quite neatly. 

Over the years the other instigators had to leave for various reasons; getting older, moving due to job changes, so I took on many other tasks too. I was never the President but was the Secretary for most of the way through my 26 almost 27 years with Sailability Manly.  Over the years I did the Newsletter for a while, I’ve been on the radio and support boat as the Comms person when we got out sailing. At the beginning I would ring or email all the organisations and let them know what we had for them and what we were doing. 

Later on I could send them little film clips we made. These were produced by one of our most avid sailors, who was a young man when he joined us but is now in his 70’s. he has severe cerebral palsy but has skills – one of them is talking and another is film making. If he’s making a film he wears a camera on his head and has made films of people sailing as well as what we do before sailing.

One of the things we have to teach volunteer people to do is rigging the boats or how to use the support boat that goes out with the fleet, or being the registrar – all of the things we need to do at the start, before a sailing sessions. So Allan would make little films of this too. He also started our website as well in 2003 or 2004, which was very young in the days of websites. He’s had it taken over now by a gentleman named Scott who keeps it all up to date.

What are some of the positives you have seen during those years?

In those days we used to have 4 or 5 people to help 4 people with a disability. We started with 2 boats, quickly went to 3 boats but we would have 9 or 10 helpers for the same 4 or 5 people coming down to have their sail. At the beginning they were, as I said, my people, and we still have those people coming down today, but they are now in their 50’s. Many many times I’ve had it said to me ‘this is the only thing they really like doing’.

We take them shopping, to the movies, to the RSL for a meal but what they really enjoy is coming down to sailing.

For some of them they have the freedom to go out on the water – nobody is pushing the wheelchair, nobody is telling them ‘this is how you do it’ – they are sitting there in the boat and they are managing to sail it. They are in charge. Manly Cove is a fairly large area to move around in and when there, they are in charge of themselves and their sailing.

Are you a Manly girl yourself?

I am now – and this is part of all the coincidental things that happened around the same time. My three daughters were all grown up by the time 1996 came around and we then had a 5 bedroom house at Beacon Hill.  That got too difficult for my husband Ivan to cope with the vacuuming, (laughs) so we moved down to Manly to a little 3 bedroom unit. 

Has Ivan been supportive of your volunteer work?

He loves it, loves Sailability Manly. He was one of the people who went sailing right from the beginning – he is a sailor. 

Is he a better sailor than you?

Oh, a much better sailor. 

What sort of boats is Sailability Manly using?

We have Hanses. These are either 2.3 long or 3.03. We sail Access 303 sailing dinghies with two sails. These are two-person boats, designed in Australia. Depending on their ability, our guest (participant) sailors are given the opportunity to either go along for the ride or actually do some of the sail control. We have one Access 2.3 sailing dinghy with one sail. This is set up for two sailors. We also have a single-seat Access 2.3 sailing dinghy which is set up with a chin-operated joy-stick, servo motors and batteries for sailors who cannot use their hands to control the ropes.

Have you noticed a change in any of your sailors?

I’ve seen the changes it gives our sailors in providing them with access to a form of physical exercise they can do. This in turn has built confidence in each individual – both are positives. 

Just imagine if they couldn’t do sailing; they wouldn’t get out into the fresh air and the wind. Their immunity would just be so low.

Sailing also increases the social outlook of our sailors; they start learning a bit about teamwork, they have to know what to do with their body when they get into the boats, so do our volunteers of course. 

It’s just amazing the changes people will go through in order to be able to sail. Take for instance Alan, who just began with us as someone who wanted to sail, and then built the website. The first time he went sailing, which would be around 22 years ago, his brother came with him. He went into the boat and when he came back he had such a grin on his face. His brother said to me ‘I’ve never seen Alan so enthusiastic, so happy.’

Ever since then he’s been coming down often. He does have a drivers licence, he does drive – and now with independence on the water, he has this even more so.

I must mention Vanessa as well. Vanessa was in one of my classes at school and she was an incredibly isolated little girl. All she wanted to do all day was lay on a bed covered with a sheet. It was really difficult to get her into doing anything at all.

I talked her carers into bringing her down to sailing. She sat on the pontoon in her wheelchair for about 3 months. Then she agreed to be lifted into the boat – it took around another 6 months before she was comfortable just rocking on the side of the pontoon. Then very gradually we took her away from the side of the pontoon. Now we’re about 15 or 20 years later and off she goes! She goes sailing with anyone, walks down to the pontoon herself, and is so happy. There is such a difference in this wonderful girl. Her helpers have been able to teach her to walk, to feed herself – and she puts the sunscreen on herself, getting her hands covered in this slimy stuff – just a darling girl.

Another is Judy. Judy was another little one that I had in one of my classes, very severely disabled, cried most of the day. We discovered that she also likes to go sailing, and she liked to sing while she is sailing! Now I heard her singing ‘row, row, row your boat’ – before that I’d never heard her talking, there was nothing. 

Judy passed away around 6 months ago. The organisation that was looking after her and where she lived asked if we would mind if they spread Judy’s ashes on Manly Cove, and so we did that in November last year.

Do you need more volunteers Eli?

Yes we do.

What sort of skills do they need?

You don’t need any skills, just willing to learn. You need to be aware that you will be working outside in all sorts of different weathers. You need to know that you don’t need to look glamorous – we need real people as we do real things. You will improve your fitness, you will be out in the fresh air. This is great for people who have always had an interest in sailing but have not gone sailing yet as we’ll teach almost anybody to sail. If they email Jeremy Tebbutt he will provide them with information on how to get involved.


Does Sailability Manly still have room for more sailing people?

Yes - we don’t have a limit to how many we take on at this stage and take on new people all the time. We also have a few sessions too. We started off just once a month, we quickly grew to 2 Saturdays a month. Then we started doing the Wednesday following the Saturday. We got in touch with all the schools and so added a Monday– and now the schools and organisations get in touch with us. So we are now sailing 5 times a month; usually 2 Wednesdays and a Monday and the Saturdays. 

What has volunteering given to you over all that time?

I’m now super fit Alison. I go to the gym and do pump, I walk a lot, I do Pilates a lot, I swim a lot and I get out in the fresh air. Being a volunteer in this way has given me contact with wonderful people, so camaraderie as well – we have a great team working together at Sailability Manly.

In 2009 you were awarded an OAM ‘for Services to sailors with disabilities’  in recognition of your dedication to Sailability Manly – how did you feel when that recognition was announced?

That was the most incredible acknowledgement. I then had to really get stuck into it because I didn’t feel I really deserved it.  

You held your Volunteer Recognition evening for 2023 on May 3rd? 

Yes, we held this at the Totem Club at Balgowlah this year, who are very good to us and lend us their meeting room one Monday a month. I approached the Totem Club and they said ‘yes, of course, please use the meeting room whenever necessary’. We have several people with a disability as committee members and as they couldn’t find a place close enough to Manly Yacht Club to park. As the Totem Club had parking and great access for our committee members we used that this year. The Manly Yacht Club have been great supporters of Sailability Manly over many years as well, so kudos to them too and thank you.

It looks like you had great fun?

We did – we had Michael Regan in a pink hat at one stage. 

So what’s so good about sailing on Manly Cove?

Manly Cove is unique – the rest of Sydney will be covered in rain and strong winds and we will be still in a very sheltered place. Over the years I don’t think I’ve had to cancel more than 5 sessions, except for when Covid was on, and we had to cancel for a few weeks then.

When the Health Officer of NSW decided that people had to stay home then. About 10 volunteers rang me and said ‘we don’t want to stay home because we’ll all get really unfit.’ – ‘If they obey all the distancing rules, can they come down and go for a sail?’ I said ‘yes; but you will have to be able to sail solo – if you can rig your own boat, and follow all we’ve been told we have to do to keep everyone safe, we will do it.’ And so the volunteers all went sailing and improved their sailing skills as a result during that time. They had to come dressed ready for sailing, and had to go home dressed like that, even if they were a little bit wet – but they did it, and stuck to the rules, and we didn’t miss any sailing days practice for them.

Thank you Eli for all you have done for Sailability Manly's sailors for decades – anything you would like to add?


Our principal aim is to facilitate sailing for people with disabilities, on what is acknowledged as one of the most spectacular waterways in the world. If you want to learn how to sail, please get in touch. If you are a volunteer who wants to help others enjoy this wonderful sport, please get in touch – we’d love to have you as part of the Sailability Manly team, and if you can’t sail, we will teach you how to.

Sailability Manly's Volunteer of the Year: Wilma, pictured here with Eli