“Don’t Give Up”. Sail On with Parkinsons Inspires Us All.


One year after Steve Van Vlaenderen realized his dream of owning a sailboat, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. If that news wasn’t enough, doctors also recommended he give up sailing.

That was seven years ago. The Winnipegger didn’t listen to his doctors, and he certainly didn’t give up on his dream. On June 18th, the 68-year-old yachtsman headed out on the first leg on a trip through the Great Lakes to raise awareness about Parkinson’s with his partner and First Mate, Darlene Hildebrand.

Last week, Steve Van Vlaenderen and First Mate Darlene Hildebrand stopped in Sault Ste. Marie. The 31′ Niagara Hinterhauler single mast Sailboat, ‘Cloud’ was docked in a slip at Bondar Marina for a few days.

Darlene Hildebrand and Steve Van Vlaenderen began an epic voyage in mid June, 2018. Sail On with Parkinsons. photo by Lynne Brown/ Superior Media. July 23, 2018.

Superior Media attended an inspiring afternoon of conversation at the Seniors Drop-In Centre on Bay Street.  Members, family and friends of the local Parkinson’s support group came together, along with Estelle Joliat, Parkinson Canada’s Community Development Coordinator, Northern Ontario. Steve Van Vlaenderen and Darlene Hildebrand  shared some of the highlights and challenges to sailing ‘Cloud’ from Superior, Wisconsin (L. Superior) all the way to Sarnia, Ontario (L. Huron).

Van Vlaenderen spoke about some of the struggles a Parkinsons diagnosis can bring into a persons life. For him, anxiety and depression took hold for about two years, until he found the ‘Eat Clean’ diet and started exercising.

“I panicked and that led me into the worse feeling of helplessness.” he said.  “I have always been physically active, and when I stopped – well – it didn’t help things at all. I’ve learned that coping strategies for me include physical fitness. If you encounter a problem – be patient with yourself.”

“When I’m in my boat, I’m in my element.” shared Van Vlaenderen.  “Don’t let it (a Parkinson’s diagnosis) define you. If you want to take dancing lessons – take dance lessons. If you want to kayak. Do it. Actually, staying physically active for as long as possible is key, in my mind, to living with Parkinson’s.”

A key message for the Sail On journey is, “Stick to the plan – not the schedule.” shared Hildebrand. “Everywhere we go, we are meeting people who share stories with us. Some are stories about Parkinsons – about family or friends that they know – and some are about the love of sailing. We have met many generous people who have supported us along the way.”  Hiildebrand shared a story about an individual who offered them the use of a vehicle so that she could top up supplies at a local shopping centre.

“We met a couple who were sailing a little ahead of us, and they waited for us at Whitefish Point and guided us in. There’s a 20′ wide channel to negotiate around Whitefish Point, so they really helped us tremendously that day.”

“Darlene takes care of me – We’re a team.” said Van Vlaenderen. Hildebrand said that simple foods are on the menu when they’re out on the water.

“I’m hoping that Sail On with Parkinson’s and our adventure will encourage people to look at what Parkinson’s is – because it isn’t one thing — it’s multiple conditions at the same time,” Van Vlaenderen said. “Parkinson’s is like an iceberg; 10 percent is above the surface that people can see, like the tremors, and 90 percent is below the water level.”

Sail On launched from Barker’s Marina in Superior, Wisconsin.  The couple will sail Lake Superior and Lake Huron over the summer. The trip will take about 75 days, and they’ll cover approximately 1,450 kilometres (900 miles). They’ll then dry-dock the boat at Bridgeview Marina in Sarnia, Ontario, and continue the journey in 2019 through Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

On their voyage, they’ll continue to encounter unfamiliar waters, long distances, and inclement weather. Van Vlaenderen and Hildebrand are ready. They’re used to challenges in their life.

“It’s a terrific adventure. Very few people do something like this; even if they are completely healthy and much younger. So for us to do this at our age, and with Steve’s condition, it’s exciting.” Hildebrand said. “What we’re trying to do is give people hope.”

For more information, and to support Sail On with Parkinsons visit: http://www.sailon.ca