After Parkinson’s diagnosis, sailing gives Winnipeg man his life back

By | April 23, 2019

When Steve van Vlaenderen was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2011, he was devastated.

But realizing his dream of sailing has, quite literally, put the wind back in his sails.

Van Vlaenderen and his partner, Darlene Hildebrand, have already sailed up Lake Winnipeg and travelled 1,400 kilometres on lakes Superior and Huron.

Starting in June, they plan to take two and a half months to make the 1,700-km journey through lakes Erie and Ontario — all while raising money to fight Parkinson’s.

Van Vlaenderen had purchased a sailing boat a year before his diagnosis, and was finally ready to realize his dream of taking it out on the open water.

But at the time, doctors told him it wouldn’t be a good idea, due to balance issues and other problems created by the disease.

His diagnosis made him feel defeated, robbed, and angry.

“I felt more like my life had been taken away from me, and that I couldn’t do anything anymore,” he said.

It was hard for his partner to watch.

“It was hard for him to keep going, and I just wanted to encourage him to keep going and not give up, because I knew what he was capable of,” Hildebrand said.

Two years later, he says he came to a decision that he didn’t want Parkinson’s to take over his life.

“I wasn’t happy anymore. I was sad, I couldn’t feel anything. I had no motivation. And I had to make a decision to take control, which I did, and I never looked back,” he said.

In 2018, the couple made the journey across Lake Superior — but it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.

Three days into their trip, their boat started to take on water, and they had to be rescued by the Coast Guard.

But a few days later, after having the boat repaired, they were back on their way.

Inspiration for others 

Dubbing their journey Sail On with Parkinson’s, the pair use the voyages to raise money for Parkinson Canada, and to show others living with the disease that they can still live full, active lives.

“One of the women told us, well, if Steven can do what he’s doing … I can certainly go back to my art,” Hildebrand said.

“So he inspired her to go back to doing something that she loved.”

Being on the water, Van Vlaenderen says he feels like he doesn’t have Parkinson’s at all.

“I get a euphoric feeling. Sailing on the Great Lakes, it’s a feeling of peacefulness,” he said.

“When I’m sailing, when I was on the boat, I didn’t feel like I had Parkinson’s. It didn’t exist.”