Manitoba man with Parkinson’s sailing Great Lakes to raise awareness for disease

A Manitoba man isn’t letting Parkinson’s disease slow him down. 

Steve Van Vlaenderen – who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2011 – said he’s not only sailing the Great Lakes for himself, but also to inspire others who live with the disease. 

The Winnipeg resident told the Winnipeg Sun that he’s always wanted to sail. He bought a sailboat one year before he was diagnosed.  

Van Vlaenderen and his partner Darlene Hildebrand began their sailing adventure in 2017 and started their journey through the Great Lakes last summer. They plan to continue until they reach the St. Lawrence River in the fall. 

“When I’m sailing on the Great Lakes, I don’t think about Parkinson’s at all,” Van Vlaenderen said. “To me, it doesn’t exist.”

Their first leg took the pair from Gimli, Man. to Georges Island in the upper basin of Lake Winnipeg and then back to Gimli. The second portion started in Duluth, Minn. and ended in Sarnia, Ont. 

The final trek began this week in Sarnia, Ont. Van Vlaenderen and Hildebrand intend to sail across Lake Erie, through the Welland Canal, across Lake Ontario and then to the St. Lawrence River before arriving in Montreal. They will then return to Whitby, Ont. 

The 69-year-old has partnered with Parkinson’s Canada to raise awareness about the incurable neurological disease. His website documents his sailing journey and collects donations for Parkinson’s Canada.

Screenshot from Van Vlaenderen’s website.

“I find sharing my experiences on the Great Lakes very therapeutic,” Van Vlaenderen said. 

According to UCB Canada, Parkinson’s disease affects 1 in every 500 people in Canada, but over 100,000 Canadians live with Parkinson’s today. It estimates 6,600 new cases of the disease are diagnosed each year. 

Common symptoms include tremors, slowed movement, rigid muscles, impaired posture and balance, loss of automatic movements, speech changes and writing changes. Other less noticeable symptoms consist of tiredness, depression and anxiety and apathy. 

Van Vlaenderen explained that his neurologist recommended he give up sailing because of slowing movement and balance issues, but he said he operates just fine as long as he has a little extra time to plan tasks like readying the boat for when it leaves in the morning. 

 “Don’t let Parkinson’s take anything away,” he said. “You don’t have to give up your dreams.”