Sailing, life experiences beyond the sea

Sailing, life experiences beyond the sea

We sailors often say that much more than sight is involved in sailing, that instinct and "feeling" are just as important as seeing -- we feel the direction and intensity of the wind or the keeling of the boat, more than actually see them. But would we really be able to sail comfortably and confidently if we were actually blind? Can we even imagine such a situation?

Personally, I have been sailing – cruising for leisure as well as racing and teaching – for over twenty years but only recently discovered the world of blind sailing. It happened a little over a year ago, in the summer of 2016. I had recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area on my own and longed to find sailing opportunities. One of the first opportunities I stumbled upon was that of being an instructor for people who are blind but want to sail – and it opened a whole new world to me, which has since then continued to unravel with the most wonderful and enriching experiences.

Despite my broad sailing expertise, I was quite nervous the first time I went out as sailing instructor on a J24 with two people who were visually impaired. So I was very grateful for being the second (and “only” supporting) sighted instructor on board! My tension, however, dissolved almost as soon as we set sail and I saw the incredible sensitivity to wind, keeling angle, sounds and other non-visual inputs that our two students had. They were a sweet, recently-engaged couple who had sailed only once before. Their enthusiasm, delight, and readiness to learn were remarkably strong and contagious. They took turns steering the boat and trimming the main sail all the time we were on the water. The only interventions from us two sighted instructors, for safety reasons, were jib trimming, course directions, and docking. As we sailed around the portion of the San Francisco Bay behind Treasure Island, the other instructor and I painted the scene around us in words for our visually impaired students to “see”. We let them steer the boat offering only the minimal input necessary and answering their questions. The technical input usually given in this type of sailing are indications on how much to move the tiller to point the boat more into the wind or bear away, and/or to tell the student(s) how much to trim/ease the main sail. Usually a numeric scale is used, to give clearer, quantitative information, e.g. 1 up, 2 up, 3 up or 1 down, 2 down, 3 down to point the boat more into the wind or bear away, respectively.

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This first experience with blind sailing really opened my eyes and made me want to do more, so I then continued volunteering with this non-profit organization (Blind Sail SF Bay) and got involved with BAADS (Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors). In doing so, I discovered something maybe even more astonishing: that fleet regattas and match racing for sailors who are blind also exist and take place in the Bay Area as well as in other locations in North America and around the world!

The fleet regatta involves several boats with crews of four people, two of whom are sighted and two are blind: the sighted crew are in charge of the jib (and fore-deck) and tactics (the tactician is not allowed to touch any of the controls), while the blind members of the crew work the helm and the cockpit controls. In the blind match race, on the other hand, all of the sailors are visually impaired and they rely on sound buoys to race: they use only the information coming from the floating contraptions to judge both the range and the heading, and thus sail, using special audible tack indicators on each boat so one crew theoretically knows where the other boat is.

Beyond some audible equipment, the blind match racing rules are identical to those used by sighted crews. Incredible as this might seem, the most amazing aspect of this feat is the way these blind sailors process the information they receive from their environment. I learned a lot about their special processing techniques from Walt Raineri, Blind Sailing Director at BAADS.

As Raineri explains it, he attempts to internalize a visual image to keep the course and the other boat appropriately placed on a digital mental map, but more important is "understanding the algorithm to employ in a given situation so that you can react, in real time, to changing circumstances".

Raineri started to go blind in his mid-forties, twelve years ago, losing 95% of his vision within five months because of a hereditary disease. What makes his situation even more remarkable is that before going blind he had never sailed. He started sailing as one of the ways to "keep the walls from caving in" -- as he described the feeling caused by having lost his vision.

Going blind as an adult required many adaptations, several of them practical but many of them psychological as well. And sailing, for Raineri, was one of the keys to his successful adaptation to his new condition.

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Raineri sees life in general as a series of steps that each person accomplishes on a daily basis and sailing is just a very special task in which we have to apply series of steps to get things done. The major obstacle for blind sailors is that they cannot see objects that might be hazards, such as a big log floating in the water or another boat; but sailing and racing can nonetheless be successfully accomplished by the application of an algorithm, using the auditory information (sound buoys, waves slapping the keel, wind blowing) as well as tactile data (points of contact of the body on the boat, the wind on the face and neck and ears, the keeling of the boat, the feel of the helm and lines and boom, etc.).

I had the opportunity to witness this algorithmic approach a couple of times when I went sailing with Raineri and literally was his eyes.

Once, for instance, he had to practice the maneuver to recover person overboard, so he was at the helm, driving the boat, feeling the wind and keeling angle, and listening to various sounds including my voice. And I was giving him constant feedback and directions to where the “person overboard” was in the water respect to the boat. Although I had already performed similar tasks before, I had never done it for someone who cannot see and who therefore relies completely on me to know where he is on the water as well as where the person overboard is with respect to him and the boat. This made the task much more demanding as I felt a much higher responsibility, despite being only a practice routine. The importance of extremely precise and exact information for the blind skipper really hit me with full power then.

Personal drive, sharper awareness, methodological approach, and keen sensitivity are traits I have witnessed in other visually impaired people with whom I sailed as well. This past summer, for instance, I had the opportunity to be the lead instructor & skipper for the women’s boat on an excursion organized by the non-profit organization Peace of Adventure, sailing from Los Angeles to Catalina Island, CA. This five-day adventure organized for disabled veterans and visually impaired people included classroom teaching (introduction to safety & sailing techniques, knots, tips), a warm-up sail in the L.A. harbor, sailing from L.A. to Catalina Island, camping and hiking on Catalina Island, and finally sailing back from the island to L.A. There were a dozen participants, two coaching sailors, and two licensed skippers from the L.A. area. We had two boats, a Dufour 375 and Beneteau 46: I was in charge of the former (the “women’s boat”) while the latter was the “men’s boat”.

Once again, I had the responsibility to teach people with a variety of sailing skills and disabilities how to sail but especially I had the opportunity to learn so much from them.

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Personally, this was my first time sailing out into the Pacific Ocean (and not “just” in the SF Bay or along the coast) and I strongly felt the additional responsibility of being the key person of reference for half a dozen women who had never sailed in that part of the world, either, and who were disabled (mostly blind) and/or novices on the water. It was an incredibly empowering experience, for myself as well as for them. To see the ease with which they oriented themselves on the boat, the quickness with which they learned the workings of the various parts and mechanisms, the keen sensitivity with which they maneuvered the sailboat – it was wonderful and really eye-opening for me. I let the participants take turns at the helm and trimming the sails, and I intervened only when asked for help or directions; in the meantime, I painted the surrounding landscape in words for them to “see”. We successfully sailed all the way to Catalina Island, turning the motor on to dock much earlier than the “boys” did on their boat -- a great success! And what a gorgeous sail! We had a warm, sunny day with a light to moderate breeze that started off around 10 knots at our departure and freshened up to 22 knots (gusting 25+) by the time we reached the island. We had a head-on wind so we had to tack several times to reach our destination, and our crew performed all the tacks smoothly and in an increasingly precise way as the voyage unrolled. All this while chatting pleasantly and feeling a very deep comradeship, although most of us had never met until two days earlier.

Being a racer myself, I focused on the fine details of trimming the sails, helping the participants feel the subtle differences, but they took turns among each other steering all the way. Only when we were getting closer to the island and the wind had freshened up to nearly 25 knots did they ask me, very calmly, to take the helm. I’ll never forget the controlled and serene voice in which Laura, then steering, said to me: “Alec, I’m a little out of my depth, would you mind taking the helm?”.

So I did, while the other ladies continued sheeting in and out as necessary on our island-bound tacks.

From all these wonderful experiences sailing with people who are visually impaired, I have learned that feeling is really the main sense necessary on a sailboat. How this has been eye-opening for me!

Copyright Alexandra M Liguori