Sailing blind; sailing by sound

Many blind and partially sighted people are naturally skilled at sailing on the wind – imagine being at the helm and in control of the boat, nudging the wheel back or forth as you feel the wind shift across your face. Thanks to technology, people who are blind or visually impaired can sail on sailboats without sighted assistance on board. They even have races all around the world. Sailing has a language of its own that makes it accessible. By verbally giving instructions to each other, members of a team can communicate with each other throughout the race without the need for visual cues. There is also a sailing simulator. The simulator is a sailboat that can be operated on land. It helps people orient themselves to different parts of the boat, sailing commands and how to operate a sailboat. Council Excellence Award Winner BJ Blahnik collected funds for the simulator. He was a bronze medalist at the Blind World Sailing Championship in 2015. 

Relying on other senses

Sailing can give a sense of independence and freedom to blind and partially sighted people. Visually impaired and blind sailors enjoy the experience of sailing much the same as those with full use of their vision, they simply rely more on their senses of sound and touch.

Even the smallest increase or decrease of pressure on a line or the changes in heel and direction of a boat plays an important factor in the experience of a visually impaired sailor. In the Match Racing events, where there are no sighted guides on board the boats and the racing is one-on-one, each boat also carries a sound box which emits a loud beeping noise. This helps the sailors identify where the other boat is, even though they may not be able to see them. Between the sound marks and the sound boxes on the boats, the visually impaired and blind sailors can create a mental image of the racecourse, and to an outside observer, the boats racing appear no different than in a sighted race. Fleet Racing for the visually impaired and blind sailors is guided by hands-on sighted guides to a greater extent than Match Racing. Because there are so many boats involved on the starting line and mark roundings, there are two sighted guides on each boat. The first is a tactician only, offering input on where to put the boat on the course and assisting the skipper in racing tactics. The second is the jib trimmer only and is not allowed to touch the main or the helm. These two sighted guides provide enough guidance for the visually impaired sailors to effectively race safely and quickly around the course. Fleet Racing is a great intro for blind and visually impaired into the sport.

Blind sailing team

A blind sailing team typically comprises four people: a skipper at the helm, and a crewman trimming sails, both blind; and two sighted crewmen, one to provide verbal guidance and another who touches lines only barely, to assist. The advancements of technology allow blind sailors to race without any sighted crew onboard. It is called the Homerus Autonomous Sailing System and it was designed by a man named Alessandro Gaoso on a lake in northern Italy. Homerus works under a series of buoys, anchored strategically along the racecourse, each emitting a distinct sound: foghorn, whistle, siren. Individual sailboats, meanwhile, are equipped with soundboxes, which make more noises: one if the boat is tacking toward the port, another if tacking toward the starboard. This depends on a mercury switch: a glass tube filled with liquid mercury. Tilt it one way, and the mercury drifts in that direction, completing a circuit. Tilt it the other way, and the mercury follows, completing a different circuit. This switch is encased in a watertight plastic box, hung just below the boom, along the boat’s centerline, and wired to a speaker on the bow. A boat under sail is constantly tilting—heeling—to one side or another as it harnesses the wind, and now the mercury carries that signal to the speaker, which blares to everyone in range. The result of all this is a waterfront cacophony—but also, to the practiced ear, a means of orienting oneself on unseen waters, mechanized echolocation, the means for a sport that few people thought possible.

Vicky Sheen

Vicki Sheen is a double World Blind Sailing champion. She says that different things help her while sailing. Filtering down is the first one. Information about what is going on around you all the time comes from different sources. Feeling of the wind on the back of the neck is also very important. Drop-in pressure is the third thing that helps blind and visually impaired sailors. Cold, heavier air is easier to detect against the skin than a light breeze on a warm summer’s day as the air is less dense and the temperature is more like body temperature. While sailing you have to rely on the audio clues.

 Sensory indicators

Do you notice cleats on boats nearby being released, or do you see their sails and manoeuvres? When you are used to registering sounds like that, and the variant sounds of different sail tensions, your ability to anticipate their next move improves. Sensory indicators vary on a run and a beat and whether you are feeling the true or apparent wind. It is possible to steer an almost perfect course unsighted when you learn what the wind feels like on your neck and face. Feeling your way around the boat makes you and the boat much closer and you more receptive to changes in the way it is sailing. What you say and how you say it are equally important. Instructions must be clear, calm and concise for a visually impaired sailor. The opportunity to sail frees a blind person from the daily limitations on their mobility. At the helm, a blind sailor experiences the freedom to choose and control their course. This is precious freedom the sighted world takes for granted.

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