Recently I was fortunate to have the opportunity to run a North U Match Racing Clinic for the vision impaired sailors preparing for the 2016 World Sailing Blind Match Racing World Championship, being held at the Sheboygan Yacht Club in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, September 21-25, 2016, and sponsored by Sail Sheboygan and SEAS. Four teams participated, coming from California, Canada, Great Britain, and a team composed of sailors from Massachusetts and Sheboygan. Though each team had a sighted coach, they race with no sighted person on board. Truly amazing!

The clinic was in the Sonars they are racing in the Worlds, with three sailors to a boat. The skipper is required to be 100% blind, and the two others can have varying degrees of vision impairment. They had some goggles I could wear to experience what their vision ability was like. One common view is like looking through wax paper. You can make out shades and rough shapes, but there is no clarity. The other is like looking down a straw, but the straw is in a different place in each eye. They can see what they see clearly, but it is tiny. And they have no depth perception. Plus, if they lose sight of it, it takes them a while to search around to find it again.

They use two marks to form their starting line, each making a unique sound, and a windward mark with its own sound. They sail the traditional match racing course (W-L-W-Finish), but use the pin end of the starting line as the leeward mark. Each boat has a noise maker which makes a different sound on each tack.

In addition to the sounds of the marks, they have watches that beep and vibrate, and they are talking with each other as normal, so their world onboard is very loud! This is just one of their challenges. Another one is keeping track of where they are. If they lose track of the marks, they can get quite lost. And of course they need to be able to maintain the point of sail on which they want to sail. All this while trying to beat the other boat across the finishing line!

We spent most our time talking boat handling, speed and match racing tactics just like at all my other match racing clinics. We brainstormed ideas to address their challenges, and we had solid three hour training sessions on the water filled with drills, practice starts and races, and lots of feedback. We did a session about the Sonar on the dock, and we simulated the prestart and sailing the course on land, using the marks and doing the walk-throughs in real time. On the water, they were good at sailing the correct angles, the skippers feeling the wind on their heads, the angle of heel, and hearing the boat go through the water, and the trimmers feeling the actual sail and the angle of the boom.

What I loved the most was that every sailor and team was committed to improving, and to sharing their own experiences for the benefit of the others. Everyone’s attitude was that they were a group of sailors trying to get better at sailing and match racing, and their vision was just part of the puzzle to solve to become more successful. Each one of them loves sailing and being out on the water, and the challenge of racing. No different than any of us who love the sport.

To go sailing and racing, all these vision impaired sailors need is an invitation or some support from someone to be included in that person’s sailing experience. My experience with this racing community could not have been more positive. I encourage others to seek out the same positive experience by reaching out and including them as well. It is truly a win-win situation!