Sailors stuck ashore due to fog in Sheboygan

Canadian Elizabeth Shaw was one of the sighted skippers of the Buddy Melges Challenge, the 3rd event of the 2016 WIM Series and also the Women's Match Racing World Championship, who were challenged by Vicki Sheen, British skipper from the Blind Match Racing World Championship in Sheboygan. Photo: Niklas Axhede/WIM Series.

Fog and lack of wind continue to cause problems for the Buddy Melges Challenge, the third event of the 2016 WIM Series and also the Women’s Match Racing World Championship. In the difficult Thursday conditions, Principal Race Officer Rich Reichelsdorfer couldn’t get any racing at all going. 

“It looked good for a little bit around midday, but then the fog rolled in again,” he said.

However, there is one category of sailors in Sheboygan right now that don’t care at all about the fog. As a matter of fact they don’t even care about darkness. They’re simply ready to go match racing in any visibility conditions. Who are they? The blind sailors from five nations who are in Sheboygan for their Blind Match Racing World Championship, run parallel to the women’s event. But unfortunately they need sighted people to put out their buoys, set a proper course and umpire the racing, so they weren’t allowed to race on Thursday either.

Instead of match racing on Lake Michigan, the sailors gathered Thursday afternoon at the Sheboygan Yacht Club courtyard. There the blind sailors through land exercises demonstrated and gave the sighted women sailors some insight into how their match racing works. First of all the blind sailors have the same course, the same umpires and pretty much the same set of rules as the sighted women sailors. And they are sailing the slightly different Sonar boats instead of the Elliott 6Ms. The really big difference is that they use a number of different sounds to mark their racing course, as well as to describe what tack each boat is sailing on.

The sighted sailor, who thinks it’s enough of a problem to sort out the normal sound signals from the committee boat, may have become just a little bit more confused during the demonstration. The blind sailors are forced to keep all the following signals in mind:

  • Two signals from the buoys marking the starting line, one of which is also the bottom mark.
  • A special sound from the weather mark.
  • Two different sounds from a tweeting box in each boat, signalling whether the boat is on port or on starboard tack, in order to know who’s supposed to give way.

To distinguish all these signals is hard for any sailor on a shore demonstration, but proves even worse out there on the water. An experience some of the sighted sailors got as they, with completely black goggles covering their eyes, went out to sail practice races against a blind team led by British skipper Vicki Sheen.

“Your world is what you feel underneath you, and with your fingertips," she said. "You’re feeling everything through your hands and through your body, since you’ve got such a reduced visual sense."

For Canadian sighted skipper Elizabeth Shaw, the practice race against the blind team was, if we may call it so, an eye-opener.

“We had the two marks beeping, we had the tweeting boxes going off on our boat and on their boat, and then there was a fog horn going off, and then there was a bit of noise within our boat and motorboats going around. It got very confusing, very quickly,” she said.

“It’s pretty incredible what those athletes are able to achieve and focus on. Everybody has a job on board, it’s just like what we do, but you take away your sense of sight,” she said.

So the day was not completely wasted, as the blind racers earned new respect from the top women match racers at the World Championship.