Learning to Sail…from a Blind perspective

BJ Blahnik, July 17, 2014

(Picture above shows BJ competing in the 2015 Blind Sailing Worlds)

Why Not Me?

My name is BJ Blahnik and I am visually impaired from Retinitis Pigmentosa. I still have some vision however it is very limited. The community would consider me visually impaired however I consider myself visually challenged. As my sight diminished I was forced to make a life change and turn in my driver’s license when I was 23. I lost all sense of independence which was very frustrating. I gained a lot of that independence back when I received my first Leader Dog in 2008. This was a major life change and it pointed my outlook on life in the right direction. My life is now better because of Leader Dogs for the Blind.

Knowing that Leader Dogs for the Blind was founded by a service organization called Lions Club, I knew I wanted to be involved. Becoming a Lion and being a part of an organization that focuses on the blind and visually impaired as well as many other community projects on a local, state and international level we learn how good it is to serve those in need. Those experiences helped me become a better person and changed my life entirely.

Many of those personal life changes allowed me to find that special someone, get married and have a family. Because of this I moved to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I grew up around dairy farming and rarely had the opportunity to be able to do something like being on the water. By having my new family and now living next to such a beautiful scene such as Lake Michigan I knew I wanted to take advantage of this. I went sailing for the first time a while ago and really enjoyed the experience. The first thing which came to mind was “how would I ever be able to do something like this?” Therefore, I let that desire wash away.

I went sailing again because I heard about the World Championship of Blind Match Sailing and realized that sailing for someone like me is possible. I took a lesson on how to sail and it was very overwhelming at first. After working with my instructor, we broke the training down into very small pieces of information. After getting out of the harbor and being out on the lake the first thing we talked about was how do I learn. With discussion going back and forth we discovered I needed to just start sailing and ask questions as we go. I was very nervous at first but having the calming attitude from the instructor I began to feel comfortable.

After a few tips on a very basic level we learned we should start with sound. When I heard the main sail start to flutter I knew to pull the tiller towards me a little to maintain a straight line. Quickly I began to understand the wind and was reacting to the sail as soon as it happened. Eventually I was able to hear the jib flutter, before the main sail, which allowed me to anticipate the movement. By just managing these couple sounds my instructor went silent and allowed me to sail by myself.

I have not driven anything for 12 years and for the first time since then I was driving something, a sail boat, by myself. I felt like I had another chapter of independence which I thought I would never have again. I was so inspired, I felt in charge and I thought to myself why not me. Hearing about blind sailors coming to Sheboygan I knew I could do this too and I am pleased to say I am receiving sailing lessons and hope to someday be like those sailors who do not see themselves as impaired, rather they all say why not me.