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World Blind Match Racing Championships: what a difference a year makes

Sailing in the IFDS International Championships

Just over a year ago, I was struggling just to get around with Penny, my much loved third guide dog slowly grinding to a halt. Desperate to keep me safe, she was stopping several feet short of doors and steps and walking at a speed which unfortunately continually left me stepping out ahead of her. Doggedly determined to continue, desperately wagging her tail and pushing her head into her harness whenever it was taken up, she was faithfully trying to keep working. Realistically however, the situation impacted severely on both my ability at work and my confidence and willingness to travel around the country for training and sailing competitions.

I’m not sure which phrase to use out of “it never rains but it pours” or “things always come in threes”. I had recently gained promotion, becoming the head of Physiotherapy for a successful Health and Social Care Trust. My job was now no longer based in a physiotherapy department on one hospital site, but instead required me to attend meetings, hospitals and teams based over a wide geographical area, as well as attending national conferences – a daunting proposition when nurturing a failing guide dog.

A further challenge at that time was the development of what was initially thought to be a medical condition termed “cluster headaches”, which presented as acute untreatable pain behind my right eye. Diagnosed in part by their lack of response to migraine or other pain relief measures, they became more and more frequent, until finally in September last year they were almost daily, resulting in me struggling home at night and simply holding my head in pain while my ever patient husband dealt with everything else.

As I said before, things do come in threes, and this goes for good experiences as well as bad. Exeter Guide dogs found a match for me, a replacement for the long suffering Penny. Another yellow Labrador, but breaking with my tradition of three female dogs, this time it was to be a boy, Zorro, soon to be renamed Zeke. As my working day required my presence either in a physiotherapy department surrounded by people wearing navy trousers or in meetings accompanied by colleagues wearing dark suits, I did request a black lab (I actually requested a navy blue one, but would have compromised at black, or even grey with a pin stripe), but it was not to be. Instead my future partner is a regal, very muscular slightly leggy blond. In the words of his puppy walker: “One of the most willing and loving dogs, she has ever trained.”

Zeke (Zorro, sorry I could never get the image of the black mask and flashing blade out of my head) is a real clown, intelligent, hard working and desperate to get it right, but also a real boy and fun loving. A frequent question I am asked is: “What is the difference between a male dog and a female guide dog?” Initially I didn’t know, but now I have discovered the answer: when I use the ladies’ facilities in a restaurant, a female guide dog shows me the cubicles then the sinks. A male dog shows me the cubicles then whisks me straight back out of the door. He is a boy after all and boys don’t need to wash their hands. When I ask a girl dog to find the car in the car park, she looks for the colour while a male dog hunts for the make and model and whether it had twin exhausts or not. A female guide dog will come up to you, snuggle in, look up at you with huge round eyes and flutter her eye lashes. A male dog will come along, cuddle up, and then belch loudly. Your female guide dog will patiently wait in the kitchen wondering if the cupboard with the chews in will magically open, while a male guide dog stays in the living room watching Top Gear with your husband.

The second good thing to happen was the discovery that I didn’t suffer from cluster headaches, but instead had been experiencing increasing episodes of Acute Glycoma. With an eye condition of Retinitis Pigmentosa resulting in substantial loss of vision from birth, Acute Glycoma was not anticipated. With not enough residual vision to realise the sudden curtaining effect and complete loss of light perception, no-one had realised my pain was not due to the cluster headaches but instead an eye pressure of more than double the normal amount. Finally, a cure was at hand – too late to save any vision, but I did have complete resolution of pain following laser surgery.

Now fully mobile with a new guide dog and no longer laid low by pain, I could resume my passion for competitive sailing. Last November, December and January, the Blind Sailing Association arranged four training sessions in Cowes with the focus being to develop a squad of visually impaired sailors equipped with skills to match race. This was in preparation for the World Blind Match Racing Championship which was to be sailed in Perth, Australia, in Sonar keelboats utilising a special sound system comprising three acoustic buoys, each with a unique signal to define the course. The boats also had their own sound signals which changed when on port or starboard tack.

Following the winter training a UK team was selected but unfortunately I was not successful in gaining a place. I was told however if I wanted to, I could put together a second team but it would be very expensive and I could be very disappointed. I arranged to sail with Nick Donnini and Dennis Manning, two other sailors passionate about sailing and with lots of encouragement from the Australian blind sailing team, at the eleventh hour we decided to form a team and go to Perth.

Royal Perth Yacht Club gave us great support all the way through the competition, expecting us to be lucky not to come last. We were rather surprised therefore on our first days racing, to win four out of four races and find ourselves in the lead.

Sailing in the IFDS International Championships

In a quiet moment between races, I asked Nick my tactician, a chartered surveyor from Derbyshire, who had recently become partially sighted through a retinal occlusion: “Was it true you used to be an officer in the Territorial Army?”
“Yes” Nick replied. “I used to jump out of helicopters onto roofs of houses, breaking through into the buildings.”
I asked: “Wasn’t that stressful?”
With a grin Nick replied: “Not as nerve racking as spending a week match racing with you.”

We were the underdogs. Then suddenly, we had won 16 out of 19 races. I almost held my breath all the way through the semi finals and finals. It was like a dream. I had to check with the umpires we were clear and really had won the championship.

2011 Winning Team - Nick Donnini, Vicki Sheen & Dennis Manning

Denis has returned to his first love, that of racing his dinghy, while Nick and I are planning to get further match racing experience and take part in this summers’ Italian Open blind sailing national championship in June then next year the 2012 World match racing Blind Sailing Championships here in the UK.

So what does Zeke think about this? I really have struck gold. Unlike my previous dogs, Zeke loves boats and sailing. Though only invited out when cruising, he has learned to scale the ladder from the inflatable dinghy onto our friend’s yacht. Keen to go from side to side as the boat tacks and desperate to help with and contribute to all tasks and activities aboard, ears blown back and nose scenting the breeze he really does try and imitate the image of a salty sea dog.

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