IN 2013 BRITAIN’S BLIND SAILORS ONCE AGAIN PROVED THEMSELVES TO BE THE BEST IN THE WORLD, CLAIMING TEAM IFDS BLIND WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP GLORY IN JAPAN.
Vicki Sheen was part of that team and is now a double World Blind Sailing champion. Born with 10 per cent vision, which she gradually lost by her late twenties, Vicky discovered sailing on a standard RYA Learn to Sail course in Salcombe, Devon in 1996 and now sails with both sighted and visually impaired crews.
Vicki draws on her experience as a physiotherapist to demonstrate just what sighted people miss when using only their eyes: ‘If a colleague and I are working behind adjoining curtains, the next patient can come in and I will know if that person is male or female, whether they are anxious or agitated and potentially what they are having treated just from the way they walk or from the sound of them taking off their coat. ‘For example males always jangle their keys in their pockets. The curtain is not a barrier to me in the same way it is to my colleague. My colleague will be hearing the same as me but won’t register and log that information in the same way.
‘Sight takes over as the dominant sense for most people; you can be hearing and feeling but what you register is what you see. It is a question of focus and how you register and log all the information around to make the most rounded decisions.’
Vicki insists the key to a visually impaired sailor sailing successfully with either sighted or other visually impaired crews is trust, and it works both ways. Sighted crews have to trust the skills of the visually impaired sailors, normally the helm and the mainsail trimmer. But the visually impaired sailor also has to completely trust the sighted crews. Such close partnerships between the sighted and unsighted crew can on occasion – especially while carrying out an emergency repair or checking the rig – allow them to forget there is someone who cannot see steering the boat! Vicki says this interdependency forges connections on a boat very quickly, and through sailing she has had the opportunity – in her words a ‘privilege’ – to meet people and develop friendships that she believes she never would have had if she had not had the chance to sail in this way. ‘Walking through someone’s front door is a massive challenge, I don’t know where the doors are, if there are steps or anything to bump into,’ she added. ‘But I can step on to any boat, and once I know which end is the bow and which is the stern, I can sort myself out within a minute and sail with complete strangers because my other senses come into play.’
Use your senses
How can Vicki’s expertise open your eyes to a whole new level of sailing? Here is a taster of some of the secrets she will reveal in her RYA Suzuki Dinghy Show talk, ‘Sailing With Your Senses’.
For a sighted person the brain filters out about 99 per cent of the information it is receiving so things like touch, temperature and body position don’t have the same importance unless they are needed. A visually impaired person logs more of that peripheral information and registers it so awareness and knowledge of what is going on around you all the time comes from different sources.
It’s all about the hairline
One of the key places for me to feel the wind is the back of my neck. I sail with my hair up and I have been known to cut hoods and collars off bulky wet weather gear, even offshore, so I can feel the breeze on my neck.
Drop in pressure
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.
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 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.
Feel your way
How much notice do you take of how the boat feels under your thighs or feet, or the changing angle of the boat or what you can sense through the tiller? Getting a true feel of the hull in the water 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. Would that not make for a less frantic, more efficient sighted crew too?