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Bright future for blind match racing

When the 2014 IFDS Disabled Sailing Worlds Match Racing Championship was held September 10-14 in Sheboygan, WI, it was the first world championship sail with no sighted observers on board.

At the seven minute count down, the team coaches left the racing boats, leaving the visually impaired sailors alone on board to race the boats using only the feel of the wind, feedback through the hull and tiller, pressure in the sails, and using audio buoys to make decisions on layline strategy and tactics.

Each mark of the course emitted a different tone, with race managers communicating to teams by radio. With teams circling each other and battling for pre start dominance, often only a few feet between boats, the umpire’s role, communicating over the radio, information and penalties, was key.

Vicki Sheen, who won the Category 2 title (sailors have limited sight), explains “As a blind helm it is essential to be able to feel the wind on your face and the back of your neck, therefore, despite the cold temperature, I tied up my warm covering of shoulder length hair, and pushed down my fleecy collar to expose as much skin as possible. Not a warm way to sail but, needs must, when trying to win races.”

Sheen’s team of Lucy Hodges on jib with Liam Cattermole on main have all successfully helmed and won medals at previous international sailing events. This understanding of each other’s roles assisted them to develop great team work through excellent communication on the boat. “We can’t see what each other are doing, so we need to keep the information flowing back and forth all the time,” explained Hodges.

“It is an amazing and exhilarating way to sail,” shared Sheen. “Blind and partially sighted sailors, completely reliant on their own skills to sail the boat”. Blind match racing is a newly developing sport. Sheen, who is also President of Blind Sailing International, came away from the event, not only with a gold medal, but excited for the bright future of Blind match racing.

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