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Posts from the ‘Vicki Sheen’ Category

Why Is Britain So Good At Blind Sailing? 

Fleet Racing Worlds success this year, Match Racing Worlds next. Team member Vicki Sheen explains.

“When people want to wind me up they say I’ve got extra-sensitive hearing!”

Vicki Sheen laughs as she reflects on another golden year for Britain’s blind sailing team and looks ahead to what they hope will be more World glory in 2014.

Winning touch

Vicki and her 11 GB teammates returned triumphant from the IFDS Blind Sailing World and International Championships 2013 in Japan in June.

They claimed victory in the B1 and B2 classes, plus silver in the B3 class, to take the overall Squadron Cup for the top nation, while Vicki and her B1 crewmates were awarded The Colin Spanhake Trophy for their win.

But the sailors have already turned their attention to making it back-to-back World crowns, and replicating the success they had in Perth, Australia in 2011, at the IFDS World Match Racing Championship in Boston, USA in 2014.

Born with 10 per cent vision, which she gradually lost by her late twenties, Vicki discovered sailing on a standard RYA learn to sail course in Salcombe, Devon in 1996. Within three years she had joined a committed group of visually impaired and sighted sailors to set up the British Blind Sailing Racing Association, which became Blind Sailing UK, of which Vicki was the Commodore for six years.

So why have the Brits been so successful in both fleet and match racing in recent years.

Vicki explains.“The two disciplines are very different. In fleet racing there is a team of two visually impaired sailors and two sighted sailors in a boat, while in match racing the whole three-strong crew is visually impaired. Each requires a different focus.

“For example in the BI class in fleet racing the mainsheet hand must be a VI, with a sighted tactician who can’t handle any controls at any time while racing and a sighted crew who can handle all controls with the exception of the helm, mainsheet, and the mainsheet traveller. There can be seven or more boats on the racecourse so start lines and mark roundings would be chaos without a sighted element aboard.

“The teamwork and communication required to make this work as effectively as possible doesn’t happen by accident. For the Japan Worlds we had a really intense training period through the whole winter mainly out of UKSA on the Isle of Wight and Castle Coombe SC in Weymouth. We competed in the RYA Spring Series events and trained with some of the British Paralympic Sonar team, so it was very professional.

“We had a bigger squad, which was well-trained and experienced in terms of both the VI and sighted sailors. This meant it was actually a tough selection, only the best sailors and strongest teams went. All that work definitely paid off.”


The match racing the Brits will experience in Boston next year, however, will be quite different again.

With three VI sailors in one boat, but only two boats going head-to-head at any one time the sailors rely on audio buoys, radio countdowns and on boat audio-tone to let them know where the other boat is, how close it is and whether the other boat is on port or starboard. Vicki admits especially the pre-starts are very, very intense, but it is an amazing adrenaline buzz.

Vicki will be presenting a talk on ‘Sailing With Your Senses’ at the RYA Suzuki Dinghy Show at Alexandra Palace on 1-2 March, revealing the secrets that make her and her teammates World beaters, and how these can help sighted sailors expand their skills by using all their senses. She will also offer tips on getting into blind sailing.

“For me as a blind sailor, how I log sensory information is critical,” she added. “Sight takes over as the dominant sense for most people but VI people have to take their cues from other sources and make sense of that information in order to paint a picture in our minds. 

“We don’t have extra-sensitive hearing! We are just able to focus on the information we are receiving and log and register that to make well-rounded decisions. The more you can train that on the water the better a sailor you will be regardless of sight.”

Britain’s 2013 World Fleet Racing Champions:


Class B1: from no perception of light in either eye up to perception of light but inability to recognize the shape of a hand at any distance in any direction

  • VI Helm: Sharon Grennan
  • VI Mainsheet: Vicki Sheen
  • Sighted Tactician: Martin Moody
  • Sighted Crew: Ian Shirra

Class B2:
from the ability to recognize the shape of a hand up to a visual acuity of 2/60 and/or a field of 5 degrees or less

  • VI Helm: Lucy Hodges
  • VI Mainsheet: Martin Phillips
  • Sighted Tactician: Adam McGovern
  • Sighted Crew: Gary Butler

Class B3: from a visual acuity above 2/60 up to 6/60 and/or a visual field of more than 5 degrees and less than 20 degrees.

  • VI Helm: Liam Cattermole
  • VI Mainsheet: Toby Davey
  • Sighted Tactician: Jonny Cormack
  • Sighted Crew: Jonny Stevenson



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.’

Complete trust

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’.

Filtering down

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.

Audio clues

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.

Direction differences

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.

Let’s talk

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?

– See more at:

Sunday May 26th 2013 – Japan World Blind Sailing Championships

Japan is amazing.  You really do get a sense of being in a different country and culture. Not least because of the changes of footwear from; shoes, to slippers, to slippers within bathrooms. There is such an attention to small details, pleasant fragrances, different fruit designs in the pavements, bird song on the railway platforms.

The opening ceremony was the first chance for all the teams to get together. a chance to catch up with old friends; from New Zealand, Japan, USA, and a chance to take right back up where we left off joking and teasing with our good friends from Australia and Canada. A traditional Lion dance and a few rum cocktails later and we’re back to reminiscing over previous races and old battles won and lost.

Good first day’s racing: winds progressed through the four races, from moderately light to moderately windy. With  the B1 team finishing the day in joint first place with Japan, and the B2 team finishing first  with the B3 team second.

In the light winds the Japanese appear bolistic, while in the stronger  winds all our winter heavy weather training seams to have paid off (or is it just our heavier weight?).  Keep your fingers crossed it’s only the first day and there is  a lot of competition and races to go.


Japan 2013 Blind World Sailing Championships

We leave on Monday to travel to Japan for the 2013 World Blind Fleet Sailing
Championships. A competition where Blind sailors helm and crew J24s a
twenty-four foot racing yacht. With between seven to eleven boats fighting
for position on the start line it can be quite lively and invariably results
in very close competitive sailing.

I have raced in the Brixham sailing fleet for the last ten years and am
currently helming Blues Too in the Thursday evening Brixham yacht club,
sailing a  hunter Impala owned and raced by David and Liz Mills.  Doing well
in the first two races of the season coming second  and first so far in the
Corinthian fleet.

In Japan, I am hoping to replicate my success in Australia at the Perth 2011
Blind Match racing Championships at which I and the GB team won gold. In
Blind match racing, the boats are sailed with the entire crew comprised of
Visually impaired sailors, with no sighted crew on board.

We have been training for the Japan World Championships, through the winter
in Cowes Rile of White and Weymouth, much of the time in freezing conditions
and high winds.  Japan is predicted to be gentle winds and The GB team will
only have two days of training in Japan in which to adjust to these light
conditions.  The teams had a highly successful final training session in
Weymouth hosted by the Castle Cove sailing club who’s members generously
loaned us three J24s. Alongside this support, The GP team has been
generously sponsored by Mustow with team kit

There are nineteen teams from five countries, sailing in three separate
classes for Blind and partially sighted sailors. I will be competing in the
Blind class. Each team comprises of; a Visually impaired helm, visually
impaired main sal trimmer, Sighted jib sail trimmer  and a sighted

Racing starts Sunday 26th May finishing Saturday June 1st, weather allowing
we hope to sail up to fifteen races. Keen supporters can follow the progress
on the Blind Sailing web site

B1 Blind GP team; Vicki Sheen from Brixham Torbay, Sharon Grennan from Greenwich London, Ian Shearer from Cambria, Martin Moody from Southampton.

B1 Blind GP team; Vicki Sheen from Brixham
Torbay, Sharon Grennan from Greenwich London, Ian Shearer from Cambria,
Martin Moody from Southampton.

GB Teams going out

GB Teams going out

January 10th Fund raising for Blind Sailing.

Sunday January 22nd, Zeke, my guide dog and I will be doing a ten mile sponsored walk to raise money for Blind Sailing. 

Blind Sailing is the charity that organizes coaching and racing events for blind and partially sighted sailors, enabling them to compete in Blind fleet racing events as well as Blind match racing, the most recent  being the world championships in Perth last March .

Funds raised go towards the purchase of equipment, cost of professional coaches for training weekends, expenses of volunteer coaches, and subsidizing the cost for students or those on lower incomes.

  The current priorities for fundraising are:

*     Maintenance and acquisition of additional audio buoys and other

Equipment for race training;

*     raising over £12,000 to host a blind match racing world championship

In the UK in September 2012.

What we are going to do to raise money

Zeke my guide dog and I are going to walk along the coast of Torbay. This will be a special walk for me as; it links my favourite harbours, Brixham, Paignton, and Torquay.  I will be able to do it with Zeke my guide dog and lastly and most importantly, I will be able to be joined by friends who are keen to give their support to both me and Blind Sailing.

What training have I done?

My training has been yacht racing back and forth across the bay, possibly not the best training for a land walk.Zeke however has been putting in lots of training; charging around Berry Head, rolling other dogs over and stealing their balls, when not doing that then leaping after birds  in the hope he will one day catch one.

If you would like to sponsor us, you can do this by using the justgiving page that I have set up at

Wish us luck.

Planning for the RyA Nationals – September 24th

The RYA Match Racing Nationals are now only one month away. I will admit, I was chilled when the idea was for Nick and I to enter and crew one of the boats. Nick to be tactician his normal role, with me moving from helm to main sheet which is my crew role when I race in main stream competitions. However we have now moved onto plan B; Nick still tactician but myself staying on helm. Nick and our coach are convinced I will get more out of it on the helm than by would main sheeting.

The entry is now in. Ian Mills a coach and World Champion sailor in his own right has generously agreed to join us and has talked a friend into becoming the fourth team member.

So what are the challenges: I will be a totally blind helm against sighted helm? There will be no audio marks to tell me where the start line is. There will be no audio buoys to tell me where the windward or leeward mark or finish line is. No audio sound on the other boat to tell me whether it is on port or starboard.

How will we do it: Nick Donnini and I have developed very clear communication skills between us. Ian has supported my training over the years and has supported me on helm. With Ian and our fourth crew member to feed in information regarding marks when distant, Nick can see the marks once he is close enough. I can always hear the noise of the other boats on the water.

Good communication skills are essential for any successful sailing team. As visually impaired sailors we always work hard  to continually feedback information to each other. So will this all make me less nervous? Somehow I doubt it, but hay ho what’s life without an even bigger challenge to look forward to.

Skills Training weekend Windermere on Beneteaus 211 – September 14th

Having spent the previous evening drying out clothes, gloves and hats, we return back to the water with promises of 12 to 14 knots winds and less rain.  Ummmm, correct about no rain, but also no wind.  Descriptions of mirror like water and the ominous sound of sails flapping back and forth met our first 45 minutes.  Then hurray! wind, not great amounts but enough to practice.  It is always worth remembering that we will spend as much time racing in light winds as heavy.  I have a reputation as good in heavy weather, however my last three match racing competitions; a third followed by two first places, have all been in light winds.

I got the chance to practice; pre start coming up onto the wind to cross the start line fast and high. Time to build my knowledge around jib trimming in light winds and time on the helm as a guinea pig for the others to practice the instructions they would need to use if calling someone around a mark.

Sailing and meeting up with everyone was great fun and valuable time on the water practicing skills with instant feedback to allow reflection, review and repeating it again with more insight and practice.  I would like to thank Johnny who gave up time from being with his wife and twelve week old baby Jessica, and Ian and Gary on the other boats, plus Tobey and Laura my fellow crew mates and Lucy for organising the weekend.



Skills Training weekend Windermere on Beneteaus 211 – September 13th

Forecast of 12 to 14 knots wind possibly building.  So why were we sat in the pouring rain barely moving across the lake.  The good news was, we always kept moving, no matter how slowly, the bad news was the pouring rain.  I couldn’t understand why when I stepped onto the scales Monday morning I still weighed the same.  Surely after that amount of time emerged in water, rain running down my face, water trickling into small gaps, collars and sleeves, through which to soak the so called dry clothing under the water proof gear, surely I must have dissolved a bit.

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

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.