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Sailing without Sight

In order to be eligible to compete in blind sailing, sailors must meet the universally accepted standards of legal blindness. Competitors are organized according to the International Blind Sports Association’s three levels of visual classification. Sailors must adhere to the rules for competition instituted by the mainstream sailing community with some additions to make sure the boats are being steered by the visually impaired sailors and not their sighted guides. Sighted sailors staff all boats to provide guidance and ensure safety.

Typically sailing crews consist of two blind sailors and two sighted guides. The helmsman must be a blind sailor, who must steer the boat independently. The sighted guide for the helm is not allowed to physically touch any of the controls, and is responsible for verbally guiding the blind helmsman. The second blind sailor primarily operates the sails with assistance from the second sighted sailor. The four sailors work as a team. Their success hinges on impeccable communication and accurate execution of the appropriate maneuvers.

In addition to human guides, blind sailors are permitted to use various adaptive devices to aid sailing. The Tacktick Audio Compass is useful for setting and keeping a course heading. It beeps at varying intervals to indicate a course error if the boat is diverted off course. The OnTrack - GPS Navigation Utility provides a similar course heading tone indicator but it relies on global positioning satellites and requires the use of a computer. One other useful adaptive device for blind sailors is the Marine Instrument Talker. It offers audio indications for depth sounder, boat speed indicator, compass, course-over-ground indicator, and wind direction indicator. Although these devices can certainly make sailing more convenient for blind helmsmen, they are not necessities.

Likewise, blind sailors need not use specialized boats. With some orientation to any boat’s layout and operation, a blind helmsman can sail it. According to BSI’s web site, most of its sailors prefer boats with tillers over those with wheels so they can get a better feel for the helm. It is vital for the helmsman to be in tune to the pressure on the helm and sails as well as the direction of the breeze and the balance of the boat. Currently, the boat of choice for international regattas is the Sonar.

According to the SailBlind page at the Carroll Center’s web site, “Sailing as a blind person can have far reaching benefits. Through competition, blind sailors experience the exhilaration of racing and of joining forces with their sighted teammates. They achieve a new dimension of physical and emotional freedom that can enhance their self- confidence and personal development. They also communicate a powerful symbol to the sighted world of what blind men and women can achieve, when given the opportunity.” For those interested in learning more about either becoming or instructing a blind sailor, the Carroll Center publishes a book entitled, Facing the Wind- a manual for teaching blind and visually impaired persons to sail. Order it by visiting




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