Blind Sailing International

Blind Sailing International Chairman,
Don Mason


A Paper by the inaugural chaiman of Blind Sailing International Mr. Colin Spanake (New Zealand) setting out the direction of Blind Sailing as a "sport under it's own rules." This paper was delivered at the formation of Blind Sailing International at the second World Blind Sailing Championship Regatta at Fremantle Australia, January 1997.


1. International Blind Sports Association conducts International competitions for the blind three separate groups, viz. B 1, B2, B3, thus permitting fair competition for those with differing degrees of vision impairment. Blind Sailing International seeks to continue this practice.

2. The development of recreation and sport sailing for blind and vision impaired athletes stemmed from the emerging recognition that far from being disabled, this section of the community had the same potential for developing the skills and enjoying the sport as any sighted person. There are some activities, in particular those where the spheres of operation are predictable, in which the blind can perform unaided. But in sailing, where international laws require the maintenance of a proper look-out at all times, a sighted helper is required, in the boat, or else in continuous close proximity. Despite this, many blind are physically, capable of performing all tasks relative to sailing that a sighted, able bodied
person can. They are not physically disabled. They, are generally mobile.

3. At the inaugural meeting of Blind Sailing International in Perth in 1994, experience in the First
International Blind Sailing Regatta in Auckland and experience in racing generally resulted in the unequivocal decision of all the delegates, even those who were currently working with their local
Sailability, that the blind wished to develop their sport as an integrated blind/sighted cooperative effort, recognising that safety factors dictate the presence of sighted sailors. The Second International at Fremantle sailed in tougher conditions hardened this attitude A ratio of one-to-one of sighted to blind on a boat was recognised as the optimum. The soundness of this requirement was amply demonstrated at Fremantle when the sighted tactician on a boat on its way to the start line became incapacitated while the yacht was sailing to windward in 20 knot winds in open waters. The sighted crew took over the helm, organised the blind crew and returned the engineless yacht safely to the marina.

4. There was no wish at this Perth meeting to ignore International Foundation for Disabled Sailing, or to dissociate from that body. Rather, there was a desire that the WDS and IYRU recognise that the blind had special needs which could best be met by a regulatory body representative of the blind sailors and dedicated to the special and unique skills of the blind. There was expressed the hope that IYRU would ultimately accept BSI as its regulatory body, either directly or through IFDS.

5. One of the goals of teaching sailing for the Blind is to enable them to take a part in the recreation or sport of sailing, as an active, fully integrated member with the sighted participants. Experience during the last 20 years of racing and cruising sailing has shown that such integration can be achieved without
detriment to sighted sailors success rate. There are examples of blind sailors in NZ and no doubt elsewhere in the world, helming and crewing and winning competitions in open company. The
separation of the blind from the able bodied, sighted world which. occurs in the IFDS handicap system is regarded as not in keeping with the goal of Integration.

6. Sighted crews sailing at all levels from normal day sailing for fun to the Americas Cup and Admirals Cup contests, develop sophisticated levels of communication. The navigator and tactician feed information to the Helmsperson, even the advice to "tack now" or---gybe now trimmers may indicate the necessity for changes and advise the helm of the need to do so, foredeck hands may call "Hoist" or "drop" or "ease now". Very often no words are needed, the commencement of an action by one member triggers off actions by others. It can be no less so with a blind and sighted crew. It may even require more skill in that the lack of sight requires greater sensitivity in senses other than sight. The development and maintenance of that particular skill is a high priority for blind sailors, not only between sighted and blind, but also between blind sailors themselves.. There is no suggestion that those skids are not present in physically disabled sailors.

7. The development of electronic devices such as the audible compass, and the linking of normal navigation instruments to voice synthesisers are developments which have lessened the effect of loss of sight. Their availability together with others to come, will lead to the goal of having a blind crew which
will require only a sighted lookout and an emergency sighted crew in a five-man boat.

8. All these factors make blind sailors reluctant to accept in international competition the limitations of a handicap system such as that established by the IFDS which, admirable though it may be in equalising the abilities of physically disabled sailors, inevitably relates the blind to being 'pullers of sheets'. In discussions on the IFDS system, the blind recognise that if the goal is to win an International title, it would be highly unlikely that a Blind Helmsperson would be chosen. The blind may be in demand as crew. Some are very skilled at foredeck work and race regularly in two-man open company races, but
nevertheless want the regular opportunity to excel at all the tasks required in a racing yacht.

In summary then, Blind sailors wish to compete under the three group classification system established by the IBSA, each
group having its own competition. Blind sailors are generally able bodied and mobile and are physically capable of performing swiftly at a high level of skill all tasks require to race a boat.
Safety considerations require able bodied sighted tacticians and crew on a one-to-one basis on each boat competing except in special circumstances. There is no wish to dissociate frorn IYRU or IFDS. The special abilities and needs of the blind are best
served by a regulatory body which can work either directly with IYRU or through IFDS. ntegration of blind sailors into sighted sport is well established. The blind feel that separation from the
general sporting world, is not desirable. Special skills of communication which are not readily analysed develop between blind and sighted crew and between blind crew themselves. The speed of response is notable.

The IFDS handicap system would limit the numbers of otherwise capable blind sailors who would get the chance to compete at international level. The lack of sight would inevitably relegate them to sheet handlers. Development of electronic aids opens up a new potential in blind sailing. Blind sailors wish to pursue
this potential in inter-national competition.

Colin Spanhake
Chairman Blind Sailing International
11 July 1996

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Introducing A Blind Person To Sailing
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