Reprinted from Bearings, American Sailing Association’s Instructor Newsletter,
Blind Ambition: My Adventure Teaching a Sight-Challenged Student
by Captain Joan Gilmore
of Sail Away Sailing School, LLC Minneapolis, MN
I have rarely had a more motivated and dedicated sailing student than Deb, who signed up with her husband for Basic Keelboat ASA-101 last summer. Her husband informed me by phone that Deb is legally blind, but wanted to learn all she could, as their plan was to buy a cruising boat in Florida and sail in the Keys together.
Deb turned out to be a smiling, petite, youthful middle-aged woman. Deb had become blind as a young adult. She took my hand as soon as I met her and didn’t let go as I led her over the wooden planks that led to our dock, and towards our slip on Lake Minnetonka and onto our teaching boat, a 23’ Hunter. I gave her directions as she climbed aboard the boat, noticing that she listened with unusual concentration. We went over the boat, feeling where everything was, so that Deb would be able to move about the boat with confidence.Out on the water, during our first lesson, a fellow instructor was out on his powerboat. He came up close to us and asked, “Is everything OK?” He had seen us erratically weaving back and forth on a beam reach and seemed quite alarmed, maybe thinking there was something wrong with our rudder.
I introduced him to my students, and sent him on his way. By the end of that 3-hour session, Deb managed to learn how to hold a straight course. Here is how she did it. First I told her that the fallback position of the tiller was in the middle, and let her feel where that was. “If anything feels funny, just return the tiller to this position and it will stabilize any course you are on.” I explained.
The next thing we concentrated on was feeling the wind. We had spent some time on this while standing on the dock before boarding, so she knew what to feel for.
“On a beam reach, the wind will be in your ear,” I told her. “When you are sitting facing the front of the boat, keep the wind at the same position in your ear.”
This she was able to do after about half an hour. Next I had her push the tiller away from the wind and hold the boat steady so that the wind was on her cheek, and she was at a close reach.
During our second lesson, we tacked. Deb learned how long to hold the tiller over so that the boat would tack through the wind without going too far around. She really concentrated on both the feel of wind on her cheeks or ears, and also on the sound of the water at the stern.
She learned that at maximum speed, the water made a happy burbling sound. During the tack she could hear when the boat slowed down, and also when it regained the proper speed. “Now she’s talking!” we would say, when the boat was up to speed on the new tack. The sound of the jib flapping was also important. Deb learned to straighten out the boat immediately after the loudest flaps of the jib coming across the boat started to subside.
Next, Deb learned the feel of uncleating the mainsheet while holding a straight course. I had her uncleat if she felt she was going too fast, or heeling too far. I felt it was easier for her to first learn to hold a straight course, and releasing the mainsheet was an easier depowering skill for her to learn before she learned to change direction in response to higher wind.
After she learned to depower the boat by easing the main, she proceeded to learn to head up to depower a puff. This was much trickier for her since she couldn’t see how much she needed to head up, and we wanted to avoid an accidental tack. She practiced heading up gradually by listening for less burbling at the stern and also by listening to the sails. When she headed up enough to slow the boat, Deb noticed that the jib would start to flap a little bit. She learned to stop her turn upwind when she heard this little flapping noise, avoiding the louder flapping that would take place right before an accidental tack.
Jibing was accomplished by doing everything very slowly, waiting first to feel the wind at her back, so the boat slowed down completely, before making an S-jibe through small incremental pushes on the tiller. Completing the crew overboard drill was a challenge, as Deb could not see the weighted life jacket we used as our MOB mark. She was able to follow verbal directions of when to tack and how to steer to reach the mark, so this could be accomplished only if a sighted person were onboard during the maneuver.
Deb completed all of the five required knots. This was relatively easy for her since she had great spatial memory, an advantage of her disability. During our last lesson Deb learned how to operate the VHF radio. Although not part of the Basic Keelboat course we felt this was very important in the sailing she would be doing with her husband.
Deb developed some interesting study methods. Since she was able to see very large type up close, Deb had her housekeeper make large flashcards of vocabulary words from the sailing textbook. These Deb assiduously memorized.
We accomplished the written test by my reading the questions to her and having her answer verbally. If you will be giving the ASA exam in this manner, make sure that no other students are around to give “clues” to the student taking the test. Even without “clues” Deb passed the exam on her first try.
Deb was awarded her ASA 101, with a provision written into her logbook stating that she must be accompanied by a sighted person while sailing. This written provision is required by ASA when certifying a 101 student who needs assistance with the physical skills due to a visual impairment.
Virtually all of the techniques I used with Deb have been used to enhance my teaching with my other students. Focusing on the subtle sounds of the sails has helped with students who are prone to accidentally tacking, for example. I teach all students to return the tiller to the midpoint when a student is flustered at the helm. When teaching depowering, I have students master releasing the mainsheet while holding course before progressing to the art of heading up to slow the boat.
Every student is unique, and the more techniques in your “sailing toolkit,” the more students you will be able to transform into great sailors.
You may reach Capt. Gilmore at SailAwaySailingSchool.com Or firstname.lastname@example.org