By: Matt Wierzbach, Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan
The Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan (SEAS) teamed up with Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors (BAADS), the Women’s International Match Racing Association (WIMRA), and Blind Sailing Unlimited to hold the first Blind Match Racing Clinic in the United States using the Homerus acoustic mark system. The clinic was run to introduce visually impaired sailors to the blind match racing discipline and to help encourage participation at the 2016 ISAF Blind Match Racing World Championship to be held in Sheboygan in September 2016 in conjunction with the 2016 ISAF Women’s Match Racing World Championship.
The discipline of blind match racing is unique within the world of visually impaired sailing as the three visually impaired sailors match race against another team with no sighted assistance onboard. They navigate the course through the use of the Homerus Autonomous Sailing System which consists of three acoustic buoys, each emitting a unique sound signal while each boat has its own sound signal that changes when on port or starboard tack. Through these audible clues the sailors not only make their way around the course but also engage each other in classic match racing style. Sheboygan hosted the Plenco Blind Match Racing World Championship in 2014 and with the success of that event, SEAS looked to increase participation in the discipline by introducing more sailors to the acoustic system.
Of the seven blind sailors and three sighted guides who participated in this weekend’s clinic only one sailor, Blind Sailing Unlimited’s, Kris Scheppe, had sailed in a blind match racing event before.
“At the Worlds in 2014, I kind of jumped in the deep end having never done a match race before and I went right into a race situation,” said Scheppe. “It was overload and I was kind of hanging by the seat of my pants for that. So, playing with the buoys on land first as we did here and then going to water has been a great way to introduce new sailors to the game.”
Blind Sailing Unlimited owns the set of Homerus marks used at the event, one of only three sets in the United States. SEAS owns another of the three.
All who attended saw improvement in abilities over the three-day course which began with land drills and familiarization with the acoustic marks and progressed over the clinic with drills designed to work up to full match races. By Sunday, the sailors were battling in the pre-starts with limited input from the coaches and racing around the course. While not all the participants felt quite ready for a full match racing regatta, they did come to understand just how possible it was to sail without the aid of sight.
“It’s fantastic to see how much the sailors improved and gained confidence with only a few days training. By the end of the weekend, they were definitely match racing out there and that was really cool to see,” said WIMRA Executive Director and clinic coach, Liz Baylis.
The SEAS team (Executive Director Rich Reichelsdorfer and Program Director Matt Wierzbach, who flew in for the event) were also happy with the progress made at the event.
“I am quite happy with the outcome of our first blind match racing clinic,” Reichelsdorfer said.
“The competitors all seemed quite happy with the program and by the end of clinic, we had them engaging each other and match racing,” added Wierzbach. “It is really great to be able to get visually impaired people into match racing and watching them take to it and get excited about sailing without any help from a sighted guide. This is a great step toward increasing participation in an event that really lets the visually impaired sail without being told what to do by a sighted guide; they have control over their sailing.”
After the success of this first event, plans are in progress to recreate the event in different locations around the United States and internationally. Blind match racing can be an empowering activity for those with a visual impairment as the sailors realize they are able to compete at a highly competitive level without the aid of sighted guides.
SEAS is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization advancing the sailing and water sport facilities on Sheboygan’s waterfront and marine education generally in order to provide more services at a reasonable cost. We strive to maximize the impact of our donors’ dollars by expanding awareness, training, and opportunities in marine and conservation activities through education and strategic outreach. SEAS also provides financial assistance to similarly engaged non-profit organizations.
For more information on SEAS please visit seasheboygan.org.