Program Allows People With Vision Problems To Sail Competitively

BOSTON (CBS) – Think about the complexities of sailing; gauging the wind, clearing obstacles and maintaining your course. Now imagine sailing without sight.

Feeling the wind is a big part of it.

The program is called SailBlind, connecting people with vision problems with sighted guides. That way everyone experiences the joy of being on the water and even the exhilaration of high powered racing.

WBZ went on an easy sail in light wind Friday out of the Courageous Sailing Center in Charlestown.

Matt Chao has never actually seen a sailboat. He’s been blind since birth. He’s also a champion sailor.

“I’ve been sailing for 37 years and really racing for 24 out of those 37,” he says.

Katherine Kern can see a sliver out of one eye. She’s out here today training to be a competitive sailor.

“I love it.  I mean I love being out on the water,” she says.

Along with two sighted guides they’re part of an innovative program called SailBlind that began at the Carroll Center for the Blind in 1979. The guide’s job is to direct.

“My main purpose is to paint a mental picture of what’s going on on the water,” says Bill Rapp, a SailBlind guide for 20 years.

A blind sailer and his guides navigate the waters of Charlestown. (WBZ-TV)

A blind sailer and his guides navigate the waters of Charlestown. (WBZ-TV)

“The guide’s are the eyes, and the blind sailors are the people who are actually sailing the boat,” adds Nancy Jodoin, the director of the program.

“The rest of what happens is up to me in terms of what I feel in the boat and how I react to what I feel,” Chao said.

And it’s the feel that makes the difference.

“I feel the angle of the wind on my face,” Chao said. “That determines how I steer or whether I need to do any corrective action to maintain the course. I feel what the tiller is doing through my fingertips. I hear waves, and breeze and sails.  It becomes what I would say is a multi-sensory experience.”

It’s an experience that has taken sailors who are blind to races around the world, like the ones showcased in the documentary “Sense The Wind.”

“People are surprised all the time about what we can and cannot do. But it’s just one of those things that, if you adapt it the right way and you have people who are willing to adapt it to help you and teach you, there’s really nothing that you can’t do,” Kern said.


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