Sound Technology Makes Sailing Fully Accessible to People who are Blind or Visually Impaired

There is nothing like feeling the wind on your face and travelling smoothly over water in a sailboat. Thanks to developments in technology, people who are blind or visually impaired can race sailboats without sighted assistance on board.

A sailboat with five people in it makes its way through a harbor.
SEAS offers sailing outings and lessons in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

How does Adaptive Sailing Work?

A man and woman hold onto a tall metal and wood object with an audio box on the top.
Audible buoys help sailors who are blind or visually impaired know where they are on a race course.

People who are blind or visually impaired take part in two types of sailboat races: match racing and fleet racing. Match racing involves two boats racing against each other, and the first to cross the finish line wins. Boundaries on the course are marked by buoys. In blind match races, acoustic buoys make sounds throughout the race. Devices that make sounds are also put onto each boat, so the sailors can tell where the other boat is located in the water. This technology was designed by the Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan (SEAS). Other than the addition of this adaptive technology, blind match races have the same rules as those with sighted participants.

Learn more and hear the sounds the buoys and other devices make. 

Fleet races involve multiple boats competing against each other. Blind Sailing International developed fleet sailing with four crew members to a boat, using keel boats, from 22 feet to 30 feet long. Two visually impaired and two sighted crew members are on each boat. The helmsman, who is responsible for the steering of the boat, is blind. A tactician calculates and navigates the boat around the race course as fast as possible taking into account wind, tide, other competitors and the crew’s ability. This person is sighted, and does not interact with the physical sailing of the boat. The final two people on the crew, one visually impaired and one sighted, are responsible for the sails and trim of the boat. The same rules as races with fully sighted crews apply.

Two men with helmets in a sailboat on blue waters.
The United States Blind Sailing team racing in 2016.

Sailing has a language of its own that makes it accessible. By verbally giving instructions to each other, members of a team can communicate with each other throughout the race without the need of visual cues. Some terms are:

  • Port: Denotes anything to the left of the boat when facing forward.
  • Starboard: Denotes anything to the right of the boat when facing toward the front of the boat.
  • Bow: The front of the boat.
  • Stern: The back of the boat.

Learn more sailing terminology from the American Sailing Association.

By using the language of sailing to talk to one another and by listening for the sounds the devices make on the water and in other boats, racers can navigate to the finish line.

History and Teams:

In the United States, adaptive sailing for people who are blind or visually impaired began at the Carroll Center for the Blind, located just outside of Boston. One of the instructors at the training center happened to have a sailboat and took students out for fun and taught them how to sail.

By 1991, the Carroll Center had one of only two adaptive racing programs in America. When news arrived from New Zealand that year that a world championship regatta for blind sailors was being organized, the team flew to Auckland to compete.

After that, a regatta was held every three years or so, then every year. Teams came from Italy, Japan, Australia, Northern Ireland, France, Great Britain, Canada, Finland, and Norway. A group for veterans with disabilities, the Warrior Sailing Program, sprang up at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York. More programs emerged in California, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

Where to Learn How to Sail:

In Wisconsin, people of all abilities can learn how to sail through the Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan (SEAS). The organization is a non-profit dedicated to making boating on Lake Michigan affordable and accessible to everyone. The group was founded in 2012. SEAS hosts blind match racing regattas and clinics so people can learn and enjoy the sport. Geoff Rudolph, Executive Director of SEAS, says it takes only about two hours for people to catch the sailing bug.

“Once [the students] understand that they can use the sail to control the boat and harness the wind, the power they get from it in just two hours, [it] brings me joy,” says Geoff.

A man talking with his hands standing in front of a trailer.
Geoff with the sailing simulator at the SEAS boathouse.

In addition to on-water sailing classes, SEAS has a sailing simulator. The simulator is a sailboat that can be operated on land. It has the ability to come to events. It helps people orient themselves to different parts of the boat, sailing commands and how to operate a sailboat. The simulator was made possible through funds raised by Council Excellence Award Winner BJ Blahnik. He is a bronze medalist at the Blind World Sailing Championship in 2015.

BJ says that sailing gave him a sense of independence and freedom he thought he would never experience again after giving up his driver’s license at 23, due to vision loss.

“I have not driven anything for 12 years,” BJ says. “For the first time since then, I was driving something, a sail boat, by myself.”

To Learn More:

If you would like more information on visually impaired and blind sailing, or assistance with attending or running an event, contact SEAS.

The Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan (SEAS)

1837 Superior Ave

Sheboygan, WI 53081

Phone: (920) 783-3673

Email: info@seasheboygan.org

Website: seasheboygan.org

Upcoming Outdoor Events:

Learn How to Sail:

FIRST SAIL

Saturday, August 24, 2019

12:00 – 2:00 p.m.

Sheboygan Yacht Club (meeting location)

214 Pennsylvania Avenue

Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Cost: $20, pay with PayPal, credit card or at the door.

Join SEAS for a two-hour sailing experience in a casual setting designed to make newcomers feel at ease and at home. The First Sail experience features basic sailing and hands-on learning that covers how a sail works, parts of the boat, and important safety guidelines. Register here.

 

Tour the SEAS Facility:

Brats 4 Sail

Friday, September 20

SEAS

1837 Superior Ave

Sheboygan, WI 53081

 

For Other Water Sports and Outdoor Fun:

Free at the Lake Event 2019

Friday, August 23 and Saturday, August 24

Camp Whitcomb/Mason

W294 N8436 Camp Whitcomb Road

Hartland, WI 53029

This free event is for people of all abilities. Activities available include: water skiing, wake boarding, tubing, pontoon boat rides, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, swimming, and hiking/exploring the camp trails. This event is put on by the Permobil Foundation.

Learn more and sign up.

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