A blog from Philip the Skipper

Blog from Philip, Skipper.

For fun I sail quite a lot, mostly on the East coast where we keep a 10 metre yacht. It’s an interesting area to sail in, with lots of sandbanks and shallow water and also lovely rivers and small ports to enter and stay in. Recently I did my first week-end with the East Anglian Sailing Trust where a number of cruising boats each take on a blind crew member to help with manning the boat and give them some different experiences.

There’s a bit of trepidation when you meet a new crew, especially when the forecast is a bit dodgy. And as well as my blind crew (Andy) I had a new, scratch, sighted crew (who had done mostly dinghy sailing, quite different). Still, never mind, there were three days of sailing to be had, two ports to visit and a challenging schedule of evening parties before bedding down on board.

Sailing is pretty low risk as long as you prepare properly – weather, boat and people on it. One of the first things to do is brief the crew on safety; where fire extinguishers are, how to call an SOS, looking after your allocated life jacket and harness and so on. I immediately knew that Andy was confident enough for me not to think he was a hazard or would need particular support in an emergency. The confident way he moved around the boat (full of tripping hazards and ropes under tension) showed me that he would be a really capable crew as well.

We set off against a lowering sky with a hatful of wind, tide against, down the
Orwell to Felixstowe with me stowing gear and my sighted crew on the helm. It wasn’t long before we got to the hazards of the big container port and the natural features of two rivers meeting the sea. I had to look out – and found that we were being swept onto a huge buoy by the very strong currents. It would have sunk the boat had we hit it. Helm over (at last) by my volunteer helmsman and Andy and I tacked the boat onto a safer course. Hazard passed.

It wasn’t long before Andy was on the helm himself. When I drive the boat I am constantly looking at a bank of instruments – log for speed, wind strength and direction, echo sounder for depth, GPS for position. When Andy was driving all he needed was for me and the other guy to look out a bit more sharply and give occasional advice; he felt the wind on his cheek and the sense of the boat in the water; a proper sailor.

All weekend Andy and I mixed managing the boat with jokes and stories and with bags of time on passage to talk, by the end of the trip I also knew about blind skiing (yep!) and blind biking (ye gods!) as well as Stargardts syndrome.

I could go on and on about the whole, very enjoyable experiences, including the parties at night on other boats in the little flotilla, but you get the feel.

What were the highlights? Many, but importantly, first of all we had brilliant sailing in conditions that brought the best out of the boat and crew. We complemented each other and did the difficult things well as a team.
Second, me learning all over again that determination can make disabilities manageable. Especially it made me look afresh at the assumptions and dependencies of a sighted world. Andy wasn’t defined by his blindness, but by what he did and the sheer panache and dash with which he did it. And, without another reliable crew, I was really pleased to have such willing use of his physical strength on the winches and pulling ropes, as well as his developing skills and empathetic support.

Lastly; I’m boat proud and safety conscious and I never thought that I would be convinced that a disabled crew could play such an equal part in managing the complexities of modern yacht sailing. As Andy pointed out, a blind person doesn’t get the chance to do that in everyday life. But it was easy to put Andy in charge.

Lowlights (to be fair). Don’t let Andy put the pepper on your ham sandwiches.
Tends to be all in one place.

Maybe most important of all; I have a new mate and we are sailing together again (with our partners) soon. That tells you, doesn’t it?

Blog from Andy, crew.

I have been on a couple of sailing weekends now and what I know is that I love the feeling of the wind on my face, the movement of the waves and the all round challenge of what is actually working a big, heavy and powerful machine, which is what a yacht really is. So I was grateful to the East Anglia Sailing Trust for giving me the opportunity to have another crack at it on a taster weekend - and grateful to the guys putting in the time and effort on my behalf, as well as for the other blind crew in our little flotilla.

But you can see it is a bit of a challenge too; whilst I'm pretty physical – love running (if you could see the scars on my knees you could see how I pay for it) and I ski as well. But crewing a boat means fitting in, being told what to do and forming a team - with people I have never met before. So I was feeling a bit cautious going aboard Gypsy Lady at Levington.

Fortunately the skipper was really keen to share his boat with me and our sighted volunteer. Even before the first night party I was briefed on the sailing and the boat itself, including safety aspects, and so when we set off next day I was completely involved and taking my turn on the helm. It was quite windy and not easy to concentrate for long periods, but I think I managed pretty well with only the odd bit of advice from skipper and crew who were looking out for me. And I know I was taking my share of responsibility, as well as doing some of the heavy winching and sail setting.

Sailing in windy conditions still leaves time for banter and backchat and we had plenty of that. We found we could all three take it and it added to the fun. And as we knew each other better it helped build the team up as well. It was democratic, (except I noticed that the skipper never made the sandwiches) and we did discuss the passage plans and how we would sail, as well as actually doing it.

The get togethers in the evenings were a great way to meet with everyone, offering the opportunity to hear a few words from all attending the weekend, including the other VIs (visually impaired).

I think you can see the lessons that were there for me and the others. There is an old maxim, you only need two eyes on a boat so it doesn't matter whose they are. That summarises the weekend. You can play your part and have the fun without thinking you are a liability - as the skipper said, he had the best sailing weekend he had had for a couple of years - and you can take your chances as well as anyone.

I like responsibility - being blind often gets in the way of being able to show it -that weekend I got enough to satisfy me.

Would I do it again? Well, I am doing, with the same skipper and with our partners as well. And looking forward to it mightily.