Campaigning as a visually impaired person in the Sonar Paralympic class
I was asked some time ago by Vicki if i would write a piece for the BSI newsletter. the subject was to be my experiences over the last couple of years while I have been campaigning in the three person Paralympic keelboat, the Sonar. It has taken quite a while to sit down and actually write something, as writing does not come naturally to me so please bear with me.
I guess I should start with a little about myself and how I came to be lucky enough to campaign in the Sonar class. My name is Liam Cattermole, I’m 24 and grew up around the water, the beach and the harbour in a small village south of Chichester in West Sussex on the south coast of England. I have been in or on the water in one way or another ever since I can remember. When I was in my mid teens I started to realise I couldn’t quite keep up with my friends in whatever water sports we would be doing at the time. So it slowly started to sink in that I was slightly different, and to ultimately accept that I had a disability.
I have Retinitis Pigmentosa, which is a degenerative eye disease. It has pretty steadily continued to deteriorate for the last 10 years, with one exception of a detached retina in my right eye suddenly cutting my vision essentially in half. I now have around 10 degrees of vision remaining.
So, lets leave that behind and get onto far more interesting subjects, sailing! I first sailed with Blind Sailing probably in 2010, I absolutely loved it! I was able to be competitive again, and i actually had a chance to win because these people couldn’t see very well either! It was fantastic. I attended every training weekend i could and in 2013 I was in Japan competing in the Fleet Racing World Championships in the B3 class and again in 2014 in the U.S. competing at Match Racing World Championships this time however, as a B2.
After I returned from the Match Racing Worlds in 2014, it was the same month I graduated from university. I didn’t know what i was going to do after graduating, i hadn’t lined up a job or even really considered it that much. Perhaps a little irresponsible I suppose. Anyway, alongside the Blind Sailing training weekends I had been invited to attend a new initiative set up by the RYA to increase participation in the Paralympic classes. One of the three boats sailed in the Paralympics is the Sonar. The others being the 2.4mtr and the Skud 18. I had previously sailed the Sonar with Blind Sailing so naturally gravitated towards it.
It was a completely different dynamic, being around sailors with such a variety disabilities. It presented such a mix of challenges both on and off the water. I wandered around bumping into things, feeling at first a little out of place. I had all my limbs, I could stand and walk around just fine. Granted bumping into the odd obstacle. It didn’t take long to shake that feeling, these guys were just like me. They just wanted to sail and have a lot of fun doing it. Where I struggled with my vision they could help and where they struggled I was there. It sort of worked well, between a couple of us we made a fully able bodied person!
A couple of months went by and one afternoon I got a phone call asking if I wanted to step in at the last minute for one of the guys at an event in Medemblik, The Netherlands. Of course I said I was available, because I was – still not having found a job! So I attended the regatta. I don’t really think anyone expected us to do super great. The guys I was sailing with only had a few regattas under their belt and with me onboard who knew what would happen. However, we had a solid week with some great moments but ultimately ended up down the leaderboard quite a bit. Despite this, it was my first time racing against this type of competition – the best in disabled sailing! and I learnt so much just being around them. On the Sonar with me was Craig Wood and Steve Palmer we had a super couple of weeks.
So, again after a great couple of weeks in the Netherlands I was back looking for a job, one that I didn’t really want. Life went on like this for a few more weeks until I received another phone call. This call was not exactly what I was waiting for but came as pleasant surprise. Craig and Steve wanted to know if I wanted to join them full time campaigning in the Sonar. I said I would have to consider it and get back to them, I must have done something right in Medemblik! – I said yes, of course.
The fun began, we started training in Weymouth which is where the teams boats and all the equipment are based. Along with services and staff offered by the British Sailing Team. When we trained at Weymouth it was typically three weeks training and a week off. When we were away at event venues this obviously changed to fit around pre training and event dates. We went to as many events to gain experience as we could afford. This was all made possible by Help for Heroes, who supported Craig and Steve and agreed to continue to support us as a team after the third injured serviceman, Luke had to step back.
The first winter I was part of the team we spent quite a bit of time in Florida, training and racing. It was in January of 2015 when we were packing up after a very successful Sailing World Cup Miami where we met lots of our regatta goals that we heard some news which would completely change the next 18 months of our sailing.
We had been informed that sailing would not be in the 2020 Paralympic games in Tokyo, this came as a huge shock to our team because 2020 was the games we were targeting. After a few meetings, we decided to push on and completely shake up our training plan. We were now going for selection for the 2016 Rio Paralympics, we needed to cut four years out of our training program some how.
The biggest difference I have found between the Blind World Championships regattas and the Paralympic classes regattas are the boats and the cost involved. Teams own and transport their boats to events, the costs for this are huge. They include the initial outlay, the transport of the boats and the constant maintenance which goes with keeping a boat race ready. To run a successful campaign you need more than one boat too, when one is on a container ship traveling to an event you still need at least one at home to train with.
The classification for visually impaired people in Paralympic classes regattas are slightly different. The classification is done a point system 1-7. In the Sonar the maximum points allowed is 14 over three people. B1 = 3 points, B2 = 5 points and B3 = 7 points. I am currently aware of two other visually impaired people on the circuit both being 3 pointers and both jib trimmers.
Anyway we increased our training and racing, putting in as many hours as we could and finding any racing we could get involved in. In an effort to increase our race experience. We managed to secure funding for a private coach to accompany us to regattas and train with us back in the U.K. David Bedford worked us very hard and we made huge progress in our sailing and boat systems throughout the second half of 2015 and early 2016. We had high hopes for ourselves going into the 2015 World Championships in Melbourne, Australia however, just a few days before the regatta was schedule to begin we had injuries plague the team. We were unable to show our full potential which was gutting, but we placed very respectably under the circumstances. The team was not fully recovered for the next two major regattas and again we place very respectively but not able to show off what we really could do. Just a few weeks ago we heard the news that we had not been selected to represent Team GB at the 2016 Paralympic games, the odds were stacked against us, originally aiming for the 2020 games. But this time they didn’t go in our favour. We are lucky enough however to have enough funding to finish out the season.
I am writing this in Hyeres, South of France. We have three days until Sailing World Cup Hyeres regatta kicks off and its blowing a constant 28 knots with gusts way above that so typically we are not training today! A lot has changed over the last few of months after firstly finding out a year ago that Paralympic sailing will not feature in the line up for Tokyo 2020 games and more recently finding out that our team – Craig, Steve and I have not been selected to represent Team GB at the Rio Paralympics later this year. But I really cannot complain, I’m still sat here in the South of France in April, I’m off to Lake Garda next week then onto the 2016 World Championships in Holland… what an incredible couple of years!
I look forward to seeing you all in September at the Blind Match Racing Worlds!