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Blind sailors compete under their own power

By Dayna Harpster
Many people would be mystified hearing commands like “Go off on a broad reach and do not jibe!” and “Keep going into a tack and head back to the line.” But even for experienced sailors, the thought of following those drill orders blindfolded would be unimaginable.

But not for a growing group of sailors who happen to be blind, adventurous and competitive.

Among them is Kris Scheppe of Naples, who helped organize a recent clinic that drew about half a dozen sailors from all over the country – from San Francisco to Boston to Sheboygan, Wisc. – for a weekend of instruction, drills and practice on the Caloosahatchee River near downtown Fort Myers. Most were preparing for Blind Sailing International world championship match sailing in September in Sheboygan.

The woman calling commands the weekend of March 18 was Liz Baylis of San Francisco, director of the Women’s International Match Racing Association. Driving the powerboat that served as her coaching station for two of Edison Sailing Center’s 23-foot Sonar sailboats – one with two blind sailors aboard, one with three – was Rich Reichelsdorfer, director of the Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan. His group hosted the first blind sailing match race world championship in 2014 on Lake Michigan, no doubt spurred in part by Reichelsdorfer’s experience sending sailboats to Olympic competitions and visiting a blind sailing match in Italy that amazed and inspired him.

Kris Scheppe was in that Lake Michigan championship in 2014, competing against teams from Australia, Italy, Canada and Great Britain. “It didn’t look like the U.S. was going to have a team early on,” Scheppe said. “So we managed to get a team together and get out there.” Scheppe was joined by blind sailor Scott Ford of Traverse City, Mich., who also was at the Fort Myers clinic. “Most of us have sailed together or competed against each other,” Scheppe said. But part of the goal for all involved in the local weekend was introducing more people to the sport of match sailing.

Scheppe is accustomed to helming start-up efforts and beating odds. The former national Ironman championship wrestler started the Florida Gulf Coast University sailing club in 2005. Since then, he has moved on to races and regattas.

Match racing pits one boat against another in a continuing series of bracketed contests that eventually yield a winner. And although each boat had a sighted person onboard for the Caloosahatchee racing clinic, that’s not what happens in blind match racing. A coach is aboard for the first seven minutes and the final few minutes, but otherwise, the racing is completely under the power of the blind sailors.

That’s the appeal, the participants said. They can’t drive cars. Many other daily activities are difficult without assistance. Out there on the water, they are moving – competing – completely under their own power.

What makes that possible is equipment from the Homerus company.

Sounds that emit from electronic boxes at the peaks of triangular buoys orient the sailors to the course parameters, to other boats and their own boat. The result is a stretch of water that sounds like a giant pressthe-button sound machine. One buoy sounds like a European ambulance, one a foghorn, one a whistle, one a giant smoke detector. Sound boxes onboard the boats make one noise when the sailboat is on a port tack and another when it is on a starboard tack.

Buoys used on the blind sailing weekend in Fort Myers bore the name of Lions International, which supports efforts to enable people with visual impairments. The Bonita Springs Lions Club gave the group a $3,000 grant toward putting on the March workshop.

As with the sighted population of any hobby, among sailors that weekend were differing personalities.

Scheppe began sailing at age 11 with his family, he said. He has been blind from a young age due to retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited — and progressive — disorder. He is strong, which sailing demands. Lawyer Walter Raineri of San Francisco is a serious multi-sport athlete; B.J. Blahnik of Wisconsin began by giving the Sheboygan association advice from the perspective of a blind person and became a sailor in the process

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