Saturday, September 16, 2006

Visually impaired sailors to enter sailing competition

A concentrated effort by all members of a team produces exceptional results, and never will that be truer than next week when the 2006 IFDS Blind Sailing World Championship gets underway in Newport, R.I. From September 20-27, the New York Yacht Club (NYYC), assisted by Sail Newport, will host competitors from eight nations who will sail in three divisions with the following vision classifications: B1 (blind), B2 (visually impaired) and B3 (least visually impaired).

Regatta rules mandate that only a blind sailor can steer, while the other blind crew trims the sails. Verbal information provided by two sighted guides allows the blind skipper and crew to tactically position the boat as it navigates the race course. This will be the sixth world championship for blind sailors since the 1992 inaugural event in Auckland, New Zealand.

Competition Preview

B1 Division:

At the last blind world sailing championships, in 2002, the gold, silver and bronze medals in B1 division went to Italy, Norway and Northern Ireland, respectively. Without the defending champions on hand, sailors representing France, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and USA-Massachusetts will vie for a place in the record books. New Zealand, three-time winners of this division (’92, ’94 and ’97), will surely be motivated to reclaim the title. The NZL B1 team, with Rob Aislabie (Rotorua) on the helm, includes Dave Allerton (Waitara), a former oil rig engineer who has had reduced vision for about six years.

A volunteer firefighter, he sailed a Laser in open competition in the 2004 World Firefighter Games in England to win the silver medal. Sighted assistance will come from Wayne Holdt, a two-time New Zealand national champion in both the Nolex 22 and 25, and his son, Simon Holdt (both New Plymouth).

B2 Division:

New Zealand also has seen great success in the B2 division at past world championships, taking the top spot on the podium four times. 2002 visually impaired defending crewman Dick Lancaster (Taumarunui) will sail with skipper Paulien Eitjes (Tauranga). Gary Smith (Tauranga), who helped the duo successfully defend their 2005 New Zealand Blind Sailing National Championship title, will assist as sighted tactician. Eitjes has achieved great success in a short period of time since attending a blind sailing school open day only four years ago.

This past season she received the Bay Hardware Cup for winning a centerboard open class race series -- sailing solo on a Topaz dinghy with the aid of a radio clipped to her suit to receive remote guidance from a sighted tactician. Scott Burling (Tauranga) a member of the Yachting NZL High Performance Youth Squad rounds out the sighted crew.

Hoping to improve upon their bronze-medal performance in 2002 are GBR B2 skipper Lucy Hodges (Southend) and visually impaired crew John Simpson (Bassingbourn). Hodges, a Commercial Manager for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, became involved in the sport through RYA Sailability in Southampton. Simpson, an Employment Adviser for the Royal National Institute of the Blind, was introduced to sailing by a friend at age 14 on the Norfolk Broads.

Close to giving up dinghy sailing because of his failing sight, he responded to a BBC Radio appeal recruiting sailors for the 2002 world championships and was selected to the team. Chris Sinclair (Oxford) and Gary Butler (Rochdale) are the sighted members of GBR B2. Teams representing Canada, Finland, Japan, Spain and USA-Massachusetts will round out the competition for the B2 division title.

B3 Division:

Defending their B3 division world title will be the United Kingdom’s GBR B3 skipper Gary Kirby (Falmouth), diagnosed at age nine with macular dystrophy; visually impaired crew Toby Davey (London), who learned to sail at age 23 through a national sailing charity; with sighted crew Martin Moody (Southampton) and Ian Shirra (Rochdale). They will be pushed hard by the 2002 bronze medallists – the USA-Massachusetts team skippered by Duane Farrar (Watertown, Mass.) with visually impaired crew Jay Kronfeld (Roxbury, Conn.).

Both have lost their vision from retinitis pigmentosa. Farrar, who was declared legally blind by the time he had turned 30, was 35 when he took his first sailing lesson -- in 1996 at Boston’s Community Boating. Two weeks later, he was sailing competitively on Boston Harbor. Charlie Zechel (Pawtucket, R.I.) and Hart Kelley (E. Greenwich, R.I.) are the sighted crew, who each became involved with blind sailing while working for Community Boating -- Zechel is the organization’s current Executive Director, replacing Kelley who stepped down from that position in 2002.

The vision classification of the skipper determines in which division each four-person team will compete. The totally blind B1s and the vision-impaired B2s will race in the New York Yacht Club’s fleet of 23’ Sonars, and the least vision-impaired B3s will race in Sail Newport’s J/22s. Opening ceremonies take place at New York Yacht Club’s Harbour Court on Thursday, September 21. Racing gets underway Friday, September 22 and concludes on Wednesday, September 27, when awards will be followed by the closing ceremony at the conclusion of the day’s racing.

Sponsors of the 2006 IFDS Blind Sailing World Championship are Best Western The Mainstay Inn (Newport, R.I.), The Carroll Center for the Blind (Newton, Mass.), the Rhode Island Sailing Foundation and The Sailing Foundation of New York. Also, Harken, Koch Eye Associates, Narragansett Beer, Nasiff Fruit Company, Newport Specialty Foods, Newport Tent Company, Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic, Herreshoff Marine Museum, Crystal Spring Water Company, Seaman’s Church Institute, Rolex Watch U.S.A., North Sails, Nautor’s Swan, Newport Community Band at Salve Regina University and J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines. The championship is organized by the NYYC, IFDS, Blind Sailing International and US SAILING, the United States' Member National Authority (MNA) of the International Sailing Federation.


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