Log in


George Barnes using his manually-sensed telltale. The indicating needle on the box is activated by a masthead vane

(Editor's NOTE. George Barnes was a crackerjack boat sailor before the accident which cost him his sight. He has refused to let that accident deprive him of the pleasure of sailing. At our suggestion, he has prepared this article which we feel will not only open up a world of hope to others similarly handicapped, but may even aid the sailor who has his sight to become a better helmsman and seaman, particularly in night sailing.)

Most sailors have at some time or other had the pleasure of talking with an oldtimer who, during the course of the conversation, was sure to point out that these newfangled ideas such as telltales at the head of the mast and equipment of that nature are all right, but the real sailor was the man who sailed by the "seat of his pants” or the "back of his neck”-they were the boys who really knew how to make a boat go.

Three years ago the writer was blinded as the result of an accident, and since that time he has been endeavoring to sail boats of various sizes and rigs through the use of his senses such as hearing and feeling; senses which have been developed beyond those of the normal individual. When walking with a Seeing Eye dog on the street at a brisk rate or in traffic, one learns to use his ears much more than normally, and of course in reading braille the sense of feeling, confined to the finger tips in this instance, is nevertheless sharpened. When traveling alone with your dog on a train, plane or bus, your sense of stability and feeling for motion is also greatly enhanced. Independence and self reliance are keenly developed when traveling alone in a strange city with your dog as your only companion.

Three years ago, when racing a small centerboard sloop of about 19 feet in length in a fleet of approximately 30 other craft, it became apparent that, while we have all used our sense of feel and facial reaction to the breeze, we have not developed them to the point we think we have. In that first race the author had a great deal of difficulty in correcting the boat to the new course after having come about. The tendency was to fall too far off the wind in an endeavor to feel the wind quickly again. The reason was that in coming about the boat had, of course, lost some of her speed; therefore, the wind force was not as apparent as it would be when she regained way on the new tack. It took a little time to realize that hunting for the breeze would not bring it back to its former strength; and that one must learn to rely on a sense of motion or change in direction to correct the proper course on the next tack until such time as the boat had regained speed. After a bit of practice this knack was developed, and sailing on the wind became comparatively easy.

It was harder to sail her in light airs, as the breeze was not so immediately apparent, and in changing from boat to boat-that is, boats of different overall length and displacement-it took a bit of time to become accustomed to the motion and angle of heel of the new craft for a given weight of wind.

It soon became apparent that hearing was to play an even more important part in sensing the direction of the wind than feeling it on the cheek. By facing directly into the wind and turning your head from side to side, the difference in noise or pressure on the port or starboard ear could be translated into an indication of which way the wind was coming from. After some practice, it becomes possible for the blind sailor to use this means of determining the wind direction, to the extent that his nose becomes almost as accurate an indicator as the masthead telltale or fly.

The next problem was to sense when the boat was luffing, or being sailed too high. This was, of course, more difficult in light airs as the boat would not have any great angle of heel and consequently the effect of righting herself or straightening up when sailed too close was not very apparent. After some practice one could learn when the boat was sailed too high by the rattle or shake of the luff of the mainsail on the sail slides. This was not true of the jib, so it was necessary to mark the sheets in such a manner that the position of the jib, or its trim, could be determined by feeling various seizings or lashings on the jib sheets. This same idea proved helpful on the mainsheet, especially when the breeze was too light to shake the luff of the mainsail and cause the noise just referred to on the sail slides. In the smaller boats it was, of course, possible to reach up from the helm and feel the main boom and thus determine its position when sailing to windward.

One of the problems the blind sailor is confronted with is local disturbances or obstructions that influence the wind's direction. The position of the crew along the weather rail, especially if they are near the helmsman, deflects the wind so that it is not possible for the skipper to readily sense its true direction. Here again he must rely on the sense of direction and motion, for the moment forgetting the effect of the wind on the hearing or face. After some practice a combination of these senses-direction, hearing and wind pressure on the face-can be used so the boat's course will be affected very little.

In sailing any course except full and by, other problems come into the picture. Strange though it may seem, while the blind man cannot see where he is going his sense of direction, or directional stability, is greatly helped if he can face in the direction in which he is traveling. In using hearing or facial “vision” to determine the direction of the wind, it is necessary to face into the wind, which in going to windward is very nearly the boat's course. However, when sailing off the wind the helmsman must face away from the direction he is going, and with a quartering or following wind he is facing nearly aft.

This begins to approach the sense one has when riding a bicycle backward-sitting on the handlebars and pumping in the opposite direction from normal. So the blind sailor must learn to translate the directional feeling of the wind to the helm through a reverse, or opposite-from-normal, use of his directional senses. This perhaps is a little more difficult to do, and takes more practice to accomplish, because the sailor with vision normally faces the bow of the boat, regardless of where the wind is coming from, and corrects the helm by the feeling of the wind on the back of his neck, or by watching the masthead fly. While a great deal can be sensed by the feeling of the wind on the back of the neck, it is far too inaccurate to allow the blind helmsman to steer an approximately straight course.

Reaching and running, to the blind sailor, is more difficult because the boat is traveling in the same direction as the wind. The apparent wind velocity is thus greatly reduced and not so readily felt. However, with a few hours of practice a sufficient degree of skill can be developed so that the blind helmsman sails a course approximating that of the average person who has sailed only a year or two.

During the course of learning to sail by one's senses it became apparent that some additional means of determining the boat's proper course must be developed. Otherwise, the sailor would be inclined to follow the wind and hold the boat on the same course relative to the wind's direction, so that should the wind gradually veer or back the helmsman would correct his boat's course accordingly. In some extreme condition he might be heading in a direction approximately 180 degrees from his original course. Also, in very light going it was not possible to sense the wind's direction sufficiently to sail the boat on any kind of a proper course at all.

In discussing this light air sailing problem with the author's friends and members of YACHTING's editorial staff, many worthwhile ideas came forward. The photographs show the first working model of a manually-sensed telltale, which will be greatly refined before reaching its final state. The indicating needle on the box, located on the port side of the helmsman, is actuated by a telltale or weathervane-like device at the head of the mast. Through the use of a battery and selsyn motors, the needle in the cockpit follows exactly the action of the masthead fly. A raised dot, or lubber line, on the face of the indicator represents the boat's bow so that the wind's direction in relation to the bow of the boat can be sensed by the finger tips.

Through the use of this device it is possible for the helmsman to face the bow of the boat and sense the direction of the wind, although it may be coming over the counter or transom. This proved invaluable, specially when working through a crowded anchorage or sailing in the proximity of high shores or where the wind is apt to shift suddenly. In coming into a more or less crowded anchorage or mooring, or in sailing near headlands or obstructions, it is necessary to have someone con the helm. Here another problem arises. Quite naturally, the observer conning the helm is inclined to tell the helmsman to change the helm thus and so, rather than to tell him the bearing and distance of boats or other objects. Consequently, the helmsman is apt to find himself in the position of robot or automatic pilot, and in sailing this way he doesn't use his contact with the wind through his senses and feel of the boat's motion.

The next problem confronting the blind helmsman is one of course in relation to the compass. The writer has a small magnetic compass that has no glass over the needle. This compass, however, is so small it is not possible to get a proper sense of direction through the finger tips. It is going to be necessary to find a compass of approximately four or five inches in diameter with a needle exposed so it can be felt with the finger tips as it brushes by. A very fine wire about the size of a horse hair or even smaller, fastened to the indicating end of the needle, could be felt by the fingers as the small wire brushed by. Or the answer may be an exposed-card compass with a braille dot or similar indicator placed on the card at each cardinal point of the compass. The braille barometer in the writer's possession is felt in a similar manner.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________


The author realized that yachtsmen had not developed their sense of feel and facial reaction to the breeze

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

These two ideas are being considered together with the development of braille maps or charts. In making the braille charts it is going to be necessary to find a rather soft, translucent or opaque material that will transmit light. A sheet of this material would then be taped to a glass plate, behind which were electric light bulbs. By taking a regular Geodetic chart and placing it face down on the translucent or transparent material, and using a wheel similar to that used by dressmakers in laying out patterns, with the points or teeth of the wheel dubbed off, the outline of the chart could be traced onto its back, thus forcing bumps or braille dots to appear on its face. A compass rose could be marked on the chart as could principal courses, and after some study the chart could be memorized and the courses noted mentally.

With the use of these three devices-the wind indicator, the braille compass and charts-the blind helmsman should be able to stand his watch alone, keeping the boat on her course without calling others of the crew. Of course, all these ideas can be further perfected and the possibilities seem almost unlimited.

Interestingly enough the blind sailor can find his way about a boat even better than he can around his own home. This is due to the fact that, in most instances, there are more points of identification aboard the boat unless she happens to be an unusually large craft. An interesting example of this occurred during the past summer when the writer, his wife, and four and one-half year old were aboard the 45-foot ketch Mary Otis, chartered for a two weeks' cruise.

We were lying in Henderson Harbor at the eastern end of Lake Ontario one night when the breeze gradually increased from the southwest to a velocity of approximately 30 miles an hour. It became apparent shortly after daylight that our 60-pound kedge anchor was not holding and Mary Otis was dragging to leeward at a rather alarming rate. As we were only a few hundred yards from the lee shore, something had to be done promptly. We had a 100-pound kedge anchor lashed on our foredeck and many fathoms of %-inch manila line below in the forepeak. Although Mary Otis was lying in a rather sheltered position, there was sufficient sea to make it rather difficult to walk around her decks with ease.

While the author was setting up the kedge anchor, his wife brought on deck one of the heavy lines. This line was promptly bent to the ring in the head of the anchor by use of a bowline and its bitter end was made around the butt of the mainmast with another bowline. After the line had been led through the starboard bow chock on the rail cap, the anchor was heaved overboard, and it became apparent how rapidly Mary Otis was dragging. The line paid out so fast that the writer was unable to take a round turn on the bitts or winch, and if it had not been for the foresightedness of his wife in suggesting the bowline around the spar, this whole maneuver would have been to no avail other than to add one more anchor to the bottom of Henderson Harbor. However, the anchor held beautifully.

Splicing, knot tying and similar bits of seamanship are accomplished by the blind sailor with as much ease and facility as that of the sighted seaman. Aboard Mary Otis the author was able to take off sail covers, gaskets, lashings, ease or take up on the outhaul, hoist sails, make up sheets and do other work in preparing to get her underway or laying her up after a day's run. Going below, starting the motor, coming on deck and inserting the gearshift lever and handling the throttle soon became easy. The boat's speed under power could be determined by becoming aware of the number of revolutions of the motor at different speeds.

However, in sailing the boat under both power and sails the sense of wind direction became rather useless as, except under extreme conditions, all apparent winds are headwinds. The motor is forcing her ahead at such a speed as to create an apparent wind coming dead off the bow, regardless of course. Also, the constant drive of the power to a certain extent nullifies the feeling of the boat, as she does not increase or slacken her speed due to the different wind and wave conditions as she would under sail only.

Rowing the dinghy, bringing her on deck and lashing her in position preparatory to a day's passage becomes quite a matter of routine for the blind sailor. If there is any motion to the water amounting to more than a ripple, the nearness of a dock or breakwater can be quite readily detected by the different action in the roll of a small dinghy caused by the rebound of the waves from the seawall or dock. A shoal or beach can be sensed in a similar manner due to the change in action of the small craft. This is also true to some extent when coming alongside a fairly large boat.

With the use of the pocket braille writer, a daily record of the ship's activities can be kept, and such things as shopping lists and notes on telephone conversations to be made ashore can be handled easily-providing, of course, the blind sailor goes along to translate the notes or has a blind shipmate on the cruise with him.

The writer has done less sailing during the past three years than in almost any similar time in his career, due to the fact it has not been possible for him to sail alone for obvious reasons. Enough sailing has been done, however, to establish the fact that the blind sailor can become a reasonably good helmsman, and that perhaps all of us could improve our technique by sailing blindfolded for a small part of each season. This might have the same effect in developing the helmsman's balance and understanding of his boat as sailing without a rudder does. People who do quite a bit of flying in commercial airlines soon learn to tell to some degree when the ship is taking off, coming in for a landing or making other similar maneuvers by the sound of the motors and the feel of the ship itself. This in a small way is exactly what happens to the blind sailor, only he develops these senses to a much greater degree.

At any rate, sailing and racing sailboats is one of the finest and cleanest sports in the world, and perhaps we have shown in this narrative that all of us enjoy a life afloat regardless of our circumstances.

Reprinted from YACHTING FEBRUARY, 1953

Printed in U.S.A.


Copyright 2018 Henderson Harbor Yacht Club
Henderson Harbor Yacht Club is a 501(c)(7) non-profit organization. 8397 Cornell Road, Henderson Harbor, NY 13651

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software