By Claire Anderson
When tensions are at their peak and victory is within grasp, Matt Chao has a crucial job. As his sailing crew’s helmsman, Chao has to keep his nerves steady as he edges his sailboat past the competition—often coming within inches of collision. He must trust his instincts because he can’t see the boats he is racing. Chao is blind.
“What I lack in vision is what I make up for in gut instinct,” Chao said.
Chao is one of many blind athletes who are finding new arenas for competition on the high seas, hunting grounds and ski slopes, even in the open sky. In recent decades, a host of organizations like Blind Sailing International and the American Blind Skiing Association are helping people like Chao pursue their sport of choice, from tandem cycling to skydiving.
The U.S. Association of Blind Athletes estimates that in the last 30 years it has helped more than 100,000 blind men and women become top athletes in their sporting field.
Athletes can participate in one of the association’s 11 sports. Some require special equipment, others do not. All that is needed for tandem cycling is good communication between the blind person and the sighted partner. Blind skiers may either listen to the voice commands of a guide signaling a turn or stop, or they may ski attached to the guide by holding hands or poles.
During his sailing season, Chao, who lives in Newton, Mass., practices at least twice a week for three hours at a time. His crew consists of another blind sailor and two sighted sailors whose roles are to plan the race’s tactics and intervene if there is an immediate danger of collision.
The key to a crew’s success is communication, Chao said. He must rely on all of his senses on the water. Chao determines how close the other boats are to him by listening to their movement through the water and the luff of their sails.
“It’s not 100 percent accurate, but I can hear whether we are keeping pace with them, passing them—hopefully—or whether they are passing us,” he said.
At the same time, Chao is thinking about how he will tack (turn the boat through the wind), round a weather mark or jibe (turning the boat downwind).
Chao, who was born premature, suffered a ruptured optic nerve after receiving too much oxygen in his incubator. Despite his disability, Chao says he has always been an active person, so he jumped at the chance to try sailing while in high school at the Perkins School for the Blind.
In the Montana wilderness, Jim Marks has also learned to rely on his own instincts and tune into his senses on the trail of elk. Marks, who grew up hunting, decided there was no reason to quit the sport after losing his sight at age 25 because of a genetic disorder.
He participates in every aspect of the hunt except actually pulling the trigger. Some blind hunters have learned to use a modified hunting rifle. The rifle allows a blind person to shoot while a sighted person aims and steadies the gun.
Marks doesn’t feel the rifle is accurate enough to kill a target on the first shot, which he considers a hunter’s duty. But, for Marks, shooting is only a small part of hunting.
A typical day of hunting for Marks involves walking miles in the steep and rugged Montana countryside.
“I use a pair of trekking poles for mobility,” Marks said. “My urban long white cane would not last five minutes in the kind of terrain where elk hunting happens.”
Others, like John Flemming of Colton, Calif., are pushing the limits of extreme sports for the blind. Fleming, 61, has jumped from planes more than 500 times since a degenerative eye disorder took his eyesight. When he does solo jumps, he relies on a two-way radio to tell him when to pull the parachute and where to land.
It has taken Chao years of practice to hone his sailing confidence. Now, his team’s skill level is such that they can compete against both blind and sighted sailors.
“They don’t give us any breaks,” Chao said. And that’s just how he likes it.