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Blind dinghy sailor feels quite at home up Tenacious' mast
Last August Graham Middleton went on a day sail on Tenacious to celebrate his 60th birthday. Graham is a keen dinghy sailor with a club in Derbyshire but had never experienced sea sailing before. He is also totally blind.
Until Graham became blind in his mid 40s, he had never thought about going sailing, let alone going on a tall ship. A local association for the blind introduced him to a club in Derbyshire and dinghy sailing quickly became a passion for Graham. When sailing a dinghy, he felt in control; he could helm and handle the ropes all without help. He could do it all by feel with the wind on his face and neck and knowing where everything was laid out on the boat. The only thing he needed help with was his distance from the bank and even that could be done from the shore through a loud hailer - so he could sail the boat alone.
The day sail on Tenacious was given to him by friends and family as a birthday surprise and it seemed to be a natural step up from dinghy sailing. Graham was able to familiarise himself with what he was going to do by listening to the audio CDs that JST produces. From those he was able to build up a picture of the ship in his mind. When he arrived at Tenacious he walked along the dock beside the ship, pacing out her length and only at that point did he fully realise how big she actually is!
Graham said that to step onboard for the first time felt brilliant. The Permanent Crew and volunteers introduced him to the adaptations on board for visually impaired people – the little boat shapes on the hand rails which help you know which direction the ship is headed, and the wooden rail along the deck which acts as a foot guide. He was involved from the start in hauling on the lines and setting the sails.
For Graham, helming was a great feeling – the sensation of being 'in charge’ and being aware of how the ship responded to the movements of the wheel. While on the helm he was asked to change course from 38˚ degrees to 30˚. At first when he turned the wheel nothing seemed to happen, then he felt her start to swing and suddenly she was at 29˚ and had to bring her back again. All the time the voice of the audio compass was telling him the ship’s heading so he knew exactly where he was at and how far he had to go. He could also hear the Coastguard on the radio which added to the feeling and sense of what was happening around him. He said he could have stayed on the helm all day and was almost sad when he had to hand the wheel to the next person.
However the highlight by far for Graham was going aloft. The Permanent Crew had said to him 'No problem, if you want to go up, we will take you up’. Graham was kitted out with a safety harness and undertook what JST calls an 'assisted climb’. A member of the Permanent Crew was with him at all times initially guiding his feet and talking him through each move and ensuring that he always had three of his four hands and feet on the rigging. He felt completely safe and soon got the feel of it and needed less help as he went up. He could feel the wind getting stronger as he climbed and the air getting cooler. He said he felt 'marvellous’ going up and that it 'was brilliant’ up there. He would have loved to have gone even further up.
Graham has never seen himself as someone with a disability; merely that he cannot see. He admits though, it can be frightening when you are totally blind. So to be able to have an experience like this was, in his own words, 'wonderful’. He felt a real sense of achievement because it was something that he wanted to do – and could do. He enjoyed the feeling of being part of a team, of doing something different, of being at sea and somehow too, a sense of freedom.
His message to other people with visual impairments is that they should not worry about coming on board a JST ship. 'Even if you can’t see you will still get something from the day’.
Graham has just booked to come back on a 5 day voyage next summer and so we hope he will get a chance to go even higher up the mast and take the helm for much longer!
Thank you to Graham for sharing your story with us.
Graham is a Trustee of Sight Support Derbyshire, a charity that is dedicated to improving the lives of people with sight loss throughout Derbyshire.