A horn blares and the Americans are off, their sails as taut and full as hot air balloons. When they tack or jibe the boom swings across the cockpit as though spring-loaded. Even from another boat I feel a shudder. Swells roll through the fleet so tall that our umpire boat, motoring up to speed, whomps terrifically off their backsides, the fiberglass rattling beneath my feet. All is frenetic motion; in this opening race against Great Britain, Mark Bos and his two teammates spring constantly from port to starboard, ducking and tugging at lines or on the tiller. Now and then one stands conspicuously erect, his face poking from the boat like a human antenna. He looks like he is straining for a view. I know he is feeling the wind on his cheeks, trying to detect a wayward gust before his competitors do. For Bos and his crew there is no view. Bos and his teammates, as well as their British opponents, are all blind. These are the blind world sailing championships.
When our umpire boat nears we hear the slap of water against the Americans' hull, the grinding ratchet of their winch, the snap and buffet of canvas, the squeak and strain of mast, plus shouting—"Down five!" and "In! In!" Behind all that is the squall of speakers, mounted atop buoys: one emits a sound like a foghorn, another like a whistle, a third like a siren. The challenge of blind sailing isn't only in locating the buoys auditorily, though in blustery wind and uneven sea that seems challenge enough. Rules stipulate that Bos and his crew must round each buoy clockwise, meaning they must decipher not only where it floats but also their relative distance to it, then position themselves for that turn well in advance, because a sailboat seldom gets from here to there in a straight line, only in zigzag. At the same time, Bos and his mates must always be listening for their opponent, because more rules govern right of way, and penalties apply if you violate them. A savvy crew does all this while rounding the buoy so tightly they could reach out and touch it. All without seeing a thing.
He wasn't always blind. Mark Bos, tanned and solidly built, with a sharply muscled jawline, grew up with perfect eyesight, in Massachusetts, wrestling and playing soccer and lacrosse. There was a question of going semi-pro. Then on May 6th, 1985, at 6:30 pm—he recites the date and time exactly—the motorcycle he was driving at more than 75 miles per hour collided with a rock, throwing Bos into a telephone pole. He was 19, had just finished his freshman year at Antioch College. Today, at 51, he still has no recollection of the nine months that followed the accident. But according to his family and his doctors, there was a coma for a week and a half, bones broken in his skull, neck, and back. For a year his left arm was paralyzed. His sense of smell was gone, as well as his vision.
His determination wasn't. Bos didn't believe in being a victim. What he wanted was not sympathy but his life back. He cringed at words like fortunate, miracle, lucky. It made him self-conscious, talking too much about himself, or for too long, and he was always apologizing for it: maybe he hadn't said that quite right, maybe he was using that word incorrectly, why all this talking, anyway? He preferred doing things. He joined a band, on drums, played late-night gigs. No one in the audience would have guessed he was blind. Once, he tried an alpine slide, similar to street luge. When he crashed, so much cement embedded in his face that a nurse had to work it out with a toothbrush.
Sailing Blind, by Benjamin Rachlin. Listen to more Pacific Standard stories, read out loud.
As part of his rehabilitation he attended a place called the Carroll Center, learned of a program that offered weekly sailing lessons out of Boston Harbor. He'd sailed before, but found it boring. He was too impatient. He wanted to go faster. It turned out the Carroll Center offered a racing program too. This was what he'd been missing. Out on the water he felt breeze on his face, the spray from whitecaps, the tension of lines in his fingertips while dangling his body over gunwales at full speed. It was the most exhilarating thing he'd done since the accident.
A blind sailing team is typically comprised of four people: a skipper at the helm, and a crewman trimming sails, both blind; and two sighted crewmen, one to provide verbal guidance and another who touches lines only barely, to assist. Today this is changing. A technology has arrived that allows blind sailors to race without any sighted crew onboard. It is called the Homerus Autonomous Sailing System. Designed by a man named Alessandro Gaoso on a lake in northern Italy, Homerus works by virtue of a series of buoys, anchored strategically along the racecourse, each emitting a distinct sound: foghorn, whistle, siren. Individual sailboats, meanwhile, are equipped with soundboxes, which make still more noises: one if the boat is tacking toward port, another if tacking toward starboard. This depends on a mercury switch: a glass tube filled with liquid mercury. Tilt it one way, and the mercury drifts in that direction, completing a circuit. Tilt it the other way, and the mercury follows, completing a different circuit. This switch is encased in a watertight plastic box, hung just below the boom, along the boat's centerline, and wired to a speaker on the bow. A boat under sail is constantly tilting—heeling—to one side or another as it harnesses the wind, and now the mercury carries that signal to the speaker, which blares to everyone in range. The result of all this is a waterfront cacophony—but also, to the practiced ear, a means of orienting oneself on unseen waters, a mechanized echolocation, the means for a sport that few people thought possible.
Soon Bos will be able to orient no longer. He hasn't confided this to many people, but in addition to his loss of sight and smell, and a left arm that still tingles, he emerged from his coma prone to seizures. As he ages, the seizures are worsening, and growing more frequent. It is possible to have a seizure on a boat, and he doesn't want to lay that on his crewmates.
Also, there is the problem of the boom—the heavy pole that bisects the mast horizontally, supports the main sail, swings suddenly and solidly when a sailboat changes direction. If a crew mistimes a turn, or miscommunicates, even by a fraction, the boom can smack one of them. This is something that happens, even to sighted sailors, and it is always dangerous. For Bos, whose brain has survived traumatic injury, it might be catastrophic. Might be fatal. He is the rare sailor who wears a helmet even to practice. Still, his neurologist has warned him it is risky, and only growing riskier. He plans for this upcoming regatta, the world championships, to be his last.
The Carroll Center for the Blind stands on five and a half bosky acres in Newton, 10 miles west of Boston, on grounds that resemble a compact school campus. Founded in 1936, it began offering residential rehabilitation for the vision-impaired in 1954, the first facility in America to do so; today, it is one of two private facilities in the Northeast, and fewer than 20 in the nation. "People come from all over the country," Chief Program Officer Dina Rosenbaum told me—from Florida, Virginia, Oklahoma. A non-profit, the Carroll Center depends on federal and state funding as well as family, corporate, and individual donors, to meet an annual budget of about $7.5 million. All told, it serves 5,000 or so vision-impaired clients a year through a combination of residential, outpatient, and vocational programs and services. Many of those clients are children or adults who lost sight only recently, a loss that more than one described to me, in terms of emotional impact, as being like the passing of a family member. The goal at the Carroll Center is not to cure vision loss, or even treat it, but rather to help those who've lost it. How do you shave, or put on make-up, when you can't see the bathroom mirror? How do you browse a supermarket when you can't see the aisles? Or read braille, or use a walking cane? There are counseling and support groups whose members pity and laugh at the same stories: trying to board a bus, and discovering it was the recycling truck. Knocking a coffee mug into a mother-in-law's lap. There is jobs training and recreation: blind golf, bocce, canoeing. Downstairs is a woodshop where, except for braille rulers, blind students use all the same tools anyone might, including drills and power saws. The blind can learn fencing too—with swords—which to a certain reporter seemed impossible but in fact is especially useful, since a fencer learns to step forward and backward along a single linear plane, a helpful skill for crossing a street without the benefit of sight.
And there is sailing. This came about partly by accident. It so happened that an instructor at the Carroll Center had grown up sailing, owned his own boat, so began floating clients out just for fun. Soon this drew more interest than the other programs. It turned out the particular language of sailing, all that jargon that intimidates a novice—fore and aft, halyard and transom—made the sport more accommodating for blind people. Once you learned those terms, it became easy to communicate on a sailboat, to articulate precise instructions. A sport with vaguer terminology, a sport less taxonomized, would be harder to explain. When news arrived from New Zealand in 1991 that a world championship regatta for blind sailors was being organized, the Carroll Center's was one of two racing programs in America. They flew to Auckland. They called their team SailBlind.
After that, another regatta was held every three years or so, then every year. Teams came from Italy, Japan, Australia, Northern Ireland, France, Great Britain, Canada, Finland, and Norway. In all of Scotland only one blind woman sailed well enough to race, so the Brits invited her along. Back in the United States, the Carroll Center offered clinics. (Today, SailBlind and the Carroll Center operate independently.) Curious visitors flew to Boston to see how they did things. A group for disabled veterans, the Warrior Sailing Program, sprang up at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York. More programs emerged in California, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
To the extent the sport made news, often it featured a sailor named Matt Chao. Chao was one of those early experimenters at the Carroll Center, before SailBlind was SailBlind. He'd been born with retinopathy, his left eye shut permanently, his right open only a sliver. Before retiring he'd run a small facility making braille books for schoolchildren. Possibly he was the best blind sailor in the country. He was a six-time national champion, a silver medalist at Worlds, and once, in 2002, had earned mention in the sports section of the New York Times. Chao was so good that he actually preferred sailing in conventional regattas, against ordinary, sighted crews. A regatta like that was an opportunity to show strangers what a blind person could do, not by lecturing but by surprising them, which Chao liked better.
Now, with the arrival of the Homerus buoys, a sailor required no sighted guide, depended on no one. This was why Chao and his peers had tried rehab in the first place. So much in the life of a blind person was close but not quite, was almost or mostly. A walking cane was good but didn't pick up everything. Voice recognition was glitchy. Directions from family, from well-meaning strangers, were inconsistent. To be blind was to surrender autonomy, to surrender it forever. To have no choice. Until now. Learn to sail, put a speaker on a buoy, and suddenly you could be out there on your own. The flush of adrenaline, the whiff of salt water, the howl of a breeze—all unmediated. When a Homerus set finally made it to Boston in the summer of 2015, the sailors were curious, then excited. Now the 2016 World Championship would be run on the same technology. It was being hosted in the U.S.—on Lake Michigan. Mark Bos and Matt Chao were two-thirds of a team. At a racing clinic he'd attended a few months earlier, Mark had met a sailor named BJ, who lived in Wisconsin. The pair had gotten along, exchanged email addresses. BJ would round out their crew.
On a breezy late-August evening, I went to watch Bos and Chao train. The men were practicing out of the Charlestown Navy Yard, on an inlet just northwest of Boston Harbor framed by hulking warships, industrial buildings, and jutting concrete piers. The air was so warm and dry we could feel summer giving way to fall nearly by the second. Neither Bos nor Chao had ever sailed in a Homerus regatta before, so they were still learning to navigate by sound. This put them at a disadvantage. The buoys were invented in the mid-1990s, and European teams had been navigating this way for a decade or longer; Bos and Chao had had less than six months. The buoys were expensive. An entire set cost €4,000 or more, and getting it to the U.S.—shipping fees, custom fees—added another $2,700. Only four sets existed in America, and SailBlind didn't own one of them, and they couldn't always get one on loan. These evenings Bos and Chao trained with what Chao called "a very inexpensive substitute." They'd taken an old smoke detector, rewired it to sound constantly, zip-tied it to an inner tube, and dropped an anchor. Bos and Chao let me hop aboard so I could join them while they sailed loops around it. Now and then, without warning, Chao shouted: "Two o'clock! Puff coming in!" At first I didn't understand what he was saying. Then wind gusted suddenly from behind my left shoulder. I had sat on the port side of the boat to keep out of the way; to Chao, who was facing the bow, my left shoulder was in the two o'clock position exactly. He'd felt the wind shift fully three or four seconds before I noticed a thing.
While Chao called out wind directions, Bos scampered from bow to stern, or port to starboard, with ropes in his grip, looping them swiftly around cleats. He knew where everything lay on the boat simply by muscle memory. Only he seemed to move this way: so many of the blind people I'd met, even athletes like Chao, tended to move more cautiously, a little herky-jerky. But here was Bos hanging perilously far off the tilting deck, wholly over the water, grasping a corner of jib sail. Outstretched this way he could capture more wind. Between drills the two men bickered: Chao wasn't yelling directions loudly enough, so Bos had a hard time hearing him, or else Chao thought Bos was reacting too slowly, causing them to miss a draft. "No arguing," a coach told them, when her boat drifted near enough to hear. But they weren't being mean-spirited. They were being competitive. They wanted to win. "We stuffed them," Chao said once, after racing another SailBlind boat. "We came smoking out of there."
When dusk fell, coaches directed them back toward shore, while Bos and Chao protested amiably: it made no difference to them to sail after nightfall. I watched Bos step nimbly across the breadth of two unsteady boats anchored to the dock, holding nothing but masts and wires. He always wore a hat and sunglasses, since light could irritate even those muscles that supported an unseeing eye, leading to migraine headaches; also, the coverage helped protect Bos from collisions. The brim of baseball cap wasn't much warning, he admitted, but it was better than none at all. Twice this spring he'd broken his nose, walking into things. Back on land he raised something I'd mentioned offhandedly earlier, about having been on a swim team in college. "What were you, a butterflyer? You've got that body type, long and angular."
"I did some fly," I agreed. "Mostly I—." Then I remembered the obvious. "Wait. How do you know my body type?"
"Just sitting next to you," Bos said, shrugging. "The way you move around the boat."
"How tall am I?" I challenged. "And how much do I weigh?"
Bos tilted his head, considering this. He was still wearing sunglasses, even after dusk. Besides our having shook hands a few hours earlier, and once on the boat when I'd accidentally bumped him, we'd never touched. "5'10", 5'10 1/2"? About 150 pounds?"
"Pretty good," I told him. I was six feet, 160.
"But I round up," I admitted. "Don't tell anyone."
A month later, the fog lifts from Lake Michigan, and racers push off to sea. Minutes later it descends again, forcing them back into dock. A few more times this happens: fog recedes, and giddy sailors set out; fog advances, despondent sailors return. In between they march back and forth along the pier, coaches guiding them by the elbows, to the Sheboygan Yacht Club. Inside hang nautical flags of every color and size: mounted on walls, screened on napkins, printed on matchbooks at the bar. Officials stroll through the hallways, nautically themed pins on their lapels. In an office, grave-looking men and women with international accents hunker behind radar images on laptop screens, checking constantly for updates. Under a pavilion outside, the sailors lounge and wait, chatting in many different languages. A few compare smartphone apps that forecast weather conditions. A coach teaches others to tie knots by feel. Every athlete here is blind, but this is a broader category than I imagined. Some have peripheral vision, however modest. Others cannot distinguish a hand mere inches from their face. Some were born this way; others, with a condition that worsened over time. Still others, like Bos, suffered injuries, or brain tumors, that took their sight.
Days before the world championships, Bernard Destrubé, head of classification for the Paralympic World Sailing Committee, oversaw eye examinations, to confirm each athlete's blindness. (The test he and other classifiers use, he told me, is virtually impossible to fake.) Besides Destrubé's organization, which guides policy and maintains world rankings, the most influential body in the sport is Blind Sailing International, whose head, Vicki Sheen, is here in Sheboygan too. While no blind-specific division of sailing exists at the Paralympics, blind sailors are welcome to compete in more general divisions, on crews with other adaptive needs. At the 2016 Paralympics in Rio at least one blind sailor competed, for France. A controversy in the sport is that sailing was cut recently from the Tokyo Paralympics, to be held in 2020. Everyone I hear from hopes it will be reinstated in 2024. But no one at Worlds wants to talk much about this, much less be quoted, since the process is very political, they confide, and no one wants to alienate the Paralympic organizers who made the decision, and might yet reverse it.
Half the sailors I meet, it seems, were inspired by Homerus to imagine buoy designs of their own. The organizers here in Sheboygan are building one, and so is one of the American coaches, though he won't divulge technical details. The Brits have developed a rudimentary set that costs only £20 per buoy. A team at Olin College, just 20 miles southwest of where Bos and Chao practiced on Boston Harbor, is innovating most ambitiously. When finished, their system will be wireless and able to vocalize such information as wind speed and direction, as well as—they hope—GPS coordinates, accurate to within a single meter. They aim for a price below $1,500 a boat.
In the morning chill under the pavilion, I meet BJ Blahnik, Bos and Chao's third American crewmember. Blahnik grew up on a dairy farm in nearby Wisconsin with retinitis pigmentosa—a degenerative eye disorder—that went undiagnosed until age 10. Before then, everyone just assumed him clumsy. Young BJ believed them. He was always bumping into things. He was a boy when Halley's comet soared over the Wisconsin sky, in '86, and his father and sister called out, "It's right there!" But from his backseat in the same station wagon he didn't see a thing. "It's right there!" his sister repeated, frustrated now. "Over top of the barn!" Blahnik assumed he'd missed it. This was like everything else, he figured. Things just came easier to other people. Learning his diagnosis, the facts about his eyes, was a relief.
Today, Blahnik volunteers for the Lions Club, a service organization that offers programs to help those with vision and hearing impairments. When coordinators in Sheboygan were planning their first regatta for blind sailors, they'd been eager for help, since they realized they didn't know a thing about accommodating the blind. A friend referred them to Blahnik and the Lions. In exchange for his advice, they taught him to sail. Shortly after, he attended a clinic down in Florida, where he met Mark Bos.
For educational purposes, Blahnik carries around a bag of goggles whose lenses are treated to simulate various eye impairments. I try on the one marked Tunnel Vision. It's like looking through pinholes. All else is a wall of blur. At the limit of my periphery I can glimpse more snatches of clarity—rather than make things better, this only makes them worse, because gaps so tiny, so far apart, are disorienting, and I keep straining to gather enough sense through them. After five seconds I can feel a coming headache. A coach standing nearby, a Brazilian, happens to be a world-class sailor herself: recently she was ranked 17th in the world, she tells me. Once or twice she tried practicing with the blind team she coaches, wearing the goggles I just tried on. She shakes her head, looking bewildered. "I was totally lost."
All Wednesday and Thursday we wait. An entire landscape that was visible during opening ceremonies—of empty hulls and nude masts, with Olympic rings and London 2012 emblazoned on their booms—disintegrates into white. A stone jetty vanishes ethereally into mist. Friday at last dawns with fogless clarity and a 15-knot breeze. The yacht club is abuzz. At the announcement that conditions are a go, applause breaks out under the pavilion. The sailors, dressed in matching waterproof jackets, toting identical dry bags, march behind coaches to the docks, hands on the elbows of the sailor before them. Within minutes, Bos, Chao, and Blahnik are standing on their boat, tapping impatiently at the mast, waiting for permission to leave the dock.
Under full sails, on a rolling, windswept sea, a sailboat is a thing to behold. It is an animal come to life. Only now do I notice, in retrospect, that a boat lashed to the dock is a sad, fallow thing, decommissioned, like a car on cinderblocks. Out here, swooping and luffing, heeled so sharply I worry they might tip, the vessels are as sleek and angular as knives. Moments before a race, while crews jockey their boats for position, a motorboat veers up and coaches from each team hop aboard, leaving the sailboats to the blind crews entirely. In these anxious seconds the boats crisscross within yards of each other, angled daringly. The Homerus buoys wail. Can I distinguish each sound? Sure. Could I locate the buoys precisely, from aboard a moving boat? Unlikely. At full speed, while racing, in concert with a crew of three? Not a chance.
As race officials loop around the course, they take wide berths to keep out of the way, slowing into neutral when they draw near, so the sound of their engines won't confuse racers. Now I understand some complaints about Homerus equipment: The buoys' speakers are more or less waterproof, but they can short out, and anyway we can only hear them within a quarter mile or so, and in winds higher than 20 knots, only with difficulty. In the calm of a protected harbor, their maximum volume of 114 decibels seems awfully, painfully loud. But in the bedlam of a race you can lose it entirely. During a break Bos tells me that, if he positions his boat a particular way, its sails block sound completely. Also, certain angles in wind become null points: the breeze can carry a buoy signal away from sailors just as easily as it can carry toward them, and intermittently they can't hear a thing. Occasionally a boat's soundbox—the speaker emitting what tack it is on—will synchronize accidentally with the noise from a buoy, and with both sounding at precisely the same time, even an experienced crew can't distinguish between them. A trick to racing is context, always having an overall sense of where you are, so that no single contrary sound, or unexpected silence, will throw you entirely. But of course a racer always strains for a hint exactly like that, some aberrant sound, some cue in the air or current or periphery of his hearing, that only he notices, for an edge over competitors. Sometimes you guess wrong. It is an unforgiving sport.
Bos, Chao, and Blahnik lose their race against Great Britain, and then another American team—its crewmembers from Florida, California, and Michigan—take up against Canada. Then the Canadians race Israel, and so on throughout the day. Between heats, sailboats loll and weave out beyond the course. By early afternoon the lake turns a velvet navy. As waves curl past, several teams steer back and forth along the swells simply for fun, surfing their sailboats for 50 or 60 yards, then tacking around to do it again.
When Bos, Chao, and Blahnik are up once more I hop into a boat with their coach, who watches while biting her nails and whispering urgently. "Tack soon! Tack soon! Tack tack tack!" Rules forbid her from communicating with her team, even over radio, unless somehow they land in danger. For a coach this is torture. She knows that the SailBlind crew has arrived with high hopes, Bos especially. He wants to finish his last regatta memorably. A month earlier I'd asked what his expectations were, and he hemmed and hawed before admitting his inexperience with the Homerus buoys, though he didn't like acknowledging this, or any manner of doubt at all. If you did that as a competitor, you were through, he told me. "If there's any chance, we'll take it."
In fact, they lose every race. After a challenging Friday, Mark admits that nerves overtook him, forced him to doubt where he was on the course, promises to do better. But he never has the chance. Halfway through a jibe in their opening race on Saturday, BJ hears a thunk and assumes they have collided with another boat. This was the boom against Mark's helmet. Several moments of confusion follow, during which the crew, disoriented, listens for the absent cues of another vessel. As soon as they realize what happened, his teammates are ready to abandon the race—they know Mark's medical history, know what is at stake—but Mark shakes them off. He is no quitter. He came to Sheboygan to win. Then the left side of his face begins tingling, and his left arm, and he feels nausea blossom in his abdomen. When BJ asks where precisely the boom hit him, Mark says the rear of his helmet. BJ asks again. Now Mark says the front of his helmet. BJ has heard enough. Knowing it will mean the end for them—minus one crewmember, their regatta will be over—BJ and Matt summon their coach onto the boat, then radio for a nearby medic, who begins concussion protocol. But with Mark's complicated medical history, and because his pupils don't work to begin with, the medic can't get a baseline. Officials phone 911 and rush him to shore, where an ambulance hurtles him toward the hospital. There is a hurried examination and CAT scan. Doctors find he has gotten out of danger quickly enough to prevent his symptoms from escalating. In the impact with the boom, he pulled a muscle in his neck, and suffered a concussion. But there are no complications.
Except he can't shake the feeling he has disappointed everyone: his teammates, who cannot finish the regatta; his employer, a job placement agency for workers with disabilities, who sponsored the trip; his volunteer guides from Boston, who are following from home. Back at the yacht club that night, though, as other crews are returning from the water, it occurs to him that his teammates abandoned a shot at a world championship out of concern for his health. They and the helmet likely saved Mark's life. He wanted to go out with a bang, he jokes ruefully. But he only meant that as a figure of speech.
Now that his time at sea is over, he plans to become an ambassador for blind sailing, to work at bringing more people into the sport. Especially kids. He wants to prove they are capable of more than they imagine, that blindness need not limit them. A sight impairment doesn't mean they must spend their hours inside, supervised, on a couch. They can enjoy a life of excitement, they can feel empowered. They can have fun. In summer and early fall they can head out on the water with nothing but their four remaining senses, with salt on their lips and gusts in their hair, can rebuild trust this way, in themselves and others, can shear along the surface as elegantly as skimmers. It'll be great, he'll tell them. They'll see. ❖
Author: Benjamin Rachlin
Benjamin Rachlin studied English at Bowdoin College, where he won the Sinkinson Prize, and writing at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is the author of Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption.
Photographer: Benjamin Lowy
Benjamin Lowy is an award-winning photographer based in New York City. He received a BFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 2002 and began his career covering the Iraq War in 2003. Lowy has received awards from World Press Photo, POYi, PDN, Communication Arts, and the Society for Publication Design.