Blind sailors `see the sea` on Polish waters

Walentyna Koziol was born with impaired vision. Fast-forward half a century and she is sailing a yacht through the mist on a lake in eastern Poland, without a care in the world.

Siemianowka: Walentyna Koziol was born with impaired vision. Fast-forward half a century and she is sailing a yacht through the mist on a lake in eastern Poland, without a care in the world.

"I can`t see the sails, but so what!" she says as she grips the rudder, occasionally joining in on the sea shanties being sung by fellow crewmembers. 

"I feel the wind in my ears, on my forehead, on my face," she tells AFP to explain how she gets her sense of direction. "If my right cheek is cold and the wind is blowing hard, I know that it`s coming from starboard."

Koziol is gliding through a sailing course on Siemianowka Lake, near the Belarussian border, organised by the Polish foundation Imago Maris with the visually impaired in mind.

She and a dozen fellow students start with a course on the ins and outs of yachting -- including how to tie essential sailing knots -- and go over basic safety rules. 

Then comes the fun part: time to leave dry land behind and put their newfound knowledge to work. 

The yacht is specially kitted out with maps in braille, a GPS with speech software and a rudder that announces the vessel`s direction and speed. 

To ensure full safety blind crewmembers always sail alongside sighted companions. 

"Experience shows that the right ratio of the sighted and the sightless is one to one," said Ewa Skrzecz, head of Imago Maris. "It`s my first time out on the water, on a sailboat," says Piotr Sokolski, a young store clerk from the eastern city of Bialystok who is nearly blind.

"I had no idea sailboats tilt so much. At the first turn, I thought the boat was going to capsize. But then I found out that`s normal," he said as he clutched the jib sheet.

"I also didn`t realise that the water was so close when we were sitting on one side of the boat, and that we could touch it."

Skrzecz believes sailing can greatly help the blind and visually impaired build self-confidence.

"Faced with the unknown, these people react no differently than anyone else: some are anxious, others are open and up for something new.

"There are those who lost their sight and are now afraid to leave the house... We try to encourage them and tell them that life isn`t over, that it`s possible to keep doing interesting things."Blind sailing associations have sprung up around the globe in recent years, with a blind world championship involving 16 international teams staged earlier this month on Lake Michigan.

But Poland considers itself a pioneer in the discipline, which has been practised for years on the Baltic sea through a project called "Zobaczyc morze" (See the Sea). 

Similar courses are run in the lake-rich Masuria region in northern Poland. 

"We want to pass on that tradition and our know-how to other countries," says Skrzecz, who is writing her doctoral thesis on sightless sailing.

Imago Maris will be running its first cross-cultural sailing trip on the Mediterranean next month. 

Visually-impaired men and women from Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have signed on to sail from the Spanish seaport of Alicante to Barcelona -- via Majorca and Ibiza -- on a Polish schooner dubbed "Kapitan Borchardt". 

The itinerary may be the stuff cruises are made of, but Skrzecz promises that all aboard will get their hands dirty.

"The disabled are always an integral part of the crew. That`s the underlying principle. They can`t be thought of as mere passengers," Skrzecz says.

"They pull the lines, do the cooking, take over the watch when it`s their turn and do every kind of chore -- round the clock."

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