Sailing Sightless

My love affair with the ocean began as a young child during my sighted years. To say that my passion for the big blue developed quickly is somewhat of an understatement. If I was not scuba diving or surfing, I was fishing. I spent as much time as I could either at, in, under or on top of the sea. And then I discovered sailing and my addiction was absolute.  Sailing became one of my most loved nautical passions and a big part of my life.

My nautical adventures took me across oceans. I was lucky enough to compete in the infamous Cape to Rio races aboard a 63 foot racer with its bright spinnaker pulling us fast across the Atlantic. I jumped at any opportunity to face the ocean winds. One particularly harrowing around-the-cans event ended right at the start line when the 23 foot yacht I was on broached and tossed the crew a full 360 degrees into Algoa Bay.

I could not get enough. I wore my Musto gear and boat shoes daily and I could not conceive the idea of a day without the spray of salt water on my face. Then, I went blind and thought that this part of my life was gone forever.

Now, after almost four years of living in the dark, I yearn for the sea more than ever. I dream of the fresh alive smell of the ocean. The sound of a boat’s hull slicing through the water. The taste of the salty air. The feel of the wind gently biting my skin as I am blown across the water. I dream of sailing and long to somehow see the sea.

I was thrilled when local Cape Town boat company, Waterfront Charters, invited me to come and join them for a sunset cruise aboard their luxury catamaran, Serenity One.

I bounced a couple of emails with their contact Jacqui debating whether a visually impaired person could indeed enjoy the experience. The fact is that there are over 285 million visually impaired people around the planet. Many of whom love to travel and take part in exciting experiences despite their lack of sight. South African tourism in particular is driving accessibility as a major draw card. With this in mind, I was tasked with answering the question: “Is a sunset boat tour something that a blind visitor to Cape Town could enjoy?” Of course, I did not need much convincing to give it a bash. Using my four remaining senses, I would finally get back out on the water. My biggest fear? The bug would bite hard again and I would not be able to avoid making this a part of my life once more.

The Serenity One is a custom luxury catamaran of just over 40 feet, built here in the mother city. It is designed as a day charter boat with a layout that can comfortably be enjoyed by up to 40 passengers. The hulls are designed by the famous racing boat builders, Simonis.

Excitement brewed as I made my way along the wharfside. I could hear the wind rattling the boats riggings as I strolled past. It was blowing pretty hard. Somewhere between 15 and 20 knots. A gentle but firm wind. A hot breeze shifted the evening air around, it was a perfect summers evening. The Cape Town Waterfront was bustling with people. I could pick up accents from around the world as we passed dockside eateries. Germans, British, Americans and even a smattering of French. Smells filled the air. A smorgasbord of flavours from the restaurants. Fish and chips, grilled and very obviously smothered in garlic. The salt and vinegar scent made my mouth water. I licked my lips and kept moving. I could feel the cobblestones of the dock as I moved my way past noisy bars where crowds were enjoying Sunday afternoon cocktails. I was quiet relieved to feel the wide timber beams under my feet and made sure to swing my mobility stick wide as I strolled down the gangplank that lead to the jetty where Serenity One was berthed. I admit that I was a little concerned about either walking  into a bollard and kissing the jetty, or even worse misjudging the side of the walkway and taking a tumble into the harbour water. I am certain this would have made the crew panic and feel terrible. Truth is, if it had happened, I would have preferred a round of applause. Alas, I proceeded cautiously to avoid embarrassment for everyone.

On arrival at the moored boat, I was greeted warmly by the skipper. A friendly and professional guy called Ian. He carefully told me where to step and pointed out a stanchion for me to grab hold of as I stepped from the dock onto the boat.

All around me fellow passengers maneuvered onto the craft and found their seats. Many first time sailors made their way to the bow, choosing to sit on the trampoline. I heard the skipper snigger to one of the crew that they would be running aft as soon as the yacht left the confines of the breakwater. Spray was sure to dampen their enthusiasm and I was grateful that we had quickly grabbed a seat in the cockpit.  While excitedly awaiting our departure, I could hear the harbour water lapping at the hulls and was reminded of that famous saying: “A ship is safest in harbour, but that is not what ships are made for.”

I was as excited as a kid in a candy store. I chatted to our skipper who after hearing that I was an old sea dog, invited me to man the main winch that was located right beside me. He then announced that it was time to set sail. Not a moment too late. I was looking forward to the sound and feel of the movement.

We motored away from the dock and idled away from the bustle of the crowds. Then, it got really quiet and all I could hear was the boat motors cutting through the water. The onboard sound system was playing one of my old favourite songs, ‘Good Thing’ by the Fine Young Cannibals as Ian steered away from the dock and pointed the bow towards the harbour exit.

The radio crackled to life with our skipper requesting permission to leave the harbour. Permission granted, we were on our way.

After just a few minutes under the power of the twin Yamaha 55 horse power motors we were out of the harbour and I could smell the sea air properly for the first time in years. Instructions were given and it was time to unfurl some sail. I think Ian was relieved to see that I could handle the winch properly. With the Jib sail set on the port side, the wind filled the canvas. It cracked as the sail filled and the boat gently slipped along the water towards the south – and yes, all those people on the front deck came running back to the cockpit to shelter from the icy cold sea spray.

Feeling the motion of water passing under the deck was a sensation that brought back so many memories. I did not have to see to understand exactly what was happening as we sailed on towards Mouille Point light house.

Flutes of Method Cap Classique bubbly, were poured and handed around. Everyone onboard was in a jolly mood. People chatted easily and the obligatory selfies were posed for and taken.

Just before we jibed and started to swing the boat around, I took the helm for a short while. I sensed that Ian was enjoying chatting to a fellow sailor and filled me in with information about the boat and all its onboard toys. The wheel felt extremely light thanks to its graphite frame and the fact that the Serenity was fitted with a state of the art hydraulic steering system. Ian and I chatted for a long time, sharing stories of adventures we had both enjoyed on the ocean. We debated our favourite boats and spoke for a while about the joys and challenges of skippering a charter boat. Then, all of a sudden, just as the sun was melting its golden ball of fire into the Atlantic, a Southern Right Whale surfaced and bellowed a giant spray of water a few hundred meters off our starboard side. This of course made all the passengers flood to the right hand side of the boat to try get a better look. I felt the cat heel ever so slightly, but to the inexperienced, it would have hardly been noticeable.

We came about once more and with the wind easing off, heading back to the entrance of the harbour. The sun was now down and even though there was a drop of a couple degrees, it was still a perfect warm Cape Town summers evening.

Back in the harbour the sounds of patrons enjoying the night life could be heard as we got nearer and nearer to the wharf. Suddenly a passenger’s hat blew off and in true charter boat captain style, Ian gave orders to the crew while he clicked the accelerator arms into reverse. A boat hook was expertly swung over the side of the boat and the grateful passenger’s hat was retrieved. The crowds offered a round of applause for the crew and skipper who lapped up every moment of attention. It made me giggle inside having seen this so many times before. Ian really is a trooper and made everyone’s experience more enjoyable with his constant banter.

As we idled back through the harbour, Ian told me more about the Waterfront charters company’s fleet. They really have covered all bases. They have a schooner of 50 feet and even offer high speed thrill rides on semi-ridged inflatable jet boats. This thought really got the adrenalin flowing in my veins, but alas, that is a story for another time.

Back at the dock and it was all over before it began. I had the answers I was looking for. Firstly, could a visually impaired person enjoy the experience of sailing? The answer: an undoubtable and massive yes. With the professional crew running the Serenity, a blind person could not only enjoy the experience, they could be a part of it. Now to my second question. Would the bug bite again? Let me just say that I am planning to get myself down to the local yacht club as soon as I can. I will be the guy standing on the jetty in full oil skins, sailing gloves, wearing a harness and holding his thumb out. Never mind the long white mobility stick. We can just pop a boat hook onto the end of it in case anyone’s hat blows off.

Chris practicing his sailing knots onboard Serenity One. In this picture, Chris has made a hangman's noose
Chris practicing his sailing knots onboard Serenity One. In this picture, Chris has made a hangman’s noose
Chris, the Blind Scooter Guy, sitting onboard the Serenity One at the wharf awaiting departure. Chris is sitting adjacent to the skipper's helm.
Chris, the Blind Scooter Guy, sitting onboard the Serenity One at the wharf awaiting departure. Chris is sitting adjacent to the skipper’s helm.
Enjoying the sunset as it dips into the ocean onboard the Serenity One
Enjoying the sunset as it dips into the ocean onboard the Serenity One
Chris, the Blind Scooter Guy, working the coffee grinders on board the Serenity One
Chris, the Blind Scooter Guy, working the coffee grinders on board the Serenity One
Beautiful views of Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Signal Hill onboard the Serenity One
Beautiful views of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill onboard the Serenity One


Article by: Christopher Venter





For more information on the Waterfront charters company and their offerings

  1. Fabulous descriptive blog. I was drawn into your journey with you Chris. Thank you once again for this experience.

Post a comment