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Blind Courage Round Ireland

22nd April 2010
Blind Courage Round Ireland
It takes some courage to race Round Ireland so you can imagine the daunting prospect of sailing it blind. That's just what Mark Pollock intends to do this June. Although last week's Irish Times said he'll be making history in his Open 40 some mention should still be made of those blind sailors who have gone before Pollock on this circumnavigation. In 1996 Michael Beggs and Martin McKeaver went round and before they left they explained to Afloat why they would be “Night sailing” the then Cork Dry Gin Round Ireland Race.

Ask any sailor would they race their yacht wearing a blindfold and you’d be guaranteed a short reply. Ask them would they compete in the 700 mile Cork Dry Gin Round Ireland race blindfolded and you could bet on something more
brusque.

But that, effectively, is what two courageous, visually impaired sailors are planning later this month. Tidal races, gale force winds and a rocky lee shore are just some of the obstacles for crews on the week long race which has taken it’s place, quite rightly, among the world’s classic offshore races. It’s not for the faint-hearted and even the strongest of
boats and crews have fallen foul of harsh weather conditions in this most gruelling of sporting events.

As if the race did not present enough obstacles of its own, add to these a metaphorical brick wall of blindness and you will get some idea what sailors Michael Beggs (39) of Bangor, County Down and Martin McKeaver (28) of Derry
are up against.

Beggs who lost his sight in a road accident in 1985, is completely blind and remarkably only acquired his sailing skills since his horrific accident.

Having sold his Tyler 31 foot cruiser which he sails on Strangford Lough he is looking forward to the Round Ireland and to the prospect of more competition in blind sailing regattas later this summer. In 1994 he represented Ireland at the world blind sailing championships in Perth, Australia where he and McKeaver finished fifth overall. Relying on the use
of an audio compass which “speaks” the bearing, Begs says the device gives the blind sailor full independence when helming offshore. “ I can feel the wind on my face like anybody else and I have a good feel for direction.” he
explains.

The audio compass can be set to give a series of bleeps to maintain a course which Beggs uses to guide, more or less like a sighted sailor would do. If the helmsman or woman deviates they will get a series of high pitched bleeps indicating a move to port is required or a series of low bleeps for starboard. It is a remarkable device that has made sailing possible for thousands of visually impaired sailors.

The pair bring a number of skills to their Round Ireland entry, Seaquest, a Beneteau 42 which has a crew of eight:”Oh, we specialise in night sailing” jokes Beggs who has been planning for the June 22nd start since Christmas. He will be skippered by Rory Moore of Carrickferus Sailing Club in a yacht owned by Mike Townsley, who has sailed in the past with the visually impaired. Townsley recalls a story with McKeaver, that the helmsman, unaware of McKeavers disability, shouted to him during a tight manouver: “Martin, Can you see the mark?” “See the mark? Jaysus, I can’t even see the bow of the boar!” came the reply. Townsley, a chartered accountant, says he is at the advanced stage of his Round Ireland entry plans but admits “the race is no picnic” and his team will need commitment. Despite Beggs’ and McKeaver’s good humour and quick wit there is a serious side to their character,
especially when sailing is at the top of their agenda. For the circuit trip their duties include helming, winching and mainsheet trim.

Beggs pints out that he can also change headsails but it is not a task he relishes. On board Seaquest most control lines are led back to the cockpit which increases safety on-board and suits visually impaired sailors. “The big thing for me in sailing is that I am part of a team and I know I am making a contribution. It’s Great!” says McKeaver. The pair are currently on the sponsorship trail for the 1997 World Championships to be sailed in Weymouth, England, but for this event the sailing which first brought them together will now separate them, at least in competition. McKeaver, with limited vision and three years sailing experience on a Nicholson 32 from Larne is classed as a B3 competitor and Beggs, totally blind and fifteen years experience a B1 Sailor. A B2 category has been devised for sailors whose sight only distinguishes between light and dark.

Reprinted from February 1996 Afloat

Published in News Update
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