“Rather than being a passenger and enjoying bits of sailing, I felt more involved and got great satisfaction from being much more hands on.”

Blind sailor Sharon Grennan is reflecting on a pilot cruise she undertook in Croatia this summer, to help trial new tactile maps and talking charts devised by Master Mariner, Dr Phil Anderson.

Three visually impaired people (VIPs), Sharon, Eddie Kitchen and Sally Rodrigues, who are all part of the GB Blind Sailing team, plus Phil, Steph Heenan and Julie Crapnell - skippered by Stephen Remington - left Zadar, in Croatia’s northwest, on 30 April to celebrate Eddie’s 40th birthday.

What followed was 13 days and almost 400 miles of the most inclusive cruising the VIP sailors had ever enjoyed. So what made the difference?

Feeling and hearing the way

Phil, a friend of Eddie’s, was tasked with undertaking pre-voyage passage planning.

Croatia’s Dalmatian coastline is dominated by islands, inlets and offshore rocks so this task involved plotting possible weather dependent alternative courses on navigational charts and using the relevant Pilot Book to obtain information and data about the coastline, islands, possible ports of call, anchorages and much more.

But this was all visual information. The three VIPs had little chance to be involved in either the passage planning or navigation once on the yacht, so Phil set about trying to put this right.

He explains: “I tried to source charts a non-sighted person could use, but drew a complete blank. I found whilst previous attempts had been made to create tactile charts for some of the UK’s more popular sailing areas, these were few and far between, difficult to obtain and there were no such charts for Croatia. 

“Having set the idea in motion, I couldn’t let it go. VIPs have very sensitive fingertips so if I could raise the outline of the coast on the charts the crew could run their fingers along it and create a mental image of where we were and what was there.”

Phil was led to the RNIB and a pen called Tacti-Mark, which contains a liquid that when dry, forms a raised 3D coloured mark. He then undertook the significant task of drawing around the coastline and islands on the relevant Imray charts. The chart inserts, which contain more detail on a specific area, were marked using whiteboard gridding tape so the VIPs could differentiate the separate parts of the map.

Yet while tactile charts were a step in the right direction, Phil wanted to bring the charts to life to provide an even greater level of involvement for the VIP crew. 

He discovered a labeling device, also available from the RNIB, called PENfriend, which is used to record information onto self-adhesive voice labels that can then be attached to everyday items in and around the home, at school and work. Thanks to the support of the Northumberland County Blind Association (NCBA), who agreed to loan Phil a PENfriend for the exercise, the passage planning went up another level.

Phil continues: “Now I could dictate information from the charts and Pilot Book and apply the audio labels to the charts in various strategic locations. This information included locations, possible weather conditions, coastal passages, navigational dangers and hazards and detail on ports and anchorages we may visit.

“I could also put a label on a part of the map relating to an insert that said ‘Refer to insert A up to the right’, for example, and then another talking label on insert A so the VIPs knew they were reading the correct information. 

“By running their fingertips along the ‘Tacti-Mark’ raised coastline and using the ‘PENfriend’ to touch around 50 labels and hear the audio recordings, the VIPs would have a new level of access to such an important aspect of any sailing adventure.”

The proof of the pudding was still to come, however.

A voyage of discovery

Only Eddie had had a preview of what Phil was working on before the trip. For the others Croatia was their first interaction with his new interactive charts. 

Every morning skipper, Stephen Remington, held his briefing outlining the day’s plan, including meteorological reports, with Phil running through the prepared passage information. Once underway, Phil and the VIPs would then spend time going through the tactile charts so they could create a mindmap of where they would be going that day, information about the passage and any hazards or points of interest to note.

Blind Sailing World Champion, Sharon, had only previously cruised in UK waters. 

She said: “Having this information really enhanced the cruise. For example, in addition to tying up and helming with sighted crew support, I could do marina radio calls and find out where to moor and us VIP sailors had a better idea of the impact of the weather forecast too. By being more hands on to the extent we could be, I felt we could help take the pressure off the sighted crew a bit.”

Eddie added: “The chart allowed us to make decisions on where we were going and brought the passage planning to life to make it mean something.”

The universal consensus was the trial was a success.

As always lessons were learned, not least when the charts were folded the Tacti-Mark stuck together and lifted off. This was resolved by laying greaseproof paper over the marked charts. A raised compass rose and tactile gridlines and side/bottom scale markings would also be useful next time it was felt.

Additionally knowing how much information to include was a balance, while if a VIP wanted to do more detailed navigation, different scale charts would be required to avoid one chart being so overcrowded and complicated the detail blurs together.

Phil isn’t convinced the charts have commercial viability, but admits he found the process of meticulously going round the coastline so interesting and educational he could see other retired Master Mariners being interested in creating similar charts.

Over to Sharon for the final word: “It was a great aid for a cruising holiday and it was fantastic to know someone I was sailing with had put so much time and effort into trying to include us, to put the blind sailors as much as possible on a equal footing.”