Lighting up communication for Deaf sailors

25 Oct 19

When Peterborough Sailability volunteer and buddy, Mike Bowthorpe, realised that Deaf member, Jane Scott, could benefit from something to help her communicate on the water his creative brain went into action.

With radios redundant, Jane relied on the safety boat or other nearby sailors coming alongside to tell her when her boat was needed for the next sailor or it was the end of the session. Asides from hand waving, Jane also wasn’t able to notify safety or shore if she needed help, so was limited in how far from shore she could sail.

An electronics engineer, Mike, figured there had to be a better way. And this summer, Jane’s Sailability experience has been transformed by a new lightbox Mike has invented for her. Not only is Jane more independent on the water, she has started racing too as Mike and the Peterborough team have continued to develop the prototype.

Jane explains: “It’s all experimental, but very exciting for my independence and confidence on the water. The first lightbox immediately made a massive difference. I no longer had to rely on safety coming to let me know my session had finished, meaning they could focus on safety rather than having to send messages from the shore master.

“I also feel a lot safer on the water, especially on larger lakes like Grafham, because I know I can call safety. I get cold easily, which can be very risky especially on larger lakes. The distance I was allowed to sail away from the shore was sometimes restricted so, because of not having a radio, shore could keep an closer eye on me.”

Jane Scott goes yachting on the SolentHow does the lightbox work?

The concept of the lightbox is pretty straightforward.

Mike’s original radio-operated light alert system was a transmit box with four buttons and a receive box with four lights. When it was time for Jane to come ashore a button was pressed on the transmit box ashore and a light illuminated in her boat.

But this box could be used for racing too, opening up a new opportunity for Jane.

At the start of a race, most sailors listen for the warning alert and synchronise their watches whilst using the flags as back up. But Jane kept missing the start because she was not hearing the start to countdown alert. With someone on shore pressing each button at the right time, the lights were triggered in Jane’s boat - orange for warning start, red for four minutes to go, blue for one minute and green for go.

This version did rely on someone pressing the buttons, however. So Mike and his team went about developing lightbox Mark II, complete with five-minute countdown timer.

A button on transmit box was pressed to start the timer display in the receive box then operate the lights as before. But if the countdown needed to be stopped for any reason, i.e. the start had been aborted, a second button on the transmit button was pressed cancelling the countdown sequence.

Jane continues: “The lightbox made it much easier for me to participate in racing. I cannot hear the hooter, which indicates the Blue Peter flag is up, and it’s very hard to keep watching the shore flags and sailing to avoid the other boats milling around at the start. Now I know the countdown sequence is starting.”

Inventor Mike Bowthorpe and his lightbox attached to a ChallengerWhat’s next?

With the lightbox having such an impact in a few short months, Mike and his team continue to innovate.

The latest version has a much greater range, enabling Jane to sail further on an equal level with other sailors, and two-way communication functionality so Jane can send messages from the receive box on her boat to the transmit box on safety/shore.

The new transmit box also has an audible feature to alert the safety and/or shore teams to the lightbox being activated, while Jane can communicate what she needs through a light code. Both boxes confirm the other has received the commands too.

The addition of a vibrating unit has also transformed communication between the helm and crew in double-handers, and yachts too. Jane recalls a near miss she had with a boom in a gybe because she did not hear the warning. Only a hasty rugby tackle by another crewmember prevented her being hit.

Now the helm can operate a four-buttoned transmitter - A, B, C and D - which triggers a receiver to vibrate 1, 2, 3 or 4 times. The number of vibrations corresponds to different manoeuvres, so the helm can tell the crew what’s about to happen, for example, tack starboard/port, gybe starboard/port.

Mike said: “The sole reason I designed the lightbox was because I could see Jane could benefit from having a box of some sort, and she has been over the moon with how it all works. The next step is dependent on the users, we can only think so far ahead. If we get asked about something then we will see what we can design. But our current focus is on getting the latest version built and tested.”

Jane added: “The lightbox is still a relatively new concept being tested, with new ideas and adaptations all the time. But it has made a massive difference to me. I am so grateful to Mike and his team for their input, and the way they are liaising all the time with me to make the best use of this equipment.”

Want to know more?

Jane would be very keen if other Deaf sailors want to come forwards to be involved in these developments. If you are interested in knowing more, please contact Mike at