Standing at the helm of a three-masted schooner, Alina Koralewska is having no trouble at all staying the course to Barcelona despite being able to see neither compass nor stars.
The 59-year-old Pole is blind and is steering the “Kapitan Borchardt” on the Mediterranean Sea with the help of a talking global positioning programme.
“Course 248, left six degrees, left four degrees,” the electronic voice feeds into her headset, telling her when to turn the helm and by how much.
“I love sailing at night. The sound of the waves, the smell of the sea,” says Koralewska, a psychologist and masseuse from the Polish city of Opole.
“I asked the deck officer to warn all the fishing boats that I was steering. So far I’ve managed to not ram into any of them,” she says.
Koralewska boarded the Polish schooner at the Spanish seaport of Alicante along with around 30 others from Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — half of them blind or visually impaired.
The six-day trip took them to Ibiza, then Majorca before anchoring in Barcelona. It is the brainchild of the Polish foundation Imago Maris, which provides visually impaired individuals with the chance to experience the sea and meet people from around the world.
“Blind people are often withdrawn. Here they open up to others, they feel part of a group. We notice the change sometimes at the end of the trip,” says Maciej Sodkiewicz, captain of the schooner and vice-president of Imago Maris.
“The blind crewmembers are required to be 100 percent involved,” says the professional sailor whose mother is almost blind “but lives a normal life, prepares dinner for the whole family and keeps the house in order”.
“It’s a good school of life. Our youngest sailor, Kuba, learnt how to peel potatoes here. It’s the housekeeper who does it back home.”
– Smell, sound, touch –
More than just a series of chores, the journey is also a dream come true.
“You have the feeling of freedom. It shows you that you can do whatever you set your sights on,” says Andrei Skirins, a tall, hefty Latvian who manages a chain of gyms.
“Ever since I lost my sight, I’ve been dreaming of going sailing. I derive a lot of satisfaction and energy from it and I learn a lot.”
All aboard say they would do it again.
“I enjoyed the raging sea and the wind. It’s a great feeling,” says German crewmember Sebastian Barschneider.
He only has one complaint: “everyone spoke a lot of Polish here. For someone who only speaks English, it was a bit tough.”
Monika Dubiel, a 26-year-old student in Warsaw, wound up on board by chance.
“A classmate had seen me with my white cane, so she came over to tell me about the sailing trip at the dormitory. I liked the idea,” she says.
“I would just as well have agreed to travel the world on the back of a camel.”
She says blind people experience the sea differently: “Through smell, be it humid or salty or hinting of seaweed. Through sound, like the lapping of the waves against the hull when I’m lying on my bunk or the noise of the fluttering sails. Through touch: the halyards are more worn out than the sheets.”
Koralewska steps away from the helm for a fellow crewmember to take over. She proceeds carefully along the deck in the direction of the cabins.
“The lifelines are a big help,” she says, before adding: “and there’s always a cute guy who’ll hold your hand”.