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Visually Impaired Sailor Gives Inspiration to All

We’ve all heard the sailing proverb, “You can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” Whether it’s an unexpected obstacle in life or getting to that one anchorage that puts the wind directly on your nose, we are all guilty of trying to pound our way through instead of adjusting course.

Years ago, while out for a leisurely sail with a friend, he noticed my battle at the helm. I was fighting the tiller, constantly monitoring the instruments and adjusting my sails. Finally he said, “Close your eyes, feel the wind and let the boat tell you what to do next.” That amazing moment came flooding back to me when I met an 11 year-old visually impaired sailing student who proved to be a natural born sailor with an incredible outlook on life.

There was no indication prior to Annette Lamas’ birth that she was going to be visually impaired but within minutes after delivery her mother Ivette knew there was something wrong. Annette was born with an extreme amount of fluid behind her eyes that left her in constant pain and severely sensitive to light. For the first few years of her life Ivette had to keep the blinds pulled in the house and Annette completely covered up when rushing from doctor to doctor. After many surgeries to relieve the pressure and to replace a damaged cornea with a prosthetic, Annette can make out shapes and colors at very close distance and can now withstand sunlight, for short periods of time, using dark sunglasses.

Close your eyes, feel the wind and let the boat tell you what to do next.

I stood on the dock with Ivette watching my friend, sailing coach Maykel Alsono, begin the sailing lesson with Annette by reviewing the parts of the sailboat before them. “Where is the bow of the boat,” he asked. As Annette answered, “The front,” Maykel guided her hands along the outside of the boat, moving them towards the bow. After several more rounds of questions, answers and touch, it was almost time to sail.

With a wink in my direction, Maykel asked Annette, “Where is the wind coming from?” While I have always used the wind indicator and wave direction to determine wind direction, I watched in amazement as Annette turned her head from side to side finally pointing south, the direction of the wind.

“Did you feel that on your face,” I asked Annette fully anticipating her answer to be yes. To my surprise she said, “No, I heard the wind coming from that direction.” My baffled look prompted Maykel to explain that he teaches all of his students to feel and listen to the wind.

Carefully lowering herself into the boat, Annette assumed her position at the helm, placing the tiller in one hand and immediately reaching for the mainsheet. She listened intently to her coach hanging on every word as he positioned himself in the bow of the small dinghy. The smile on Annette’s face as they shoved off hooked my heart, dragging me along for her adventure.

As Ivette and I watched Annette sail away, I couldn’t help but notice the white caps forming inside the protective cove. That contrast of color automatically activated an anxiety level in me that I could never quite explain to anyone else. Showing my own fear I heard myself saying, “The wind is picking up. I hope she is OK.” I immediately regretted trying to take back my words. Ivette looked out at her fearless daughter knowing she could handle anything.

“I’m always looking for ways to improve Annette’s quality of life,” Ivette continued as she watched her only child glide through the water. “This is giving her some of the freedom she is seeking.” The word “freedom” resonated with me, knowing that is what all sailors seek when they are out on the water. The freedom to go where the wind takes them without obstacles and pressures from the outside world. The sounds of laughter coming from the water told me that Annette was enjoying that freedom.

Rarely taking an eye off her daughter’s progress, we talked about Annette’s love for adventure. She is a world traveler, racking up frequent flyer miles to Paris, Hawaii, San Francisco, Tennessee and the Bahamas. She also makes yearly trips to California representing her school in the Braille Challenge. Annette has a passion for roller coasters, often asking her mom to join her. “I don’t seek out anything dangerous because I need to be around to take care of my daughter,” Ivette explained. “Besides,” she continued, “I’m deathly afraid of roller coasters and I don’t want to pass on that fear to Annette.”

The more refined side of Annette leads her to the violin which she has been playing for three years. She is also a huge foodie, always asking for the chef’s specialties and trying foods she’s never had before.”

As the lesson was winding to a close, I asked Ivette what’s next for Annette’s sailing adventure. “Anything she wants,” she simply replied. Always the mom wanting the world for her daughter, Ivette said if her daughter wanted to continue she will look into inventing technology allowing visually impaired sailors to hear an obstacle in their path so they can adjust their course. When I asked Annette that same question the answer was pretty simple. She’s looking forward to one day getting Maykel out of the front of her boat so she can sail by herself.

“I’ve taught Annette from an early age that you can’t blame the world for your circumstances. Just accept them and move on.” Annette is going to be a natural at this sailing adventure. She already knows that you can’t change the wind, but you can adjust your sails.

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