Blind sailing documentary wows Perkins crowd

Perkins alum Matt Chao featured in film that explores the thrills and rewards of competitive blind sailing

Four sailboats plow through large waves on the ocean

The documentary “Sense the Wind” was screened at Perkins this week. The film, which features Perkins alum Matt Chao, introduces people to blind sailing – an exciting sport that is largely unknown to the general public.

September 16, 2016

The white sailboat races across the azure sea, smashing through surging waves. The sails billow and snap under the fierce wind. Sailors, wet from blasts of salty spray, duck under a swinging boom as the boat tacks sharply to the left.

“That day was actually one of the most exciting days I’ve spent on the water,” said Matt Chao, one of the sailors on that boat. “I mean, it was really rocking and rolling. I’m like, Yes – this is where I belong!”

The scene is from a documentary entitled “Sense the Wind,” about Chao, a 1972 graduate of Perkins School for the Blind, and three other sailors who are blind. The film was screened at Perkins Wednesday night, with Chao and director Christine Knowlton in attendance to answer questions.

More than three dozen people attended the screening, including Perkins students, alumni and staff, as well as local residents. The film was audio described for viewers who are blind, with descriptions of the action dropped in between dialogue and voice-overs.

“Sense the Wind” introduced the audience to four main characters – Chao, Nancy Jodoin, Inky Inkiala and Philip Kum. They have different lives and visual impairments, but what draws them together is blind sailing, a sport that is largely unknown to the general public.

In the film, Chao talks passionately about his love for racing sailboats.

“You can be a cruising sailor or a racing sailor,” he said. “The excitement for me is in the racing. It’s as much an important aspect of my life as holding down a job.”

In blind sailing, each boat has two sailors who are blind and two with vision. One of the sailors who is blind steers the boat, while the other handles the lines and trims the sails. One sighted sailor describes the boat’s position on the race course and the location of competitors; the other helps with the sails.

Chao and his teammates explain in the documentary what sailing has given them – a powerful sense of independence and control, the adrenaline buzz of competition and a team spirit that binds them together.

“Sense the Wind” captures the beauty of sailing, as boats skim across coruscating waves, sunlight sparkling under a tranquil blue sky. It also shows the more mundane side of the sport, as sailors quietly prepare their boats for a race – rigging sails, tying knots and coiling ropes.

The film follows the four as they hone their skills in races in Rhode Island and California, before heading to Japan in 2013 for the World Blind Sailing Championships. In the dramatic climax, the team overcomes hazardous conditions – rough seas and high winds – to win a bronze medal.

After the showing, the audience praised the film and quizzed Knowlton and Chao about movie-making and blind sailing.

Knowlton said she has been screening “Sense the Wind” at colleges, libraries and yacht clubs to drum up a groundswell of enthusiasm, in hopes she can get it broadcast on national television. The film is also making the rounds at festivals, including the Rhode Island International Film Festival, the Disability Film Festival in Calgary, Canada, and others.

Chao said he loves to sail competitively – especially against sighted sailors.

“I believe it’s important to educate sighted people as to what we can do,” he said, “despite the fact we can’t see.”