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Kirk Watson is an accomplished sailor. His first sail down the Australian coast was at the tender age of 7 in a 32 foot motor sailor... and he's been on the water every spare moment since. Kirk sharpened his sailing skills through years of successful racing on Pittwater.
So his progression to skippering a 54 footer in the 2013 Sydney to Hobart yacht race might seem par for the course... except for one small detail.
Kirk is legally blind.
Watson started losing his sight in his 20s through retinitis pigmentosa a condition affecting around 1 in 3000 Australians. And now at 40 he cannot see at all. Many people allow a disability like blindness to define them. Not Kirk.
'I might not be able to see but I can still run on the beach, swim in the waves and feel the wind in my face. I don't need see the sails of my boat to know that it's over powered. Like any good yachtsman I can feel what the yacht needs.
And from there skippering is just management.
I may not be able to see anything but I know everything that's happening. If I can't pick up information I need using the senses I have, one of my crew will let me know what's going on.
We have a tight management structure on board. We know what peoples' strengths are and we make the most of them. We're just like any crew preparing for the race - we have lots of factors to consider and my lack of sight is just one of these factors
'In racing terms we had a great race. We went a long way east before heading South which gave us a bit more current and pressure than the other boats and put us in a very good position.
Then heading right we picked up a great Nor Easter.
Going over towards Flinders Island we stayed close to the coast to take some of the wave action off.
Through the front we came through bit of pressure and a bit of wave action which we handled fine.
And we had a good rounding of the Tasman light and a fabulous sail up the Derwent.'
'What was fantastic about this race was how the crew pulled together and how some people really stepped up.
At one stage we had to do a storm drop to get the spinnaker down and I was really impressed with the crew. They all knew that knew their positions and they all knew the drill since we’d practiced it over and over.
Then we had some vibration which we isolated to a gear box or prop issue. We decided it was smart to stop the boat and check the prop was OK as if the weather worsened we may have needed it and safety is always our number one priority.
Robbie was amazing. He went for a dive in the middle of the ocean and found it was just a loose anode. Within a few minutes we were on our way again.
Keeping spirits up
Everyone made coffees, handed up food and filled water bottles when they were needed.
Kevin, Birdie and Angela great job with the catering we had some fabulous hot breakfasts - scrambled eggs, mushrooms, chipolatas and hash browns one morning! Dinners included spaghetti with beef and and chicken in white wine sauce with rice. We didn’t rough it!
Kevin was fantastic making amazing sandwiches with one arm while we were pounding through the waves.
Grace helped repair a sail down in bow. And Bridget and Cath were brilliant making sure everyone was OK.
I can tell a huge amount by the feel of the boat but to make up for my lack of sight I relied on my crew.
My watch captains were good. David Pescud was our navigator - we worked out the overall strategy together and then he kept me up to date with our position.
Crew members were very good at telling which boats were around and which were heading in which direction.
I had Gary grinding for me for a while. We worked our a clear and concise way to communicate - he watched my fingers and changed the grind speed accordingly. It worked really well.
When it got windy everyone realised why we had been yelling so loud in practice. David D had a particularly loud yell which was brilliant we could all hear him perfectly.
You can’t win the race unless you finish. We were conservative and pulled back when we were going downwind. We poled out a number 4 to keep it within envelope and concentrated on getting there in one piece rather than breaking records.
I was really pleased with our third place. Overall it was a great race and we achieved all out objectives.
Well having my own family on side of boat was always comforting in the stormy seas. Once we got to Hobart there were lots of people who knew about the campaign and came to take a look. On New Years Eve we were having a beer and a guy came over saying
'That’s my cousin on the boat - he made it to Hobart!’"