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Whangarei sailor a Paralympic pioneer

Garth Reynolds is set to go where no blind sportsman has gone before when the Paralympics begin in Sydney next week - out on the water.

Reynolds, who regularly sails with the Whangarei Cruising Club, is the first blind or sight-impaired person to be selected for a New Zealand Paralympics crew. He will be the mainsheet hand in the three-man Sonar class, working alongside Dunedin's Phil Edwards and Nelson's Marty Clark (or Auckland's Chris Wood) as additional crew members.

Reynolds, a former farmer and equestrian rider, who took up sailing in 1994, is graded B2 in blind sport. B1 is the classification given to someone who is totally blind ranging through to B2 and B3 for those with very limited sight. Reynolds' sight-impairment is the result of Retinitis Pigmentosa, which means he can't see the creases or bagging on a sail, 'just a big white blob'.

Reynolds sees images, but can't see any detail. He can see the outline of someone's face but not their facial features. Glare and distinguishing colours can also be difficult and he can see a buoy within a 15-20 metres range depending on light conditions.

Paralympian sailors are allotted points representing the degree of their disability. Each crew's combined points must not exceed 12. Reynolds is graded as four points.

"I can do 75 percent of a sighted mainsheet hand's normal tasks with my vision," explains Reynolds. "But I'm unable to tune the mainsails to their final point, so the communication on our boat has to be right up to scratch. I have to have that last call from somebody else in the boat to get my sails dead right."

Reynolds is hoping for breezier conditions than the fluky light airs that played havoc with New Zealand's medal hopes at the Sydney Olympics regatta last month.

"I think it's pretty well-known that European sailors are used to sailing in much lighter winds than we are and we're probably not as patient. So we're hoping it will be a bit blustery for us, even though this can create mobility and balance problems for the rest of my crewmembers. We have to tack a bit more slowly at times in this sort of sailing."

The 23-foot long, Sonar fixed-keel class lends itself well to disabled sailing because of its very roomy cockpit area. New Zealand gained a wild card entry into the Paralympian regatta, and Reynolds says there will be plenty of challenges for the crew as they take on other more experienced international crews who may have been together for many years. Because the New Zealand crew is spread from one end of the country to the other, getting together for training over the past few months has been very difficult. Compounding this, they have had to practise in a different type of yacht - J24's- as there are no Sonar boats available in this country.

However, Reynolds is no stranger to the class. It was in a Sonar that he won a gold medal at the 1999 World Blind Sailing Championships in Miami, Florida as helmsman of the New Zealand B2 crew.

Blind sailing differs from disabled sailing in that crews consist of a sight-impaired helmsman and mainsheet hand alongside a sighted tactician (who can talk but not touch anything) and a sighted crewmember. In disabled sailing the three-man crew has no extra help.

Reynolds hopes the Paralympics will open doors for the fledgling crew into other major international disabled sailing events.

"Although we're up against some very experienced overseas crews, there's quite a lot riding on us being able to achieve reasonable results."

The weeklong Paralympics regatta starts on Oct 21 in Sydney. Reynolds and the crew assemble in Auckland Wednesday 11 October, before the New Zealand Paralympics team departs for Australia on Thursday.


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