A silver medal and the Squadron Trophy for overall top nation – as far as Blind Sailing World Championship debuts go, Catherine Westbrook probably couldn’t top hers.
This time last year, the 26-year-old teaching assistant from Kent had only just been introduced to GBR Blind Sailing. Come September, she was a Blind Sailing World Champion thanks to Britain winning their third successive Squadron Trophy at the 2017 Worlds in Sheboygan, USA.
Having completely lost her sight aged two as a result of Retinoblastoma, a rare genetic type of eye cancer, Catherine had wanted to sail for as long as she could remember; a childhood trip on a ketch in Cape Town Harbour giving her the taste.
But it wasn’t until she went to Reading University to study Maths in 2010
she finally got the chance to learn, and it was another four years before she started taking it seriously at her local club, Downs SC in Deal.
How she went from novice to World Champion in three years is some story.
As Catherine explains: “My father is also blind. On the ketch in Cape Town, the skipper gave him the helm and he pushed the boat as hard as he could. I’ve been told I was hanging over the leeward rail and trailing my hands in the water while my mother held onto me. Apparently I loved it.
“Later my family went for a Try Sailing day at Bewl Water, but there was very little wind and the wheelchair friendly boat we were on didn’t respond as I imagined. I was disappointed, feeling this wasn’t what sailing was meant to be. But I wasn’t put off, and when there was a sailing club at university I signed up without hesitation.
“But that wasn’t all I imagined either! We sailed Larks or occasionally Fireflies on Burghfield Lake, but they weren’t in great condition and filled up very easily with water. I learned to bail as much as I learned to sail!”
Down to business
Catherine had always heard the clink of the rigging at Downs SC when she walked into town. But when she finally stepped into the club to say she wanted to join in 2014, everything changed.
Despite being the only blind sailor at the club, her lack of sight was never an issue. She started sailing at Downs’ popular Friday Night Club and found a mentor in local sailing legend, Eric Styles, who took her out in a club Laser 2000. Now sailing was everything she had always hoped it would be.
“I’d never actually rigged a boat before! We launched the 2000 and suddenly I felt the little waves beneath me, the wind in my face and the heel of the boat and I knew I’d found what I was looking for in sailing.”
Her first foray into racing came later that summer. But the following year she really started getting competitive, firstly club racing in a 2000 with one of the club’s experienced Cadets, Toby Freeland, then in local trophy events with Eric in his Hornet. She felt very lucky to be getting such a good education.
Check out this BBC South East feature on Catherine ahead of the Worlds (click on the image below)…
Sailing is a skill that demands accuracy, fine judgement and courage, especially if you're blind.Just ask Catherine Westbrook from Kent, who's been chosen to represent the country at the Blind Sailing World Championships.
Posted by BBC South East on Wednesday, 9 August 2017
“Between Eric and Toby I had no difficulty getting out on the water. To start with to me racing was no different from leisure sailing except there was an aim to go fast.
“I didn’t know the ins and outs of how it worked and always left that to the helm. But as I sailed more, I gradually learned about tactics and rules. I also learned to set the sails myself rather than relying on my helm telling me the jib was fine or needed to be let out or pulled in. I learned by experience as all sailors do.”
Catherine recalls her pride at the first time Eric referred to her as his ‘crew’ and the passion she developed for the Hornet, feeling there was nothing better than flying the symmetric spinnaker from out on the trapeze.
In 2016 they competed at the Hornet Europeans and UK Nationals at Herne Bay, finishing ninth in the fleet of 24 and winning the ‘1st Mixed Crew’ trophy. Having only ever raced against sighted people, Catherine wasn’t daunted being the only visually impaired sailor at the event. But that didn’t apply to everyone else.
“I was surprised when people commented on it,” she admits. “One helper on shore didn’t understand why I didn’t move out of the way of the trolley they were pushing until someone told them I was blind. They weren’t quite sure what to think after that. It was unusual to realise people didn’t take my ability to sail as it came. The other sailors just treated me as the newest member of the Hornet fleet though.”
This event was also Catherine’s first experience of fleet racing and she was bitten by the bug. When she was put in touch with Lucy Hodges, GBR Blind Sailing Commodore, following an RYA regional meeting at Downs in December 2016 more doors started to open.
She was invited to a Blind Sailing training weekend at Cowes the following month, where she handled a keelboat mainsail for the first time. The camp was a baptism of fire as she adapted to the boat, but racing with the team gave her a “real buzz”.
Catherine was delighted when she discovered she had been selected for the Worlds. To build her physical strength to manage the mainsail in strong winds, she practiced on a 38ft foot yacht owned by her friend Bernard, who also took her to the gym.
She admits she will never forget the honour of carrying in the flag and leading out Britain at the Worlds opening ceremony, and says the level and closeness of the competition made the event really fun. The gold medal in Catherine’s B1 fleet (for athletes with least vision) came down to the final day with the USA pipping GBR.
This year Catherine wants to learn to match race with selection for the 2018 Blind Match Racing World Championships an aim, whilst also continuing her love affair with the Hornet. Her sailing career may have had a couple of false starts, but there is no doubt Catherine is making up for lost time.
“Sailing was the first sport or outdoor activity I took seriously,” she concludes. “I didn’t enjoy sport at school and spent most of my time inside until I started sailing. I’m a quick learner and, as I knew this was what I wanted to do, I applied myself.
“Sailing is a joy to me. I love the freedom, I love knowing I’m doing my bit and I’m not just being taken out to sail and I love knowing I can be a part of a team, competing and representing my country. I just love sailing.”