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This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Last September, a sailing team out of Boston called the Wind Whisperers won an international championship regatta. They competed against groups from around the world, battling 6-foot waves, 20-knot winds and near-constant seasickness. The only twist: This was the 2015 Blind Sailing World & International Championship. Meet helmsman Duane Farrar ’83.
Duane Farrar knew all along that he would go blind. Like his mother, he has retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disease that causes retinal degeneration. He also has a neurological condition called trigeminal neuralgia, which causes excruciating electric nerve pain down the left side of his face. Farrar was declared legally blind in November 1989 at age 28.
His philosophy then, as now: “I can do anything. It just takes a little longer.”
To wit: The native of Unionville, Conn., played high school football before heading to Bentley University for associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Management and Computer Information Systems, respectively. That’s along with being an editor for the Inferno student newspaper (precursor to the Vanguard) and playing intramural floor hockey and softball. Post-college, he worked for years as a programmer at AT&T and then in custom applications development for a software consulting company. Then the 2001 dot-com crash dimmed job prospects for him and many others in the tech industry.
Surfacing a Passion
The setback was temporary, as Farrar focused instead on his talent for competitive sports. He learned to ski and joined the Board of Directors at Ski for Light, a nonprofit that teaches cross country skiing to visually impaired adults. He was then introduced to SailBlind, run through the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass., which does the same thing for sailing.
“I learned the basics of sailing and the following weekend they needed a last-minute person to fill in during a blind sailing regatta,” he says. “I was steering a sailboat in Boston Harbor on a crazy, windy day without a clue of what I was doing. And loving every second.”
He’s been racing ever since.
In addition to SailBlind, Farrar races with Community Boating in Boston, where he met his future wife, Elizabeth. The two live in Watertown with 9-year-old twin daughters, Camilla and Iris.
“Being middle aged and having twins is a handful,” says the stay-at-home dad. “Being middle aged, having twins and being blind is definitely a handful.”
Teams usually consist of four people: two blind sailors, one handling the helm and one the main sail; and two sighted guides, one who trims the foresail and one who can help only by speaking. Their role is to communicate what they see to their blind boat mates.
"Sailing has lots of variables, all constantly changing,” shares Farrar. “When I’m sailing, I feel the boat. I feel the wind on my skin and concentrate on how the helm feels in my hand. Even when people are shouting and crazy things are happening, I stay focused on my guide and on steering. Sailing is a mental game."
It’s also an exercise in teamwork — a skill that Farrar says he developed in college. “The foundation in managing people and projects that I got at Bentley made it possible
to go out and work in a team environment.”
This penchant for collaboration has taken Farrar to Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. He has been working with students there to develop an autonomous blind sailing system: sensors and cameras that use GPS and WiFi to share things like sail trim and wind direction.
“The challenge is finding the right interface,” he says. “How do you see a wind puff on the water and translate it with technology?”
The Whisperers Scream
For now, Farrar is doing pretty well with the current system. The Wind Whisperers won the 2015 Blind Sailing World & International Championship on Lake Michigan in Chicago. His teammates were fellow blind sailor Amy Bower and sighted guides Solomon Marini and Denis Bell.
“There were 6-foot waves and almost everyone was green with motion sickness,” he recalls. “We were getting tossed around in a huge mess of waves. It was just like being in a washing machine.
"Due to the strong winds, our boat lifted several feet out of the water and we basically surfed a wave down the course, screaming like banshees. It was one of the most amazing sailing experiences I’ve ever had.”
Want to learn more about blind sailing? Check out the trailer for the documentary that Farrar appears in, called Sense the Wind.
Tiffany Smith oversees content for Bentley University. A native New Yorker, she has been published by the Boston Globe, TIME for Kids magazine, All You magazine and many more. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffanyiswrite.
The Yawkey Foundations have recognized Bentley University’s longstanding commitment to service-learning and awarded the university $500,000 to educate students to effectively lead nonprofit organizations and expand student efforts to help community groups.