Sailing with Vince Morvillo
A Different Kind of Vision
SAILING WORLD May 2005
You’re approaching the mark on port tack, and you close your eyes. You can hear the bow waves of converging starboard tackers, the trimming of sheets, and the shouts of "Starboard! "and" Hold your course! "Ratchet blocks are clicking, spinnaker poles banging on the deck, and sails luffing. You’re at the helm in the midst of it all, about four boat lengths below the mark, and your only other input is coming from a crew member who is talking you through the cacophony: "OK, we’re going to barely clear a starboard tacker, then we’re going to bear off 10 to duck another. Then, as soon as we’re clear, we ‘re going to leebow another. . .
"When I reflect on this stressful mark rounding at the 2004 Ensign Nationals, my eyes close and I wince. And I imagine what it must’ve been like for Vince Morvillo, steering through this wall of sound without the benefit of sight - the flood gates of adrenaline must’ve been wide open.
Yet, we pulled off the maneuver within that cluster of boats, and not long after, were sailing downwind under spinnaker in relative serenity. The two boats ahead of us had tangled with each other, or the mark, and left us in first with about a 30 - second lead. After a couple of minutes, the quiet became too much for our cerebral skipper.
"How’d we do?" Kent, Dick, and I were grinning at each other, tickled with the opportunity to playfully dole out the good news. A few seconds passed.
"Uh.... OK," said Kent. Another long pause followed as Vince considered how to rephrase the question.
"No, I mean, what place are we in? "We chuckled gleefully, but were semi-ashamed now at toying with the truth. "First," I said.
"First? First place? "he said. "After all that racket? How’d that happen?"
Winning the Ensign Nationals was improbable, but not out of the question.
Some might have said it was unlikely for race, because Vince Morvillo, age 60, has since. been blind since childhood. He depends on his crew for steering directions yet is an extremely capable sailor. His ability to bleed off upwind power in flat spots without input and keep the boat at the right place in the groove is something racecourse full of visual distractions and you’d have to witness to believe. Vince has proven himself with numerous racing successes, including gold, silver, and bronze medals at the Blind Sailing World Championships.
Vince learned to sail before he lost his vision, which deteriorated rapidly as a teenager. Although he can see light and dark, his impairment prevents him from seeing more than that. Fortunately, Vince has continued sailing all of his life, owning a Snipe and then an Ericson 27 in San Francisco. After moving to Texas, he bought an Ensign with a friend, and when his friend didn’t show up for one race, he took the helm—and hasn’t let go since.
Sailing requires a certain amount of "feel," and Vince has developed that in ability to spades, including his sense of the strength and angle of the wind on his face and neck. He doesn’t have to worry about a racecourse full of visual distractions and has the best concentration of any skipper I have known. At this event, however, he would be trying to do something that had never been done before—racing and winning against sighted skippers in a major, one-design national championship.
Vince hates the phrase, "I can’t. "He thinks it should be banned from the English language. He lives in a world of possibilities, and therefore has a built-in ability to succeed. He had a successful career as a venture capitalist, retired early, and started selling boats. Now he owns Sea Lake Yachts, a successful yacht brokerage in Houston, with offices in Dallas and Corpus Christi. In 1996, he started racing Ensigns and earned a 5th overall at the Nationals in 1999 and a third in 2003. But the trophy continued to elude him.
The 2004 Nationals was in Newport, R.I., and winning there would hold special significance for Vince, because Narragansett Bay is where he learned to sail. Two members of Vince’s 2003 crew had new commitments, so in pursuit of a Rhode Island homecoming victory, Vince signed on a versatile, compatible team. Serving as our bowman, Kent Gordon is an excellent sailor—bright, observant, and an experienced Ensign crew, learning from Ensign guru and four-time national champion Dean Snider. Moving just aft to the trim position, Dick Playter, has been sailing 69 of his 73 years, the last 15 with Vince. He is long and lanky, obviously experienced, a fine example of fitness, and unbelievably spry for his age. As for me, I’ve raced everything from Sunfish to Solings, and I’d raced in one Blind Worlds with Vince before. This time, as then, my job was to trim the main and talk to the skipper.
As his crew, we knew we were taking on a real challenge, but we knew Vince had the ability if we could do our part. And winning an event like the Nationals, hard enough against the standard odds, held great appeal because of the statement it would it would make for the capabilities of those sail visually impaired and with other disabilities.
We began our campaign with regular practice sessions every Thursday afternoon, using stand-ins to cover any schedule conflicts. There are so many benefits to regular practice that it is impossible to list them all. Besides adding a wonderful sailing break to the week, practice allows personalities to mix and settle. It reveals individual strengths, which builds confidence in each other’s abilities. It uncovers weaknesses, and provides opportunities to share, experiment, or learn new techniques. Practice exposes flawed control hardware, and provokes conversations about rigging improvements. Practice reveals task dependencies, equips a team with a full repertoire of rehearsed maneuvers, and the timing required for execution. If a team practices one day a week for 12 weeks, that team will perform like it has been racing together for years.
Practice is priceless for anybody; but for us, it was also mandatory. Quick, effective communications with Vince had to be established. They included short phrases, like" Up one, "and" Down a half, "which did not indicate the desired adjustment in degrees. More likely, each "one" is a three-degree adjustment, but it mattered little since calibration came quickly aboard Novie Marie. If Vince bore off too far, we would simply calibrate him with feedback like, "That was a three. "Vince would take this info and incorporate it into future helm movements. During the regatta, it became apparent the whole team was calibrated. More than once, Kent and I would say the exact same command at precisely the same time. This team-wide calibration made it easy to switch roles or perform a different task without losing steering. Sometimes we would just inform Vince where he was in the groove with something like, "Tales lifting," which let him know he was on the verge of luffing. "Shaking" told him he was on the low side of the groove, almost in a stall. In any case, requesting small steering changes allowed the sighted crew to accommodate lifts, headers, flat seas, and large wave sets. Vince truly steers on blind faith, and he’s remarkably receptive and responsive to input. Crew feedback never adversely affects him like some sighted skippers, and our team was truly empowered because of it.
There usually wasn’t time to paint a full picture for Vince, so it became fitting to have descriptors for communicating common situations. For instance, "Gust 1 in 10" meant: "We see a gust of Type 1 on the water which we expect to hit in about 10 seconds. "A Type 1 gust is one we think will be preceded by a short header or lull, which changes the feel of the helm and entices a skipper to bear off. But then the gust strikes more broadside, which heels the boat, and results in trim and steering losses. On our boat, "Gust 1" came to mean, "We see a gust coming, but be careful not to bear off in front of it. "Vince became quite adept at maintaining course through any initial header and meeting the oncoming gust with a pre-feathered heading. With short, powerful phrases like this, the airwaves remained clear for talking about all the other things that needed our attention, like competitors, the conditions, and sail trim.
When we arrived in Newport, we brought a strong desire to win, a well prepared boat, new sails, a finely tuned team and a solid support staff (Vince’s wife, Margaret, handled shoreside logistics). On the first day of racing, we joined 40 other competitors (including seven past champions) in brisk winds out on the exposed waters of Rhode Island Sound, where we managed a 6th in the practice race, and a 4th in the first official race. It was exciting to confirm we had point and speed with the leaders. After the racing, a great cookout was hosted by the Ida Lewis YC. No matter where you go in the Ensign class, good people are guaranteed. Long distance friendships bloom annually at the national championship. This was a beautiful night, complete with old friends, new acquaintances, and a mesmerizing sunset reflecting on the harbor among the multitude of yachts in front of Ida Lewis.
On the second day of racing, also on the Sound, the winds were lighter, and a ground swell on the port beam provided an interesting twist. As each swell passed underneath, it caused the feel of the boat to shift from slightly weather to strongly Ieeward helm. This played havoc with the steering calls to Vince, as an abnormal amount of tiller wiggling was required to keep the boat on track. "It felt weird - I could never get a feel for it, "Vince said Iater. "I had to utilize Buddy to know where I was in the groove. I had never experienced conditions like that. "
But Vince adapted quick y with finishes of 6, 3, and 1. "The boat was fast, " says Vince. "We hit a couple of shifts, but didn’t tack too much. This was the first time I’d won a race at the nationals! "
Those finishes put us in second place behind a fine crew from East Northport, N.Y., skippered by Brian Simkins, who had a total scoreline of 1-1-2-9.
On the third day, the RC sent us outside again, but there was no wind. Vince has a phobia against getting too far from the committee boat in light conditions, so we steered fairly tight circles around the committee boat to stay close. After three hours or so, everyone else in our boat was lying down and conserving energy, when another Ensign skipper addressed the committee boat with some light humor, saying: "I understand there is going to be some wind out here around midnight."
Vince quickly jumped up and agreed, "Racing at midnight? I’ll go for that!"
The wind refused to cooperate, so the race committee moved the course into Narragansett Bay between the Pell Bridge and Gould Island. A light, shifty, southerly breeze greeted us there, as well as an adverse current. The current charts of the bay show less current to the right (west) during a flood, which is a very appealing consideration in light winds. Within five minutes of the start, all but three boats had tacked to go west. It was our plan to go there, too, but shortly after the start, Kent saw stronger breeze coming down the left side. Brian, who was leading the event, was heading left, and we were really torn between sticking with him or staying with the rest of the fleet at this point in the regatta. So, even though the boats on the right side were looking better and better, we went for the approaching wind and stayed with the leader. After our tack to port, it looked like all 38 boats on the right side were going to slam us. Then some remarkable things began to happen. Our wind came in with 10 degrees of lift and 5 more knots of pressure. From our vantage point, the right corner began to look like a Stuart Walker Nightmare. The wind appeared to lift off the surface, refusing to supply an exit strategy for the tightly bunched crowd, and the three of us from the left rounded the mark with a huge lead.
Now things were about to get worse for our friends in the right corner. A huge, rusty tanker appeared from under the Pell Bridge and, blasting five, proceeded into our racecourse where he intended to anchor. This presented a monstrous obstacle
and wind shadow which the rest of the fleet had to dodge to fetch the weathermark. In that race, taking the side less traveled kept getting better and better We finished second behind Brian.
The second race of the day had steadier wind, and we scored another second place while the crew from New York sailed their throwout. Right after we finished, a 45-foot pilot boat bore down on the finish line at wake speed, and passed through, dead center, as a couple of boats beat to their finish in the dying breeze. I guess that tanker’s pilot was not real happy about dealing with such a large pack of Ensigns. On the sail back, we were treated to the awesome sight of eight 12-Meter yachts bantering back and forth, including my two favorites, Intrepid and Courageous. Ashore, we enjoyed tasty clam chowder and relived the day’s racing in the Mule Barn at Sail Newport.
Going into the first race (of two) on the last day, we calculated that we could win the regatta with a race still to sail if we put five boats between us and Brian. After the way the team from New York had sailed all week, we knew this wouldn’t be easy, but because our worst race was a 6th and his a 16th, we had a strong advantage. The course was set farther north, between Gould and Prudence Islands, well out of the shipping lanes, and just a few miles from Wickford, R.I., where Vince began sailing as a teenager.
Our strategy was to start cleanly and conservatively, with clear air, near the middle of the line, and about a minute before the start, we appeared to be attracting quite a crowd. Then, the most amazing thing happened. The boats on top of us pointed up, and the boats underneath footed away, leaving a huge, gaping hole with about 40 seconds to go. Brian had positioned himself well to win the pin and the favored left side, but he had a lot of boats around him. A bit bewildered by our unexpected fortune, we put the boat on a close reach, I accelerated, found the line, and jumped to a two-length advantage within seconds after the start. We sailed conservatively, used the steady breeze and our boat speed to cover Brian, and finished in second place.
Then, we watched and counted, hardly able to breathe, as boats crossed the line. With each finisher, we increasingly lost confidence in our pre-race math. We were recalculating for about the 11th time when the revelation hit us. We had done it! Vince Morvillo had his homecoming victory. But with another race about to start, how could we sail to the dock? Vince decided we should sail the last race just for fun, which it turned out to be: we took the gun.
SAILING WORLD May 2005