How to Rabbit:  Guiding a Visually Impaired Rower

“Okay, Rob:  Ready, Row”

In this blog, Sharon Wienbar explains her experience with Visual Impaired (VI) rowers.

That typical rowing command takes on more urgency and complication when Rob is in a blind boat–and not just a backward-facing scull. Rob is visually impaired (“VI”); he prefers the term “blind.” Yet Rob rows a single scull twice a week at Bair Island Aquatic Center (BIAC), where we host one of the largest adaptive rowing program on the west coast. Rob gets a workout, and both he and his rabbit enjoy their partnership and the beauty of being on the water.

BIAC’s busy home waters wind among an active port, numerous marinas, Stanford University’s rowing and sailing boathouse and San Francisco bay’s largest protected natural wetland. Sighted rowers practice steering here for years and still risk calamity. So how does a visually impaired rower navigate? A “rabbit” rower calls out commands to the VI rower from another scull a length or two ahead, giving “port” and “starboard” commands along with context and a little bit of rowing advice.

Why visual impaired rowers row?

VI rowers get on the water for the same reasons many do. Here’s Rob’s list of what’s rewarding:

  • First, the physical workout, and the feeling that I’m in better shape than I’ve been in over three decades.
  • Secondly, the feeling of a challenge met.
  • Thirdly, the simple joy of being out on the water, especially when I can feel the sun and hear the waterfowl and sometimes even the breathing of a nearby harbor seal.
  • Finally, the zen-like feeling I get on the rare occasions when I find a good rhythm. 

Rabbits must remember that these are their partners’ motivations and work to enhance them. And rabbits enjoy these same moments, working in concert with their rowing partner.

Learn to navigate: Getting into the boat and off the dock

Most of the VI rowers at BIAC learn to navigate the boatyard and docks with a cane, quickly sensing where the edges are. VI rowers start single sculling at BIAC in boats with pontoons that can’t flip, then advance to stable boats such as a MAAS Aero, then to faster shells. Volunteers help VI rowers enter and adjust their boats before setting off. The volunteer helps orient the rower to his/her boat: where the oars are, where the footboard should be placed, where the rower’s water bottle is stored. Once the gear is set up, the rower awaits the rabbit’s commands to start and steer the boat.

What is a good Rabbit?

Most outings are not a race, and the rabbit needn’t be quick like a bunny. But a good rowing rabbit needs to be able to anticipate a boat’s course and to clearly call out steering direction in a crisp and encouraging voice. VI rowers share the same frustrations and joys as sighted scullers–the terror that they might flip and the elation of a string of perfect strokes. 

A good rabbit is like a good coxswain, who guides the rower in the “air traffic controller” voice while also leaving silence for the VI rower to concentrate on his or her stroke and workout. When so much of the world’s information comes to the VI rower audibly, the rabbit must be especially sensitive not to overload input with too many words. This is crucial on windy days when gusts fill ears with static and carry away vocal commands. Rabbits can use escalating sharpness and volume to convey urgency: “Starboard…. STARBOARD…. HARD STARBOARD!” but should only use the most urgent voice in the most urgent situations.  (will be continued soon)

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