It didn’t turn out the way he would have liked, but Matt Chao nonetheless felt the experience at the IFDS World Blind Sailing Championships on Lake Rotorua in New Zealand the past two weeks gave him an opportunity to see a lot of old friends, as well as meet new friends, all sharing the common bond of sailing.

It didn’t turn out the way he would have liked, but Matt Chao nonetheless felt the experience at the IFDS World Blind Sailing Championships on Lake Rotorua in New Zealand the past two weeks gave him an opportunity to see a lot of old friends, as well as meet new friends, all sharing the common bond of sailing.

Even the 11-hour plane ride back to Los Angeles, and a short stay at the airport while waiting for the connecting flight to Boston on Monday couldn’t hide those lasting feelings.   

For the record, Chao’s team finished eighth in the B1 group (totally blind), which included Peter Frisch of Swampscott and Tom Winston of Charlestown (sighted guides), Debbie Keating of Woburn (blind crew) and Chao (blind helmsman).

Arthur O’Neill of Swampscott, who established the sailing program at the Carroll School for the Blind in Newton, was on hand as team manager for Chao’s group, plus another Carroll School squad, as both represented the U.S. in the championship event. O’Neill is also the chairman of Blind Sailing International.

The Carroll School team of Bill Rapp of Rockport (sighted guide), Mark Bos of Gloucester (blind crew), Jason Wallenstein of Sharon (blind helmsman) and Lisa O’Connor of Hull (sighted guide) earned a bronze in the B3 group (20 percent blind) for the U.S.

O’Neill predicted great things for Chao’s team before they left for New Zealand, and O’Neill knows he had to deal with circumstances beyond their control.

“It was tough for [Chao] to feel the light winds as a blind sailor,” O’Neill said. “But all things being equal, he did very well. Matt’s a very good sailor, but the competition got better,” O’Neill said.

Chao usually sails the J-22 series with a non-retractable keel. But this race employed the Noelex 25 boats that have a retractable centerboard that tends to sideslip a bit more.

“The Noelex 25 is a 25-foot cruiser. It’s a heavier boat than the J-series, and they’re not responsive. It’s tough to get it up to speed, and one or two mistakes in a world championship event like this you’re toast,” added O’Neill.

O’Neill was impressed with the camaraderie of the blind sailors, who also used the event as a social network.

“There were 10 countries and 19 teams represented, and I saw all 38 blind sailors learn from each other over coffee. It broke down any barriers that might have existed between countries,” he said. “They’d also exchange shirts, jackets and ties at the awards ceremony. It was a wonderful show, and it went beyond winning medals. [The blind sailors] sent a message of hope and optimism to others sitting around struggling with their vision loss.”

Few regrets

“[The regatta] was a lot fun, and we all had a great time,” Chao said. “But the boats and the conditions were challenging. There were some interesting light, shifty winds that only got up to 7 to 12 knots, and the boat was a Noelex 25 instead of the J-series that we were used to. The Noelex series are long 25-foot boats with a centerboard, not a keel. It’s heavier, and it definitely affects how a boat steers. It tends not to steer predictably, and as a cruiser/racing boat it definitely behaves in different ways.

“It was a learning curve for all of us, and some mastered it better than others down there,” added Chao. “It just didn’t happen for us this year, and there’s no real reason why it didn’t happen. We ultimately had trouble adapting to the environment.”

Chao has been sailing competitively for over two decades, and has had experience with all sorts of boats, including the one-design MRX series. And as a blind sailor, Chao had to overcome the obvious obstacles to become proficient at his craft.

“The first thing a blind sailor has to do is to get a good idea how a boat sails. It’s a timing and feel issue,” Chao said. “You have to learn how to trim or release the main sail to determine how fast or not so fast to steer the boat. But for blind sailors, it really comes down to communications with the guides, and to work hard to make it go fast.

“I like to call it ‘contrived stress,’ whether you know a boat or not or you’re blind or not it’s the environment that you want to be in, because you like to race,” added Chao. “I like to be the helmsman in order to steer a boat. If I’m sailing downwind, I’m facing backwards to the air currents. Otherwise, I sit sideways on a boat just like everybody else. Everybody adapts to it differently; it’s whatever you feel comfortable at, as long as it works.”

In four years, Chao hopes to do it again, when the World Blind Sailing Championships are held in Japan in 2013.