Sailing six days around the Spanish Virgin Islands in November may sound idyllic, but for 12 blind young people ages 13 to 19, it is a serious test of their mettle.
Ethan Roberts, a Dobson High School sophomore, is one of those currently enrolled in sail training at Lake Pleasant Regional Park.
A series of six Saturday sessions there is preparing them for this challenge, one of many regularly promoted by the Foundation for Blind Children, whose philosophy is ‘Vision Loss is a diagnosis, not a disability”.
A dozen youth accompanied by 12 guides and a licensed captain are scheduled to circumnavigate the Spanish Virgin Islands for six days beginning Nov. 10 at Fajardo, Puerto Rico on the Atlantic Ocean.
Chartering three sailboats, the group plans to return six days later after what may well be one of their most daunting trials yet.
In the past years, FBC has offered other challenges including a swim across San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island and hiking the Grand Canyon.
But for Ethan, this is an adventure – one that the 17-year-old is greatly anticipating.
“I like trying new things, and I’m not one to give up if I don’t get it the first try,” said Ethan. “I was excited because this is something new and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I think I’m a little more confident now after two lessons. We’re still doing the basic stuff, but we’re learning to sail.”
His parents, Carla and Morgan Ethan, aren’t surprised their son, the third of five children, is heading for six days of sailing. They’ve observed him over the years taking on one challenge after another, and they say they’re still amazed.
“Ethan has rarely shied away from challenges. He attended a school where he was the only English speaker, learned to read Braille in a language that was not his own and, at age 8, gave a speech in Turkish in front of the entire school and parents,” said Carla Roberts.
She listed his other achievements:
“Ethan has learned karate, bowled with the Arizona Disabled Sports organization, participated in the Jr. Blind Olympics in LA, been rock climbing on multiple occasions and been in many activities SAAVI (Southern Arizona Association for the Visibly Impaired) including paddle boarding, goalball, tandem biking, just to name a few.”
His father, Morgan Roberts, said Ethan is ever-inspiring.
“Ethan is an inspiration for me and others. He’s doing something that I myself, honestly, have not done and would be a little scared to do, and I have all my vision,” he said.
“With his vision loss, I’ve gained insight into how strong his will is and how he wishes to do things not to prove to others he can do it, but because he wants to complete something that is challenging. What a son I have, a blessing from the Lord.”
Born three months premature, Ethan developed Retinopathy of Prematurity stage IV and underwent several surgeries on his eyes and retina.
He started kindergarten in North Carolina and was homeschooled in first grade before going to Turkey with his family. There, he attended a school for the blind and was the only American student.
In 2012 the family moved to Chandler, where Ethan attended fourth grade, and the following year they moved to Mesa, where he enrolled at Crismon Elementary. He has been in Mesa Public Schools since then.
He is legally blind and yet retains a narrow line of sight without any peripheral vision.
Ethan is an all-round percussionist with the Spirit of Dobson Marching Band and Symphonic Winds concert band. His “attitude and determination” makes him an outstanding student and an “all-round inspiration” to have in class, said Rob Lubbers, department chair.
Jennifer Howard, Robert’s band teacher, concurred.
“I’m consistently amazed by his talent and perseverance,” she said, adding that although he is unable to participate in marching band competitions due to his sail training, he does join the band at football games.
“Ethan learns all of his parts by ear with some help from his peers in the percussion section and is always positive with a great sense of humor,” she added.
Ethan said he also prepares for various symphonic winds concerts by listening to recordings of the piece, explaining, “I listen to it, to my part, and then I attempt to play it.”
The concept of the teenage Blind Buccaneers sailing the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean is mind-boggling to some, but not to them, nor to Marc Ashton, CEO of FBC.
“We know our students are capable of anything, and they prove it over and over again,” he said.
“This time they’re crewing three sailboats and circumnavigating the Spanish Virgin Islands. There will be pain, there will be heat, there will be open waters, there will be sea sickness. But when these blind kids land on that final shore, they will know they did it,” he added.
As FBC executive director for 12 years, Ashton said all FBC Challenges push the blind and vision-impaired teens to go beyond what they may have considered within their realm of possibility.
“There are few rites of passage in our society anymore. But mark my words, Ethan is going to start this voyage as a boy and end it as a man. I’ve seen these transformations over and over again at Foundation for Blind Children,” said Ashton.
“All we did is give Ethan the opportunity. He had to take it. And he did. He’s going to travel 3,000 miles, climb aboard a 45-foot sailboat and sail 110 nautical miles around 2 islands, all with limited vision. That takes guts.”
Victor Felice, owner of Tiller and Kites that is providing the sail training lessons, said he considers this a “fascinating project.”
“They’ve done extraordinarily well,” said Felice, who often trains sighted newbies to sail by blindfolding them.
He said the Blind Buccaneers are rotated between three boats so they have more experience.
“What we try to do is figure out what we have and how to have them work best together,” he said. “I think their Caribbean sail will be less complicated; Lake Pleasant is much harder to sail, as the wind is very shifty and you can always run out of lake.”
Ethan’s parents and siblings (Hannah, 22; Seth, 20; Sarah, 14; and Chloe, 13) are preparing to see Ethan off on his latest adventure in just a few weeks, and doing it with few qualms, said his mother.
“It’s not so difficult letting him go on this adventure because I trust the people who are putting it together to prepare these kids for what’s ahead. I trust my son to learn what he must in order to do well. I trust God, who is sovereign,” she said.
“I’ve learned and continue to learn more about what it means to live by faith and wait. Everyone faces challenges, it’s just a matter of what will you do when they come your way: run away or press on?
“This sailing challenge is a fantastic opportunity that we couldn’t have imagined in a lifetime. It will be a great experience to prepare him for so much that will happen in life – beginning with going to college in the next few years. He will be with others, yet on his own. It’s exciting and humbling, but then again, it’s that way with any teenage child that you have.”