By ANN GREEN
Along a crowded Nags Head Fishing Pier, Sylvia Baldwin runs her fingers up and down the locks on her rod’n’reel.
“I am not used to fishing like this,” says Baldwin, who lost her sight more than five years ago when she was assaulted.
To learn to fish again, Baldwin is getting assistance from Ida McGill, a Scotland and Richmond County social worker for the blind.
“1 will do it for you one more time,” says McGill, while throwing out the line into the ocean and reeling it in.
Then McGill baits the line with a bloodworm, shows Baldwin where the handle is and hands over the rod’n’reel. As mossy green waves break onto the shore, Baldwin tosses the line into the ocean that is choppy enough to attract surfers in wetsuits.
“We will write your name on the first fish,” jokes McCill.
After feeling a tug on the line, Baldwin reels in a small spot. “It was exciting feeling the fish on the line,” she says. “I thought I had caught a really big fish.”
Baldwin is legally blind and competing in the annual N.C. Lions Visually Impaired Persons (VIP) Fishing Tournament.
Each fall, volunteers are paired with legally blind persons for the tournament. Some fish at piers. Others go on head boats into the sounds.
“It is a great opportunity for recreational experiences for the blind and also helps them gain independence,” says Debbie Jackson, director of the N.C. Services for the Blind. “It is important for blind people to get involved.”
Mary Carlyle, a VIP participant from Richland, agrees.
“It is a lot of fun,” says Carlyle. “You get to meet a lot of people.”
Sponsored by the First Flight, Nags Head, Manteo, Wanchese, Columbia and Plymouth Lions clubs, the 2004 tournament attracted almost 400 blind or visually impaired people ages 12 to 91.
“This is one of the few projects that you can walk next to those you serve and feel their excitement and appreciation,” says Gwen White, president of First Flight Lions Club and tournament director.
The tournament, which drew people from 77 counties, is the largest gathering of blind and visually impaired people in North Carolina, according to the Services for the Blind.
In North Carolina, about 23,700 blind or visually impaired people are registered with the state division. Because many people are not registered, it is believed that this figure represents only about half of the number of people with significant vision loss in the state, according to division officials.
Of the number registered, about 16,500 are residents age 55 and older. This is not surprising because vision loss is one of the most common disabilities among the aging population. Macular degeneration, glaucoma and vision loss as a secondary effect from diabetes are among the common eye diseases in the older population.
“This tournament gives many older participants the chance to return to something they once enjoyed doing — fishing,” says Jackson. “And, it gives others the chance to develop a new leisure activity after losing their vision.”
Because the VIP Fishing Tournament involves a special population, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries waived all catch limits for participants.
With ideal weather conditions for fishing — 71 degrees and winds between 10 and 15 mph — participants caught a record number of fish.
The winner of the Bill Reynolds trophy for the heaviest fish was Hubert Ward of Watauga County, who reeled in a 2.4-pound croaker on the Avalon Pier.
Lisa Trent of Lexington caught the most fish at 40 pounds. Participants caught a total of more than 701 pounds of fish. All three winners for the total amount caught — Trent, Emily Smith and Linda Swain — were at Nags Head Pier.
“It was the first year that participants had caught so many fish,” says White. “They were impressed that they could reel in two fish at a time.”
For Trent, it was only the second time that she has fished. “It was wonderful and made me feel good catching that many fish,” says Trent.
Some of the participants on the boats were experienced anglers and even baited their own hooks.
“I spent my whole life saltwater fishing on the West Coast,” says 49-year-old Kevin Jenkins of Durham, who placed third on the Miss Virginia Dare. “I had a good time on the boat. We were out in the sound for four hours. I caught a bunch of drum fish. One time, I caught two fish at once,” adds Jenkins, who lost his vision because of a stroke.
The three-day event included the tournament, as well as educational workshops, exhibits and a banquet. Walter Suggs of Sanford, who lost his sight because of macular degeneration, says he had a lot of fun meeting other blind people and attending the workshops and exhibits. “I learned about new gadgets that can help me,” says Suggs.
More than 250 volunteers, including Lions members, high school students, social workers and nurses, helped with a variety of tasks — from cutting up 50 pounds of shrimp and more than 2,880 blood worms for bait to cooking more than 400 pounds of fish and 200 pounds of barbecue.
“This is my first year to help,” says Cynthia Harris, a social worker for the Services for the Blind in Jones and Onslow counties. “It is a fantastic event. Even if a person doesn’t like fishing, it is wonderful opportunity to socialize.”
On the day of the fishing tournament, the participants arrive early in the morning.
Some use canes or guide dogs to walk alone. Others hold on to volunteers’ arms as they take their places on the pier. A few like Linda Swain of Lexington scoot around in motorized wheelchairs.
For Swain, who lost her sight because of juvenile diabetes and multiple sclerosis, the tournament gives her a chance to showcase her fishing skills.
“I have been looking forward to this for so long,” says Swain. “I used to compete for money for catfish and carp in small local lakes and make my own bait. I would fish all night long.”
Now, she says she only goes out when she has doctors’ appointments or special events like the tournament.
Nearby, a volunteer baits the line for Anna Young, who has her guide dog, Natalie, by her side. Young, who is fishing for the second time in her life, throws out her line.
As she reels in a small fish, Young says to Natalie, “So you and I got one.”
Toward the middle of the morning, the area around Young becomes so crowded that participants’ lines get tangled up like a spider web.
“There were so many people and lines that the volunteers nearby had to untangle them,” says Swain.
Around lunchtime, volunteers bring sandwiches to the participants.
As the wind picks up, Swain’s husband, Delbert, rubs her fingers to warm them up.
Although most of the participants are matched with volunteers, some of the anglers on the pier also help out.
Not far from Swain, Thomas Wolosuk of Yale, Va., is baiting a hook for Emily Smith of Charlotte. “I just happened to be here and saw the way she was catching fish,” says Wolosuk. “I realized she needed some help. Now, she has three-quarters of a bag full of fish.”
For Smith, this is her best year for fishing.
“The weather is beautiful, and fishing is good,” she says. “This year, I have learned how to tighten my line and look out for fish.”
Some participants, like Swain, fish nonstop until the tournament ends.
“I had a woman stand with me the whole time,” says Swain. “I don’t know who she was. But she was like an angel for me.”
The tournament was started by the First Flight Lions Club in Kill Devil Hills in 1983 with 12 participants. “We started it locally at the Nags Head Pier,” says Dave Grana, VIP board member.
“By word of mouth it has expanded. It is a really gratifying to help with this event.”
Over the years, the tournament has become so popular that there is a waiting list for participants.
“We put out applications around the first of May,” says White. “By the first of June, we are filled up and have a waiting list.”
The tournament has become so successful that is being used as a model program by Lions members in other states.
“It is our understanding that South Carolina and Virginia would like to start a tournament on a smaller scale than the one in North Carolina,” says Sid Scruggs, past director of the Lions Clubs International. “Because of the success of the North Carolina tournament, other coastal states also are considering this type of tournament for the visually impaired in their state. Our ultimate goal is to get more states involved and develop an interstate championship.”
One of the keys to the tournament’s success is community involvement. Each year, the N.C. Lions Foundation, Outer Banks businesses and the Lions’ Adopt-A-Fisherman program fund the tournament.
“This tournament is a great example of a public/ private partnership,” says Jack Thigpen, North Carolina Sea Grant extension director. “It really pulls the community together and gives the participants a memory that will last a lifetime.”
Over the years, tournament officials have overcome a number of obstacles.
During the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel that damaged Hatteras Island in 2003, officials moved the tournament from all but one oceanfront fishing pier. They were able to use the Washington Baum Bridge public pier operated by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Manteo High School students served as volunteers on the bridge. “They interacted with the visually impaired so well,” says White. “They were able to sit and visit with them and weren’t intimidated. It was a great experience for both the teens and the participants.”
Stories abound about humanitarian efforts at the tournament.
One year, a participant dropped his cane off the dock while fishing, says Ed Shivers, past district governor of the Lions Clubs in North Carolina.
“A swimmer tried to retrieve it but was unable,” he adds. “However, a surfer came to the rescue. He retrieved the cane and passed it to the swimmer who returned it to the owner.”
The tournament also has brought joy to many participants.
One year, a gentleman from Bertie County had tears running down his face as he held a trophy, according to Sally Syria, chief of the division’s independent living and medical services. “He said, I’ll be back next year.’ ”
For others, it has been a life-changing experience.
When Cathy Goodnight of Rowan County lost her sight, she gave up trying. Goodnight was encouraged to attend the fishing tournament with the Rowan Ramblers.
“What I saw, felt, did and learned at the VIP Fishing Tournament actually turned my life around,” Goodnight wrote in a letter to the board of directors. “People with little or no sight can still actually do things, can learn to do for themselves, feel independent again, and can take charge of their lives.”
“I was amazed,” she continued. “1 came home with a completely different attitude about my future. As a result of this marvelous event, I have now regained my sense of self-worth and am much more positive about life. I wonder if the Lions know that this isn’t just a Vacation’ for visually impaired people, but at least in my case, a life-saving event.”
For volunteers like Angelo Sonnesso of Colington Harbor, the tournament offers an opportunity to inspire others. “Life isn’t the same, but it doesn’t have to stop because you are blind,” says Sonnesso, who is a social worker, amateur musician and VIP board member.
“You just have to learn to do things differently.”
The 2005 VIP Fishing Tournament will be held Oct. 10-12 on the Outer Banks. To register or volunteer, contact Gwen White, 252/441-4966, firstname.lastname@example.org or write: Gwen White, PO Box 676, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948.
This article was published in the Spring 2005 issue of Coastwatch.
For contact information and reprint requests, visit ncseagrant.ncsu.edu/coastwatch/contact/.