Blind sailors use computers to guide them


Aboard Snow Goose during the RP Sail for Sight regatta in the harbor Friday afternoon, two sail trimmers were blind. Yet, in each there was great vision.

You may remember one of them, Jim Dickson, who set out to sail the Atlantic Ocean alone a couple of years ago, and faced with autopilot problems and the threat of hurricane Arlene, made for Bermuda.

Next year, Dickson has plans to sail alone from Newport, R.I., to Barcelona in time for the opening of the Olympic Games.

The other, Dave Stoffel, has plans for a two-year circumnavigation with his wife, Doris.

In each case, they are pioneers. In each case they refuse to be constrained by blindness that came gradually well after they were 10 years old.

In both cases, computer technology and guts may allow them to complete their voyages.

In the cockpit of Snow Goose, the 44-foot sloop in which Stoffel plans to depart on Nov. 3, a voice gives bearings from an all-weather speaker. The voice, which is barely understood by the unpracticed ear, is the product of a computer program that takes information from the yacht's battery of instruments, interprets it and delivers it vocally in the cockpit.

It is, in effect, Stoffel's eyes.

When Dickson set out of Narragansett Bay into the Atlantic, his shipboard companion was SVEN, an earlier version of interfacing shipboard instruments with computer programs and producing verbal information.

Stoffel, 38, who works for Titan Corporation in technical management of computer systems, has put together his own system and written his own program for it.

"There is a computer in the navigation station that has an interface with the Brooks and Gatehouse instrument package," Stoffel said before racing began. "It has 32 channels [including] boat speed, wind speed, wind angle [true and apparent] and compass heading.

"It does things like compute course based on wind angle and compass heading, absolute wind direction magnetic, velocity made good and some some performance statistics. Another interface is to the GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver, which will give latitude and longitude and range and bearing to way points and so on."

Theoretically, with the addition of a radar alarm system, once in open water Stoffel could start up his program and sail away. Technology even will allow him to wear a headset and request information verbally.

But as Dickson will tell you, there is a little more involved -- and Stoffel's longest trip to date has been from Baltimore to Norfolk and back.

"Have you figured a way that you can adjust [dampening] the compass for wave action?" Dickson asks. "Can you adjust it yourself through speech?"

Apparently, Stoffel says, although he can control the type and frequency of the information he receives from the computer, at this time he cannot adjust the compass he has on board.

"In a real chop, when the compass is actually dancing around there should be a way to adjust the dampening according to sea state," Dickson says. "When I was hand steering to Bermuda with a hurricane coming and under motor in 18- to 24-foot waves, I sure as hell wish I could have undampened the compass."

Dickson learned that in a seaway, with the compass swinging to account for each change of direction caused by wind or wave, the computer program fell out of sync.

"I would have already corrected the boat's heading, but thcompass was still reporting an error," Dickson said. "In the boat, under motor, plowing over the waves, I lost all sense of wave shape and I had no sense of direction."

When sailing, there is a harmony that may be found between wind and wave. Offshore, the wind may hold from the same direction for a week or more, and the seas will form and be moved largely from the source of the wind. Once a course has been set and sails trimmed, a boat basically can be sailed with your eyes closed.

It is this harmony that Stoffel wants to experience and pass on to others through his circumnavigation. In the process, he hopes also expects to raise funds for eye research through a non-profit foundation named Clear Vision.

The plan is to demonstrate through the circumnavigation that blind sailors can be assimilated into yacht clubs, sailing schools and similar organizations.

"I think that means that all of us, the blind sailors and the yacht clubs and sailing schools, have to learn what that means -- what adaptations to teaching programs are required and so on," Stoffel said. "I think they are minimal and it is mostly a problem of social change, psychological barriers."

What of the real barriers Stoffel might face on his way around the world?

"I have been sailing since I was 14, so it is largely a matter of gaining offshore experience," Stoffel said, "and by the time I get to Panama, I am sure I will have enough experience to do the rest."

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