Blind sailors triumph on sea of equality

At the edge of the Inner Harbor yesterday, Jim Dickson was talking about the time he sailed solo from Rhode Island for Europe -- only to settle for Bermuda when his autopilot went dead.

He was sure he could have crossed anyway, but not so precisely as he would have liked. "I knew I'd find Europe. I just didn't know if it would be Scandinavia or Spain."


Jim Dickson is blind, and as soon as he puts together enough money he plans to try that solo Atlantic crossing again. Yesterday, with seven other blind sailors, he was racing a more modest course -- off Fort McHenry, in the Baltimore Regatta for the Vision Impaired. The event was the first in the week-long Cadillac Columbus Cup yacht race.

The teams sailed in four 31-foot Beneteau First 310 sloops, each carrying a crew of four -- two sighted and two blind.


"Sailing is a perfect environment for a blind person," said Vince Morvillo, a blind sailor from Houston who won yesterday's two races. "Everything stays in the same place and doesn't move. And sailing is a sport of feeling."

Mr. Dickson, 46, who lives in Washington, was 7 when he began losing his sight to retinitis pigmentosa.

During his 1987 attempt to cross the Atlantic, Mr. Dickson used an AM transistor radio to find his way back to Bermuda when the autopilot failed.

He tuned the dial to a position where the radio lost its signal. "That means the antenna in the radio is pointed toward the antenna of the radio station" in Bermuda, he said. With the AM radio as his guide, he made his way to St. George's, then called for a sighted friend to help steer the boat back into the harbor.

For blind sailors, the sport enables them to participate on nearly equal footing with sighted sailors. People who can see are on board mainly to help the blind avoid other boats or markers.

"It's a level playing field," Mr. Dickson said. "When it's rough for somebody sighted, it's rough for me."

"It's a great opportunity for blind people to be in control, to steer," said Arthur O'Neill, whose Sail Blind program in Boston has trained about 50 blind sailors over the last dozen years.

The blind use Braille charts and audible compasses. But the boats are not specially outfitted and the sailors need no other special gear.


"A sailboat is an incredibly communicative device," Mr. Dickson said. "It communicates vibration, sound, angle, heel.

"For me, the point where I'm out of sight of land and there are no other boats around, there's a sense of liberation," Mr. Dickson added.

Mr. Morvillo, who ran track in college and holds a master's degree in finance, won a bronze medal last February in the first International Blind Sailing Regatta at Auckland, New Zealand.

Blind since birth, Mr. Morvillo, 47, says he began sailing when "I stole a sailboat" at 13. Stumbling on a boat while walking on the beach, "I got on it and rigged it and sailed it out" a short distance. He returned a couple of times and borrowed it again, until the boat's owner noticed him and offered to teach him to sail.

Now, he's a yacht broker and a member of a Houston yacht club. "When I joined, they looked up and said, 'Isn't that nice,' " he recalled. "Then I started winning regattas."

"Vince wasn't born. Vince sailed out of the womb," said Linda Moores, another blind sailor from Texas.


The biggest problem facing blind sailors, Mr. Dickson said, "is in the minds of the able-bodied, who want to protect, to shelter.

"You don't have to sit home and listen to talking books," he added. "You can get out and do something."

Today's events

Columbus Cup events, including a race and seafood feast, continue with Save the Bay Day at the Harborview marina today. Proceeds will benefit the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Information is available at 385-2930 or at Harborview on Key Highway.