SAILING SIGHT UNSEEN Blind sailor to try trans-Atlantic trek


Hank Dekker has sailed alone across the Pacific Ocean twice and later this month plans to take on the Atlantic -- even though he can't see the water.

Mr. Dekker, 58, is blind.

Yesterday, at a news conference on the Baltimore waterfront, the National Federation of the Blind introduced Mr. Dekker to the media as a courageous example of what a person can do if he sets his mind on it. The Baltimore-based federation said Mr. Dekker was the first blind person to make a solo trans-Pacific crossing. And the burly, white-haired Californian, who lost his sight to glaucoma in 1977, hopes to become the first to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic this summer.

Jim Dickson, a blind sailor from Washington, attempted the same trans-Atlantic voyage in 1987, relying on a computerized system. Unfortunately it failed, preventing him from completing the journey.

Mr. Dekker plans to sail from Baltimore to Plymouth, England -- a distance of more than 3,000 miles -- leaving July 26 in his 30-foot Olson ultralight racing sloop. His vessel is named The NFB -- for the blind federation in recognition of its support on this summer's venture.

He said the trip will take 18 to 34 days. "Eighteen would be a record, I think," he said. "But, you never can tell with a sailboat, with wind and weather conditions being what they may be. I would say that 23 days would be a very good time for me."

Mr. Dekker showed off the 3,800-pound boat at the site of the news conference -- the nonprofit Living Classroom Maritime Institute at the foot of Caroline Street.

The blind federation purchased the vessel for Mr. Dekker, along with such gear as a Braille compass and Braille charts, and voice-synthesized global positioning and navigation systems -- more than $50,000 all told.

Mr. Dekker said The NFB is a far cry from the $6,000 boat that he used to sail the Pacific in 1983. That trip took 23 days, and included a close encounter with Hurricane Henrietta. The boat capsized in the storm, but Mr. Dekker said his 4,000 hours of experience with the vessel enabled him to right it and continue the journey.

Mr. Dekker completed a second trip across the Pacific in 1986 after members of "the sailing community" doubted he could repeat the feat in a race. So he competed in a single-handed trans-Pacific race, finishing third in a field of 24 entries -- a disappointing third, he said.

"There was only one reason to race, and that was to win."

But Mr. Dekker said he did prove himself to the sailing community. "They used to say, 'Blind sailor.' Now, they say 'Hank Dekker.' That's really a nice feeling."

Mr. Dekker is symbolic of what blind people can do, said Marc Maurer, the federation's president.

"This is a demonstration of the ability to do things and to dream of doing such things," he said. "It'll help to make a whole difference in the capacities of blind people because it'll help to change the attitudes of sighted people about the blind, and blind people about their dreams."

Mr. Dekker said he was attempting this trip because "you have to keep challenging yourself.

"You can't just reach one level and say, 'That's it.' I want to be the best I can be," he said.

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