SAILOR WITH A VISION Atlantic crossing ends Dekker's journey back


Hank Dekker is sitting in a lunchroom on Johnson Street behind Federal Hill, discussing a trans-Atlantic voyage he will start tomorrow from Baltimore to Plymouth, England. And he is laughing.

An English manufacturer has shipped him a full line of foul-weather gear for use in his voyage, including a $3,000 survival suit.

"They sent a video with the survival suit to explain how to use it," Dekker says and laughs again at the situation.

Dekker is blind -- a blind man with a vision.

"The Atlantic trip is a mission and an adventure both," said Dekker, 58, who is receiving support for his voyage from the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind. "I have done the Pacific twice and was the first blind guy to do it. For me, this is just the next level up. There have only been a handful of people who have done both the Atlantic and Pacific, and you always want to improve yourself, be the best in your sport."

Dekker, who lives near San Francisco, has his credentials in order as a sailor.

In 1983, three years after taking up sailing, he survived the fringes of Hurricane Henrietta in a 24-foot boat while becoming the first blind person to sail from San Francisco to Hawaii.

After his encounter with Henrietta wiped out his Loran-C, taffrail log and radio direction finder, Dekker navigated the last 400 miles using a Braille compass, conventional charts with raised landmarks and longitude and latitude lines and an AM radio.

In 1986, Dekker finished third in a trans-Pacific race in a 28-foot boat, even though he did not take up sailing until after he lost his sight.

Hitting rock-bottom

Sixteen years ago, Dekker was chasing other goals. He was a manager of an automobile dealership in Hawaii and a former race car driver. He had a wife and two children, a mortgage, car payments -- all the pleasures and encumberances of a successful member of society.

And then the bottom fell out. Glaucoma took his sight, and despair took him.

"I started running from myself because I thought, what can blind people do to earn a living?" Dekker said. "I had never talked to a blind person in my life. The only conception of blind people I had was that they sold pencils in front a department store while playing an accordion.

"I had no idea how I was going to earn a living, pay for the kids' education, make the car payment, pay the mortgage. I fell apart. It was the first time in my life that I had to face adversity.

"I went all the way down the tubes -- from general manager of a car dealership right down to washing cars on a used car lot in San Rafael [Calif.] . . . I tried to kill myself."

When Dekker started receiving government disability checks, he said, they were spent "on the cheapest booze I could get.

"I used to sleep in hallways, beg for spare change in front of the Greyhound bus station and pick out the best Dumpsters to eat from," Dekker said.

"I didn't think I could do anything," he said. "If I had known about National Federation of the Blind when I was losing my sight, they would have been an organization for me to contact. I would never have lost my job, my wife, my family, the mortgage or anything else."

Dekker has, in part, rebuilt his life through sailing. He found it challenging to his mind and his body, an undertaking in which he could use all his remaining faculties to best advantage.

"When I am at sea, on blue water, I feel the weather changes, the wind, the seas," Dekker said. "If I am asleep in my bunk and the wind changes five degrees, I am awake.

"I am very much attuned to all that is around me. Perhaps I am more attuned at sea than a sighted person is on shore."

Something to prove

Dekker's voyage, aboard an ultralight Olson 30 named NFB (after the National Federation of the Blind), is a well-planned demonstration of the capabilities of blind people.

"I am really trying to turn the sighted world around to make them realize what is possible," Dekker said.

"I think most blind people are aware of what they can do -- especially the people who have gone to school and got their doctorates and masters degrees and can't get a job. They know they are capable. But the public isn't aware.

"What I am doing is really kind of simple stuff compared to a guy who has his doctorate. That guy worked a hell of a lot harder than I worked. But I am getting the publicity because it is sort of a spectacular thing."

To Dekker, the trip is spectacular only to those who have not been there -- with sight or not.

His ultralight racer is rigged, as are many short-handed boats, with lines running to the cockpit to minimize deck work, the rig has been beefed up and a roller furling system has been installed.

His concessions to his blindness are a set of charts that have landmarks, latitude and longitude lines and major cities marked with beaded paint, a $26 Braille compass and a voice synthesizer that will give readouts from a Furuno Global Satellite Positioning system.

The hazards

Dekker is setting out in hurricane season, with the expectation of a passage ranging between 18 and 34 days. He will be taken under tow from Baltimore to Cape May, N.J., and be met by the Fastnet Race Committee when he nears the English Channel.

But in between, over some 3,200 miles, he will be on his own, sailing free in southwest to westerly winds.

"This is probably the best time to go, between May and September," Dekker said. "I know we've got the hurricanes, but what are you going to do. I get out of the hurricane season and leave after September, then I have the fierce North Atlantic gales to deal with. It is sort of a flip-a-coin type of thing."

Another concern is commercial shipping traffic, which is far heavier in the Atlantic than in the areas of the Pacific he has sailed.

"This is something all single-handed sailors have a problem with, because no one can keep a watch at all times," Dekker said. "And if you really think about it, you can have the best vision in the world and continually scan the horizon with binoculars.

. . . But when you are sitting two or three feet off the water, your horizon is only three or four miles anyway.

"So, you scan the horizon, see nothing and decide to go below and fix some soup or take a nap or do your navigation or whatever. The minute you go below, a mast comes over the horizon. It is a container ship doing 22 knots and he is over you in 14 minutes.

"If he runs over you, it is because he wasn't keeping a watch either. I am not being trite about it because it is a concern. But it is no more of a concern for me than anybody else."

Dekker does have a radar detector on board that sets off an alarm whenever a radar signal from another boat bounces off his. Should the alarm go off, Dekker said, he then would get on his VHF radio and make contact, explain that he is sailing blind and coordinate whatever maneuvers are necessary.

The NFB also carries the Argos system, which will allow the U.S. Coast Guard to monitor his position and for Dekker to send out a satellite position fix in an emergency.

Overall, however, Dekker has avoided electronic gadgetry.

"You can't rely on electronics. You have to know how to sail. I am sailing my boat just as any other good sailor would. We are not buying our way across.

"This is an $18,000 boat, and it is a sailor's boat that is not for intermediate sailors."

Changing perceptions

Dekker's mission is to take on the world on its terms, not to make the world change to meet his limitations. He is totally blind in his right eye, has pinhole recognition of light and darkness out of the corner of his left eye, is deaf in his left ear and uses a hearing aid in his right.

"When I had sight, everything came very easily. I was successful at everything I did," said Dekker, who now makes his living as a motivational speaker for corporations including Xerox and IBM. "But I know I was never as good as I could have been. I was only using about 25 percent of my faculties before.

"Now I have 10 or 15 percent of my faculties left and I am better than most people in the world at accomplishing things.

"I have learned to get the maximum out of what I have left.

"The public says you are blind and can't do it. The public generally just wants you to sit back and collect welfare because they don't believe you are capable of doing things."

Dekker said his two children, Kim, 26, and Mike, who now is 29 and some years ago attended Mount St. Mary's on scholarship, are fully supportive of his voyage.

"They like to see their old man moving around and doing things," Dekker said. "They know about the times when I was so far down and they are glad that I have come back so far."

Dekker recalls his first trip from San Francisco to Hawaii and the encounter with Hurricane Henrietta. He says that for three days at sea he heard reports of his death on the radio. When he got close enough to Hawaii to contact the Coast Guard, the search plane that was sent out got an electronic fix on him that differed from his position by more than 14 miles.

Dekker has more confidence in his navigational and sailing skills than electronics and says his blindness is only a public barrier that he is helping to break down.

"A lot of people think blind people shouldn't even go for it," Dekker said. "A lot of people say that if you don't make it, it will be really bad for the blind community. Well, that is what everyone wants you to do -- just stay home.

"We have to go out there and take our chances, too."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad