Blind sailor tries to lure others into overcoming their handicaps

June 08, 1991|By Dan Thanh Dang

When he was young, Jim Dickson lived near the ocean and was always fascinated by boats. When he learned how to sail on a lake at 23, it shouldn't have been anything out of the ordinary.

But it was viewed as more than just unusual, because Mr. Dickson has been blind since age 7.

"I spent a lot of time swimming and trying to find out how to turn my boat around," he said.

"At the end of first grade I had no problem seeing, but when second grade started, I had to sit in the first two rows to see the blackboard," said Mr. Dickson, who lives near Catholic University in Washington. "Now all I can see is light."

Mr. Dickson, who gained international recognition in 1987 when he tried to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo, came to Baltimore yesterday to be a member of the crew on the Snow Goose in the third annual "Sail for Sight" yacht race, a race he first proposed.

Entry fees for about 60 boats in the race, which started at 4:30 p.m. near the Key Bridge and ended two hours later at the HarborView Marina, benefit the Baltimore-based Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation.

About 100,000 people in the United States are affected by retinitis

pigmentosa, an inherited disease that causes the degeneration of the retina, according to foundation spokeswoman Kate McLane.

People with the disease don't always become completely blind; some, like Mr. Dickson, can still see light.

Mr. Dickson compared the discovery of his blindness with the anticipation of a coming hurricane.

"I was sailing one time, and a hurricane developed. I had the boat all set up and ready for the storm. I went to sit down on my bunk, and suddenly I felt like I was a kid again listening to the doctor say I was going to be blind," he said. "I felt like a victim."

"After the storm passed, everything was calm again."

Although Mr. Dickson volunteers a lot of time to the RP Foundation, he also spends a lot of time with his family in addition to working for Southern Maryland Area Self Help, a group that helps poor people.

He also teaches other visually impaired people to sail.

No matter how busy he is, he will always be an avid sailor.

"Because I'm crazy and I love it," he said. "I discovered that it's a sport that is possible for someone without sight.

"When it's rough and bouncy for me, it's rough and bouncy for everyone else, people with sight included."

Solo sailing was made possible for him by a highly technical system involving a talking computer that monitors all wind, sea, speed, and position sensors. When it failed during his trans-Atlantic trip, the computer no longer gave him the latitude and longitude positions he needed in order to navigate.

Without the computer's help, he was forced to abandon his voyage when his boat was hit by Hurricane Arlene in Bermuda.

Mr. Dickson said he would solo sail as soon as he had the funds and fair winds.

He said he hopes that other blind people will take chances to have fun too. "If you're blind, everyone tells you not to take any chances and to be careful," he said.

"Our country really values risk-takers like athletes and astronauts," Mr. Dickson said. "I think that everyone should take a chance before they limit what they can do, even if they are blind."

He said he has made many concessions to blindness, such as depending on his wife, Renee's, taste in clothes.

"You just learn to adjust to it and try to have a good time," Mr. Dickson said. "There are times when you feel vulnerable, but you just don't let life stop there."

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