Atlantic crossing ends Dekker's journey back


July 25, 1993|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Staff Writer

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

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