Several hundred supporters, spectators and a handful of national and local politicians gathered along the Inner Harbor sea wall yesterday morning to launch Hank Dekker's solo sailing voyage from Baltimore to Plymouth, England.
"It is easy enough to get to England without having to fool around with a boat, and it is a lot cheaper and faster," said Marc Maurer, president of the 50,000-member National Federation of the Blind, which is sponsoring Dekker's 3,400-mile Atlantic crossing. "But this is the fulfillment of a dream for him.
"And it's not just for him, it is a dream of other blind people throughout this United States who want to do things that haven't been done before. . . . This is an effort to focus attention and to build hopes for blind people within the society we have."
Dekker, 58, lost his sight to glaucoma in 1977. The Californian left the Inner Harbor aboard his 30-foot racing sloop shortly after 11 a.m. yesterday, taken in tow to Cape May, N.J., from where he expects to begin his 18- to 30-day passage on Thursday.
Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Sen. Thomas Harkin of Iowa, who spearheaded passage of the bill, figured prominently in the Dekker ceremonies.
"This is a momentous occasion, but it also is a symbol of something much larger," said Harkin, an eight-year Navy veteran who said he would not attempt a solo crossing of the Atlantic. "You [Dekker] are proving to America that disability is a natural part of the human existence and in no way diminishes the ability of those with disabilities to live independently, to make their own choices and to pursue their dreams -- and even to do some far-out things."
Harkin compared Dekker to Joshua Slocum, who toward the end of last century sailed alone around the world.
"He [Slocum] was a real pioneer, the first one to do it," Harkin said. "Well, I liken Hank Dekker to Joshua Slocum, taking on something that no one has ever felt possible before and doing it in a way that makes us all proud."
Baltimore City Council president Mary Pat Clarke said: "This is another all-star event for Baltimore City, and, Hank, we are proud you for putting us on the map, and we want to make sure that you sail back in time for this year's World Series in Baltimore."
Orioles vice president and general manager Roland Hemond yesterday presented Dekker an All-Star Game cap and an Orioles sweat shirt and invited him to throw out the first pitch at a future Orioles game.
"And I trust and hope that when you arrive in England," Hemond said, "you will also find the Orioles in first place."
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley said that Dekker's launching is another in a notable list of achievements for the handicapped in Baltimore, including the founding of the Maryland School for the Blind more than a century ago and The National Federation of the Blind moving its national headquarters here about 15 years ago.
"Today we have the pioneer, the real pioneer, who is going to make the real breakthrough for all of those who are handicapped with their vision," Bentley said.
Dekker's mother, Theresa Thompson, said Dekker's crossing excites and scares her. "It is a long way in a small boat," she said.
"But that is Hank: Once he decides to do something he will get it done."
Dekker's son, Mike, who was on hand with his sister, Kim, said the question is not whether Dekker will get to England, but when. He drew comparisons with his father's voyages on the Pacific.
"It [the Atlantic] is a bigger ocean, it is a rougher ocean and there is a lot more commercial traffic," Mike Dekker said. "But the equipment he has here is much better than it was in his previous sails. . . . His confidence covers whatever nervousness we have."
Hank Dekker said his boat, an Olson 30 named NFB (for National Federation of the Blind), is fully outfitted and provisioned, except for a single-sideband radio that will be installed in Cape May.
The NFB is outfitted with voice-synthesized Global Positioning System for satellite navigation, Braille compass and Braille charts and an Argos tracking system that will produce a satellite fix on his position at any hour of the day or night.
Dekker said a computerized test of the Argos system on Sunday night was so detailed that "they could see the boat was in the Inner Harbor.
"So, if I were to sit in the Charthouse [restaurant] in Bermuda drinking rum and Cokes, I couldn't say that I was in Mid-Atlantic because they will know where I am every minute."
During Dekker's voyage, the public may call 1-800-808-HANK to get updates on his progress.
"This is not going to be an easy trip, and there are people who will say a blind person should not even try this trip," Dekker said. "But we, the blind people, should do what we want to do.
"We shouldn't be allowed to hide behind our blindness; we should be allowed to do our thing."
Dekker, who in 1983 and 1986 sailed alone from San Francisco to Hawaii, is not the first blind person to attempt a solo crossing of the Atlantic.
Several years ago a Chesapeake Bay sailor named Jim Dickson attempted a similar voyage, but chose to end it in Bermuda after some of his electronic equipment failed.
"I told Jim to his face that he didn't fail because he was blind," Dekker said in an interview last week. "He failed because he wasn't prepared. He depended strictly on electronic gear, even to trim sails.
"We are prepared, and we will go about this trip as quickly and safely as we can," Dekker said.