Dekker's determination unsinkable despite mechanical setbacks, doubters

OUTDOORS

August 08, 1993|By PETER BAKER

A couple of off-color jokes were going around among the small group of media representatives at the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Atlantic City, N.J., last Sunday.

The butt of the jokes was Hank Dekker, who was being brought in under tow by the cutter Point Jackson after the blind sailor decided to abort his first attempt to sail alone across the Atlantic Ocean to Plymouth, England.

This week, probably Thursday, Dekker will start again, and a new flurry of jokes will rise from glib tongues.

Probably, the jokes will fade quickly, because to those who know something of boats and voyages, Dekker's attempts to sail the Atlantic are not the stuff of humor.

"I am not of a nautical persuasion," said one photographer on hand to record Dekker's landing, "but what is that guy doing out there, anyway?"

"Sailing blind, and I think that says it all," came a chuckled response.

But that doesn't begin to say it at all.

Dekker, who lost his electrical systems on his second night out from Cape May, N.J., on July 30, acted responsibly afterward, turning around with the intention of sailing 200 miles back to Cape May for repairs.

As long as there was a breeze, Dekker said, he felt he could pilot by dead reckoning and make port. So long as there was a breeze, there was no reason to seek assistance.

His only concern was that without electrical power he had no running lights, no radar or audible radar detector, no radio by which to contact any approaching ship.

"The only way I could have signaled another vessel was by flare gun," Dekker said, "and while that seemed a little dicey, I thought I would hear the rumble of big diesels early enough to warn them away."

But late Saturday afternoon, the wind died away and Dekker determined he had become a hazard to navigation and activated the alarm on his Argos system, automatically notifying the Coast Guard that he was in distress.

A Coast Guard helicopter found him quickly, and shortly thereafter the Point Jackson was alongside. Dekker was found with the sails of his 30-foot racing sloop properly furled, the boat held close to the position sent out by the Argos system.

"What I really wanted from [the Coast Guard] was a hand-held VHF radio and a couple of portable running lights," Dekker said. "I think I could have brought the boat in that way -- but you don't tell them in that kind of case, they tell you."

The point is that Dekker is not a piker, not a weekend warrior out for a few headlines. He knows what he is about and what his boat is about.

He had sailed 200 miles in his first 36 hours and said he had sailed 100 miles in his next 10 hours, an overall average of 6.5 knots.

A leak below the waterline of his Olson 30 later compounded Dekker's problems, but throughout he kept his wits about him and made every effort to get home on his own -- just as any good sailor should do.

His purpose, of course, is to have the world take notice of the capabilities of the blind, and to have the blind accepted as peers in society.

When Dekker again goes to sea he might be faced with a hurricane in the western Atlantic or the late summer gales off the coasts of Ireland and Britain.

Dekker is serious when he says he can handle them.

But could many among the rest of us travel a fast mile in his shoes?

Think about it.

It's no joking matter.

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