Ocean Voyage Runs Aground In Court

February 21, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

It was to be an epic voyage.

Hank Dekker, a sailor blinded by glaucoma in 1978, would travel -- alone -- 3,400 miles across the perilous Atlantic to Britain.

The voyage, intended to demonstrate the courage, ingenuity and skill of the blind, began July 29, sponsored in part by $50,000 from the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind.

But the gods did not smile on this extraordinary voyage.

Today, Mr. Dekker, 59, and the federation are in federal courts here and in New Jersey, locked in a conflict with all the fury of a North Atlantic storm.

Mr. Dekker accuses his former sponsor of defaming him and trying to ruin his livelihood. The federation, led by president Marc Maurer, claims the sailor was incompetent and became publicly drunk. Both claim ownership of the 30-foot Olson sailboat.

To Mr. Dekker, a blunt-spoken man who twice has skippered boats alone between California and Hawaii, the federation and Mr. Maurer are trying to steal something precious -- his reputation.

"I think it's just a personality thing between Marc Maurer and myself," Mr. Dekker says. "I was getting all the press; he was not."

To Mr. Maurer, the voyage ended when a reckless captain threatened the reputation of his organization -- and, by implication, of blind people generally. "If a sailor is planning to spend a month on the water, you'd think he would spend the time ahead planning how he was going to survive, rather than drinking this or that amount of alcohol.

"We would have left him peacefully be if he had left us peacefully be."

Initially, the captain and the crew of federation sponsors seemed a perfect match.

Mr. Dekker, a respected sailor who lives near San Francisco and survived a period on Skid Row after he became blind, earns his living as a motivational speaker.

He had had plenty of success in working with sponsors when he met federation officials last April to discuss the trip and to seek financial aid.

High-profile fights

Before he began sailing 15 years ago, he was a successful NASCAR driver, a career that ended when he lost his vision. He has been profiled in Sports Illustrated and People magazines and received congratulations from President Reagan.

The federation is an organization that has been unafraid to enter contentious battles on behalf of its members.

It has waged high-profile fights for the rights of blind people to serve on juries and to sit next to emergency exits on airplanes, for example. The group even played a role in the cancellation of the television series "Good and Evil" in 1991, after the program featured a disreputable character who was blind.

The Atlantic crossing seemed a perfect feat to inspire the blind and highlight their capabilities. Based on descriptions of previous trips, Mr. Dekker impressed the federation as a highly skilled sailor capable of the voyage.

All seemed ready when the NFB 52 left Baltimore's Inner Harbor, headed for its official starting point in Cape May, N.J., and the trip to Plymouth, England. The boat carried specially adapted charts, a Braille compass and a satellite-positioning system that communicated with Mr. Dekker in a computer-synthesized voice.

It's hard to say where things started to go wrong.

The boat became damaged just two days out of Cape May. Mr. Dekker says he hit a storm and believes lightning struck the boat and cracked the hull. He turned it around and, with a Coast Guard escort, headed for the closest port, Atlantic City, for repairs.

To Mr. Maurer, the damage raised serious questions about the adequacy of the captain's preparations, his competence and the suitability of the boat for a long journey.

"The electrical system was burned out on the boat," he says. "So something was not done correctly."

A malfunctioning propeller caused a crack under the boat, Mr. Maurer says, adding that he does not believe there was a storm.

As repairs were being made, he and others from the federation met in Atlantic City with Mr. Dekker.

Mr. Maurer, who also is blind, says he consulted with about a half-dozen people before determining that Mr. Dekker had not adequately prepared for the trip. He would not identify those people last week, citing the pending lawsuits.

Although his doubts grew, Mr. Maurer revealed none of them to the sailor, who continued to meet with federation officials as they laid plans for a second try.

Mr. Dekker says his sponsor's presence in Atlantic City during the preparations was "like the president of Wheaties going to the Indianapolis 500 to prepare the car for the race. These people don't know anything about sailing."

Personal conflicts

He now wonders whether some of Mr. Maurer's doubts grew out of personal conflicts in Atlantic City and from resentment about the princely treatment he was receiving.

Trump Castle Casino Resort provided Mr. Dekker with a free room, meals and a place for his boat while it was awaiting the repairs. Federation officials stayed in a nearby Howard Johnson's.

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