On July 26, 58-year-old Hank Dekker of Novato, Calif., will set sail aboard his 30-foot racing sloop, NFB, from Baltimore's Inner Harbor for Plymouth, England. If he completes the 3,450-mile crossing, he will have made nautical history as the first blind man to sail the Atlantic alone. "What d'ya mean, 'If'?" says the feisty Dekker. " 'When?' is the better question. I'd say 23 days would be good time." Dekker has already sailed twice alone from San Francisco to Hawaii, the only blind man to accomplish that feat. On his first sail, in the summer of 1983, his 24-foot boat, Dark Star, was capsized by Hurricane Henrietta halfway across, and he was presumed lost at sea. Dekker was only mildly amused to hear radio reports of his drowning as he neared port, and it was with some glee that he informed the Coast Guard, Mark Twain-style, that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. His second crossing, three years later, was even more remarkable. Sailing a new boat, Outta Sight, he finished third in the monohull division in the Single-Handed Trans-Pac race. "Nobody wanted to be beaten by a blind guy," he says, "and I smoked almost everybody." Now, under the sponsorship of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, he'll try to "smoke" the Atlantic.
Dekker started losing his sight to undetected glaucoma in the early 1970s. His visual acuity of 20-10 was at first unaffected, but he steadily began to lose his peripheral vision. By the time he sought treatment, the disease had taken hold. By 1978 he was legally blind. An athlete all his life, he was plunged by his disability into a morass of anger and depression. "I became a complete jerk," he says. "I blew my job [as manager of a car dealership], my marriage, everything. I kissed away my disability check on booze. It was the first time in my life I'd met adversity, and I couldn't handle it." He left his home in Honolulu and moved to San Francisco, where he lived among the homeless in the South of Market skid row, eating out of dumpsters and sleeping in sewer pipes. Finally, "I got tired of trying to kill myself," he says. Dekker found work with various charitable organizations and eventually started his own marketing corporation to encourage the hiring of disabled workers. In 1980 a friend took Dekker sailing for the first time in his life, and he instantly experienced a new sense of purpose, for, says Dekker, "I just knew this was something I could do." Dekker bought Dark Star and then got hold of every instructional sailing tape he could find. Then he began sailing every weekend on San Francisco Bay. "It was making me a whole man again," he says. By 1981 he had become so adept that he opened his own charter service. Dekker uses a Braille compass and navigational chart, as well as a voice-sensitized Global Positioning System. On the high seas, though, Dekker is convinced his experience is special. "I feel the motion of the sea and hear the waves breaking and hissing," he says. "I can hear the dolphins riding the bow. I love the moisture in the air, the sound of the petrels. I can feel a squall coming before it gets here. And it's a nice feeling knowing you're doing something no one else ever has. When you're disabled, everyone wants to take care of you. You can be as safe as a bird in a cage. Then you realize the birds in the trees are the ones who are singing."