Blind Sailor Hank Dekker Plans to Forsake the Shore Thing and Set His Course for Kauai
06/16/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
After my friends towed me out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, I didn't raise the sails right away. I just sat there and listened to the diesels fading away and thought, 'Four years ago, I was sleeping in a sewer pipe in Wino Park and drinking out of a bottle in a paper bag. Now I'm sitting on a boat I own, attempting to sail to Hawaii alone. Whether I make it or not, I've already won.' I was a whole person again."
Hank Dekker did make it to Hawaii in 1983, but his 23-day solo voyage from San Francisco was more than just a victory for a reformed drinker. Dekker is almost completely blind—the result of an untreatable form of glaucoma that struck 14 years ago. He has only enough vision to distinguish light from dark, "like looking though a frosted shower glass." With 1983's trip, he says, he became the first blind person ever to make a solo ocean crossing. This month, Dekker, 51, will set sail for Hawaii again as one of 19 racers in the biannual San Francisco to Kauai Single handed Transpac competition. "It's like going from the family station wagon to an Indy car," he marvels. Dekker's vehicle is a sleek 28-footer, which he dubbed, with typical humor, Outta Sight. Though he needs a cane to get on and off the boat, Dekker is totally at home on deck, thanks, in part, to a year of coaching by Dem Smith, a veteran ocean racer. On a typical San Francisco Bay outing, Dekker works at raising the spinnaker, the parachute-like sail that will enable him to reach speeds of 16 knots if the winds are right. "Jesus, that's hard," he tells Dem as he tries to hoist the sail into position. "Don't force it or it'll tear," says Smith, suspecting the spinnaker is caught on something. "Go forward and check the sail." Dekker moves to the bow and feels around until he finds the snag. Then he returns to the cockpit and hoists the sail. As it balloons, the boat takes off. "Hank thought it was impossible for him to learn," says Smith, "but now he's doing it better than most racers."
Dekker will be trying to prove that statement 24 hours a day during the hotly contested Transpac. He will be aided by a self-steering device—but then, so will the other racers. "You have to have time to sleep and eat," explains Dekker, who has loaded up on high-protein foods such as sardines. Unlike his rivals, however, Dekker will be plotting his course with the help of braille charts and a braille compass. But he believes that, in one sense, his handicap is a help. "Everyone else shortens sail at night, because they are less comfortable sailing in the dark. But it doesn't make any difference to me, so I'll run hard 'round the clock. I feel I have the advantage."
Dekker almost didn't live to make the trip. During the earlier expedition, Hurricane Henriette knocked his boat on her side. Dekker found himself on the cabin ceiling. "I remember thinking, 'God, is this how it's going to end?' " His head had been bloodied by a loose piece of equipment, and he'd wrenched his back. Still, he managed to crawl outside and lower the jib, which allowed the boat to right herself.
As he neared Honolulu—only 20 miles off course, despite the loss of most of his navigation equipment—a towboat came out to guide him through the reefs. He soon found himself puzzled by a distant roar. "I asked my friend on the towboat what it was, and he said thousands of people were cheering," Dekker recalls. "In my mind, I could see Waikiki Beach. It was like I had 20-20 vision."
Dekker, who had never sailed until 1980, was born in Connecticut to working class parents who divorced when he was 6 years old. In 1972, when glaucoma began shrouding his vision, he was the manager of a car dealership in Hawaii. "I had it all," he says. "A beautiful wife, two children, a house on a lagoon and a dog."
His eyesight failing, Dekker moved back to Connecticut for treatment, but nothing helped. "I had no idea what I'd do without money, and I had no counseling." He began drinking heavily, which, combined with his bitterness about losing his sight, helped sink his marriage. Separated in 1977, he was divorced in 1980. A year went by in a blur before he joined a support group in California. "At last I had a chance to talk to my peers about how to cope—what you do in restaurants, and how to clean a house. There was no magic, but I changed."
After going sailing with a friend, he became hooked. He eventually bought a charter-boat business, and with help from sighted deckhands, took passengers out on San Francisco Bay—until the Coast Guard objected. Then he decided to sail to Hawaii "to show other blind people that they could put their lives back together." He supports himself by lecturing about handicaps and motivation.
This time around, he's upgraded his boat—thanks to a corporate sponsor—and his goal. "I've already cruised to Hawaii," says Dekker. "The only reason to go again is to win."