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Blind sailors conquer the Pacific

The cruising couple plan to depart from New Zealand early next year to complete a circumnavigation

The cruising couple plan to depart from New Zealand early next year to complete a circumnavigation

A California couple who last year became the first legally blind sailors to cross the Pacific unassisted have returned to the United States and are preparing for the second half of their circumnavigation, next year.

“Ever since we stepped foot on land we’ve been wishing we were back on the water,” says Scott Duncan, who is 39.

Duncan and his girlfriend, Pam Habek, 44 — both of whom were born with congenital eye conditions — left San Francisco Oct. 11, 2004, and sailed their Valiant 32, Tournesol, more than 10,000 miles to New Zealand. They made landfall Nov. 10, 2005, in Whangarei after visiting 26 ports in six countries.

“Some of the sailing we’re going to do during the second part of this is going to be real challenging,” Duncan says. “We’re both looking forward to it.”

Duncan and Habek sailed south from San Francisco (where they’re from) with the Baja Ha Ha cruising rally and down the coast of Mexico. From Puerto Vallarta they sailed with the Pacific Puddle Jump rally across the Pacific to the Marquesas Islands. From there, they continued on to New Zealand, stopping at various islands along the way. Now back in the United States, Duncan and Habek have found jobs to help raise the money they’ll need for the remainder of their circumnavigation, which they plan to resume from New Zealand early next year.

“Sailing across the world really is an amazing thing,” says Duncan. “Getting to visit new places and getting to meet so many people is great. And it has been especially interesting for us, being visually impaired. At every stop we meet people who are amazed by what we’re doing. Some people think it’s great, but others seem to think it’s risky or unsafe. We share with people and explain our trip to people every place we go.”

“I think the cruisers we met out there were supportive,” Habek says. “Maybe they thought we were a little crazy but, there again, there’s that generality that anyone out cruising is at least a little crazy. So maybe we’re just a little crazier than most.”

While Duncan and Habek have some vision, they rely on special equipment to help them trim sails and navigate. For example, the couple has two computers with large screens, speech output and large-print software (16 times magnification); a talking GPS; color-coded lines on deck; and telescopes and magnifying glasses. “We sorted out the equipment we knew we’d need before we left,” Duncan says. “It all proved useful for us, although you can’t rely on any one piece of equipment to get by.”

Duncan recalls a situation after more than 30 days at sea when their three solar panels weren’t providing enough power to the couple’s 4 kW radar. “When we’d get anywhere near land, or especially when docking, one of us would have to stand, tethered in, on the bow with a telescope in hand to make sure that we didn’t run into anything,” Duncan says. “Being in busy shipping channels was pretty nerve-wracking, too.”

Duncan says the most challenging part of the voyage so far wasn’t using their special equipment; it was the actual sailing. “Visually impaired or not, there’s a lot that goes into being a good sailor,” he says. “It’s needing to be a good meteorologist, a good mechanic, a good electrician. There are always 10 or 20 things you need to be ahead of.”

Duncan and Habek’s skills were put to the test when their diesel engine’s water pump failed nine days into a passage from Mexico to the Marquesas. “Here we are in the middle of the ocean knowing we wouldn’t be able to use the engine,” says Duncan. “We had to decide whether we should go back, try to make it to Hawaii or just keep going. We figured, well, sailboats made it across oceans for hundreds of years without engines. We just need to keep on going.”

Duncan says one of the most important aspects of their circumnavigation so far has been speaking with others whose vision is impaired. “We tried to meet as many other visually impaired people as we could during our stopovers,” he says. “We met a lot of people from a lot of different countries and learned about how they all live their lives. From country to country there are huge differences, culturally, for visually impaired people. It’s fascinating.”

In preparation for the second half of their odyssey, Duncan and Habek in June sold Tournesol and bought a Pearson 39 named Starship. “We loved Tournesol for how sturdy she is but, between storage and living space, we just didn’t have enough room,” Habek says. “The Pearson seems significantly bigger in comparison, with forward and aft cabins. This time we’ll have more real estate, if you will.”

Duncan and Habek plan to return to New Zealand, where Starship is based, in September. They will finish outfitting the Pearson and then cruise the country’s east coast to get a feel for how she handles. They intend to get under way sometime between January and March and sail to Sydney, Australia, then Indonesia, Duncan says. From there they will determine a route to cross the Atlantic, transit the Panama Canal and head back to San Francisco. They expect the second half of the circumnavigation to take two to three years.

“We’re looking forward to visiting new countries and meeting more people,” Duncan says. “We hope this journey helps show others who are visually impaired that they are capable of doing things they never thought possible. This has been a dream of ours, and we’re making it come true.”

For more information about the voyage or to participate in online discussions, visit .