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Blind couple to sail around the world

Their Valiant 32 is equipped with adaptive technology, such as a GPS receiver that talks

Blind couple to sail around the world

Their Valiant 32 is equipped with adaptive technology, such as a GPS receiver that talks

Circumnavigating the globe is quite a feat for any sailor, but for a California couple who set sail from San Francisco this fall it will be an even more remarkable accomplishment. Scott Duncan and Pam Habek are legally blind.

While Duncan, 38, and Habek, 42, both have some vision, they will rely on special equipment to help them trim sails and steer a course aboard their Valiant 32. If successful, they will become the first legally blind sailors to circle the world.

The two-year voyage isn’t simply for the record books, however. Duncan and Habek, who were born with different congenital eye conditions, are driven by a need for self-discovery and adventure, and want to show the world that blind people can do anything.

“I wanted to do something important,” says Duncan. “[The voyage] would send a really important message.”

Duncan and Habek left San Francisco Oct. 11 bound for San Diego, where they would join the Baja Ha Ha cruising rally, which began Oct. 25. Some 100 boats sailed in company to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, arriving in early November. Duncan and Habek plan to stay in Mexico for a couple months, then continue on to Panama. They then will sail west through the South Pacific to Australia, across the Indian Ocean, around Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic to Brazil, and back through the Panama Canal to San Francisco. (Follow the couple’s progress on www.blindsailng.com.)

Duncan, a native of southern California, has been sailing and dinghy racing since he was 13 years old. He says sailing empowers him. For most teens obtaining a driver’s license is a rite of passage, but since he is sight impaired Duncan would never be legally allowed to drive a car. “I wanted something I could drive,” he says. The sailboat fit the bill. “That’s what made me fall in love with sailing.”

As an adult Duncan launched and sold several businesses, including his latest, a technology company making adaptive equipment for the blind. He sold that last year in preparation for the voyage. But sailing is still an important part of Duncan’s life, and he fantasized about a circumnavigation.

Duncan sold his Ericson 27 and bought the Valiant, Tournesol, three years ago with the big voyage in mind.

“It’s a really great cruising sailboat,” he says. “It’s a heavy displacement cruising boat.” Duncan had planned to undertake the adventure alone — that is, until he met and started dating Habek.

“I met another crazy person who was willing to go with me,” he quips.

Habek was born and raised in Mount Desert, Maine. Her father worked as a lobsterman and sail rigger, so Habek was no stranger to the water. She enjoyed sailing, but mostly as a passenger; she didn’t learn how to sail until recently.

Habek took sailing lessons at Club Nautique in San Francisco, working with an instructor who could help her adapt to her vision limitations. For instance, Habek cannot see telltales, so she had to learn to trim sails and steer by feel. She also prepared with Duncan by sailing Tournesol around San Francisco Bay.

“Bottom line is, Scott was planning to go by himself,” says Habek. She could either let Duncan sail off alone or make it a joint venture.

Aside from accompanying her boyfriend, Habek says she had more compelling reasons to make the voyage. She had worked for 16 years

at Rose Resnick LightHouse, an organization that promotes the independence, equality and self-reliance

of people with vision loss through rehabilitation training and relevant services, such as access to employment, education, government, information, recreation, transportation and the environment. Most recently associate director of the LightHouse, Habek decided it was time for a transition. “I see this as an opportunity to get to know who I am,” she says.

Duncan and Habek have some vision and are able to see their immediate surroundings. Legal blindness is defined as best corrected vision of 20/200, or when a person has a visual field of 20 degrees or less. The sailors will rely on special equipment, including a high-powered magnifier for reading charts, a magnifying glass for viewing the radar, and a monocular for trimming sails, as well as binoculars and a talking GPS receiver.

Tournesol is equipped with collision avoidance radar detection. The talking GPS from Pulse Data Humanware, a New Zealand-based company specializing in adaptive equipment for the vision impaired, will announce heading and course information.

Along the way the couple plans to visit organizations devoted to the visually impaired, in part to show others what’s possible despite vision loss. Duncan says blind people can do anything with the right adaptations. They also want to learn about programs for the visually impaired in other countries, and hope to inspire others, especially children.

“Whether we make it around the world or not, it’s still an accomplishment,” says Duncan. n