Blind Sailors Suffer Knockdown

A shot from the intrepid couple’s cruising scrapbook – striking a pose at New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island.

© 2008 Scott Duncan & Pam Habek

Recovering from the chaos wrought by a mid-ocean knockdown is a challenge for any sailor, but imagine trying to sort things out if you were nearly blind.

As reported earlier, Scott Duncan and Pam Habek, both of whom are legally blind, departed Australia in late May aboard their Pearson 390, Starship, bound for New Caledonia. Having left San Francisco in the fall of 2004, they are the first blind couple to have crossed the Pacific, and they hope to become the first to circumnavigate. (Pam has about 10% of normal vision; Scott has about 5%.)

The May 31 knockdown occurred roughly 280 miles south of New Caledonia’s Koumac Island, when a freak wave crashed into Starship. Scott was in the cockpit at the time just about to strap on his PDF as he prepared for a sail change. Pam was below decks. Excerpts from Scott’s report: "The next second I felt the boat drop beneath my feet and start to roll. In the tick of the clock, I also knew that I needed to hit the deck literally, and I dove for the floor and grabbed onto a support pole. On my way down I glimpsed a huge wave coming over the boat with a size towering above the boom. The wave came from the opposite direction of the prevailing wave pattern and crashed straight down on Starship. I felt the full force of the wave come down on me with a huge crash and continue to roll the boat to nearly 90 degrees. Everything that was in the cockpit was now flying past me. The sensation was like being in a breaking wave when you are body surfing."

The boat’s heavily built dodger was shredded, almost everything loose in the cockpit was washed overboard, and the wind generator support structure was mangled. Below decks, water was up to the floorboards, and they would later learn that all that green water had damaged elements of their electrical system. Luckily, though, neither Scott nor Pam was injured. They hove to, and eventually got the mess sorted out, pushing on northward.

"During our voyage we have learned that, in the midst of a crisis, there will always be success and regrets," writes Scott. "We certainly learned the lesson that anytime we are in the cockpit on Starship we must be clipped in before leaving the cabin below, despite the perception of safety the enclosure provides. We feel that our training (by Club Nautique’s Arnstein Mustad) carried us through the aftermath. Our decisions to stop the boat by heaving to, and taking the time to take care of the boat and ourselves, were good ones. Recognizing our boundaries, fixing a warm meal and getting rest were also key to coping with the situation.

"One of the most frequently asked questions by the media prior to departing on the voyage was: ‘How will two legally blind people deal with an emergency at sea? Surely you will have problems and then need to be rescued.’ In hindsight we think many people in our situation would have considered firing off their EPIRB and calling to be rescued, especially because it took another 12 hours for the seas to calm after the wave strike. As mentioned, nobody responds perfectly to an emergency, but we drew on our training, used our minds, kept our cool, worked our way through the situation and never once did we let our vision limitations become a negative factor. We were simply people determined to overcome adversity despite our limitations, and ultimately this is what our voyage is all about.

"On our departure day I was asked by a reporter if I thought this voyage was dangerous. I replied that yes, it is. It can be dangerous for anyone, but if it was easy then it would already have been done. People have a remarkable ability to achieve great things beyond their perceived limitations, and Pam and I are continually amazed and rewarded by what we are capable of achieving through determination."

We’re happy to report that this amazing couple has safely reached New Caledonia, where Starship is undergoing repairs. For more on their quest, see the website.

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