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Blind Sailors First to Cross The Pacific

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted courtesy of The Northern Advocate, Whangarei, New Zealand, November 11, 2005.

Americans Scott Duncan and Pamela Habek anchored their names in the record books yesterday when they arrived in Whangarei to become the first blind people to sail a yacht across the Pacific.

Friends waved white canes in farewell when the couple left San Francisco on October 12 last year on their 10m cutter, Tournesol, for a planned world circumnavigation, during which they expect to cover about 32,000 nautical miles over three or four years.

They started with a 9000-mile loop taking in Mexico, the Marquesas, Tahiti, the Society Islands and the Cook Islands--a voyage which Ms Habek, 43, described as "amazing".

She and Mr. Duncan, 39, have both had impaired sight since birth and both carry white canes on land. But their 10 percent of normal vision didn't restrict their enjoyment of beautiful sunsets, tropical islands, whale and dolphin encounters and a wonderful sense of freedom on the open ocean.

They both had big smiles after they were escorted into Whangarei Harbour by the Coastguard vessel, Superyacht City Rescue, which left them tied up to the Main 3 wharf at the southern end of the port.

Fellow American yachties, Frank and Rachel Hoffmann, who had met the blind couple in Tahiti, were there to help the Tournesol make its way to a Town Basin marina. But the cutter's trouble--plagued motor overheated and died--and the Pacific crossing looked like it could end with a minor disaster until passing fisherman, Greg Hayes, tied the drifting yacht to his 17m seiner, Melodeon, and towed it to a berth by Riverside Dr.

Mr. Duncan started sailing Lasers at age 13 and owned an 8.5m keeler before acquiring the Tournesol. He used to be in business producing adaptive computer technology for blind people, and the cutter has special navigational aids such as a talking GTS (global tracking) system, a video magnifier to read charts, and a talking computer.

All ropes on the Tournesol are colour-coded for different functions and Mr. Duncan said he and his partner had no trouble sailing the craft, although they frequently sought help "parking" it in ports. Their voyage is described on their website.

They intend to spend up to a year in New Zealand, fixing the motor and making other boat repairs, and visiting schools for blind children to get across the message that blind people can achieve just about anything.