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Blind sailor sails for Australia

Jan 1, 2003

Critics of singlehanded voyaging will have more to talk about this winter as South African sailor Geoffrey Hilton-Barber heads for Australia in December aboard his 33-foot sloop Abacus.

Since Hilton-Barber is blind, he will be navigating his vessel with assistance from audio-equipped electronics: two GPS units, a pair of separately wired compasses, and a radar. For the more congested lengths of his 4,500-mile voyageleaving Durban, South Africa, and crossing the southward-flowing Mozambique currentHilton-Barber will be escorted by yachts from the Royal Natal Yacht Club of Durban.

Hilton-Barber explained that after his departure he plans to sail southeast to 35° S before turning east for the Australian coast. He will only head north for Fremantle when he has reached 100° east longitude. Upon approach to Fremantle, he will also receive an escort. A sighted crewmember will then climb aboard to establish an anchorage in the harbor.

Hilton-Barber was an experienced sailor before he lost his eyesight 20 years ago but never had the chance to make such a significant crossing.

"I am only able to consider singlehanded sailing because of the audio technology that enables me to read my instruments, [check] my batteries, and communicate with the outside world," he said.

If successful, this will be the first solo ocean crossing by a blind person. Two previous attempts by a blind person to cross the Atlantic failed after electronic gear suffered mid-voyage breakdowns.