Blind Man Sailing
Lying in the dark in the forward berth on the portside of the sixty-five foot schooner, “Journey,” the darkness and boat started me thinking about my blind friend Allen and our last sail together. Allen lost his sight in his thirties, and I met him twenty years later at the agency where I worked. Allen had his own business, running the agency vending machines. I loved Allen; he was a straight-shooter with a great sense of humor.
He was also smart! One year he ranked eighth in the nation in the blind chess national championships. He could also keep all his inventory straight, like which vending machines had pop, which had candy, what kind of pop or candy, when the pop or candy reached its expiration date, how many and exactly where items were located in the machines, the accounting of his money, etc. Even in his storage room . . . when I would help him move something, he would tell me where it was, how much there was of it, and exactly where to put it. He kept all this information in his head! I was impressed, but I never imagined that he would impress me even more in the future.
One day I told Allen I had a twenty-two foot O’Day sailboat and would like to take him sailing. Allen flatly said, “No!” I tried another time and found out he was worried about falling out of the boat. I promised to lash his butt to the mast, and he wouldn’t have to worry about the overboard issue. Once he finally got on my boat, he felt secure in the cockpit and with a lifejacket on he was good.
After one of our sails, we headed back to my van, and I jokingly said, “Hey Allen, I’m tired, how about if you drive home?” He said, “Give me the keys!” So I did and got in the passenger side–playing along with Allen. We were on a service road by our dock, and it was about a half mile out to the main road. Next thing I hear is the motor starting! With a blind guy at the wheel! I yelled, “Allen! There’s a blind man at the wheel!” He said, “Yep, that’d be me!” And stepped on the gas!
He wasn’t going fast, but I’d say right, left, or right, right, yikes, right! Left, slow, slower, no, no, MORE slow, and so on. He drove the entire half mile! He just barely missed two trees, a dumpster, and by the time I got him stopped, he had parked us between two empty picnic tables. When he got out of the driver’s side tapping away with his white blind stick, some folks eating at another picnic table stopped mid-bite and stared at the blind driver in disbelief!
The next time we went sailing, we had to motor over to the other side of the lake. I thought about Allen driving, so I set him down by the tiller. I said, “Allen, the left is “port” and right is “starboard” and you have to push the tiller in the opposite direction you want to go.” Off we went just like the van; I’d yell out directions as we went in big circles, little circles, just missed a buoy, and almost ran aground once, but in relatively short order Allen started getting the hang of it! From then on when we went sailing, I’d let him motor us out to wherever we were headed at the time.
One late autumn day we drove to the lake to go sailing, but it was too cold and windy. Allen, who liked to smoke cigars, asked if he could smoke one in my new-used clunker I had just purchased. I said, “Sure,” because it already smelled of cigarette smoke from the previous owner. We rolled the windows down, and he started puffing away. He had eaten a large order of French fries on the way up, so he held the fry container in his lap to tap the ashes into. I had been looking out my window for awhile at the lake when Allen casually said, “Am I on fire?”
I said, “What! Are you on fire???” Turning, I saw a foot-high flame leaping up from his crotch! He had accidentally touched the lit part of his cigar to the edge of the French fry container and set it ablaze! My first thought was to smack out the flame with my hand, but then thought to myself, “That wouldn’t be nice to a blind guy, he’d never see it coming!” So I grabbed the container by the edge and threw it out my window. Allen was not bothered by the incident in the least; he only said, “The reason I asked about the fire was because it was getting a bit toasty down there,” and kept right on puffin’.
The really important thing that came out of those times together was our talks. Allen believed in Jesus as his Savior but struggled with some ethical and theological issues. We would talk, and talk, and pray. I would often tell him some of my faith stories and those would counter some of the legalism he struggled with. In time, he began to see Jesus as a relationship and not just a set of rules but more as a living Lord and Friend.
The last time Allen and I went sailing, we discussed his sailing the boat himself that day. I didn’t realize how much information about our surroundings and sailings Allen had been absorbing through his other senses. He said, “The hardest thing for me is feeling forward movement and speed.” He told me to close my eyes while we were moving forward. He was right, we could have been sitting at a dock rocking in the waves with the wind blowing in our faces and going nowhere, and it would have felt the same as when moving!
Still, off we went and within an hour, Allen was sailing the boat by himself!! He explained that the wind on his face gave him direction, the sound of the sails told him when they were full of wind or luffing (flapping), and for forward movement and speed? He listened to the gurgle of water behind the boat! Allen sailed leaning over at the waist with one hand on the tiller and looking straight down at the floor of the cockpit. He was doing it all by feel and sound! I was standing up on deck by the mast, when we would pass another boat, folks would wave “Hi” and smile then look puzzled at Allen staring at the floor and not looking at where he was sailing. I’d yell over, “He’s a bind sailor!” Their mouths would drop open, and every time I looked back, I’d see Allen face down with his hand on the tiller ‘grinning.’
He sailed for three hours that day, and I only had to guide him around one buoy. Allen was thrilled, and I was impressed once again! However, neither of us knew that would be Allen’s last sail. By the next summer, he had developed cancer, and his slide downhill was fast, and then he was gone. I had the privilege and honor of speaking at his funeral. What I said in that service can be summed up in the following poem I wrote for his loving, caring family who miss him deeply–as myself.
Blind Man Sailing
The sailboat glided past the other boaters.
Looking on puzzled, they stared.
The man at the helm, gripping the tiller,
Was bent over in the cockpit staring at the floor.
He sailed gracefully past them and only smiled.
They had never seen…A blind man sailing.
Blind Allen listened to the luffing of the sails for trim,
The gurgle of water from the rudder for speed,
And the wind on his face gave him direction.
He sailed for three hours that day by himself,
Not knowing it was his last sail.
Then the storms came in his life with high winds,
Towering waves, lightening…he was shattered on the rocks.
The storms have passed.
He now sails the heavenly seas,
Navigating among the stars.
Allen stands tall at the tiller,
Gazing into the distance.
For he is a blind man sailing…no more.
“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” –James 1:12 (KJV)
Copyright © 2010 by William D. (Nick) Nichols
PS: The previous story was written aboard the schooner “Journey.” For pictures of the vessel Journey and other information about B-About Sail Ministry see: http://www.babout.org/PhotoAlbum/