Jim Dickson, the 41-year-old District resident who left Portsmouth, R.I., nine days ago in an attempt to become the first blind sailor to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, was racing a tropical storm to Bermuda yesterday in hopes of missing the brunt of the storm.
Dickson, who has been legally blind since age 7 from retinitis pigmentosa, was about 350 miles into his 2,800-mile passage to Plymouth, England, last week when his computerized shipboard navigation system failed and he was forced to steer a course toward Bermuda for repairs.
The adventurer had planned to harbor his 36-foot sloop, Eye-Opener, in Bermuda by late yesterday after an all-night sail Tuesday, but by early yesterday, he had changed his mind and furled his sails in anticipation of riding out the approaching tropical storm Arlene, the first tropical storm of the season.
"He's going to prepare the boat for a storm," said Paul Petronello, a spokesman for Dickson. "This has just slowed him up, it hasn't discouraged him. He's doing fine. He's in good spirits."
But late yesterday, Dickson reversed himself and decided to seek harbor in Bermuda before the full force of the storm strikes the island around noon today, said Richard Parks, a Bermuda Harbor Radio spokesman.
Dickson apparently misread a Braille compass early yesterday and subsequently was off course for several hours, a delay that contributed to his decision to try to get into harbor instead of weathering the storm on the water.
At noon, Arlene, packing winds of 50 miles per hour, was 325 miles west of Bermuda and approaching the island preceded by rough weather and squalls, the National Weather Service said.
Although Bermuda is a detour in Dickson's plan to become the first sightless person to sail solo across the Atlantic, Petronello said the 650-mile voyage from Portsmouth to Bermuda also will be a victory.
Stephen Graham, a fund-raiser for the voyage who also is a spokesman for Dickson, said the original intent of Dickson's voyage -- to highlight the blind sailor's belief that the disabled can be useful members of society with technological help -- was thwarted but not defeated.
Graham said Dickson spent Monday night watching the horizon using his "mobility vision," which enables him to make out vague shapes, and for the first time since he was 6, Dickson was able to see the horizon with the help of moonlight and shadows.
"He said it was the greatest night of his life," Graham said. "Isn't that beautiful?"