Jim Dickson, a blind man, tried to sail the Atlantic alone. He didn't make it. He did, however, make it to Bermuda. Curiously, this has led to a debate. Columnist William F. Buckley disapproves of the venture on the grounds that there is no point to a blind man's trying to sail. It is against nature. "{I}f you cannot see the water and the skies, why are you going on a sailboat to begin with?"

Dickson is trying "to do that which {his} handicap inherently proscribes." Sailing is an experience simply not accessible to the blind, says Buckley. Dickson may think he is sailing, using instruments to substitute for sight. But that is "self-delusion," an exercise in false consciousness. Might as well take a deaf man to the symphony or a blind man to the Grand Canyon.

The analogy, like the argument, is inept. A concert is a hearing experience, the Grand Canyon a seeing experience. If you lack the required sense, you miss the experience entirely. Sailing is different. It engages all the senses, not just one. (Indeed sailing's most physiologically significant sensory experience -- against which nature so rebels that it invented seasickness to discourage the practice -- is motion.) Moreover, unlike a concert, sailing is not merely a passive sensory experience. To sail a boat requires actions of mind and hand -- plotting the course, trimming the sails -- that are both difficult and pleasing.

Sight is, of course, a large part of the sailing experience. But it is not all of it. If it were, then when Buckley sails into a pea soup fog in which he can no more see water and sky than can Dickson, one would have to say that Buckley is not sailing -- when in fact he is.

There is a simple test of the reality of one's experience: ask the person in question what happened. If you ask a deaf man for an account of the symphony, he can tell you nothing of the music. Ask Dickson to account for his trip to Bermuda and he has a thrilling story to tell. A deaf man at the symphony has missed the experience. A blind man at sea has a diminished experience.

Buckley's case against Dickson comes down to this: the diminished experience is not worth having. It can't be enjoyed. It can't be experienced. It doesn't even exist. "People who can't see have really no business sailing, for the reason that they are simply engaging in a challenge . . . unrelated to the experience of sailing."

Nonsense. Buckley is confusing diminished experience with non-experience. When Buckley reads Dostoevsky in translation, he is missing the rhythm and the music of the original. Moreover, not having grown up Russian, he lacks the cultural feel, the sensitivity to nuance with which even the humblest Muscovite is endowed. Reading Dostoevsky in translation is a diminished experience. Does that mean the experience is inauthentic or the enjoyment delusive?

A more correct analogy to the blind man sailing is not the deaf man at the symphony but the deaf man at the ballet. Certainly the experience is diminished. But is it right to say that it does not exist? Again the test: can he give you an account of what happened? Yes, a partial account. Missing is the rush of the music, but certainly there is an apprehension -- diminished but real -- of the dance.

The first half of the objection to Dickson's feat is thus metaphysical: whatever Dickson engaged in, it was not "sailing." The other half of the objection is practical: the venture has no point, it is a mere stunt. Now, it is true that blind men are not meant to sail the Atlantic alone. But neither are ladies (or gentlemen, for that matter) meant to swim the Bering Strait. Lynne Cox did so two weeks ago. Heretofore that stunt had been reserved for seals. And it is certainly against nature to walk to the North Pole or swim the English Channel. If it weren't, nature would have equipped man with fur and fins.

Yet people undertake such "stunts" and are rightly celebrated for it. Why? People don't swim the Channel or walk to the Pole in order to encourage others to do the same. They do so to stretch our idea of what man can do. They show the way, not literally but metaphorically. The point of a blind man sailing the Atlantic is not to get other blind men to follow. Dickson's contribution was to show that the blind can do things -- such as sail to Bermuda alone -- that people thought the blind could not do. Funny thing is, Dickson's already done it and some people would still like to argue that he can't.