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Blind sailor continues his obsession

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, July 1, 2012, at 7:16 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, July 1, 2012, at 9:37 a.m.

— It’s a sailing crisis aboard the Blind Obsession, when mechanical failure suddenly puts the 26-footer adrift and headed toward the shallows.

But Bill Clark quickly hustles down his boat’s narrow side and makes the necessary adjustments to get a sail in operation.

All is well because he knows the workings of his boat like the back of his hand, after having learned them with only with the front of his hands.

Clark, 72, has been blind since 1969.

“When I get a boat, I spend an entire day or two just crawling over it, feeling everything,” Clark said.

The Blind Obsession is one of three sailboats he owns. The name seems perfect for someone who has refused to let blindness keep him from his obsession with sailing and other things before an industrial accident when he was 29.

Clark said a desire to share his love of the water with his family helped after the accident.

“When it first happened, I thought all this was over,” Clark said as he sailed with his friend, Gary Mackey, on Tuesday afternoon. “But a couple of years after the accident, when my boys were about 7 and 8, we bought an old boat that needed some help.”

Seeing the boat through his fingers and the descriptions of his children, the Clarks remodeled the old boat and eventually launched it on Cheney Reservoir.

Clark trusted his young sons’ abilities to watch for obstacles and handle the tiller. They moored the boat away from others to be safe.

“They got to be pretty good sailors,” Clark said. “It was a great family sport. We had a lot of fun.”

Teenage distractions eventually pulled the boys from sailing, but Clark never left. He’s a regular at the Walnut Valley Sailing Club, participating in races in his boat or helping on another.

“About all I need is a helmsman,” he said. “I can’t see where we’re going, but other than that I’m pretty good. I can read the wind and feel things happening. I usually know what’s going on.”

He has traveled to Florida and other places for sailing, and has been hired as a crewman on some larger ships. He also fixes up sailboats and estimates he’s bought 20 sailboats to be fixed and sold since the accident.

Once he’s figured out the workings of a boat, Clark seldom gets it confused with others. He learns them internally as well as externally.

Sitting by the helm, he tossed something down into the Blind Obsession’s cabin, then described to within inches of where it landed so he could quickly find it again.

Clark does nearly all of the work when it comes to repairing or remodeling his boats. He recently purchased a heavy-duty sewing machine so he can help repair sails.

His willingness to share his knowledge and skills has made Clark a popular member at the club.

“People go to him with questions and he’ll tell them everything he knows, and help any way he can,” Mackey said.

He described how a member recently went to Clark and described a problem with his boat’s keel. Clark went with him, jumped in, swam under the boat and diagnosed what was wrong with his hands before helping with the repair.

“Technically he sees with hands, so it doesn’t matter if he’s under the water or above,” Mackey said.

Clark has quit water skiing but still dances.

“Women just love him at places like The Candle Club because he’s such a great dancer,” Mackey said. “He just makes the rounds, and seems to keep dancing all night.”

Clark said he’s equally happy spending his nights on the Blind Obsession, which is moored in a slip that gives him easiest access to the sleep-aboard boat and club facilities.

“I like it at night, when it’s real quiet and I can get a lot of work done,” Clark said after a sail with Mackey. “It’s cooler after dark, and I have the advantage that I don’t need lights to see what I’m doing.”

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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