FIRST DEAF SAILOR IN HISTORY TO TRAVEL ALONE AROUND THE WORLD

by Stan Griffin

Charl de Villiers, a native South African and transplanted Texan, has staked a claim for recognition as the first deaf sailor in history to sail by himself around the world. Between the day in March, 2004 when he cast off from Palacios, Texas in his 37-foot Tartan yacht ("Island Times") until returning triumphantly on December 19 of the same year, he traveled an estimated distance of 30,000 miles. During this nearly 10-month-period, he overcame equipment failure, strong winds, high seas, currents that forced him to put into port for repairs, almost unbearable loneliness, and stifling heat. The worst storm he encountered struck on the final leg, just three days out of Palacios. He was also the target of burglars in American Samoa.

Welcoming Charl back were his wife of 21 years--Bev, daughter Sharleen, son Gideon, and all the way from South Africa-- his father and mother! A crowd of well-wishers estimated at 300 was there with applause, cheers, and signs. The mayor of Palacios, John Conner, read a proclamation declaring the day to be "Charl de Villiers Day." A tribute from Texas Governor Rick Perry was read. Some old rugby friends sprayed champagne and carried him around on their shoulders..

The media put in an appearance: television and newspaper reporters. Charl patiently posed for photos and held a brief press conference to answer their questions. He took time to thank people who followed his progress daily on an Internet website. (Its guestbook showed messages from places such as Canada, Australia, Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Botswana, France, Cameroon, Singapore, and Sri Lanka.)

An exhausted Charl was then finally able to relax in a soothing bath and get some much-needed sleep in his own bed for the first time in 10 months. According to Bev, he was " ... overwhelmed ..." and " ... as happy as can be."

Charl will eventually complete his log (record of the voyage), and it can be seen on his website: www.silentvoyager.com.

Charl de Villiers was born in 1960 in South Africa, growing up around East London. At seven, he was severely burned in an accident. During the process of recovery, he had a reaction to antibiotic medication meant to keep him alive; as a result, he lost almost all of his hearing. Eventually he was able to go to a special school where he learned lipreading in Afrikaans, South Africa’s language. (After coming to the United States, he learned to lipread in English, too, even though he had never heard our language before.)

His grandmother, Agnes de Villiers, who had been a teacher and also a city official, helped him with lessons. At age 14, Charl told a friend he would "someday sail around the world."

Charl is what many would call "an adventurous person." He has made more than 1,500 skydives and is in the "Guinness Book of Records" as part of a deaf skydiving team: he and 13 others in 2003 took part in a mass parachute jump. Charl was also active in rugby. In his youth, he was a farmer on the isolated northern border of South Africa.

Charl and his family moved to the United States in 1991 and settled in Texas. He worked for a plastics company for a while but resigned to get his boat ready. He purchased it in September, 2003 for his around-the-world trip.

Charl spent two months doing repairs part time, then spent four months working full time to get it ready for sea. His experience with welding helped him "cut corners" while making the "Island Time" seaworthy. To finance his dream voyage, he saved for many years. He also got donations from friends and relatives.

Some of the repairs that had to be done: engine needed to be overhauled; hull blisters had to be filled in; chain plates holding cables securing the masts needed to be replaced. He also had to add some essential personal features. Some of them were:

(1) An Emergency Personnel Indicator Rescue Beacon–when activated it tells rescuers who and where he is. (Thankfully, it was not needed.)

(2) A Global Positioning System shows his location within 10 feet. Charl regularly sent his coordinates back home where they were posted on his website. With this information, it was possible to track his progress as he made his way around the world.

(3) A Weather Fax gives information about weather systems up to 4,000 miles away.

(4) Radar shows obstacles like land and ships so Charl could avoid them. To compensate for his hearing loss, a strobe light and a vibrating bracelet worn on his wrist would be connected to be sure he is aware of messages.

(5) Flashing lights were used in place of audible alarms for overheating engine, water in the bilge, or nearby vessels that might be dangerously close.

(6) A satellite cell phone (gift from a sponsoring South African telephone company) was a necessity for communication.

One part of the boat was set aside as a storage room for canned food and other non-perishable items. Falling rain was caught in sails to augment his water supply.


Here is a very brief summary of Charl’s itinerary–start to finish--on his record-setting voyage:

(1) In March he departed from Palacios on the southern coast of Texas and headed across the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea directly to Panama. He traveled through the Panama Canal, crossing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

(2) Then he sailed across the Pacific following trade winds to American Samoa. He stopped in Pago Pago for provisions. One night his boat was invaded by burglars who stole a number of important items of equipment. Some were recovered by the police, and $500 was donated by a resident to help him replace the others.

(3) From there he sailed west through the Torres Straits and across northern Australia. He stopped at Darwin for supplies.

(4) Next he headed south and west across the Indian Ocean for Capetown in South Africa. A damaged rudder forced an unscheduled stop for repairs at Durban, South Africa on the Pacific coast. Two of his brothers, Francois and Christo, were there to see him.

(5) Then he sailed around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic Ocean, finally reaching Capetown. He stocked up on suplies and also met with his father and other family members.

(6) From there Charl proceeded north and west across the Atlantic to enter the Caribbean Sea near Trinidad, on to the Gulf of Mexico, and finally back to his starting point: Palacios.

Here are just a few stories from Charl’s epic journey:

He celebrated his 44th birthday in November while at sea. Instead of a cake, he had a fresh slice of bread!

At various times during his trip, Charl was accompanied by an albatross, a pod of dolphins, and a number of flying fish which jumped onto the "Island Time’s" deck.

He had a close call when a freighter, headed directly for him, was warned off at the last minute.

About his son, Charl’s father had this to say: "He is proving deaf people aren’t stupid, and they can do anything. I am so proud of him."

Charl himself said: "I want to show all the deaf people that, if you want to do something and you have the driving force, it’s possible."

There’s no doubt at all that Charl has that "driving force!"


© Stan Griffin, 2004

SOURCES

SILENT VOYAGER: WEBSITE

"A New T37 Circumnavigation: The Silent Voyager, A Profile," Sharon Ragle, Feb., 2004, MINDSPRING.COM

"Local Burglary of Deaf Sailor’s Yacht Makes National Headlines," Fili Sagapolutele, May 2004, SAMOA NEWS, MANUAATELE.NET

"Charl Puts Into Durban and Repairs Rudder," Lew Elias, Sept. 13, 2004, DISPATCH ONLINE, SOUTH AFRICA

"Deaf Sailor On Solo Journey Around the World," Xoliswa Zulu, Sept. 15, 2004, INDEPENDENT ONLINE, SOUTH AFRICA

"Deaf Man On Bid to Sail Around the Globe," Sept. 16, 2004, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL

"A Silent, Groundbreaking Voyage," Brad Morgan, Sept. 27, 2004, SOUTH AFRICA INFO

"Deaf Man in Solo Circumnavigation," Staff Writer, Sept. 29,. 2004, CAPE TIMES (Capetown, South Africa)

"S. A. - Born Sailor in Single-Handed R T W Adventure," Sept. 30, 2004, STEERAGE MARINE.COM

"Deaf Sailor Makes His Way Back Home," Randy Reese, Dec. 9, 2004, MATAGORDO COUNTY ADVOCATE (Texas)

"Deaf Yachtsman Completes World Trip," Lew Elias, Dec. 22, 2004, USA-L NEWS