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Tuesday * December 21, 2004

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'Silent Voyager' Charl de Villiers
Nears End of Historic Journey

By Sharon Langton Ragle

While the rest of the America is stringing Christmas lights, Charl de Villiers, 44, is sweltering in the southern Caribbean. But he is only a couple thousand miles away from sailing into the record books after a grueling and lonely 10-month journey.

When he arrives back at his berth at the Serendipity Resort and Marina here in Palacios between 1-2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 19, he will be the first deaf person in history to sail solo around the world.

He has left St. Lucia in the Windward Island chain of the Caribbean. Sailing the Island Time, a 1977 Tartan 37, he is now heading straight for home.

Charl had set sail from Palacios on March 6 with a plan to follow the trade wind route across the Pacific Ocean, over the top of Australia, and then southwest to the Cape of Good Hope. From there he would sail northwest across the Atlantic Ocean to reach the Caribbean Sea, then continue to the Yucatan Channel and into the Gulf of Mexico and back to Palacios.

A hero's welcome is definitely in order.

A big homecoming is planned for Charl when he sails back into Palacios. His wife, Beverly, is posting updates on his website www.silentvoyager.com and she hopes the people of Palacios will turn out in record numbers to greet him -- befitting the world record he will set when he ties up to the dock at Serendipity Resort and Marina. You can also possibly watch Charl return to port via Day On The Bay Services' webcam at Serendipity by clicking HERE.

"Charl has great perseverance and tenacity. He is extremely resourceful," said Beverly. "Because he is challenged in the communication arena, he is often regarded as less able than most. His solo circumnavigation will show the world that even those with disabilities can fulfill their dreams."

Dennis and Truda Ward, who run the Serendipity RV resort and adjacent marina, are keen to have Charl back. When asked if there would be a berth available for Charl, Truda said, "There will always be a place at the dock for Charl and Island Time, we will make sure of that."

A PROUD FAMILY
Usually in endeavors such as this, the challengers have many sponsors -- companies to provide them with sails, electronics, survival gear and communications equipment. Charl had only one sponsor -- Vodocom, a South African communications company. They provided funds for a satellite phone. Beyond that, the entire journey was funded with their life savings and donations from friends and family.

Beverly has also had t-shirts made (they are available at www.silentvoyager.com) to help defray costs.

It has been a tumultuous year for the de Villiers family. Shortly after Charl sailed from the dock here in Palacios, his father-in-law, Tommy Bryant, became ill and died. Beverly, a beautiful and spirited women in her own right, has had to keep the home and family together and try to find the resources, emotional and financial, to support his journey.

His children have rallied to help their mother while their dad is on this grand adventure. Sharleen, 19, is a sophomore at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi. She is understandably proud of her father's accomplishments.

"My dad is just awesome, I am so proud of him," she said. "Imagine being deaf and alone in the dark out at sea. How scary that must be. People need to sit up and pay attention. Give people with disabilities a chance. Don't always presume they can't do it. My dad has proved they can."

Gideon, 17, is a senior at Industrial High in Vanderbilt. He will be glad to see his father home again. "My dad has incredible courage. He skydives, plays rugby and is even a registered Texas Rugby Referee," Gideon said. "Yes, he is deaf, but it makes no difference, he can do everything a hearing person can do."


CONQUERING CHALLENGES
Charl de Villiers was not always deaf. But when he was eight years old, there was a terrible accident with a barbeque and lighter fluid at his home in Cape Town. He was severely burned over much of his body and whether he would even live was in doubt for almost a year. The massive doses of antibiotics the doctors gave him to save his life destroyed his hearing and he became profoundly deaf by age 10. He then attended a special school to learn to lip read along with his academic courses and eventually went to a regular high school to finish his education.

It is perhaps this adversity and the strong will to live and thrive that has given de Villiers the always-present desire to push his limits to see just what he can do. And it is a lot, more than most hearing people ever dream of.

He started his adult life as a farmer on the northern border of South Africa in the time of the "insurgency", or the war with guerillas crossing the border from Zimbabwe, killing farmers and workers alike. He carried a gun in one hand and a plow in the other, and managed to keep his wife, Beverly, and two young children, Sharleen and Gideon, safe.

When he and his young family immigrated to this area, they joined Beverly's father and mother, Tommy and Joy Bryant. Charl worked at Formosa Plastics for over 10 years.

He lip reads and speaks two languages, Afrikaans and English. He has never heard English spoken, for his childhood language was Afrikaans. However, since he moved here in 1993, he has learned to lip read and speak it with only a slight accent -- an incredible accomplishment.

With his need to be physically active, he day-sailed in Matagorda Bay and also played rugby -- one of the world's roughest sports -- with a local team, the Victoria Kronks and also with the Kwaggas, an all South Africa team. An avid skydiver with over 1500 jumps, de Villiers was a member of a world record setting deaf skydiving team. Now he is poised to set one more record.

SAILING SOLO AROUND THE WORLD
Many people sail around the world, and many sail alone. But never before has a deaf person attempted it, and the challenges were tremendous. First there was the issue of whether the Coast Guard would even let him sail in U.S. waters without a hearing person aboard. In a case in California, the Coast Guard cited a deaf man who sailed alone and ruled the deaf must have a hearing person with them. This ruling was challenged and quickly thrown out without ever going to court.

Charl breathed a sigh of relief.

His idea was to make only three stops -- Panama to transit the canal, Darwin Australia, and Cape Town, in his native country of South Africa. But breakdowns forced him to stop at five more ports before reaching Cape Town. He also stopped at St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean for rest and because he just wanted to see it (the only way to reach this small island, the exile home of Napoleon, is by boat).

Now, after putting in to St. Lucia for a short rest and fresh food and water, he is homeward bound.

Hearing is a big part of the routine of ocean sailing -- listening to the radio for weather and for companionship, calling other ships in the area or authorities on land before entering port. All these are denied Charl since he cannot hear. His computer and satellite phone, allowing him to send e-mail, became a critical part of his sailing gear.

He cannot hear the sounds his boat makes or system alarms that go off alerting a hearing sailor to danger. His other senses must make up for that and he is supersensitive to vibrations and the motion of the boat.

Besides dealing with the normal wear and tear on equipment, he was robbed in Pago Pago, American Samoa. The culprits, taking advantage of his deafness and extreme fatigue after 14 days at sea, broke into the boat and stole his computer, survival gear, cameras, food and clothing. He was fortunate to get much of it back, but not all and he went barefoot from there to Darwin, Australia, because he couldn't find shoes that fit in Pago Pago!

But perhaps the weather has always been his greatest challenge -- as it is with all circumnavigators. He found the Pacific Ocean much rougher than he expected. Pacific means calm, and it was anything but calm except on rare occasions. In the southern Indian Ocean and rounding the Cape of Good Hope he was pounded by gale after gale, with winds up to 50 knots and seas in some places 40 feet, a result of wind against current.

In a storm near Madagasgar, he lost part of his wind-steering unit, which steered the boat while Charl rested. For many days he had to hand steer in ferocious seas. At the same time his computer died. He was usually able to warm the computer in the engine room to make it work when the salt water and air got too much for it. But this time it was gone for good and the only way to communicate was short, terse position reports on his satellite phone to let people back home and around the world know he was alive and still fighting to make safe harbor.

SOUTH AFRICA HOMECOMING
At that point, the closest port was Durban, on the east coast of South Africa. As he closed the coast, the wind graciously mellowed enough for him to motor through the very narrow channel and tie up to the International Dock. From Durban he made his way around the southern tip of Africa to Cape Town, stopping several times to sit out the vicious cold fronts that blow from the west, around the Cape and up the east coast. When these southwest winds smash into the south setting current they sometimes create the most dangerous waves on earth.

He was greeted in South Africa as a hero, a native son who had achieved so much in his sailing quest. His wife, Beverly, and mother-in-law Joy, both also from South Africa, flew over to see him and participate in the welcome his native country gave him.

Once docked at the Royal Cape Yacht Club in Cape Town, he visited his old alma mater, the Mary Kihn School, where he got his early education, including lip reading. There, he gave the students of today a lecture about his journey and also an inspirational message -- "Just because you cannot hear," he told them, "You are still capable, intelligent people who can accomplish as much as you can dream of."

"Charl has a drive to succeed in whatever he does. It is important to him to show the world that just because he is deaf it does not mean he is stupid," his mother-in-law, Joy, remarked. "I admire his courage and what he has achieved for himself and the deaf community at large."


Freelance writer Sharon Langton Ragle and her husband, Dave, sailed to Palacios last year. Like many, they found a town they just couldn't sail away from and have become permanent residents. She is the author of "The Oceans are Waiting --Around the World on the Yacht Tigger" - published by Sheridan House.
Click here for article at the outset of Charl's journey.
Click here for article on Charl's return to Palacios.
Click here for pictures of Charl's return to Palacios.
 

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