Dennis Howard

Dennis Howard is a 62 year old American man, who after suffering from a severe form of Glaucoma, had his right eye removed and lost most of the vision in his left – So what’s he doing now? Preparing to travel solo around the world of course. StyleAble spoke to Dennis as he prepares for the journey of his life…

Dennis Howard on his boatHope you don’t mind me asking, but how did you lose your sight?

I have had high pressures from Glaucoma for many years; in the last five the pressures destroyed the optic nerve of my right eye, and was rapidly closing down my field of vision in my left eye. A wonderful meeting of Dr. David Gritz , now of Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx (New York), resulted in his saving my remaining vision which is approximately 5% of normal.

Going from pretty good vision to being registered blind must have been life changing to say the least, did you find yourself having to adapt in a huge way?

I lived at the time in a Buddhist Monastery (Deer Park, San Diego, one of the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh’s communities of monastics). I feel that the gentleness of the community, the daily meditation practice and the teachings to be mindful all played a substantial role in my adaptation to the loss of sight. I had a period of many small injuries (a couple not so small…) and I trained myself to constantly/subconsciously scan my environment and to then anticipate every next step. Today I still have small inconveniences (I may not notice someone offering to shake hands) but I have adapted to the point that some people who see me regularly are not aware of my impairment.

I know you use a white cane, but what else have you found to be useful. Do you use any kind of assistive technology for example?

I only take a cane in crowded urban environments to “advertise” to others that I have some sight limitations.  I have found many technologies that will assist me in navigating and in avoiding ships at sea. There is a recent offer from an Australian/UK company, DigiBoat, to donate software that will allow me to monitor navigation and other data in speech form; we are working to install and activate this equipment.

Cool, that should help. But can I ask why you are travelling solo; surely it would be easier and maybe safer to go with someone?

I have sailed solo for many years and I am confident that my sight will not prevent me from continuing to do so. Importantly, I am hoping that I can encourage those with limitations by example. Were I part of a crew, the example would be far less compelling and consequently of less support to those in need. I am installing a full range of navigation and safety equipment (within the limits of my budget and the energy capacity of a boat without fossil fuels) that will assist me en route.

I am amazed, you will be all alone, just you and the great blue sea…

Yes, with the important exception of the love of my partner Ella and the wonderful friends I have here and elsewhere in the world. There is no advantage to fearing or not following your dreams if they are at all attainable. Every moment of your life that you surrender to fear is a lost moment that will not be recovered in your lifetime.

How are you mentally and physically preparing for your trip?

I continue my daily study of Buddhist practice and meditation and spend some time envisioning and preparing for the mental difficulties. I work daily on my boat and am entering an exercise program. I am actually continuing with the diet program started before I was in the monastery. I am also learning about healthy practices by studying “Forever Young”, a recently published book authored by my great friend and partner Ms. Ella Croney.

What are the 5 most important possessions that you are bringing along with you?

Outside of boating and navigational items, I will bring my spiritual reading supply, my guitar and mandolin, pictures of loved ones, writing and recording means, and frankly, COFFEE.

I’m with you on the coffee…So, where exactly are you going?

The trip will take at least a year and a half and perhaps as much as two years depending on the ultimate route and the weather. It is likely that I will see Mexico, Costa Rica, the Marquesas, a portion of the Caribbean, Africa and France. One route will take me past New Zealand to Malaysia and around the Cape of Good Hope. However, I will let the weather and related issues guide the trip in the end. I hope to join my friend Dr. Ava Avalos in Botswana for a month or two to see how I might help with her organisation, the Harvard Medical Hospital for Aids. I am also in conversation with a wonderful foundation in Santa Barbara California, Vitamin Angels. Years ago, before the loss of my sight, I helped with a fundraiser for this group that distributes Vitamin A in underprivileged areas of the world to prevent blindness in children at risk. I hope to be of some form of assistance to this group during my trip.

…Less altruistically, I intend to travel the rivers and canals of Europe for a year or so and then explore the Mediterranean Sea.

Dennis’ grooming tips for sailors:

Water on a small boat is precious and grooming/hygiene are controlled by the availability of fresh water. There are soaps that are made for salt water use that will certainly be on board for my trip.  Since I shave my head as well as face a great supply of high end razorblades are a must. Sun block will be critical and balms to prevent chafe and splitting of hands from sea exposure are surprisingly important, particularly if you are a professional musician. (Super gluing your tissue works to allow you to play when required even with seriously split fingertips).




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