Sailing Blind

One of the great things about having a blog is I can publish whatever I want, including items that I can’t find the right outlet for. Right now I’m sitting on a couple of those stories. My favorite one is about a great man named John Erickson. Erickson is someone who should be an inspiration to all of us. He’s legally blind, but that’s never seemed to stop him from doing anything–including sailing.

Last year I had the privilege of meeting John’s wonderful family and then riding in a Sunfish with him on Lake Michigan. With the guidance of a talking GPS, he’s able to navigate on his own, sailing independently among the waves. We must have spent close to an hour out on the water, just talking and sailing. John doesn’t know it, but I’m actually prone to seasickness and could feel myself teetering on the brink of nausea. I was actually kind of relieved that he couldn’t see how green my face was getting as the waves tossed us around.

The story I wrote (below) was scheduled to run last year in Time Out Chicago, and then there was a scheduling oversight and, all of a sudden, it was fall and no one in their right mind was spending time on the chilly lake. I’d like the story to finally get the attention that it, and John, deserves, so I’m taking this chance to run it now.

The Invisible Wind

Blind sailing: How one phrase (and a talking GPS) changed the life of John Erickson

By Kate Silver

“No one can see the wind,” says John Erickson, 54, as he threads a rope through the boom of a blue Sunfish on the Benton Harbor shore of Lake Michigan.

The phrase has become a slogan for John, a registered investment advisor with the Kovitz Investment Group, who lives in River Forest. Since his teens he’s been blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. That hasn’t kept him from becoming an avid sailor, thanks to technology—namely, a talking GPS called the Trekker Breeze, which he discovered last fall.

The device, which hit the market in 2008, is something that is frequently used by the visually impaired to get around land (although it poses challenges in Chicago, where buildings throw off the satellite signals). Less often, it’s used by visually impaired people, like John, to get around the lake.

It was his father, Hubbard Erickson, who first summed up the wind’s invisibility so aptly, giving John his catchphrase. “No one can see the wind.” Hubbard had bought a Sunfish for John and his twin brother, Pete, when the two were 12. The family had a beach cottage that they traveled to on weekends, and the water had always been a shared passion for boys. By 16, fluid build-up in his brain caused John to lose his vision. He all but gave up on the idea of sailing. Not Hub. “You’re really not disadvantaged, because no one can see the wind anyhow,” he said. For decades after that, John continued sailing with others. Now, he can finally do it on his own.

On a warm day on the lake in late summer, John turns on the Trekker Breeze. A confident, baritone-of-a-woman’s voice broadcasts from the walk-talkie-looking device: “Select a landmark or destination,” it says, and lists the following: “Jewel River Forest,” “Dunkin Donuts,” “Cottage,” and finally “Michigan Beach.”

It’s the last one that he wants to hear. He selects it and then pushes the boat into the waves. Once it’s deep enough, he effortlessly hops in, mindlessly controlling the sail. As the boat sails with the wind, the GPS will tell him where everything is in reference to the beach where his family’s property. “150 feet, 6’oclock,” it says. Then, “300 feet, 6 o’clock.”

As he sails, that phrase still hangs in the air. “No one can see the wind.”  It’s become a metaphor for so much more to John. Those words led him to explore an organization called the American Blind Skiing Foundation when he was in high school. Thanks to ABSF, he learned that by following the path of a guide he could actually ski down a mountain. He continued skiing through adulthood, and in recent years has won a gold medal three times in the Nature Valley NASTAR National Championships, held in Winter Park, Colorado.

The words also played in his mind when he learned windsurfing, when he golfed, and when he participated in the Hustle Up the Hancock earlier this year, following behind Pete to climb the 94 floors in 22 minutes.

And those words guide him in and out of the lake, every chance he gets. “When I sail, I feel the beauty of God’s world, and I feel very blessed,” says John. He is completely at ease in his boat, listening to the Trekker and moving the sail accordingly. Though he relies on a white stick to get around the city, out here the GPS is all he needs.

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