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Minoru Saito, 77, nears finish of his 3-year, 28,500-mile ‘wrong way’ voyage

17 September 2011 No Comment

Supporters and well-wishers will greet the legendary Japanese sailor Minoru Saito as he returns Saturday to Yokohama. He’s finishing his record 8th solo circumnavigation, this time the “wrong way” – against the spin of the Earth, and contrary to nature in ways that even the 77-year-old Saito could ever anticipate. His 56-foot sailboat, Nicole BMW Shuten-dohji III, has put more than 28,500 miles (53,000 kilometers) under her keel in a drama-filled voyage that started 1,080 days earlier.

He meant to finish in about a quarter of that time, telling supporters before he left Yokohama in October 2008 that he hoped to make his fastest circumnavigation ever, in “about 287 days.” His sailboat acquired for the trip is steel-hulled, longer at the waterline thus potentially faster, and well outfitted for the journey against the spin of the planet and thus against prevailing winds, weather, currents, and even Southern Ocean icebergs. Plus he had done it the other way seven times before in his 35-year sailing career and knew what was ahead of him.

Everything went well enough until he reached Cape Horn. He made his fifth solo rounding of “The Horn” on a morning so gentle it seemed more like a day-sail in Tokyo Bay – until the weather broke and he was pushed backward by a fierce 3-day gale. He found that he had no steering and no use of the propeller, caused by a trailing halyard that had washed overboard at midnight in 50-kt winds and 9-meter seas. Faced with certain destruction, Saito was able to cajole a tow from a ship captain who had been dispatched by the Chilean Coast Guard to take him off and leave Nicole BMW Shuten-dohji III to founder.

The epic story continues from there, as he over-wintered in frigid southern Chile, undergoing an emergency operation for a hernia, later narrowly missing an earthquake in Chile, then a year later an even more destructive earthquake in far-off Japan that sent waves washing into the Honolulu marina where his boat was undergoing repairs. While in Hawaii a motorist absent-mindedly turned as Saito used a pedestrian crosswalk, sending him back into an operating room for repairs to an injured knee. Police judged the motorist at fault.

Finally able to depart Hawaii in May, he crossed the Pacific to the Japanese island of Chichijima, where more repairs were done. He waited out four passing typhoons, and then a fifth typhoon directly hit the island. That one, named Talas, forced him to spend a solid week on board making sure his lines stayed safely secured to a big-ship mooring far out into the harbor. Even Coast Guardsmen staffing a station on the island were impressed by his fearless dedication witnessed through binoculars from shore. “He’s the talk of the island, and many of the fishermen here are concerned about him,” a senior officer told Saito’s shore crew in Tokyo.

Saito will be 77 years, 8 months, and 10 days old when he returns on Saturday, completing a voyage that promises to secure his standing as the world’s oldest and most-accomplished single-handed circumnavigator. He’ll be able to claim circumnavigation records for most (8), oldest (77), and oldest to complete a westward “contrary” route. He already holds the Guinness Book world record as the oldest sailor at age 71 to complete a non-stop, unassisted solo rounding of the globe.

Fittingly, he returns on a three-day holiday weekend set aside for honoring the elderly of Japan.

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