New horizons beckon legendary sailor

by Eric L. Due

This story is part of a package on “Growing old healthily.” The introduction is here

The twilight years. The front-porch swing. The recliner. The remote. Push your gut out. Crack another coldie.

Humanus sedentarius — a species many aspire to become, and prep for, long before retiring.

Or, there’s the Jack LaLanne route. Still going strong today at 90, when the 1960s U.S. TV fitness guru turned 70, he towed, with hands and feet tied and swimming porpoise-style, 70 reporters in 70 little boats around Long Beach harbor in California. That followed on his 60th-birthday spectacular when, handcuffed and shackled, he towed a boatload of press from San Francisco’s Fishermen’s Wharf to Alcatraz Island — a swim no escapee, nor anyone else, had lived to brag about.

Jack’s motto, and his pitch for his signature vegetable processor, is: “Eat ‘em raw, and if the food tastes good, it’s bad for you.”

Here’s a guy who did 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes on TV, and who for decades wooed housewives with his afternoon exercise show, making them run to change channels in guilty panic if their husbands came home.

Of course there’s the Japan image of the grizzled geezer in bucket porkpie, hobbling along some quiet Okinawa lane, getting his daily ration of pickles, rice, fish, miso soup and a tot of shochu spirits. Not going too fast or too slow, just shuffling. Like a clock, he slowly winds down to the last tock.

But then — somewhere between LaLanne and the archetypal Okinawa centenarian — there’s Minoru Saito, 72, who ticks to quite another clock. It surely won’t slowly wind down. Its mainspring will just someday snap, and that’ll be that.

Loath to nibble on nuts and berries, or limit his alcohol intake to just a wee dram, Saito, a seven-time solo sailing circumnavigator, will drink ‘em if he’s got ‘em. He’s little focused on pacing himself, or balancing his intake — especially regarding his sailing addiction, which has exacted a toll on both his aging boat and on him.

“All I want to do is get back to the sea. The ocean is where I want to be,” Saito said one recent Saturday, holding court at a dockside barbecue as cronies and a ragtag batch of “experts” took time out from efforts to put his boat, the Shuten-dohji II (Drunkard’s Child II), right again after a recent setback.

“I have no life on land,” he added, popping a fried garlic clove into his mouth and chasing it with a chicken wing, the ice in his shochu tinkling.

Last year, Saito made history when he became the oldest person to sail alone, nonstop and unassisted, around the world. En route he turned 71 near Cape Horn, that infamous rock where South America ends, and where countless sailors’ lives have, too, though Saito has rounded it many a time.

The unexpected happened

Saito sailed back to Japan in June 2005 after his 234-day run, uncorked some bubbly, took a breather, lopped a scraggly goatee and then set his sights on his next voyage. The plan was to get the boat patched up, then sail Down Under and maybe enter it in the treacherous yearend Sydney to Hobart race.

But in April, the unexpected happened. En route with a couple of pals to Guam, in what could only be deemed moderate winds and swells, the Shuten-dohji II dismasted.

The stresses of seven circumnavigations, countless knockdowns, being rolled 360 degrees in the Southern Ocean, fending off icebergs and being rammed by pirates had finally taken their toll, pushing a mast crack beyond its limits. Towed to Hachijojima in the Izu Islands, some 300 km off the Izu Peninsula south of Tokyo, he later limped, or motored, back to Yokohama.

“It was unbelievable. I was on the radio down below with the Yokohama marina when ‘Boom!’ I ran on deck and saw the mast doubled-over, dug into the sea. It was my first dismasting,” he said with a riotous laugh, spearing a slab of pork.

Saito had intended to take his boat down to Guam, a milk run for him, to get it re-U.S.-registered. Now he plans to try again in November, after the typhoon season. Before that, he has a rather full agenda, starting with being inducted in Newport, R.I., into the Solo Sailor Hall of Fame; then more awards in Japan; then off to Balboa, Spain, for the October sendoff of yachts in the next solo round-the-world race, now called the Seven Oceans Challenge. Saito completed three of its predecessor races, all after turning 50, which is also when he started sailing. Later, he plans to rejoin his boat on Guam and take it south, to Tonga, Fiji and other isles.

“If I could find a sponsor and a boat, I’d join the next solo race,” Saito said, as his shochu was refreshed. And that’s the thing about this man: He only has two speeds; his usual trot, and one a notch faster.

Where other seniors may tend a garden, or tech-savvy ones play with a computer, Saito is all about working with his hands, cutting, drilling, hauling, beer breaks, then more of same, trying to put the confusion of his parts-strewn boat, a junk heap of widgets, wires, lines (and roaches), right.

“Look at this!” he announces as he holds up two pieces of sawed-off, twisted aluminum mast where the break occurred. His old mast, now splinted, awaits being restepped to the keel. But then Saito’s keen gray eyes find another stress crack . . .

And as if exercise were needed, Saito also takes workout walks, stretches, does isometrics and handgrips. Like Jack LaLanne, he, too, sports Popeye forearms and veins that pop out of his neck as he laughs.

Vial of nitroglycerin

But he has one vein that’s a problem. Drawing a sketch of his heart, he figures he may have an aneurysm in an artery, but he refuses to have it stinted. He’s also had a bum ticker for years, and suffered more than one heart attack, including when he got rolled off Cape Horn.

“I knew someone who had that operation. He was much younger than me, but he died two weeks later, anyway,” Saito said, flashing his handy vial of nitroglycerin. “If I had the operation, I’d have to visit a doctor regularly. How could I sail long distances?”

Would he someday settle down in Japan? Been there, done that. He says he really didn’t start to live life until after he sold the gas station he ran in Tokyo and got a divorce, both in the early 1980s. He has since sold his Tokyo condo, and now hangs with friends when in town, or on his boat, or wherever.

“People here have too much money,” the nonstop sponsor-seeker said, setting down a half-eaten ear of fried corn. “They have so much, that’s all they think about, and just want more. Not me. No thank-you.”

If he can’t race, Saito will just keep cruising as long as he can. He’s more at home at sea, where sleep comes in catnaps and the platform never stops moving. There’s no school of harder knocks, as his scars testify. Somedays the sea is a slow waltz, others it’s a giant lambada, and you’re in the way.

“I want to go to the Mediterranean, and then maybe the Black Sea, although I heard that area is dangerous. I’d also like to cruise the Baltic. But I would need a steel boat,” he said, his gray eyes zeroing in on a fried shrimp, his metabolism like a gerbil’s, or Pac-Man.

Always angling for any way to get away, offshore.

“When I die, I hope I’m at sea. I don’t want to die on land and be buried,” Saito declares. “I’ll just go to the bottom and the crabs can feed on me.”

At which a pal piped in: “Are you kidding? They’ll find you too tough. They don’t want gristle!”

Then again, that laugh.

For other stories in our “Growing old healthily” package, please click the following links:

No mountain too high for oldest man ever to scale Everest By Eric Prideaux
Gran, 71, leaves world in her wake By Tomoko Otake