Asia’s honored sailor sets sights on eighth circumnavigation

by Eric L. Due

An angler yanks a fish out of the drink and it flops and flaps on the deck of a boat, pop-eyed, its gills wondering where the water went.

Minoru Saito, 73, is also a fish out of water, spending his time ashore flapping about, up to his gills in chores to make things ready for another solo-sailing feat. He has to give it a name, so this time it’s, well, Challenge 8.

But first things first. Freshly back from New York, where he became the first Asian to be awarded one of the sailing world’s highest and, at 84 years, longest-running honors, the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal, Saito has shed his blazer and is back in jeans, grappling to get his scarred 15-meter sloop Shuten-dohji II (Drunkard’s Child) set for a ride Down Under.

The boat has taken him alone around the world seven times. The last time, Challenge 7, it was a nonstop, unassisted and world age record-setting trip he returned home from in June 2005, after turning 71 at sea. If the school of hard knocks needs a symbol, it’s Saito’s sloop.

“The mast has been splinted and spliced. It’s now shorter,” Saito said of the repair he made after a freak dismasting last year en route to Guam on a shake-down cruise. Plans are to get the boat put right again, then take her south sometime later this year through treacherous atolls to Australia, where she will hopefully get a new mast and take a rest.

From there, Saito’s plans get ambitious. He hopes to depart on Challenge 8 in 2008 and arrive back in Yokohama by June 2009, when the port fetes its 150th year of being open to the West. This time, he plans to go westbound, again nonstop and unassisted — that means no care packages handed over while underway.

All of his past circumnavigations were eastbound, running with the waves and winds, although never avoiding their wrath.

“I’m going to need a bigger boat, a steel boat, maybe 60 or 70 feet,” Saito said. “Westbound in the Southern Ocean means you have to go over the waves, and against the wind. The Shuten-dohji is too small. It can’t handle that.”

And herein lies the rub. Sponsors. Saito is always scraping by with handouts. The Shuten-dohji bears no big-time corporate logos. He’s hoping to scrape together some $300,000 or more to try to snap up one of the former Whitbread Challenge steel 70-footers sitting in limbo in England in a repo deal.

“They’re strong, but they have too many beds!” he said of the formerly multicrewed steel behemoths, cackling. “I just need one.”

But Saito has always had pluck, and, at opportune and otherwise dangerous times, luck. He’s bent on another endurance, age, speed and sailing milestone, and that should be worth something.