Around alone No. 8 finally near end for sailor, 76

by Eric L. Due

Aloha hey. Seven-time solo sailing circumnavigator Minoru Saito, 76, is poised to reach Honolulu to pick up some heart meds, provisions, get a quick fix and a trim before departing on the homestretch to Yokohama to complete his eighth, and arguably most arduous, ordeal yet.

Saito, who already holds the Guinness record for being the oldest person to sail nonstop and unassisted around the world, when he was 71, and is on course to set another when he completes his eighth, swan song, rounding, embarked in October 2008 on what was supposed to be a roughly seven-month nonstopper aboard his 17-meter steel sloop, the Nicole BMW Shuten-dohji III.

When he returns, possibly sometime in late-July, he will have been gone more than 22 grueling months.

Only a clutch of single-handers have achieved what Saito, way the oldest, has been trying to accomplish: sailing “wrong-bound” westward against the prevailing winds, waves, currents — a close-hauled never-ending strain on his ship and self.

Saito’s odyssey has been rife with pitfalls from the get-go, requiring him to put in at various ports, from Australia to the Galapagos Islands, for repairs, both to the boat and eventually to himself. Notably, his boat was disabled in two attempts to round Cape Horn. The third time — he was actually carried backward before managing to make way — was a charm.

And whenever he has passed the cape, he has tossed in sake for good luck.

But the delays and repairs exacted a toll, and he was forced to ride out the Southern Hemisphere winter in the crowded, choppy Chilean port of Punta Arenas, some 1,200 km north of the Antarctic ice pack, aboard a boat lacking internal heat, running water, or protection from bobbing vessels moored nearby.

Even his sake, and champagne, supplies took a hit when thieves descended on his boat while he was ashore and helped themselves.

By the time he finally departed for home in February, he had undergone abdominal surgery for a torn muscle, suffered a 30-cm gash in his right forearm from a falling hatch, injured his right hand and broke a dental bridge on a biscuit a wee bit too firm, plus suffered radical weight loss in the mechanical, financial, legal, and physical limbo that defined his Chilean stay and stressed out many of his Japan support team.

Oh, and then there was the time, later, at another, smaller Chilean port, when he was woken up by a tsunami that struck minutes after the massive killer earthquake hit the country in late February, damaging the dock but leaving his steel tub, like a Patton tank with sails, basically intact.

No stranger to adversity, Saito, a 35-year sailor, in past trips has set broken bones while at sea, performed rudimentary self-dentistry, and suffered a mild heart attack after being rolled inverted, taking on water, before another wave righted his sloop.

Besides picking up more medicine, provided by his Japan team, for his dodgy ticker, Saito’s Hawaii supporters have arranged to get him in for a quick physical check. The word so far is that he is in good health, and still has that wacky laugh.

“I need a haircut, and a bath, because I really smell,” Saito told Tokyo support coordinator Hunter Brumfield this week by satellite phone.

He is expected to set sail later this week for home, where he will be welcomed by friends and supporters, some of whom may want to weld him to a dock so he can spend the rest of his nautical days serving as a conversational mooring cleat.