A Canadian ex-executive who once served as dean and president of Temple University Japan is getting closer to making history — as probably the first foreigner to sail solo around Japan.
Kirk Patterson, 61, has been trying to circumnavigate Japan on his sailboat since arriving in Hakodate from his hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, in June 2013.
Using an autopilot and relying almost entirely on wind and solar power, Patterson has already completed almost 90 percent of the 11,800-km route, sailing beyond the farthest points of Japan — northernmost Soya Cape in Hokkaido, easternmost Nosappu Cape, also in Hokkaido, the westernmost point of Yonaguni Island in Okinawa and the southernmost point of Hateruma Island, also in Okinawa.
After sailing along the Sea of Japan coast from Hakodate all the way down to Fukuoka and then to Okinawa, he has traveled back north along the Pacific Coast, passing along Kyushu and Shikoku. He has stopped at around 120 ports, many of them tiny fishing piers unfamiliar to most travelers, meeting and befriending countless numbers of locals along the way.
Patterson says he had long dreamed of sailing across the ocean, but being a typical white-collar executive he never had the chance, apart from taking a couple of one-week sailing courses in Canada 15 years ago. But in 2008, he finally set his mind to it, and quit the Temple Japan post, which he served for six years.
Before that, he was an executive for the Japan subsidiary of the insurance giant AIG for seven years after an earlier four-year stint as the Japan president of the global PR firm Gavin Anderson.
“I’ve always wanted to sail,” Patterson, tanned and dressed in a polo shirt, said earlier this month, sipping tea on the deck of his boat, currently moored at Yumenoshima Marina in Koto Ward, Tokyo. “It’s otoko no roman (the romantic adventure of a man). I’d never sailed. I subscribed to six sailing magazines and read them in Starbucks in Azabu-juban.”
Patterson says he initially planned to sail to Tahiti, Fiji or New Zealand, but changed his mind after hearing from someone at one of many farewell parties hosted at the time of his departure from Temple that no foreigners had ever circumnavigated Japan. “There are not many things in the world nobody has done. So I set that up as a goal,” he recalls.
Upon going back to Canada he bought a secondhand boat for 135,000 Canadian dollars (¥13.57 million). The Silk Purse — a name Patterson inherited from the boat’s previous owner — has a spacious cabin, with settee, galley, quarter berths, head, refrigerator and lots of storage space — even a locker for suits.
After buying the boat he gained sailing know-how by poring over “Sailing for Dummies” and other books for rookie sailors. His ocean experience came from repeating short trips around Vancouver Island and then gradually venturing offshore, before embarking on a trans-Pacific voyage bound for Japan in April 2012.
When the weather is good, he can spend 90 percent of his time relaxing in the cabin, resting and sleeping, he says. He doesn’t have to steer the boat manually because the autopilot and wind vane can control the direction of the boat.
“People think that it’s dangerous and tough, and it is in a way. But if the weather is OK and the boat is OK, (it’s not).”
But the ocean has its own temperament and he has had his share of rough seas. The first test of his determination came before he reached Japan.
His initial plan was to go first down the Oregon Coast before heading for Hawaii. But before reaching Oregon he was hit by a storm. The boat was damaged and Patterson hurt his left eye when he lost control of a line on the side of the boat while trying to change direction.
“There was a 20-meter wind and quite a big wave, and it was at night,” he recalls. “So that rope came loose like a huge snake going shuuuuuh! It broke many things on the boat in just 30 seconds. Then it wrapped around a little post. I had to go forward and unleash it. And just then it hit me in the face.”
Left with temporary loss of vision and a huge bruise, he docked at Oregon port for boat repairs and a trip to the doctor, delaying his schedule by about a week.
By the time he reached Hawaii some 20 days later, the typhoon season had started in Japan, so he waited until the following spring to resume the trip. During the subsequent 11 months on Oahu, to keep him occupied and pay the bills, he enrolled in a bartending school and became a bartender. He also became a wedding minister, legally marrying couples in Hawaii. His Japanese-language ability helped as many Japanese couples get married there. His corporate experience, meanwhile, came in handy in hospitality, he said.
“Because of my age and background I could talk to corporate people,” he said. “Companies liked me, because young bartenders usually can’t hold a conversation. They don’t know anything about business, and they are not as reliable. I don’t show up with a hangover, I come on schedule, so I got a reputation.”
All this time, he lived on the boat in a local marina.
On May 3, 2013, he left Hawaii, and arrived in Hakodate on June 10. But right before arriving in Hakodate, while he was crossing the Pacific, his autopilot, then the wind vane broke down just as a big storm was approaching. Being a solo sailor he had to be at the helm the whole time, without rest. After two days he started hallucinating, he recalls.
“At one point I saw a Canadian friend and a Japanese friend arguing with each other in my brain. I was seeing mountains and trees.”
As he approached the Tsugaru Strait between Hokkaido and Honshu, a thick fog formed, and he saw hundreds of freighters plying the strait.
“I felt like a rat crossing a highway. I felt like I was going to get run over. I started blacking out and my boat was going in circles.”
He called the Aomori chapter of the Japan Coast Guard and was rescued and taken to a local hospital. His official port of entry, however, is Hakodate, where he completed initial immigration and customs papers.
Patterson says he has never felt lonely sailing alone because he meets scores of interesting people at various ports of call. The locals have been exceptionally nice, he says, exhibiting the true spirit of omotenashi hospitality by offering him food and baths.
But at the same time, he has witnessed firsthand how rural communities in Japan are disappearing, with many countryside towns now left with empty houses, where trees are growing through the roofs and vines are taking over. Such sights not only sadden him, but anger him. People in Tokyo and other big cities have turned a blind eye to the realities of depopulation, Patterson says.
“I’m almost angry at Tokyo people. They are spending money, drinking champagne and driving to parties in Roppongi. While they are doing this, the entire country is collapsing.”
Now that he is only about a month away from fulfilling his dream, he is thinking of the future. He plans to write four books based on his adventure, including an academic book about Japan and the sea, a book on the voyage itself and a cruising guide to Japan. His fourth book will be about life in Suo Oshima Island in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where he plans to move after making many friends when he stopped at the Seto Inland Sea island of 18,000 people last September.
“There’s no marina in Suo Oshima (to moor my boat), but they said, ‘jaa tsukutte ageyo (We’ll build you one),’ ” he said. “Most of the islands are dying, but Suo Oshima is larger and has lots of genki (spirited) people.”