Saito set for eighth solo around

Circumnavigation legend looks to renew own nonstop age feat

by Eric L. Due

Plan A: Sail dead south from Yokohama, turn right past Tasmania, duck under Australia, skirt the Cape of Good Hope, pound farther south, keep the hairy Cape Horn just off to the right, then turn right again and beat a rhumb line northwest back home — all without stopping and alone.

To do this once takes religious commitment. To log it as one’s eighth solo circumnavigation takes a man possessed.

Figure on a 200-day (seven-month) trip, give or take. Store plenty of food, water, grog, meds, fuel, batteries, enough for at least a two-month reserve, plus tools, a life raft, an emergency radio beacon or two, and for the dodgy ticker, nitroglycerin. And pray for luck — because there is no Plan B.

Asked what he would do if faced with the ultimate fate, he shrugs, and gives a mock farewell salute to Davy Jones’s locker, whose door is always ajar.

Knockdowns, rollovers, mountainous seas, sail-shredding spray, Minoru Saito, 74, has been there, done that, but always eastward, generally with the prevailing winds and seas. The last time, when he returned in June 2005 at age 71, he finished his seventh solo circumnavigation and set a Guinness World Records age feat to boot, being the oldest to do it nonstop and unassisted.

This time he’ll be going wrong-bound, no easy downhill running, probably just shy of 50,000 km, all told.

“I’m leaving on Sept. 28,” Saito said recently dockside in Yokohama. “The 29th is a new moon, so I’ll probably quickly find a typhoon. If it’s near the Ogasawaras, it shouldn’t be too bad. I’ve been in three in that area. Winds usually never more than 50 knots.”

Why do this? Even though Saito has surmounted challenges as formidable in their own right as Everest was to Hillary, can he say merely it’s because the sea is there?

“I want to set another age record going westbound,” Saito cackled in the cabin of his latest project, a bead of summer sweat rolling down his temple from under his cap as another slides down the side of his mug of draft. Ashore, he never rests until he’s under way again. No camera-clutching, day-hiking, porkpie-sporting retiree he.

This time around Saito is leaving his trusty, sleek but scuffed-up 50-foot fiberglass dagger-board sloop Shuten-dohji II (Drunkard’s child) safe in port. It took him around seven times, never easily, but surely. Sometimes it leaked, profusely. Ice even formed on the cabin floor in the berg-strewn Southern Ocean.

Almost always the engine, electronics and about every other key component packed it in, oft early on in voyages, which would have caused the heartiest, and most cautious, to retire. Never Saito. Small in stature, perhaps, but the constant mariner, with eyebrows growing off the chart, is no pipsqueak. He’s performed self-dentristy a-sea, and set, as best he could, a busted finger during a solo around race, just to keep at it. The digit points around corners now.

But even with the Shuten-dohji II’s recently dismasted mast resplinted and rigging standing firm, he felt he needed a craft more hearty for the westbound task. He needed steel.

Enter the 56-foot Nicole BMW Shuten-dohji III, the nautical equivalent of a Sherman tank. Agewise, it’s late 1980s, like the Shuten-dohji II. Battle-scarred like a cavalry mount, it looks like it’s been rode hard. Designwise, the 23-tonner looks ad hoc.

“Even if I hit something, it’s OK.”

It’s Saito’s hope, as well as that of his benefactors, helpers and well-wishers, that the sum of its myriad parts, many still loose and cluttered about the cabins, deck and cockpit, will add up to a can-do whole.

With just days before departure, Saito’s controlled chaos looks like it would be more at home in a Hong Kong typhoon shelter rafted onto junks and sampans than climbing 50-foot seas down around 50 degrees South.

“There’s many things to do,” Saito admitted. “It has two toilets. Two! And they’re both electric-flush. I need manual. And the galley drain empties into the bilge, not into the ocean. It’s a very heavy boat.” A floating boxcar.

No one who knows Saito would deny he has a stubborn streak. When sailing, that has served him in good stead. But when he and his committee bought the steel project in Honolulu, he was adamant: It had to be sailed to New Zealand for a proper new mast, rigging and sails. Just getting there was a challenge, when he blew out his genoa near Pago Pago, then burned up the boat’s old truck engine near Auckland. Slow going.

Restrung, new engine, he then had to get it to Yokohama to start his historic trip, which he hopes to complete before the end of next May, and be back in port to help fete the city’s 150th year of opening to the outside world. He learned about the busted galley pipe returning from Auckland, when seawater poured in the hole in a gale and he had to bucket it over the side for endless hours.

“The pump didn’t work.” Fortitude is not his short suit.

What’s not put right by departure time Saito will putter with on the brine, where he’s best suited. Things may freeze up, shut down or otherwise go haywire. Long-distance voyages are always wars of mechanical attrition.

And he’ll be growing sprouts from cultures for veggies, and may have to squeegee morning dew from the steel deck for drinking water. Never spoil him with comfort.

A sendoff gala is slated for Saito on Friday at Yokohama’s trendy Tycoon restaurant and is open to anyone wanting to meet, and help support, a true Japanese hero, and, well, also have all you can drink and eat — and there’ll be samba dancers. Other notables of the sailing community, plus sponsors, including Nicole BMW, and helpers from the Tokyo Sail & Power Squadron, will be among the schmoozers.

The party lottery’s grand prize: A seven-day charter cruise in Thailand.

After departure, armchair sailors can access Saito’s Web site to monitor his daily progress, with anecdotal commentary — assuming nothing on board short-circuits.

Of course if that happens, don’t lose hope. Just hang around Yokohama port say starting around late April. He’s been incommunicado before. His ship will surely come in, with him muttering about another ploy to ship ahoy.