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Sailor Shiraishi prepares for prestigious global odyssey

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Sailor Kojiro Shiraishi is in high spirits as he is set to realize his 30-year dream.

Shiraishi will compete in the Vendée Globe, the around-the-world solo yacht race, in November. The 48-year-old will be the first Asian to participate in the once-every-four-years most famous sailing race in the world, which starts and finishes at Les Sables d’Olonne, France.

“The Japanese aren’t familiar with the sport, but think about it, this is the only sport that deals with the whole earth,” Shiraishi said in an ecstatic tone at a Tokyo news conference on Thursday. “A sport game usually lasts for a couple of hours. But we keep competing for 2,000 hours.”

Shiraishi said that he knew there was such a race when he was an apprentice to his sailing mentor, the late Yuko Tada, and ever since he’s always hoped to skipper a yacht in the race.

“It took me 30 years,” Shiraishi said with a smile. “I’ve trained myself all these years, but I can finally take the start line in the race, being the first Asian.”

Shiraishi, a Tokyo native, has always skippered a boat named Spirit of Yukoh, a tribute to his master, in his past races. It will be no different in the 8th Vendée Globe, which will begin on Nov. 6. This time, Shiraishi will steer an 18-meter long yacht, which is usually piloted by about 10 people.

About 27 yachts are expected to compete in this year’s Vendée Globe. After departing from the French port, the skippers will head south to reach the Cape of Good Hope, keep sailing toward the east and pass through the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica before heading north toward the finish line.

The race is expected to take about 80 days from the start. The winners actually took more than 100 days to finish in the first three editions. In the previous Vendée Globe four years ago, a total of 20 competed, with 11 finishing the race.

Shiraishi said that while luck would play a large role in the competition, he would aim for a podium finish. In each of the past seven editions, all the champions were French, and no competitors from countries other than France and Britain have made a top-three finish.

The Vendée Globe draws big attention in France. According to a survey, the 2012-13 event had greater media impact than the Tour de France and tennis’ French Open, while a total of two million fans visited the start and finish at Les Sables d’Olonne.

Shiraishi emphasized that promoting the race and sport in general to Japanese children will be as important as competing well in it.

“I don’t intend to be the last Japanese in it,” said Shiraishi, who was once the youngest sailor in the world to circumnavigate the globe in a continuous solo journey at age 26. “Hopefully, there will be more (Japanese) to compete in this.”

In 2007, Shiraishi finished as the runner-up in the Class I category of the Velux 5 Ocean Race, another around-the-world solo yacht race, which is sailed in stages.

Hirobumi Kawano, the Japan Sailing Federation president, said in a statement that Shiraishi’s challenge in the Vendée Globe is “the third-biggest, good news for Japanese yacht circle” after Japan was granted the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the SoftBank Team Japan’s plan to compete in the 2017 Americas Cup.

Shiraishi will race in the Transat New York-Vendée, a preliminary competition for the Vendée Globe, which begins at the American city on May 29 and finishes at Les Sables d’Olonne.

Shiraishi’s management company will raise funds for the race through a crowdfunding website between May 16 and Sept. 9. It’s set a target of collecting ¥50 million.