A century of sailing - Minoru Saito

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Seven times around for this 71-year-old sailor

Seven times around for this 71-year-old sailor

After 234 days at sea, Minoru Saito sailed across the finish line off Misaki, Japan, and into the record books. The 71-year-old is now the oldest voyager to sail non-stop around the world … alone.

Saito’s arrival June 6 to a hero’s welcome marked the end of his seventh and probably last circumnavigation. “I don’t think I can do more,” says Saito, in a phone interview from his home in Japan.

Saito’s globe-girdling days may be over, but spokesman Jiro Fujiwara says the septuagenarian now has his eye on the annual Sydney-Hobart, the classic boat-buster across the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania infamous for its outrageously bad weather. Saito wants to race the 630-mile course on his tried but very well-worn 50-foot sloop, Shuten-Dohji II (Drunkard’s Son), a 15-year-old boat.

“He believes that boat is very, very strong,” Fujiwara says.

Built in 1990, the Joe Adams-designed bluewater cruiser raced around the world in the 1990-’91 and 1994-’95 BOC races, and again in the 1998-’99 Around Alone with Saito helming. Though it hasn’t been the fastest boat — it’s on the heavy side, he says — it always has finished.

Saito had feared that his last circumnavigation might prove too boring. He says the sailing part of voyaging is easy for him, but it becomes hard work when things go wrong, and this time around it was a lot of work, he says. His litany of troubles could fill a book, and they probably will. He already has written one volume, “Kotou” — Japanese for “fighting alone” — about his single-handing before 2003.

His latest exploit offers plenty of grist for a sequel. Off Cape Horn, Saito toughed out a cold front for 18 hours, sailing under bare poles in 70- to 80-knot winds and 25-foot waves. Shuten-Dohji’s autopilot wasn’t working, and Saito’s satellite phone and weatherfax were spotty. He often was without communications.

He reinjured an old broken finger, suffered off and on from a nagging toothache, and developed frostbite in one of his feet in the Southern Ocean. He lost his refrigeration, damaged his mainsail and his boat developed a leak in the centerboard trunk. He suffered several knockdowns rounding the Horn, and toward the end of the voyage he lost both the engine and the generator. Saito eventually repaired his mainsail, but he couldn’t fix the genset or engine, which put his circumnavigation in jeopardy. With just solar panels to recharge the batteries, he rationed his use of the radio, satellite phone and computer to talk to his home base and receive weather data. At voyage’s end, three of the batteries were dead, and three were just barely working with a weak charge.

“Too much problems,” he says.

With his refrigerator on the fritz, Saito settled for warm beer and quickly ate his frozen meats before they spoiled. He survived on rice, instant noodles and canned food, and as his stock of “fresh” squash, potatoes and onions became depleted, he grew mustard, broccoli and radish sprouts in captured rainwater in a kind of primitive hydroponics farm below deck.

Saito figures he has solo-sailed around the world seven times: three times in the BOC race and its successor, the Around Alone; three more times going to or returning from races around the world; and the last time non-stop on his own. On his return from his last circumnavigation, the solo sailor weighed a scant 120 pounds. “He feels old,” Fujiwara says. “No more around-alones. It’s too hard for him, he says.”

Saito followed the course of H.M.S. Challenger, a 200-foot British Royal Navy corvette that completed its circumnavigation in four years in 1876. He gave his round-the-world voyage the name “Challenge 7” because it was his seventh circumnavigation completed in his seventh decade.

A mountain climber in his youth, Saito was the first to climb the treacherous east face of Japan’s 6,500-foot Tanigawadake. He took up sailing relatively late in life, when he was 39 years old. He started competing in local races and became enamored of short-handed racing after participating in the 1986 double-handed Melbourne-Osaka Race. He began racing solo in earnest in 1989, joining in the Around Australia Single-handed Race, an event he retired from after suffering a heart attack. Sixteen years and four around-the-world races later Saito still suffers from a heart ailment, and he still sails solo.

His body may no longer be able to endure 234 days at sea, but after more than 200,000 miles of single-handing over 15 years, he isn’t about to throw in the towel.

“I am very better now,” Saito says … after a week’s rest on terra firma.