Blind sailor plans to navigate Pacific Ocean from Harbor Island to Fukushima
Published - 02/01/19 - 09:14 AM | 45607 views | 0 0 comments | 44 44 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Hiro Iwamoto
Hiro Iwamoto
2 Corinthians 5:7: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

Doug Smith and Hiro Iwamoto are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. Balancing uncertainty and risk with trust and accomplishment, the duo will navigate the majestic Pacific from Harbor Island to the Japanese port of Onahama, Fukushima.

The sailors will board The Dream Weaver, a 41-foot Island Packet boat and sail, void of engine, for a guesstimate of 60 days. Iwamoto is an experienced skipper. Smith is a novice sailor. The caveat? Iwamoto is completely blind.

Endorsing the message, “anything is possible when people come together,” the mariners are determined to “take action and make a difference,” by highlighting a voyage of personal triumph. Both thrive on the premise that disability is not an inability that overshadows one’s will to succeed, even when it comes to the ocean, where anything is possible.

On Feb. 24, down winds will steer them to sail “wing on wing” through weather, currents and waves to the warm waters and trade winds of the Hawaiian Islands. The Dream Weaver is scheduled to arrive in Japan, on or about April 24, well-ahead of the June typhoon season.

Thinking “only about sailing,” both are working diligently to solidify last-minute preparations which include food and water as well as satellite, navigational, safety, emergency and distress equipment.

During the first 10 days, the pair will consume a somewhat normal diet inclusive of vegetables. After that, breakfast, lunch and dinner become a feast of freeze-dried and dry foods (boiled in water) due to a lack of refrigeration, noted to gobble up precious electricity needed for “more important things” like navigational equipment, autopilot and talking icons. The boat will store gas, a 170-gallon water tank and 50 gallons of water in bottles.

“The concept of following a natural flow is alluring,” said Smith. “Isolated and broken from humanity and the constant flow of information distraction, we’ll board a boat for 60 days and use what we have – and only what we have – and the planet’s energy.”

Both admit that while they’re not afraid, they’re aware that anything can happen.

“I’m facing more than I imagined I ever would,” continued Smith. “I’m sailing across the one of the world’s greatest oceans with a blind sailing partner. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought so, but here we are!”

The boat’s satellite connections – along with its backup emergency signal equipment – can be heard by anyone monitoring a satellite. The Dream Weaver also includes a life raft “that we hope never to use.” The length of a potential rescue will depend upon proximity to land.

“If we’re rescued within 24 hours, we’re close to land,” said Smith. “If we’re far out, three days is more likely. The good nature of being a distance away is that we’re far from other boats and less likely in line for collisions. The downside, if something happens, we’re far away from other people.”

“I can’t drive on the street but I can drive on the ocean,” added Iwamoto. “I don’t have to worry about boats coming towards me like cars on the road. I can feel the wind at my neck and cheek and steer in the correct direction. And I have an Iphone voice compass. The ocean is great; it’s wide and has a warm heart.”

As admirable as this journey is, it’s not Iwamoto’s first. The inaugural attempt departed from Japan – mapped to San Diego – on June 16, 2013, with crewmate Jiro Shinbo, a popular newscaster from Osaka. On the morning of day six, both were jarred from their bunks by a resounding “boom, boom, boom,” followed by a frightening “slosh, slosh, slosh.”

“I knew instinctively that we were hit by a whale,” said Iwamoto. “I stuck my hand down on the floorboard and water was coming in. I tried getting rid of the water but it was coming in faster than I could take it out. The boat was cracked and we were sinking. It was time to abandon ship.”

With water rising “above the knee,” Iwamoto removed the floorboard and loaded an emergency bag containing a satellite phone, a GPS, a VHF radio, dry clothes, two gallons of water and the boat’s camera SIM card onto a rubber raft. Out of helicopter range, they contacted the Japanese Coast Guard. Adding insult to injury, a typhoon was chasing the dinghy.

“The water was cold,” continued Iwamoto. “We shivered in 15-foot waves and 30-knot winds for over 11 hours.”

The first rescue attempt failed. While trying repeatedly to land on perilous wakes, the rescue plane ran low on fuel. The second attempt succeeded. The SIM card recorded the harrowing collision between a 50-foot, blue whale and the now sunk Aeolus.

The motivational speaker and life coach reached a low point.

“After being hit by the whale, I never wanted to see the water again,” said Iwamoto. “I even refused to sail with friends. I had PTSD. Slowly but surely, I changed my PTSD and sailed. I couldn’t let failure stop me from doing challenging things. Failure’s just one step to become successful. I know how to never give up spirit. I encourage everyone in my coaching and motivational experiences not to become victims.”

This was not Iwamoto’s first bout with depression.

Iwamoto grew up on the island of Amakusa, one of a group of islands nestled in the gulf of Kyushu, Japan. His father, a local fisherman, often took his protégé on the ocean vast. The lad had no fear of claiming the family torch. But at age 13, Iwamoto began losing his sight. The active teenager could no longer catch a baseball, “because I couldn’t see it.” He bumped into cars while riding his bicycle, fell down stairs and even misjudged placing toothpaste on his toothbrush.

“I put it on my finger instead,” he said.

Doctors couldn’t pinpoint the culprit. With no disease, genetic or family history of blindness, they remained baffled. Treatment was non-existent. By age 16, Iwamoto was completely blind. Battling severe depression, he attempted suicide.

“Life was hard,” he said. “I didn’t want to live needing constant support. I tried to commit suicide. Luckily, I couldn’t see enough to do anything. I knew I had to face my fears and start living positively.”

Life became one big possibility. He moved to Tokyo, met an American, married, became a Christian and joined Tokyo’s Blind Sailing Clubs and Sailing Associations where he learned to hone his sailing skills.

“When I lost my sight, I almost lost my life to suicide,” he continued. “And then God saved me from a whale in the middle of the ocean. I realized that God gave me a third life to save other people.”

And that he did with his Arigato coaching and speaking.

“Arigato means thankful,” he said. “I am always thankful to be alive. Living is wonderful. Everything else is small, so be happy and think arigato.”

He settled in San Diego in 2006 with his wife Karen and daughter Leena. In November of 2017, he completed the Arizona Ironman Triathlon. Despite a grueling athletic training schedule, it didn’t take long for the ocean to beckon him back for trip number two.

The consummate seafarer in need of sighted mate found one in of all places – Tokyo. Mutual friends joined the American living abroad with the Japanese living in San Diego and trip number two was born. Smith purchased the Dream Weaver in San Diego in 2017.

Having lost his equipment on the first trip, financial backing, sponsorship and funding efforts followed suit. Sponsors lined up – Furuno Co., Goldwin (Helle Hansen), Amano Foods, Sankyo Seiki Industry Co., Ogata Ophthalmology Clinic. The duo also established their own fundraiser for organizations that “positively influence change,” including those working to prevent and cure blindness. The team will match up to $2,500 for The Himalayan Cataract Foundation, Trachoma Control Program, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and Safecast, totaling up to $10k.

Both wives are supportive with logistics, coordinates and overall planning.

“My wife’s worried, especially after the last tragedy, but supportive,” said Iwamoto. “My 13-year-old placed braille labels on the boat switches. When I leave for training, she gives me longer hugs.”

Needless to say, the sailing twosome have a fan club. Everyone can follow the voyage of inspiration through the website’s tracking system:

“Our message – never give up,” concluded Smith.

“Face your fear and keep moving forward,” added Iwamoto. “Face your fear and your fear will disappear.”

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