Twelve days after leaving San Diego harbor on a nonstop, 6,000-mile crossing of the Pacific Ocean, sailors Matsuhiro "Hiro" Iwamoto of Kearny Mesa and Doug Smith of Japan are right on target to reach Fukushima, Japan, by April 24.
An uneventful ocean crossing may not seem like news, until you consider the circumstances. Iwamoto is completely blind, yet he's splitting all of the ship's steering, rigging and navigational duties with Smith.
And if they're successful in their quest, they will be the first blind sailing team to ever achieve a nonstop trans-Pacific crossing between the U.S. and Japan.
But the real reason for celebrating their arrival at day 12 is that this is the second time Iwamoto has attempted the crossing. Last time, a 50-foot blue whale struck his boat six days into the voyage and sent it to the bottom of the sea. Iwamoto and his then-sailing partner, Japanese TV newsman Jiro Shinbo, barely escaped with their lives in the June 2013 attempt.
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Smith, a businessman and an aspiring sailor, heard about Iwamoto's dream to try the journey one more time. Intrigued, Smith bought a 40-foot sailing yacht in San Diego that he named the Dream Weaver, took sailing lessons and they spent a year preparing and provisioning the boat for the trip. They sailed away from Harbor Island at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24.
In their online sailing journal, which can be followed on the Facebook page "Voyage of Inspiration," Smith said that they encountered a pod of gray whales two days after leaving San Diego, but fortunately there were no collisions. Iwamoto wrote a blog post on March 2, celebrating the arrival of day seven.
"I feel this is a very special day as Shinbo-san and my voyage across the Pacific in 2013 came to an end on day 6 when we had a collision with a whale. I had some frightening memories pop up during the past six days but I think I have overcome them and am now actually enjoying the sailing," Iwamoto wrote.
The trip got off to a slow start due to El Nino weather conditions that contributed to very little wind. Smith said they had to use their motor to sail south toward the Baja peninsula, but they have stowed aboard plenty of fuel to accommodate any poor sailing conditions.
Smith answered questions from The San Diego Union-Tribune last week via email through his wife, Naomi, who is monitoring their progress from their home in Japan.
"In some ways, the light wind and flat seas were a helpful start to the trip," he wrote. "They allowed us to get our sea legs, organize and practice things in calm conditions. It has been fun to try various sail combinations and techniques to try to get a 36,000-pound boat to move in light winds. We have kept busy and with only two of us on the boat taking watches, we have had time together, but a decent amount of time apart."
On Monday, they finally hit a belt of trade winds and have been sailing swiftly in a southwesterly direction and making up lost time ever since. Their trip is being tracked in real-time with an autonomous satellite positioning program developed by Furuno using tracking by San Diego-based Quake Global.
On Friday morning, the boat was sailing at 6.3 knots in strong winds. Its position was 21.7 degrees latitude, 133 degrees longitude, which is roughly half the distance to Hawaii and more than one-fifth of the way to Japan.
The expedition has experienced only minor challenges beyond the slow winds in the first week. In a March 3 journal entry, Iwatomo said he accidentally tossed overboard the sponge he was using to wash dishes because he couldn't see it in the bucket.
"What puts me down is that I have to face two very different sides of me, the proud side of me challenging as the world's first blind sailor crossing the Pacific and another side of me not being able to find the sponge, which makes me look so small," he wrote. "But I got to control my emotions by doing gratitude meditation' and am feeling all right now."
Last Thursday, the duo wrote about making safety checks on the boat to prepare for an approaching area of high winds. And on last Friday morning, they posted a photograph on their blog of a wayward sea bird, which took refuge on their boat.
Smith, who came into the adventure saying he was far less prepared for the journey than the more-experienced and more-athletic Iwamoto, described the trip so far as a joint learning experience.
"For both of us, the trip so far has reinforced the recognition that whatever you expect, it will be something different," he wrote. "Whatever it is today, it will be different tomorrow. The question is, how are you going to make the most out of it?"