03. Mysterious Old Man in SanFrancisco

Faced with two choices, which should you choose? The easy path or the difficult yet rewarding one? A secure future or an adventure-filled life? Leave it to luck or make your own path?

In the first foreign country I visited in my life, I had to make a decision.

-- This is a real story. --

1・First Foreign Life 2・Mysterious John 3・Back to the Sea

1・First Foreign Life

golde bate bridge

"Now, it is time to start my life abroad!"

Since I had come all the way to the U.S., I wanted to travel around a vast country that is 25 times the size of Japan and see the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. But I could never afford it. I had to carefully strengthen Aomi, my sailboat, to head for my next destination, Cape Horn in South America, which is notorious for storms. I had to buy many materials for the modification work, so I would soon run out of money.

In early October, four days after arriving in San Francisco, I went to an auto repair shop to look for a job as a mechanic. I was turned down, but I met a Japanese customer named Kawasaki there. He was in his mid-fifties, and a survivor of a kamikaze suicide mission in the Pacific War. He had somehow immigrated to the United States shortly after the war. His job was gardening, and he needed workers.

Eventually, I was able to stay at his house in Cupertino, a suburb of San Francisco, and start working the next day.

I would leave home with Mr. Kawasaki early in the morning under the clear, blue California sky that looked dyed with ink. On arriving at the customer's yard in our small truck, I had a powerful garden blower strapped to my back and a pipe in my hand. I would blow the leaves and debris that littered the yards and collect them in one place. The wind's recoil was so strong that my little body almost fell backward, but what a powerful cleaning job! Before I got used to it, I couldn't direct the wind correctly and ended up scattering the trash or blowing it into the neighbor's house, which made Mr. Kawasaki look a little annoyed.

After cleaning the yard, I pushed the lawn mower to cut the grass. For the first time, I saw many plants, flowers, and trees that were rare in Japan. Even the weeds looked so exotic that it was a shame to pull them out.

The nearly 12 hours of sweaty and dusty daily work did not seem so hard when I thought of my dream, Cape Horn. After work, I would have dinner with the four members of the Kawasaki family, go to my room, and study charts and documents about Cape Horn with the lights on until late at night.

After about two months on the job, the winter rainy season arrived in San Francisco. There was no work for gardeners, and I couldn't earn the fixed daily wage of $20. I worked in Mr. Kawasaki's garage, repairing trucks and lawnmowers to earn money. But before Christmas, to begin preparations for Aomi, I packed up my luggage and left the Kawasaki family, who had taken good care of me.

2・Mysterious John

sanfrancisco pete harbor

My new address is "Pete's Harbor," founded by Italian immigrants in the delta at the back of San Francisco Bay.

Anyone who walks here realizes that the place is full of dreams. Sailboats are under construction all along the coast. People who've longed for the ocean are now building their own large sailboats. There are students in their 20s, old men living on pensions, families working hard together, and many people who have sold their houses to finance the construction and live on their unfinished sailboats.

With their wisdom and power tools, I prepare for the Cape Horn challenge. A successful crossing of the Pacific Ocean does not guarantee that I can sail to Cape Horn. To reach the world's roughest seas, I must be well prepared and watch out for the slightest weakness in Aomi.

I change the windows to double panes to protect them from the impact of large waves. I also rebuild the rudder to be stronger and check the metal fittings on the mast for metal fatigue using dye and a magnifying glass. Over 30 items of inspection, maintenance, and strengthening are on the list. One careless mistake, one easy compromise, can sink Aomi and me in the stormy sea.

A strange old man I see in the harbor: tall, robust, with piercing eyes. He always wears a white shirt and a green beret. He is also an amazingly intelligent man with a very sharp tongue. He lives alone on a 14-meter sailboat and has no friends, family, or relatives. Some people say he used to work for the CIA.

The old man named John has come to visit me in Aomi. I follow him on the pier, and then John suddenly turns to whisper in my ear.

"Never tell anyone what you will see on my boat. Swear to God?"

He puts his hands together over his chest, gesturing as if praying to God while I cannot find an answer. Why is he taking me on the boat if he want to keep it secret?

"If people find out what I'm gonna do, they'll call me crazy. But you have crossed the Pacific alone. You will understand."

His large sailboat's cabin, at a floating pier, boasts a hot water shower, a fully equipped kitchen with a three-burner stove, as well as the latest electronic navigation system. Next to the bookshelf is a high-powered Japanese radio that is not sold in Japan. Nearly a hundred used pens and pencils are neatly aligned on the chart table: something strange.

He has been saving money for 25 years and is preparing to set sail. I wonder where he is going and what he is going to do.

He presents various materials for my Cape Horn voyage, pulling dozens of detailed maps, charts, and satellite photos off the shelves. Why all this material? I notice "Central Intelligence Agency" in small letters at the corner of a map. For a moment, I am startled.

John looks up sharply from his desk and asks,

"Why are you going to Cape Horn?"

"I don't know. But the sea teaches me something important, something the city cannot."

As if discovering a truth, John murmurs,

"Yes, no one who goes to Cape Horn knows why."

He plans to leave the harbor within two months, head south, and never return.

"I'll go somewhere and die somewhere."

He says this with a firm yet sad expression. What is he thinking? It's not just suspicious; it's eerie.

"John, where are you going?"

He grabs a piece of paper from the desk and swiftly writes down two sets of numbers, the first being' 56.' Before I have a chance to see the other, he crumples the paper and tosses it into the trash.


56S, 67W: Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America at the end of the world, juts out on the border of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Until the Panama Canal's opening in the early 20th century, sailors knew the rough seas around Cape Horn as a terribly difficult place and a hair-raising graveyard of ships between the two oceans.

Numerous ships vanished here, struck by unimaginable storms, making Cape Horn a centuries-old symbol of maritime terror.

Between reinforcing Aomi, I frequently visit John's sailboat to discuss the two main routes to the legendary Cape, with the chart spread out before us. His opinion is as follows:

"The distress risk is too great if you sail endlessly south along the Pacific side of the South American continent to its southernmost point, Cape Horn. The huge, crashing waves would swallow your small boat in the stormy seas known as the Furious Fifties. But as you sail south through the Pacific, you can enter the Patagonian Archipelago, sail between these islands, and approach Cape Horn. "

He continues definitively:

"There, instead of giant waves, you will see the majestic mountains and glaciers of the Andes and the most unexplored islands on the planet. Sailing through the open sea to Cape Horn without passing through the Patagonian Archipelago would be like putting on a blindfold and climbing the Himalayas without seeing the beautiful scenery. What's the point?"

In the Patagonia region of southern South America, a chain of islands stretches about 1,800 km. Sailing books describe this area as largely unexplored, with winds from the Andes strong enough to fly rocks, currents reaching 9 knots, and numerous reefs. Attempting this passage alone, I'd surely face distress. Turning to John, I reply,

"No, if I sail through the rough open sea, I can experience huge waves and a sea of terror." John counters,

"You'll encounter plenty of them in the South Atlantic after Cape Horn. What's the value in seeking the infernal sea's crashing waves?"

"It helps me think about life," I reply firmly.

John looks puzzled for a moment, then shakes his head.

Sailing the open sea to Cape Horn, whether I face distress is a matter of luck. In the notorious Furious Fifties, if Aomi were to capsize and lose her mast in rough seas, sailing would become impossible. She will undoubtedly sink if her 5-millimeter reinforced plastic hull breaks in heavy seas.

However, whether Aomi will be in trouble in the Patagonian Archipelago depends on my efforts, caution, and navigational skills to avoid running aground.

"Sailing the open sea means relying on luck; navigating island waters means relying on myself."

I repeat it over and over in my mouth, and finally make up my mind.

"Okay, I will rely on myself."

3・Back to the Sea

leaving sanfrancisco

At 3:00 p.m. on May 3, after six months in the U.S., Aomi, prepared for Cape Horn, passes under the rust-red Golden Gate Bridge and leaves San Francisco Bay.

My heart is as dark as a rainy sky, even darker than the joy of departure. I don't want to go to sea. I want to stay on land. I feel like a kamikaze pilot on a suicide mission, holding back tears and tightening my Hinomaru Hachimaki—the traditional Rising Sun headband symbolizing courage and effort. My feelings are now completely different from when I left Japan last year. At that time, I knew nothing about the sea.

A storm starts as Aomi sails out to sea, and the land disappears from the horizon behind me. The tops of the waves begin to curl out like tongues, then crash violently over the hull. The sky and the sea are all gloomy gray, but the tongue of water I look up at is transparent green, as clear as a thick sheet of glass against the gray sky.

I quickly replace the regular jib in front of the mast with a small storm jib. Still, Aomi tilts more than 50 degrees sideways, and the cabin window is now underwater. The view of the seawater through the small acrylic window is a deep, soul-cleansing blue, hard to imagine from the murky gray sea. Countless white bubbles flow through the water. It is like being in an aquarium; no, I feel like being in a submarine.

My body, no longer used to the boat's rocking, is already rejecting it. Feeling nauseous, I enter the cabin, remove my oilskin jacket and pants, both drenched with spray, and collapse onto the violently rocking bed as if struck by severe illness. During my more than six months on land, I have forgotten what the sea was. Now I am back.

Seasick and groggy in bed, I find myself remembering my life in the U.S. I recall the days I longed for Cape Horn while I continued earning money and remodeling work on Aomi. I was so passionate about it that I even forgot to eat—now I understand that dreaming of the voyage on land is the most pleasant part of the journey across the sea.

The storm continues for two full days. The mainsail tears in two, the navigation light at the top of the mast blows away, seawater enters the cabin, and most food is soaked. The paper labels on the canned food, bought with the little money I had left, are wet and peeling, with the cans beginning to rust.

"I was careless; I let my guard down."

This is how I am reminded of the sea.

The voyage to Chile in South America is a three-month non-stop journey of more than 10,000 kilometers across the equator.

Here begins a new chapter in my close relationship with the sea.

pacific map track of Aomi

Click on the map to go to each episode.

Thanks for reading my story.

Hi! Any questions or suggestions about the content are greatly appreciated.

I'd also love writing tips from native English speakers. Since English isn't my first language, if you notice any awkward phrases or anything that seems off, please let me know.

Thank you!

Copyright(C) 2009-2024 Y.Kataoka
All rights reserved.