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

-- 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 came all the way to the U.S., I want to travel around a vast country that is 25 times the size of Japan and see the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. But unfortunately, I can never afford it. I must carefully strengthen Aomi, my sailboat, to head for my next destination, Cape Horn in South America, notorious for storms. I will 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, 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 could 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 a clear, blue California sky that looked dyed with ink. On arriving at the customer's yard in our small truck, I had a powerful 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 recoil of the wind 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 almost 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 for pay. But before Christmas, 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 have always longed for the ocean and dreamed of sailing the seas are building their own big sailboats. There are students in their 20s, old men living on pensions, families working hard together, and many people who sold their houses to finance the construction and live on their unfinished sailboats.

With the help of their wisdom and power tools, I prepare for the Cape Horn challenge. A successful crossing of the Pacific Ocean is no guarantee that I will be able to 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 changed the windows to double panes to protect them from the impact of large waves. I also rebuilt the rudder to be stronger and checked the metal fittings on the mast for metal fatigue using dye and a magnifying glass. There were over 30 inspection, maintenance and strengthening items on the list. One careless mistake, one easy compromise, could sink Aomi and me in the stormy sea.

The strange old man I saw in the harbor — tall, robst, with piercing eyes. He always wears a white shirt and a green beret. He is a surprisingly 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 came to visit me in Aomi. I got out on the pier and started to walk after him. Then John suddenly turned and whispered in my ear.

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

He put his hands together over his chest and gestured as if praying to God, while I could not find an answer. Why would he take me on the boat if he didn't want people to know?

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

The cabin of his large sailboat, moored on a floating pier, had a shower with hot water, a fully equipped kitchen with a three-burner stove and refrigerator, and the latest electronic navigation equipment. Next to the bookshelf was a high-powered Japanese radio that was not sold in Japan. A hundred or more used pens and pencils were neatly lined up on the chart table. It was 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 shows me various materials for my voyage to Cape Horn. He also shows me dozens of detailed maps, charts, and even satellite photos, pulling them off the shelves. Why does he have all this material? A small letter in the corner of the map read "Central Intelligence Agency." For a moment I was startled.

John looks up sharply from his desk and asks.

"Why are you going to Cape Horn?"

"I don't know why. I just know that the sea teaches me something important that I wouldn't notice if I stayed in the city...."

As if he has found the truth, John murmurs.

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

He will leave the harbor within two months, head south, and never return to North America.

"I'll go somewhere and die somewhere."

He looks a little sad but says it firmly. What on earth is he thinking? It is more than suspicious but eerie.

"John, where are you going?"

He picked up a piece of paper from the desk and quickly jotted down two sets of numbers, one for "56," before I could remember the other, he crumpled the paper up and threw it in the trash can.


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 opening of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century, the rough seas around Cape Horn were known to sailors as a terribly difficult place and a hair-raising graveyard of ships between the two oceans.

Numerous ships had disappeared after being struck by unimaginable storms. The name of Cape Horn is said to have been passed down through the centuries as a symbol of the terror of the sea.

There are two main routes to the legendary Cape. In between reinforcements on Aomi, I visited John's sailboat many times and discussed it while looking at the charts on the table. 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 Chilean archipelago, sail between islands, and approach Cape Horn. Then, 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 Chilean Archipelago Sea 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, there is a chain of islands stretching about 1,800 km. I have read in sailing books that the unexplored area known as the "Chilean Archipelago" has winds from the Andes strong enough to send rocks flying, currents up to 9 knots, and numerous reefs. If I were to attempt this passage alone, I would be in distress. I said to John, looking at the chart on the table.

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

"You will see plenty of that in the South Atlantic after Cape Horn. What good is it to see the infernal sea of crashing waves?" he said.

"It helps me think about life," I replied.

John looked puzzled for a moment, then shook his head.

When sailing the open sea to Cape Horn, it is up to your luck whether you will be in distress or not. In the notorious Furious Fifties, if Aomi capsizes and loses her mast amid the 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 Chilean archipelago depends on my efforts, caution, and navigational skills to avoid running aground.

"If I sail through the open sea, I rely on luck. If I sail through island seas, I must rely on myself...."

I repeated it over and over in my mouth and finally made 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, passed under the rust-red Golden Gate Bridge and left San Francisco Bay.

My heart is dark as a rainy sky, more than the joy of departure. I don't want to go to sea. I want to stay on land. I felt like a kamikaze pilot on a suicide mission who was holding back tears and tightening his Hinomaru (Rising Sun) Hachimaki (headband). My feelings were completely different from when I left Japan last year. At that time, I knew nothing about the sea.

A storm began as Aomi sailed out to sea, and the land disappeared from the horizon behind me. The tops of the waves began to stretch out like tongues and collapse over the hull. The sky and the sea are all a 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, which had forgotten the rocking, was already rejecting it. Nauseous, I entered the cabin, took off my oilskin, soaked with the spray, and lay down on the violently rocking bed like a sick person. After more than six months on land, I had forgotten what the sea was. Now I am back.

I remember my life in the U.S., in bed, seasick and groggy. The days when I longed for Cape Horn and continued to earn money, and the remodeling work on Aomi, which I was so passionate about 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 lasted for two full days. The mainsail is torn in two, the navigation light at the top of the mast is blown away, seawater has entered the cabin, and most of the food is soaked. The paper labels on the canned food, bought with the little money I had left, were wet and peeling, with the cans beginning to rust.

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

This is how I was 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.

It began the second relationship between the sea and me.

Looking for Writing Tips from Native English Speakers

Hi! Thanks for reading my story. Since English isn't my first language, I'd love to get some tips from native speakers on how to make my writing smoother. If you spot any weird phrases or anything strange, I'd really appreciate your feedback. Thank you!

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