Minoru Saito Oldest Person To Circumnavigate World, An earthquake, two tsunamis, giant icebergs, towering waves and five typhoons: these may sound like typical challenges for anyone sailing around the world on their own.
But Japanese sailor Minoru Saito also had to contend with back pain, a hernia, a knee operation and organising delivery of his heart tablets – perhaps unsurprisingly, bearing in mind that he is 77-years-old.
Mr Saito yesterday broke a series of records – and defied all pensioner stereotypes – as he sailed into Yokohama port to a hero’s welcome after an epic 1,080-day journey sailing single-handed around the world.
Not only did he his arrival confirm his status as the oldest person to sail around the world, he is also the oldest to do so the “wrong way” – from west to east – as well as the only person to have circumnavigated the globe alone eight times.
It was in morning sunshine shortly after 10am that Mr Saito’s boat finally appeared in Yokohama Bay, with the sail rolled down due to blustery winds and supported by a welcome flotilla of three other small vessels.
Cheering crowds of friends and sailing enthusiasts greeted the boat, which was clearly well-travelled: rust stains marked the once-pristine white paint, a tangle of weathered ropes were piled in the back while its name was almost entirely washed off the sides.
Suntanned Mr Saito, however, appeared in better shape than his boat, smiling broadly as he leapt around with an array of ropes with the agility of a sailor half his age.
Stepping onto the floating pier and accepting bouquets of flowers, he told the Sunday Telegraph: “I’m very, very happy to be back but it was difficult. It was my longest trip. It went on for months and months and years and years, I had so many problems. But it’s great to be back.”
He added: “I missed a lot of things, mostly cherry blossoms and Japanese food. But I feel very young in both mind and body and I feel I’m in great shape.”
The word “retirement” not featuring in his vocabulary, he went on with a laugh: “I’m already thinking about my next trip. I’d like to head to Greenland and Alaska next. I just need to raise the money and then I’ll go off again.”
He added: “I missed a lot of things, mostly cherry blossoms and Japanese food. But I feel very young in both mind and body and I feel I’m in great shape.” The word “retirement” not featuring in his vocabulary, he added with a laugh: “I’m already thinking about my next trip. I’d like to head to Greenland and Alaska next. I just need to raise the money and then I’ll go off again.”
It was in October 2008 that Mr Saito set off from Yokohama on a trip that he initially hoped would last only 287 days on board his prized 56-foot sailing boat, Nicole BMW Shuten-dohji III.
He had already accomplished a record-breaking seven solo journeys around the world but it was his first time travelling west to east – a famously challenging route as it goes directly against prevailing winds and currents, requiring significant skill and effort as well as raising the danger of colliding with floating icebergs and debris.
In the event, however, Mr Saito’s eighth trip took him nearly four times longer than anticipated, due to a litany of delays caused by repairs, inclement weather conditions and natural disasters.
His 28,500 mile journey ran smoothly until Cape Horn, where a three-day gale heaped up 30-foot waves and 50 knot winds – leading to extensive damage that required him to be rescued by the Chilean Coast Guard.
Instead he was forced to spend the winter months in a small harbour in Punta Renas, the world’s southernmost city, as he repaired damage to his boat – the darkest moment of the trip, he said. “I had these big steel fishing boats hitting me on both sides and if my boat had not been made of steel, it would have been crushed and sunk.
“I was really worried I might die from stress and the cold but I could not leave the boat unprotected.”
It was also while in Chile that his health appeared to catch up with him as he was forced to undergo an emergency hernia operation, which delayed his trip even further.
After one more failed attempt, he finally rounded Cape Horn, and was narrowly spared disaster when more problems that developed on his boat required him to stop again for repairs. His course would otherwise have taken him precisely to the epicentre of the 2010 Chilean earthquake just as it struck.
“He was incredibly lucky,” said Mike Seymour, the on-shore safety officer for his trip. “Just before the earthquake struck we’d pulled him into a small island off the Chilean coast as there were some boat problems.”
Although damaged by the subsequent tsunami, once again his boat survived and following further repairs, Mr Saito was back on his way.
The next drama came in Hawaii, where he had stopped to undergo boatwork repairs – and was knocked down in the street by a car, resulting in a knee operation in hospital.
He was still there on March 11 this year when his boat survived yet another tsunami, triggered by the giant Tohoku earthquake in his homeland Japan, resulting in yet further delays.
To cap his chronicle of setbacks, he then had patiently to wait for a total of five typhoons to pass through the region before being able to embark on the final leg of his journey into Japan.
Arriving back yesterday – weighing a little less, with a still-healing knee, but otherwise professing robust health – Mr Saito said: “My body was feeling tired and my mind was nervous but I stopped for a few days on a small island before the final journey to Yokohama and soaked in some hot springs. Now I feel very good.”
Upon arrival, he was greeted with a message from the British sailor Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first person single-handedly to circumnavigate the world without a single stop, who wrote: “Please give my congratulations to Saito-san on yet another determined circumnavigation. His success will bring great pleasure to his many friends.”
Mr Saito’s latest achievements cap a sailing career which started in 1973 at the age of 39 when he decided to switch from his previous hobby, mountaineering.
Mr Saito, who overcame TB as a child growing up in wartime Tokyo, went on to compete several times in the famously gruelling former BOC Challenge, which involves solo circumnavigation of the world.
Today, he resides only on his boat, never having married but always travelling with a photograph of his late fiancée who tragically died in a sailing accident.
He also carries with him the tail of a rattlesnake which he says brings him good luck.
And despite his most recent odyssey lasting more than 1,000 days, it’s clear that he still has energy for more adventures – and hopes that such escapades might inspire younger generations.
“Japanese young people are often too weak and don’t do enough,” said. “They need to challenge themselves to really try hard. You only have one life to lead so must always do your very best.”
ROUND THE WORLD WITH MINORU SAITO
1934: Born in Asakusa, Tokyo.
1973: Took up sailing for the first time and began participating in Japanese races.
1988: Survived his first typhoon and two cyclones sailing from Japan to Sydney.
1990-1991: Sailed around the world in 197 days, as part of the former BOC Challenge. Also sailed around the world while heading to and returning from the race.
1994-5: Sailed around the world for a third time, again as part of the BOC Challenge. Upon completion, he sailed solo around the world once more before returning to Japan.
1998-9: His third global race, at the age of 65: he completed in 203 days. Also sailed around the world – going there and back again – to attend the race.
2001: Returning to Japan, he again sailed solo around the world – his sixth global circumnavigation.
2004: First solo nonstop circumnavigation at the age 71, breaking records for both the oldest and also the most number of circumnavigations.
2008-2011: His most recent mission, his eighth trip sailing around the world.
OTHER “WRONG WAY” SAILORS
1970 – Briton Chay Blyth became the first person to sail around the world the “wrong way” in a 293 day journey.
1994 – Briton Mike Golding travelled the same route in 161 days
2004 – French sailor Jean-Luc Van Den Heede completed the route solo, nonstop, in 122 days
2006 Dee Caffari became the first woman to sail nonstop solo westerly in 178 days
… AND THE WORLD’S YOUNGEST SAILORS
Australian Jessica Watson completed her round-the-world trip three days before her 17th birthday in May last year, making her the title-holding youngest person to have single-handedly circumnavigated the globe.
Previous title holder was Mike Perham, a Briton, who briefly met Mr Saito as they passed through Cape Town. He became the world’s youngest solo global sailor in August 2009 at the age of 17.
Laura Decker, 15, from Holland, is currently about half way through a solo circumnavigation which will make her the youngest if she completes the route by next summer.