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After whale sank first attempt, blind sailor aims for nonstop Pacific crossing

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Mitsuhiro Iwamoto

Mitsuhiro Iwamoto prepares the main sail of the Dream Weaver before leaving on a test run outside San Diego Bay. He and his sailing partner Doug Smith have set out on the estimated 7,000 miles from San Diego to Japan.

Six years ago, blind sailor Mitsuhiro "Hiro" Iwamoto of San Diego made international headlines when his attempt to cross the Pacific Ocean on a nonstop, 6,000-mile sailing adventure was scuttled by a whale.

Six days into his well-documented voyage with sighted Japanese TV newsman Jiro Shinbo, a 50-foot blue whale smashed without warning into their 28-foot sailing yacht. Underwater cameras captured the rare collision, which damaged the keel and sent the boat to the bottom of the Pacific in a matter of minutes.

In near-typhoon conditions, the men survived a harrowing escape in a life raft and then faced withering criticism from the Japanese media and public over the folly of their trip and taxpayer-funded rescue. Depressed and plagued with post-traumatic stress symptoms, Iwamoto gave up on his dream.

But another whale-inspired encounter has given the 52-year-old sailor a second chance. He and businessman/philanthropist Doug Smith have now sailed out of San Diego Bay in an attempt to finish the "Voyage of Inspiration" that Iwamoto began in June 2013.

The two men met 2½ years ago when Smith heard about Iwamoto's famous whale adventure and asked to meet him in person. Iwamoto had lost all his equipment in the 2013 sinking and couldn't afford another attempt. Smith was an aspiring sailor who also dreamed of crossing the Pacific and had the money to buy a bigger and better boat.

"When I met Hiro, I told him, 'I can see. You can sail. That sounds like the perfect partnership," Smith said.

Colliding with a whale is rare, but Iwamoto finds it just as remarkable that his and Smith's paths crossed. Iwamoto was born in Japan, has spent a good portion of his adult life in the U.S. and is married to an American. Smith was born in the U.S., spent most of the past 30 years in Japan and has a Japanese wife.

"Doug and I are the same, but in reverse," Iwamoto said.

A 'challenging spirit'

If the duo is successful in their attempt, Smith said they will be the first sailors to ever achieve a nonstop trans-Pacific crossing between the U.S. and Japan. And with its most experienced sailor completely blind since his teens, it's an audacious quest.

But Iwamoto's wife, Karen Young Iwamoto, said the risky undertaking is no different from any of her husband's other groundbreaking athletic activities. He has skied, hiked, completed a full Ironman race and multiple triathlons and marathons, rides tandem bikes and started sailing 17 years ago.

"I have a challenging spirit," he said. "I can't be a driver on the street but I can drive a big boat in a big ocean because there's not much I can hit. When I sail, there's no big engine sound, I love the smell and the wind, I can hear the dolphins talking and the whales blowing air from their blowholes."

Dream Weaver

On board the Dream Weaver, Mitsuhiro Iwamoto (right) and Doug Smith plan to sail the estimated 7,000 miles from San Diego to Japan together.

Iwamoto grew up on the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu where he began losing his sight at age 13. At first he noticed he couldn't catch baseballs. By age 16, he was falling down staircases. Faced with a future of being dependent on others, he decided to commit suicide. But before he could throw himself off a local bridge, he says, he received a message from his late uncle.

"He told me to live positively so I could inspire other people who have lost the meaning to their lives," he said.

He went to medical school, studying in Japan and San Francisco, to become an acupuncturist, and in his 20s he met Karen, who had moved to Japan after college to teach English. They married 22 years ago, moved to San Diego in 2006 and have a daughter, Leena, who's in eighth grade.

Iwamoto runs a holistic health medicine practice. He also travels the world doing motivational speaking, encouraging audiences to face and overcome their fears. After the infamous whale encounter, his audiences and fame grew, but his own fears took root. Secretly, he wasn't practicing what he preached.

"I didn't ever want to see the ocean again," he said. "Then I realized I had to take my own advice and be straight up with myself. Failure is only failure if you stop trying. Overcoming failure can make your success 1,000 times bigger."

Then, during a speaking tour in Japan in December 2016, Iwamoto was introduced to Smith by a mutual friend.

The Dream Weaver

Smith grew up in Alexandria, Va., and graduated from college in 1990 with an economics degree. Back then, Japan was forecast to become the global leader of the future, and he wanted to be a part of that. He flew to Japan, found work in the booming real estate finance industry and met his wife, Naomi. They married in 1995 and have two daughters, Rachael and Hana.

In 2017, Smith was hired as the Asia managing director for Maryland-based GreenGen, which provides companies with sustainable energy solutions. Since then, he has been commuting between Japan and the U.S.

Smith is also an adventurer and had dreamed for years of sailing across the Pacific. But there were two problems. He didn't know how to sail, and he couldn't find anyone who wanted to go with him. Then he heard about Iwamoto and saw a way to fulfill both of their dreams.

With Iwamoto's support, and advice from the team's sailing coach, Keith Ericson of San Diego, Smith bought a boat. The Island Packet 40 sailing yacht is a 40-foot long-keeled cutter that's bigger, heavier, more durable, better equipped and more reliable than the ship Iwamoto sailed in 2013.

Smith renamed the boat the Dream Weaver because it may allow Iwamoto to complete his quest and also fulfill Smith's goal of raising up to $40,000 for charities. The beneficiaries include San Diego's Challenged Athletes Foundation, programs to reduce blinding diseases in Asia and Africa, and Safecast, a global radiation monitoring organization.

"A lot of people sail," Smith said. "I wanted to sail but also to do something bigger. I want to be a better person. When you sail, you don't travel in a straight line. You weave your way there. With dream weaving, it's not the journey that counts, it's the wake you leave behind."

Smith has spent four of the past 12 months in San Diego taking sailing lessons with Ericson and getting the boat rigged up for the $35,000 voyage. The tanks have been filled with more than 200 gallons of drinking water and enough food for a 60-day journey. Flexible solar panels and a wave-powered generator will run their onboard GPS navigation system, satellite phone and other electrical equipment.

They'll sail 24 hours a day, alternating six-hour shifts at the wheel and asleep, with Iwamoto mostly manning the overnight portions since he's comfortable sailing in the dark. Their route will take them southwest from San Diego to the latitude of Hawaii to reach the trade winds belt, then they'll sail west past Guam and northwest to Japan. Although they'll face occasional evening squalls, they're traveling in a generally calm weather season.

Ericson, who has known and sailed with Iwamoto for more than 20 years, is confident the men can safely accomplish the trip as long as nobody falls into the ocean. That, he said, would likely be a fatal mistake.

To ensure against that possibility, both men will always wear life vests with two sets of carabiner-style hooks that connect them to an array of cables and tethers running the length of the boat. Iwamoto has spent the past year building a mental navigation map in his head of the boat's every line, winch, roller, bumper and switch. He also uses a speaking compass and has a braille guide to the ship's switch panel.

Smith and Ericson both say the weakest link in the chain is Smith, not Iwamoto, due to his inexperience and lack of athleticism.

"Hiro's great strength is his enthusiasm and determination," Ericson said. "He's a good athlete, strong and healthy, and he can tie knots the average person would have difficulty with. He feels the waves, and he can sense the speed and angle of the winds to trim the sails properly."

Smith says some of the biggest challenges they'll face are psychological, such as dealing with sleep deprivation, boredom and problem-solving when things go wrong. For that, he is placing all his faith in Iwamoto.

"Hiro can't see, but he can think," Smith said. "That's something you can trust. If we need to figure anything out, he won't panic. He'll just think it through and we'll be good."

To follow their trip, visit the "Voyage of Inspiration" page on Facebook.

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