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Blind San Diego sailor completes trans-Pacific crossing to Japan

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Hiro Iwamoto

Hiro Iwamoto prepares the main sail of the Dream Weaver before leaving on a test run outside San Diego Bay. Iwamoto and his sighted sailing partner, Doug Smith, arrived in Japan on schedule, becoming the first sailing team with a blind member to achieve a nonstop trans-Pacific crossing between the U.S. and Japan.

In spite of difficult winds and currents and numerous equipment failures, blind sailor Mitsuhiro "Hiro" Iwamoto of San Diego and his sighted sailing partner, Doug Smith, arrived in Japan on schedule in late April, becoming the first sailing team with a blind member to ever achieve a nonstop trans-Pacific crossing between the U.S. and Japan.

The 8,700-mile trip, which started in San Diego on Feb. 24, took 55 days, though in Iwamoto's mind, it was a journey that really began six years ago. In June 2013, he and a different sailing partner attempted to sail from Japan to California. But just six days into the voyage, a 50-foot blue whale accidentally struck their boat, and it sank in minutes. The two men barely survived drowning.

Smith met Iwamoto 2½ years ago and was so inspired by his desire to try again despite the odds that he bought a boat and offered to serve as Iwamoto's sighted crewman so together they could complete what they called the Voyage of Inspiration.

Describing the emotions he felt when they sailed Smith's 40-foot sailing yacht, Dream Weaver, into Fukushima's Onahama harbor, Iwamoto said he's "the happiest guy in the world."

"I am so happy I stood up and said I want to try again. I'm so lucky I met Doug, who heard my passion and helped me make my dream come true," Iwamoto said in a phone interview from Tokyo. "I want people to learn from my experience that the only limitations we have are in our brains. My message is never give up."

While the duo arrived in Japan with a bit of food and emergency fuel to spare, Smith said the trip was difficult. They got off to a slow start in February when a lack of trade winds along the Baja coast forced them to re-route their westward route. Then, when they got close to Japan, they encountered strong currents and heaving waves that held them offshore in rough conditions for days.

They also had numerous equipment failures. The boom brake, which keeps the heavy sail holder from swinging rapidly with the wind and, potentially, knocking a passenger overboard, broke. So they had to tie the boom in place, which affected the boat's response to changing winds. They also had electrical problems with their hydro-generator, their alternator, their regulator and their geo-location system.

Smith, who was a novice sailor with just a few months of sailing lessons before the trip, said he learned a lot about sailing and electrical repair during the trip. He also learned a lot about himself as he and Iwamoto patiently worked through all of the problems they encountered without ever losing patience with one another.

"What would we argue about? We were in the same boat both figuratively and literally," Smith said in a phone interview from Fukushima. "We were trying to achieve the same thing and we learned a lot more about each other. It was great."

Iwamoto is a veteran sailor, but because he's blind there was always the danger of falling overboard if he missed a step. And if Smith fell overboard, it would've been difficult for Iwamoto to find him.

To ensure against that, Iwamoto memorized every inch of the boat before they left, and both wore life vests 24 hours a day that were tethered to the boat with a system of cables. There was one day when a sail line broke and Iwamoto had to make his way to the tip of the bow in heavy seas to help Smith fix it. Iwamoto said that was the scariest day of the voyage for him.

"Fortunately, Doug and I worked together very well. We have a friendship and trust on land, but when you're out in the Pacific in a boat with just one other person, you develop a much deeper trust."

The men sailed 24 hours a day, alternating six-hour shifts at the wheel. Iwamoto mostly sailed at night since he's comfortable sailing in the dark. They subsisted on a lean diet of power bars, protein drinks and freeze-dried foods. Smith lost 30 pounds and Iwamoto lost 10 during the voyage. Both also grew thick beards.

Iwamoto, 52, grew up on the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu where he began losing his sight at age 13. By 16, he was completely blind. Faced with a future of being dependent on others, he initially thought of committing suicide but decided instead to push his own limits to inspire others.

He went to medical school, studying in Japan and San Francisco, to become an acupuncturist, and in his 20s he met his American wife, Karen Young Iwamoto, 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.

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Iwamoto runs a holistic health medicine practice and travels the world doing motivational speaking. It was on one of those tours in Japan in 2016 that the two men met through a mutual friend.

Smith, 55, grew up in Alexandria, Va., and graduated from college in 1990 with an economics degree. He flew to Japan, found work in the real estate finance industry and met his wife, Naomi. They married in 1995 and have two daughters, Rachael and Hana. Smith commutes between Japan and the U.S. for his job with GreenGen, a Maryland company that creates sustainable energy systems for companies worldwide.

Smith had dreamed for years of sailing across the Pacific but didn't know how to sail and couldn't find anyone to go with him. When he met Iwamoto, he saw a way to fulfill both of their dreams.

Most of the news coverage over the past few months has focused on Iwamoto, which is just fine with Smith. Instead, his focus has been on the adventure itself and raising money for four charities including San Diego's Challenged Athletes Foundation. He said he's enjoyed helping Iwamoto's dream come true.

"I looked at this trip as our moonshot," Smith said. "We needed a spaceship, we needed mission control and we needed an astronaut. There was always the plan that I'd build the spaceship, which was our boat, and be mission control keeping track of all the data every day. But he's the astronaut. We did it together in our different capacities and we did it with the Dream Weaver. I think we both felt there were three of us on the voyage."

Iwamoto said he plans to spend a month relaxing in Japan with family before returning home to San Diego. He's considering writing a book about the experience from the blog he kept along the way. Smith is moving Dream Weaver to a different harbor in Japan for long-term storage. He isn't planning to sail the boat back to the U.S. for at least two years. But if and when he does, he knows exactly who to call for a second hand at the wheel.

"We share the same determination," Smith said of Iwamoto. "He wasn't going to let people tell him he couldn't do it and I wasn't going to let people tell me I didn't have enough sailing experience to go with him. If you tell us we can't do something, we'll work hard to prove you wrong. That personality trait really bonded us."

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