Tales of the North Pacific

What a 62-year-old man can teach shellshocked dot-commers as he sails from Osaka to San Francisco. Alone. Again.

"For them, the few quarts of gas they'd be burning while moored was better than going to the trouble of casting anchor. It was an extravagant trick. This was America," he wrote in his book Kodoku[Solitude]: Sailing Alone Across the Pacific.

William Fisher, a sprightly, 87-year-old, long-retired firebrick salesman, greets me at the door of his beautiful bayside home in a reserved mood. He's been having a bit of a bad week, after skinning his arm the other day thrashing about in his sleep, and his bandaged appendage seems to have reminded him of the limitations of being old. A lifelong sailor, Fisher has, of late, had to make do with a newish, motorized boat, thanks to his age. His wife of more than 50 years died not too long ago, and his Point Richmond home's beautiful view of San Francisco hasn't looked the same since she's been gone.

Still, Fisher's mood brightens once he begins reminiscing about the day he met Kenichi Horie. We sit in Fisher's living room and drag out the logbook for the Marybeth, a 40-foot yawl Fisher and his wife used to cruise on. Fisher turns to Aug. 11, 1962, and shows me the entry.

"We spotted a very small sailboat," the log says. "He wanted to know where to go so we told him to follow us. As we were sailing faster, we kept going back and circling him. Each time he was whistling happily."

Fisher was the first American Horie met.

"A group of us was going out for a Sunday sail. It was a beautiful day, a nice breeze on a nice calm day. We sailed out of Belvedere by Crissy Field, and I saw this little boat coming in under the bridge," Fisher recalls. "As we got closer then, we noticed there was a foreign flag flying from the stern. Even that didn't bother me particularly, because around then there were a lot of foreign boats being brought in. There were some Greek brothers at the St. Francis Yacht Club, and they always flew a Greek flag, so I figured it was something like that. Then I looked up in the starboard rigging, and here was a yellow flag. I'd been in the Coast Guard, and that was something you don't kid with. A yellow flag is something put up by a foreign ship coming in full sail. It means they're healthy, and they want clearance. I thought we'd better check this out. We circled around and we hailed him and said, "Where are you from?' Kenichi stands up and says, "I'm from Osaka, Japan.' He had slightly dark skin, and we thought he'd come from maybe Mexico, or Canada.

"But Osaka, Japan?"

Horie, it turns out, had been dreaming of sailing a boat across the Pacific since he was a teenager, to the mockery of his comrades and the worriment of his mother and siblings. He scrimped and saved until he could buy a boat -- a humble, 19-foot craft no bigger than a Datsun. He trained for years until he felt his navigating skills were world class. He tried, and failed, to get the government to grant him a travel visa. He bought three months' worth of rice and canned food. He launched his craft at night, so his friends and family wouldn't be there for last-minute discouragement. He battled a hurricane, days of dead air, and incomprehensible isolation to push his boat toward the Point Reyes Lighthouse, and then the Golden Gate.

I wanted to ask Horie how he managed to suffer the days of loneliness during his first Pacific crossing, what drew him eastward, and, of course, what he hopes to find in San Francisco after he leaves Osaka in May 2001, and sails the Pacific again.

"I enjoy the trip. Some days, I have a radio. I listen to your country's radio on a receiver. I spent time reading a book," Horie says when I call him at his Hyoto, Japan, home. "I want to see the San Francisco people, and I want to go to where Mayor George Christopher is. I want to go to his cemetery."

By the end of his first trip, Horie had spent the better part of three months fretting that he might be deported because he hadn't brought his passport. Instead, the city gave him a hero's welcome, granting him a special 30-day permit to stay in the United States. The day after he arrived, Mayor Christopher gave him a symbolic key to the city, and he was welcomed as an honored guest from San Francisco's sister city, Osaka. For a month he was feted in receptions, parties, and dinners; back in Japan he was met by a cheering airport throng.

Since then, it turns out, Horie has made something of a hobby of trekking between the U.S. and Japan.

"In 1989, I took a trip from S.F. to Japan on the smallest boat, a 9-foot boat," Horie tells me. In 1996, he crossed the Pacific in a solar-powered boat. In 1999, he made the trip from San Francisco to Japan in an effort to prove the viability of crossing the Pacific in a catamaran made from 528 beer kegs that had been welded together. ("All the horizontal pieces that held the two pontoons together -- all but one broke," says Gretta Lutz, a friend of Horie's. "He had very serious trouble limping to Japan.")

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