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.

Next week's issue of the San Francisco- based Industry Standard says that NBC plans to spend $85 million buying back from shareholders what's left of NBCi, the Web portal the network had hoped would compete with the likes of Yahoo!

"It remains unclear exactly what NBC's plans are for NBCi's assets," the article says. Unclear? Really?Perhaps Standard readers might log on to www. buyusedcomputersreallystinkingcheap. com for answers. Speaking of Standard readers, has anyone else noticed how that magazine and its bathroom-reading-for-the-New-Economy brethren have become as thin as Vatican birth control pamphlets?

Inside magazine, launched two months ago with the help of the Industry Standard and an outfit called Powerful Media, laid off its staff two weeks ago to become, presumably, Puny Media. It was just bought by magnate Stephen Brill. The CEO of Imagine Media, parent of the iZine Business 2.0, resigned three weeks ago because, well, who wants to be CEO of "Imaginary Media'? At press time, the magazine, along with the flopped Time Warner property e Company Now, was presumably going to be merged into Time Warner's Fortune magazine.

There's no worse harbinger of bad times than failing magazines filled with stories of other people's failure. And according to UCLA economist Tom K. Lieser, economic doldrums may last longer here in San Francisco than anyone's saying. "Recession in California will have a disproportionate impact on the San Francisco Bay Area," he writes in his latest UCLA California Forecast.

Which all brings me to this week's column.

Economic hard times make people miserable, no matter what Norman Rockwell and his silly friends say. During recessions, poor people become hungry and irritable, and therefore less cordial; the rich, who are mean-spirited to begin with, become criminal psychopaths, evicting people's grandmothers, firing other people's uncles, and otherwise guarding their amassed assets as a badger might protect a hole. During the coming months and years thousands of Bay Area waitresses will lose their jobs. Hundreds of copy store employees will become unemployed. Dozens of magnates will have to settle for last year's Jaguar. Remember dot-com evictions? Recession evictions will be worse.

San Francisco, never a particularly neighbor-ly place, will become ornery. Neighbors will key each other's cars in retaliation for misplaced dog poop. Marginally employed roommates will steal one another's food. Children, suffering their parents' angst, will snarl while passing other kids on the sidewalk. Friends will require appointments before calling upon friends, and then break the appointments. Visitors will become impressed by how dour local residents are.

Which brings us to this week's real column,1 which is about the voyage of Kenichi Horie, the hero of Aquatic Park, the man who 40 years ago single-handedly piloted a tiny sailboat from Osaka to San Francisco. It's a tale of redemption in the face of humility, of fortitude in the face of horrifying hardship. It's also a parable of hope that could serve as a palliative during the trying times San Francisco is about to embark upon.

Next year, Horie, 62, will again sail from Japan to San Francisco, this time in a boat made from recycled beer cans and plastic bottles. Horie will dedicate his trip to the late San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, who allowed Horie to enter the U.S. upon his arrival in San Francisco in 1962. Christopher died in September at the age of 92.

Although his 1962 boat Mermaid is on display at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, Horie is virtually unknown here. But in Japan Horie is so famous that his name is included on historical timelines of modern Japan. He is the subject of Japanese documentaries, magazine articles, and at least one book. He's legendary worldwide among long-distance solo sailors and human-powered boat enthusiasts (he once pedaled the distance between Japan and Hawaii). So we should be honored that he plans to set sail yet again, wishing to meet the people of San Francisco, whom he says he loves.

When Kenichi Horie entered San Francisco Bay 40 years ago, we were on the cusp of the headiest era in American history. We were in an unprecedented, post-World War II period of economic growth; people were having more sex than they ever had before, creating the Baby Boom. Kennedy had not yet died, nor had Martin Luther King. San Francisco was rich, sated, and optimistic, and Horie was enthralled by what he hoped to see, and saw, here.

Horie sailed from Osaka on May 12, 1962, trying to fulfill his years-old dream of becoming the first Japanese to sail solo across the Pacific Ocean. When asked why, he bristles: Who wouldn't want to be the first Japanese to sail solo across the Pacific?

When Horie and his 19-foot plywood sloop arrived in San Francisco after 93 days at sea he encountered an impossible fantasy. He sailed into a bay full of yachtsmen out for a Sunday cruise. He was greeted by a middle-aged, kindly looking gentleman sailing a large yawl painted a brilliant white. He was then towed by a Coast Guard cutter filled with cheerful seamen. Rather than take the time to drop anchor, Horie recalls, the cutter looped a line around a pier, then threw its engine in reverse to keep the line taut -- fixing the ship in place in the water, without a thought to the amount of fuel that would be wasted.

"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.")

During all these years, William Fisher has kept in touch with the crazy kid he met while sailing 39 years ago. One time, he took Horie on a sailboat race. During the race, Horie employed the survival skills that have made him such a formidable long-distance sailor.

"The minute the race started, he fell asleep," Fisher says. "That guy's crazy. He's quite a character."

He's a hero, is what he is.

By next May, heroes are exactly what we'll be needing. Because as Horie battles spring typhoons, San Franciscans will be battling joblessness, bankruptcies, evictions. As Horie waits out the windless mid-Pacific, job hunters here will be sending résumés into a dead- air abyss.

But rather than snarling at our neighbors or standing up our friends, perhaps we should cast a thought to Kenichi Horie. If next year's voyage is like the one 40 years ago, we might imagine him crying uncontrollably through the loneliness of the voyage's first weeks. We might picture him wracked with diarrhea, or wincing at the nauseating smell a tiny berth full of wet supplies develops after 50 days. But if next year is in any way similar to 1962, Kenichi Horie might also eventually suffer his voyage's mountain-high waves and anvil-lifting winds as sources of distraction, rather than anguish. He might find solace in simple things -- a light breeze, a Moscow station coming through clear on the shortwave radio, the pleasure of inventing a new sail-mounting technique for running against the wind. He might discover, once again, the thrill of besting adversity, and he might, for our sake, bring it here, where it will be needed most.

1 Really. This is really it.

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