Blind Sailing and a Wake Up Call

"There is a condition worse than blindness, and that is, seeing something that isn't there."
-Thomas Hardy (English novelist and poet)

Sailing has a way of heightening our senses, both when we're under sail and when we're back on land dreaming of being at sea again. Even so, I think it's far too common to take our senses for granted. With the advent of GPS, AIS, DSC and all the other technological acronyms that abound on today's cruising sailboats, it's no wonder we sometimes numb out to the feel of the wind, the sound of the sea and the sights of a quiet deck watch.

Hiro Iwamoto is a sailor who knows the importance of heightened senses better than most. He was born with weak eyesight and became fully blind by middle school. His teenage years were marked with fear and pain but he emerged with determination and a dream. Hiro wants to become a motivational speaker and make a difference in the lives of children who also suffer from handicaps. His dream project is to sail across the Pacific Ocean and show that blindness doesn't need to be an obstacle for big goals.

Hiro began his dream sail from Fukushima, Japan on June 16 bound for his hometown of San Diego, California. He was accompanied by Japanese celebrity newscaster Jiro Shinbou, who was along to help during times when eyesight was essential. Hiro chose one of my favorite little bluewater sailboats for his epic adventure, a Bristol Channel Cutter (BCC) named Aeolus.

Just 5 days into the voyage, Hiro's dream turned into a nightmare. Aeolus struck an unidentified object 800 miles offshore from Japan while reaching in building seas and what appeared to be strong winds. The video below captures the incident and gives pause to anyone thinking of making an ocean passage. At around 26 seconds into the video you can see a faint black object break the surface of the water off of Aeolus's starboard bow. Seconds later (~34 second mark) the boat and camera shutter as the object is struck with enough force to cause crippling damage to the hull. A large, dark shape is visible sliding away in the water off of Aeolus's starboard side at about 37 seconds in the video.

Hiro and Jiro felt three impacts and then noticed their little sailboat taking on water. They smartly put out a distress call and boarded their life raft while abandoning ship. Aeolus sank, but the two shaken sailors were rescued by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force after two attempts by two sepearate amphibious aircraft.

Attention all you bluewater sailors: Are your senses heightened now? While it is not unheard of for cruising sailboats to encounter large and dangerous objects while offshore, the above story and video emphasizes the importance of keeping a careful watch and having proper safety equipment and a suitable bluewater boat. Actually, there are very few boats more bluewater capable than a BCC, so there are no guarantees. While we'll likely never know for sure what Aeolus struck, it sure looks like a whale to my eyes. Some reports also suggest that Hiro believes it was a sperm whale. Other possibilities could include a cargo container lost from a transport ship (more common than you might think!) or debris washed to sea during the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

As sailor's, we often feel we're safest when we're away from land. After all, "a lee shore is a dangerous shore" and "land is what sinks ships". But even miles from nowhere, paths can cross and ship happens.  

Excuse me now while I go to the bow and stand watch!


  1. Anonymous04 July

    but it's pretty rare to hit, let alone be holed, by debris (even rarer when hitting a relatively soft whale I suspect)
    no sense in getting paranoid about it. I'd sooner worry about naming my boat after the God of Wind!

  2. Oh, man, that video gives me the willies! Even though we don't have to worry about whales and cargo containers so much in the Great Lakes, this post is a great reminder about the importance of being prepared.

  3. John Miller15 July

    Yeah goose bumps for sure! Even in Great Lakes gotta keep a watch though. Was outside of Outer Island this weekend and spotted a dense tree adrift. That would do some damage if you were powered up!

  4. Damn! I'm not sure what I saw but it sure can topple the boat if it wanted to.


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