‘I want to do it again’: Japan’s octogenarian sailor on the joy of crossing the Pacific solo

Kenichi Horie has completed so many epic voyages across the world’s oceans that he initially struggles to remember the exact number.

“It must be about 10,” he tells the Guardian in an interview at his home port, Shin Nishinomiya yacht harbour, near the western Japanese city of Kobe.

He does, though, recall practically every storm, meal and satellite phone conversation from his most recent adventure – an 8,700km journey across the Pacific that made him the oldest person to sail nonstop and alone across the world’s biggest ocean.

We meet a week after he guided the Suntory Mermaid III – a 5.8m-long (19ft) yacht customised to suit his tiny frame – into waters off the Kii peninsula in western Japan, 69 days after he left San Francisco and six decades after his first Pacific crossing.

The 83-year-old, who said it had taken his legs a couple of days to get used to being back on terra firma, is modest about his achievement and almost dismissive about the dangers he faced.

“The weather was bad sometimes, but I wouldn’t describe it as awful,” says Horie, dressed in shorts and a polo shirt that reveal wiry, tanned limbs, his shock of white hair partly obscured by a baseball cap.

He had, though, battled dicey conditions, including a storm that arrived soon after he left San Francisco, and confessed in one of his online diary entries to being “fed up”.

While onboard technology has improved beyond recognition since he made his first trans-Pacific journey – from Nishinomiya to San Francisco in 1962, when he made do with a paraffin lamp and a radio – his routine has remained unchanged.

During his recent crossing, he woke at sunrise and had a breakfast of fruit before planning conversations with his family and weather updates with his support team. “The yacht is moving all the time, of course, so I don’t have one long sleep, just for short periods. There is always something I need to do – it’s a 24-hour job,” he says, adding that his biggest fear was falling asleep and missing his daily satellite phone call with his wife, Eriko.

“If I call later than agreed she worries that something has happened to me. But she’s never asked me to stop making these long voyages.”

He finds escape from the loneliness of life at sea reading, and always includes two books – Japanese-language accounts of fellow maritime adventurers Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus – in his onboard collection. “They inspire me,” he says.

It’s a habit that has served him well. In 1962, Horie, then a car parts salesman, became the first person to sail solo and nonstop across the Pacific, arriving in San Francisco without a passport or money. He was arrested but was quickly released after the city’s mayor, George Christopher, granted him a visa in recognition of his achievement. His boat, The Mermaid, is now the main attraction at San Francisco’s Maritime Museum.

In the years since, he has completed three circumnavigations of the globe, including a nonstop westbound solo voyage. And he has made multiple Pacific crossings, including one in the world’s smallest yacht and another in a boat made entirely of recycled materials.

Less resilient souls would struggle to cope with endless hours spent alone in a vast ocean, but Horie used the time productively. “I like being alone with my thoughts,” he says. “I think about the yacht, and how I might tweak the design of my next one, or I fantasise about my dream boat. My recent trip was nonstop, so I was thinking it might be a good idea to stop off at Hawaii next time.”

His diminutive stature – he measures just 1.52m tall (5ft) – makes life easier in the confines of a cabin. “Yes, it’s a small space, but remember, you’re constantly moving and looking at the night sky and the ocean. You get a sense of freedom from that.”

Though well into his ninth decade, Horie says any thoughts of retirement come and go as quickly as an ocean squall. “I plan to carry on, although my wife and I are both getting on,” he says. “I’m in good health now, and if that continues, then, yes, I will continue. But at my age there are no guarantees. I want to sail across the Pacific again, but who knows. This might have been my last time.”

His age, he adds, is important only to headline writers and chroniclers of humans’ endless fascination with traversing Earth’s most forbidding oceans. “I’ve made lots of voyages across the Pacific, but my age was really only important this time, because I set a record,” he says. “The most important thing is to decide what you want to do, and then enjoy doing it. For me, age isn’t a factor.”

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