Waves surrounded the boat, forming a wall of sea nearly 20 feet high. Two men—16 days into a 54-day journey across the Pacific—struggled to steady their 40-foot vessel. The most capable sailor of the two, however, carried an extra challenge: He is blind.
Mitsuhiro Iwamoto, tethered to the boat for safety, moved forward to work the line and set the sails as Douglas Smith (Col ’86), the sighted but novice sailor, took the helm. Iwamoto had created a complete mental map of the boat, Smith says, so he could feel for what was needed amid “waves crashing into each other from all directions.”
Iwamoto’s previous attempt to cross the Pacific with another sighted navigator five years prior had ended when his vessel collided with a whale and sank. This time the journey was successful. Together, Iwamoto and Smith completed the 7,000 nautical miles from San Diego to Fukushima, Japan, and raised more than $41,000 for charities related to blindness and other disabilities.
Smith had met Iwamoto through mutual friends in 2016 and signed on for the trip after learning the sailor hoped to make a second go. Smith, 55, didn’t merely want to “sail off into the sunset” of his retirement years, he says, but do something significant for others.
After buying a boat and completing a course through the Maryland School of Sailing, the two set forth in February. The Dream Weaver was outfitted with 200 gallons of water, freeze-dried food for 60 days, and solar- and wave-powered equipment.
“It was amazing how much time just slipped by doing the daily things on the boat,” says Smith, who took six-hour shifts at the wheel but otherwise spent his days adjusting sails, downloading forecasts, uploading blog posts and the like.
Iwamoto, 52, who took up sailing years after losing his sight at age 16, handled the other half of steering and rigging duties. He leaned heavily on his other senses—feeling for wind direction, for example, and listening to a speaking compass.
After the pair reached port in April, the Japan Blind Sailing Association named Iwamoto the first blind person to make a nonstop Pacific crossing. “I didn’t give up,” he told Japan’s Kyodo News, “and I made a dream come true.”
“Everything is going to have an element of risk to it,” Smith says about his journey with Iwamoto. “I told him, ‘I can see, you can sail. Let’s do this.’ ”