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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.

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001
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.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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