Kairaku Magazine (April 2007 issue)

Eisuke Tomiyama is a friend of my good Japanese friend, Taku Yamanaka. Tomiyama, or "Tomi" runs a beautiful glossy ocean lifestyle magazine called "Kairaku" ("ocean paradise" in English). After sailing across the North Pacific with me, Taku showed Tomi some of my images from the crossing, and Tomi got the idea to do an article on sailing. His magazine is mostly devoted to surfing, but he thought sailing might be interesting to his surfer readers. Tomi came to Hawaii, stayed at my place, and selected some of my favorite sailing images. I wrote a short piece about the sailing lifestyle, and how much we can learn about the ocean from sailing as well as surfing. I took Tomi surfing at Puaena Point. The waves were great, and I remember that he got some of the best ones that day.


Cover photo: Tor swimming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

Click here to read English version of article

The Way of The Ocean

The legendary waterman Duke Kahanamoku was once quoted as saying that the true waterman should learn not just one aspect of the ocean, but should paddle, sail, swim, surf, dive, and try to learn as many aspects of the sea as possible.

Sailing is a way of life. It is a bridge to different cultures; it is a way to learn from the ocean and the weather, and a means to travel to places that can’t be reached in any other way. Sailors discover places so remote that they seem to exist only for the sailor, islands with no airports, lands with harbors and towns that outsiders rarely reach, waves that no one has ever surfed. The open ocean itself is full of new and strange experiences, and every sail is somewhat of an adventure.

I was born into the experience: my father took the entire family sailing from our home in California when I was only eight years old. My brother and sister were ten. Somewhere along the way I learned to sail, and somewhere I learned to love the way unexpected things happened. Every time I went ashore I’d see something wondrous and strange. It might be something as small as a piece of flotsam from an inconceivably distant foreign shore, or an old fisherman with stories to tell that no one could have ever invented, or even a new friend. Eventually I realized a truth about travel: you never know why you went until you actually go there. It’s possible to travel with only one goal, say to find perfect surf, but chances are you may be disappointed. Like life in general, sailing is a great adventure, and the rewards are always unexpected.

This is not to say that sailing is what one would call “fun”. The open sea is a very foreign and harsh environment, which takes a lot of adapting to. The easiest task can seem impossible. Take for instance something we all do several times each day: the simple act of peeing. On the open sea, peeing is perhaps the most dangerous thing a sailor can do. More sailors are probably lost this way than any other. It’s just not safe to hold onto a crazily jerking boat with only one hand while swaying out over the abyss. Not to mention the fact that the wind tends to whip around and spray you with urine. The safer option is to go below and use what’s called the “head”. There you try to aim a snaking stream from the folds of your wet-weather gear toward an elusive moving target while getting thrown about. Chances are you’ll end up peeing on yourself anyway. Add to this indignity the fact that the head often gets pretty smelly at sea, with all the hatches closed and no ventilation and all the smells from the engine and the bilges stirring around down there. When you are feeling a bit seasick, it’s often just the ticket to send you straight to the aforementioned dangerous rail to eject your lunch into the deep blue sea.

If you do fall over the side, and are lucky enough that someone sees you go over, the problem is that you will soon be invisible to anyone standing on the boat, because even a two foot high wave between a swimmer’s head and the boat will block their view. It’s like living on the edge of a cliff. I always tell my crew that if they fall over the side, they will probably die. Maybe it helps people hang on, because I haven’t lost anyone yet.

One begins to wonder why anyone would do such a miserable and dangerous thing as sailing. I think it has something to do with selective amnesia: our ability to block out bad memories while retaining the good ones. Ocean voyages have been compared to giving birth: absolutely miserable, but somehow worth the effort. Our ability to forget how miserable we were may actually be crucial to our survival as a species: if we remembered how hard it really was, women would probably stop having children.

Sailing has a way of changing one’s outlook on life. There is a great deal of responsibility involved in taking a boat to sea. Many decisions you make can mean the difference between life and death. When I was a teenager my father took me out of school and I spent over a year sailing with my family through the Philippines, Oceania, Japan, and across the Pacific to Alaska. As part of the crew, I learned to handle the sails, navigate, and “stand watch”, steering through the night for hours at a stretch while the others slept. Standing watch in the midst of a long black night is a great responsibility, and it can be frightening, but there was something calming and good about standing watch over the sleeping crew, knowing that I was responsible for everyone else’s safety. I knew I would look out for them.

When we finally returned to Santa Cruz, our family home base, I went back to High School. There were bells that sounded at regular intervals, and everyone moved in unison to their sound. There were strange rules that everyone was supposed to follow, rules made up by people who decided what was best for us. The entire experience seemed artificial to me. I felt displaced and incredulous. I felt that the true rules were those of the sea and the weather, of safety and risk, but I was suddenly expected to follow this new and different set of standards.

I ended up skipping the rest of High School, thanks to a proficiency test that allowed such things, and went straight to college. Here people were learning things they could really use. Having sailed to Japan, I wanted to learn Japanese, so I took Japanese language courses, and absolutely loved it. I began to realize that having sailed to Japan and being close to its language and people had put me ahead of the pack already. I ended up studying Japanese through University. After graduating, I had a choice of name-brand graduate schools, but I chose the University of Hawaii because I knew it was where I wanted to live. It was close to Japan, it had great surf and it smelled like plumerias. My life has been completely molded by the experience of sailing. And after living on a boat, what could be more natural than to live on an island where you are never far from the sea.

As the ancient Polynesian navigators well knew, the sea is not a barrier that separates us; it is the thing that connects us all to one another.

Aloha no,
Tor Johnson