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The Ambitious Blind Sailor

Blind since his teens, Mitsuhiro Iwamoto wants to sail the
Pacific from California back to his home country of Japan.

Mitsuhiro Iwamoto has a dream: to sail across the Pacific.

Iwamoto has been blind since his teens, but that hasn’t stopped him from taking on the seas. His plan is to sail across the ocean with just one other, sighted person.

Iwamoto moved to the United States from Japan four years ago and has taken part in sailing races across the country. I visited Iwamoto for an interview in his Kearny Mesa office, where he practices oriental medicine.

We talked about living blind, his struggle to find positivity and his big dream.

And when the weather finally cleared up this week, photographer Sam Hodgson joined him at sea.

There, he helped pilot a 45-foot sailboat out of the Oceanside Harbor and into the Pacific Ocean, all the while feeling his way around the boat — from bow to stern.

What was it like when you first went blind?

I was partially sighted when I was born. I could ride a bicycle. I could play baseball. But when I was 13 years old I started gradually losing my sight. When I was 16 years old I lost my sight totally.

I was a teenager, so it was very hard. I started bumping into poles when I was riding the bike. So I stopped doing that. I started falling down the stairs when I was running. Even when I was walking, I started bumping into things, falling down.

My teacher told me I had to start using a cane, but no, I didn’t want to accept that. Life was hard. I told my parents, “Why you gave me birth?” I was negative and I couldn’t accept my blindness. I didn’t know what my life is going to be. I tried to commit suicide even.

But I got the message: I have to live positively. There isn’t just one life. I must have meaning in life, being blind. To encourage people. Not just blind people, but sighted people who lost their meaning of life. I got the message and yes, I had to start doing that. I started to live positively.

How did you go from wanting to commit suicide to looking at it positively?

I cried and cried, you know. I slept. And in my dream I got the message. Like that.

Now I am taking advantage of my blindness. (When Iwamoto isn’t sailing, he performs Jin Shin Jyutsu, a kind of pressure point therapy.) My hands are more sensitive than regular people so that I can feel better.

The funny thing is, in Tokyo some religious people approach me in a crowded station and say, “Can I pray so that you can be sighted?” I told them, “I don’t need it!” I don’t want to be sighted. I’m enjoying my life and I’m giving the message to the sighted people. That’s my meaning in life. So don’t take my blindness away.

Are attitudes about blindness very different in Japan and the U.S.?

I think so. Because in the States, a lot of people think that disability can be positive, that people are able to do things with some support. If I stayed in Tokyo, my dream might not come true. (Pauses.) But in Japan, too, I have a lot of supporters.

Tell me about your first time sailing and what it was like.

The first time, I was in Saipan with my wife. She’s a sailor also. So we went out on a catamaran. I was born on an island in Japan so my dad used to be a boat owner, a fisherman. I used to be on the boat a lot, so I like the motion.

How does being blind affect the way that you sail?

I can feel the wind direction. Of course, we need a sighted guide, so that we can go around the other boats. But other than that, I can drive with sighted people’s help. (Iwamoto later added that like all sailors, he also has tools to help him. He uses a vocalized GPS and an audio compass.)

That’s why I’d like to start a program for people who’ve lost their meaning of life. Please be on board with me and tell me what you see, so I can steer the boat. I need your help. You are needed. That’s what I want to do after sailing the Pacific, from California to Japan.

Is being blind actually an advantage in sailing because of the way your other senses are affected?

You can think that way. Sometimes I feel the puff, the wind coming. I was on the regular sighted team here in San Diego, and I called, “The puff is coming, three, two, one” — and the puff comes. So the driver can steer and other people can trim the sail.

Why do you want to cross the Pacific?

I was born in Japan, so I want to cross the Pacific to Japan. I’m going to be the first totally blind challenger to sail across the Pacific.

(Note from VOSD: Don Mason, chairman of Blind Sailing International, says Iwamoto would not be the first blind sailor to cross the Pacific. However, Iwamoto says he would be the first such sailor who was totally blind, not just legally blind. Blind Sailing International didn’t know whether that was true or not.)

I want to do things regular people don’t think are possible. Making impossible — as regular people think — possible. Like there is a blind guy who climbed Mount Everest. Like that. We will have equal responsibility on the boat (Iwamoto and a sighted person). I’m not just going to be a guest or something.

Does it cost a lot of money? What do you need to be able to do it?

Maybe $20,000. Plus the boat.

What’s the farthest you’ve sailed so far?

In Japan I sailed several times offshore. But that was just three days. Here in America here I did Newport Beach to Ensenada, and the Border Run, where we go around the Coronado Islands and finish in San Diego.

What do you hope that other people learn from what you’ve been able to do?

Life will be changed by the way of your thinking. If not, I wouldn’t have the life, very nice life, that I have now. Life is great. Life is wonderful, if you see it that way. Each person has a meaning in our lives. Each person is needed in society. How you think of the situation is very important.

Interview conducted and edited by Emily Alpert. Contact her directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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