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Saturday, July 14, 2001


All set ot sail -- and then the wind blew

On July 1, the sea opened in an annual event called "umibiraki" (opening of the sea). My island celebrates umibiraki with the annual Shiraishi Yacht Race. This year, I and a couple of friends decided to enter the race. Since we all had limited sailing skills, we thought this would be a lot of fun. Our crew was an attorney, an English teacher and a columnist. Even though we had never entered a race before, we knew we had the main ingredient to win a Japanese yacht race: the ability to "gambaru."

Gambaru, or "to do your best," is the Japanese people's mantra for getting through any hardship in life, from getting out of bed in the morning to making it through a serious illness. Limited sailing skill falls somewhere in between.

The great thing about sailing is that the boat is wind-powered. In theory. When you buy a sailboat, you forget that there is no requirement for the wind to blow on the days you go sailing. So, although the gambaru crew had been practicing every weekend for the past two months, we were most skilled in the area of observing, "There's no wind!" This was usually followed by the another observation: "We're going backwards!"

We became used to sailing without wind. One time, on raw gambaru attitude alone, we finished a normal wind-assisted four-hour sail in nine hours without wind. We were beginning to wonder why people would even WANT wind. It was so much better to suffer -- to gambaru. The sense of accomplishment was enormous.

We were hoping there would be no wind at all on the day of the race. Surely we were the only crew who could win by turning the boat around and sailing backwards. That, accompanied by gambaru, would surely win us a place in the hearts of the Japanese. And if that didn't work, we brought along some backups for a no-wind day: solar panels, a paddle-wheel extension and a stratospheric windmill (with extra blades) to catch stray winds headed down from above.

We didn't end up needing these, however, because on race day there was wind. This caused panic on board as the crew observed: "Wind! What do we do?" We never imagined such wind. The stuff was everywhere: in our eyes, in our ears, underneath our fingernails.

This couldn't be possible -- we had not had wind for weeks. We must be doing something wrong. "Is there someone who didn't pray to the Shinto gods?" I asked. "Did anyone at all offer money or alcohol to the gods?" Everyone looked down in a cowardly fashion. We were doomed. So we opened some beers and toasted by saying, "Gambaru!"

There are many kinds of wind, such as prevailing winds, head winds, side winds, etc. But I have narrowed them down to two types: good wind and bad wind. This I base on where the wind has been before it gets to you. The first leg of the race was good wind, the kind that had recently blown away loose papers, was the product of ceiling fans or had provided a breeze for a model's hair.

On the first leg of the triangular race course, we had this good wind and were already well behind most of the other boats. When another boat passed us, they yelled, "Gambatte!" (Do your best!) I yelled back, "Gambaru!" (I'll do my best!) while trying to unwrap myself from the spinnaker pole.

As we entered the second leg of the triangle, the wind picked up. Could this be the bad wind? Had it blown over trash cans, torn the limbs off trees or taken part in some natural disaster? Another boat passed, cheering "Gambatte!" And I yelled "Gambaru!" while freeing the English teacher from the halyards.

When we rounded into the final leg of the triangle, we actually passed another boat. Our gambaru attitude was working -- We were no longer in last place! I yelled "Gambatte!" and slathered more sunscreen onto the attorney, who was now looking very much like an overripe tomato.

Then, out of nowhere, appeared the marine paparazzi. They zoomed up in a motorboat pointing cameras at us and yelling: "Foreigners! Red ones! Look at them gambaru!"

We continued to gambaru and passed another boat to end the race third from last. We even won a prize: the gambaru prize!

Find all you wanted to know about Japan Lite, and more about Amy, at the NEW Japan Lite home page: www.amychavez.com

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