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Sunday, May 20, 2007
WORKING FOR A LIKING
Set on a course to be gone with the wind
By ERIC L. DUE
Trundling homeward in the dark, cheeks-to-cheeks and pondering the meaning of life in a steamy train carriage. The conductor up front, immaculate and deadpan in a climate-controlled cubicle oblivious to Japan Rail's rolling Apache sweat lodge.
Don't yell out. It's late spring — un-cloak! The thermometer climbs. Predictably, that first vernal rivulet of sweat at the neck's nape beads dead south, unhindered by belt, accessories, or whatever.
Hand stirrups sway in synchronized, erratic unison. The mind drifts. South Seas?
Ah, ghosting in light breeze, full sail, ocean and sky an azure oneness. Shades, cap, trunks, tank-top, sunblock, flip-flops, a coldie. Checklist complete.
Enter matchmaker Yoshi Aoki, 57. He makes this happen like one-stop shopping.
Testimony to his trade, his glossy business card boasts an idyllic tropical sunset.
"This is my, ah, job, hyuk, hyuk!" the ever-affable Aoki cackles in his Tokyo apartment/office, scratching his pug Sango (it would be a pug — Capt. Pugwash, and all that!), boasting a career of oceanic romance — wedding people with sailboats, just about anywhere on Earth, and getting his seafarer fix.
No phlegmatic salaryman he.
Aoki takes his sailing passionately, and his clients — often repeat clients — know he's the man to see when they get that irresistible urge to be gone with the wind.
The business certainly didn't come easy, and postbubble Japan made it, still makes it more than 15 years on, a crapshoot. But over the past two decades, as his landlubber ways ebbed and he offered himself up to the sea, Aoki has carved out a niche, drawing longtime boat owners, first-timers, "yachties" — anyone who fancies island-hopping say, off Turkey or Greece. Or perhaps the Caribbean or the South Pacific is more your game?
Let Aoki work his magic. He'll arrange the transport, a skipper if needed, a cook, bartender — whatever it takes. A tough job, or what?
Most people make a living from their work; Aoki's enviable work is his life.
A growing mainstay (since 1996) is his yearly December sortie to Thailand's Phuket Island to join the King's Cup regattas there, chartering mono- and multi-hulls. Andaman gunkholing at Phi-Phi anyone, stirred but not shaken? Doable.
Tahiti also has races, but it's franc-ly pricier there.
You gotta pay to play, but crunch Aoki's numbers and the experience he offers can cost less than chilling, without tasting the wind, in a hotel somewhere close to paradise.
The size of the party determines the size or number of boats chartered. But a ballpark bareboat figure, minus airfare, per person for a week a-sea is about 80,000 yen (five aboard a 40-footer), not counting grog or grub.
Aoki also boat-finds for buyers, delivers — again, anywhere — and can arrange sailing lessons up to certification as bareboat skipper.
Aoki cut his sailing teeth at age 24 in dinghies off Enoshima, Kanagawa Prefecture. He got the bug there, but it remained benign, allowing him to spend his first working 20 years, well, cutting teeth, as a denture technician. To sink some of those choppers into, he later started up a French eatery in Tokyo — short-lived but a handy lesson for the future.
Then in 1991 he joined a Japan-Vancouver cruise via Oahu — his wharf-rat debut.
The early '90s found Aoki on the support team for Minoru Saito, legendary solo circumnavigating racer.
In 1995, Aoki joined Ocean Dream, a startup that tapped the Sunsail global charter-boat network. That August saw his first Phuket jaunt.
Title that episode "Hoodwinked on the High Seas." Leaving their sloop at quiet anchor, he and his seven hapless shipmates rowed beachside to partake in tiki-lamp hijinks — all the Thai trimmings.But when they rowed back to their boat to sleep, it, and their luggage, were gone.
"Pirates took our boat," a downcast Aoki called this writer from Phuket. What the . . ? "We had just gone ashore for a party, and . . . What to do?"
Five days later a tanker spotted the ransacked boat in the Malacca Strait.
The bamboozled had fortunately carried passports, wallets and tickets with them (Aoki's advice). Another learning experience to build from.
The year 2000 saw Aoki start his own charter/sailing consultancy, and his forays soared. He now takes 15 annual group charter tours, plying the Med, the Windwards, Malaysia, Tahiti, Tonga, New Zealand's South Island — just spin the globe. Like clientele and friends, his reach is worldwide.
Long-range deliveries? No sweat. In 2002 he brought a new sloop from Auckland through the South Pacific isles to the Philippines for a tropical-bent Japanese owner. An Oahu-Japan delivery seems in the works.
In between jaunts, Aoki baby-sits idle boats, exercises them, helps with their never-ending maintenance, or tags along on cruises, having a whole medley of owners he can draw from and hook newcomers up with.
Aoki has also baby-sat dumb-cluck skippers. On one fine '96 day anchored in Tokyo Bay with a wealthy (licensed but clueless) owner-skipper, an inebriated guest fell overboard and was receding with the tide. Aoki yelled at the dolt at the helm to shed his cooing lapdogs, weigh hook and launch rescue — but drew no more than a blank look. With his usual elan, he grabbed a float, jumped in and saved the guy himself. Hey, anything to help out.
Then there's high adventure. Take the Saturday in September 1996 when a seasoned skipper, Aoki and two others protected a sloop at Hachijojima Island in the Pacific some 300 km off the Izu Peninsula from a powerful typhoon, whose eye passed right over the harbor.
When the lashings binding together the port's fishing boats came apart in the 100-knot blow, leaving the sloop, moored to the outermost trawler, connected precariously by one 7- or 8-meter line, Aoki instinctively shinned his way like a lemur, inches above the froth, over to the trawler, boarded it then heaved and received lines to help make the boats all fast and close again — his trademark hooded eyes all the while slits like troop-truck headlights against the horizontal salt-grapeshot spray.
The boat had to be first out the next day, plowing into the 5-meter slop aftermath for the 30-hour return to Yokohama. Picture an unfazed Aoki, as ever in for a penny, or pound, belayed to the galley stove, deftly concocting a tasty gruel — French — letting the waves toss the veggies. He goes for the jocular, even when everyone else is green.
On April 23, 2004, Aoki was off-watch below on the same boat with the same skipper 150 km off the Kii Peninsula in central Honshu when it was sideswiped by a hit-and-run tanker and dismasted before dawn. They managed to motor back to Shimoda in Shizuoka Prefecture and home.
He and other faithful are, as we speak, helping to put the boat right again.
The upshot: Aoki, a survivor, learns each lesson the sea teaches. And he taps and imparts that knowledge to any who seek him out — whether they be old salts or first-timers he invites on weekend sails.
So if you're an invitee, with seabag racked, on that last packed Friday-night train south, take a deep breath when you detrain in the boondocks, look out over the dark harbor and try to spot the boat.
Locational clues: Listen for a burst of maniacal laughter — or snores befitting a foghorn.
Call Yoshi Aoki at (03) 3722-2844 or on 090-2625-5208, or e-mail him at email@example.com