Lessons From A Record-setting Pacific Crossing With Safecast On Board

Pieter Franken (l) and Douglas Smith (r) at the Safecast office.

Douglas Smith and Mitsuhiro Iwamoto joined forces on a record-setting non-stop voyage across the Pacific Ocean. A Safecast bGeigie was also onboard.

For 54 days, Douglas Smith was what he jokingly refers to as ‘Seeing Eye Doug.’ That’s how long it took for him and co-sailor Mitsuhiro Iwamoto to cross the approximately 8,700 miles (14,000 kilometers) of Pacific Ocean between San Diego, USA, and Fukushima in Japan in a sailboat. The trip was made all the more remarkable by the fact that Mitsuhiro Iwamoto is visually impaired.

During the trip, Iwamoto steered the ship while Douglas, among other things, gave verbal guidance, advised on wind directions, and alerted him to potential dangers. The feat has been hailed as the first time a visually impaired or blind sailor has completed the Pacific crossing in one go without stopping.

The two adventurers were raising money for charity, including Safecast, and we couldn’t let such an opportunity for data gathering go to waste, so a bGeigie was onboard for the journey. Below is Douglas’ experience of the trip in his own words, as he recounted it to me.

Crossing the Pacific

“We didn’t have any life-threatening moments on the trip, although the beginning and end were a lot different than expected. The trip was expected to take 60 days, and we set sail in perfect conditions. After the first day, the winds died down, and we had to strike south from San Diego toward Baja for six or seven days before we found favorable winds.  It took a week or more after that to catch the trade winds that were to carry us across the Pacific. From there it was relatively smooth sailing until we got close to Japan where we encountered low-pressure fronts with gales and strong currents that made it a battle to make it the last bit of the way to Fukushima.”

“The night before we arrived in Japan, we had very powerful winds and currents against us, and we were fighting all morning to get into port, so we did not have that much time to savor the arrival, although it was a beautiful day.  Upon arrival, we could not leave the boat until finishing quarantine, customs, and immigration.  But, once ashore, we were met by the hugs of family and champagne to celebrate the journey.” 

Lessons from the Pacific

“Being alone in a sailboat in the middle of the ocean, among the wind, waves, and clouds, where you are sailing into the sunset each evening and see the moon rise out of the water, is like stepping out of time and into the circle of life. I have never been as isolated as that before, and in many ways, it was a good feeling. It’s a place where you can’t help but think about the big things.”

“One thing I did think about a lot was how much time and emotional energy one can put into something like the news that can make you disappointed or upset. Being out there, where the days can blend into each other, you realize that this planet will keep turning – and things will keep happening – with or without you. If there’s something that you feel is really important, then work to change it. If not, then the emotional impact of news and the constant flow of information through things like social media can end up draining a lot of your energy and time without it leading to positive change.”

Mitsuhiro Iwamoto.

“In the modern world, especially for someone with a personality like mine, you always keep pushing, almost no matter what. Out there, you can’t push. There’s no negotiating with the waves. It’s about doing the best with what you have. Once you have done that, there is nothing more to do.”  

“Some of my fondest memories of the trip were sitting in the cockpit or on the deck with Hiro around sunset, just talking about life and enjoying being out on the water.” 

Learning about – and from – each other

“It’s funny. From the first time we met, we both had a sense of the other as being someone that we were comfortable with and whom we could trust in if things broke or didn’t go according to plan. Our initial feeling was proved right on the trip.”

“For the first part of the journey, we were taking turns and trying to figure out how to catch the winds we needed. Once things settled into a routine, perhaps on the other side of Hawaii, there were more chances to sit down and talk about life and stuff.”

“Being surrounded by the ocean puts you as an individual into perspective while also bringing home how tiny this planet is on some levels, and how easily we can screw it up. Conversely, the trip also brought home how much potential we have. We were two guys, one a novice sailor and the other blind, who by working together crossed the Pacific Ocean in a sailboat. Humans, both as individuals and especially when working together, have huge potential to affect the environment and everything around us and achieve great things.”

“When not discussing the weather or sailing strategy, we would talk about life. For example, how I ended up in Japan and meeting my wife. I was impressed by Hiro’s calm and willingness to do whatever needed to be done, and I think he was impressed by my commitment of making the voyage a success, and by my stamina.”

The bGeigie logging data on the trip across the Pacific Ocean.

The data and Safecast

“We had a minor mishap on the way to Hawaii. I’d set a switch on the bGeigie in the wrong position, so instead of recording data we were only monitoring. From Hawaii onward we have a clear line of data that you can see on the Safecast map. However, it is also the most interesting part of the journey, in regard to potential radiation. For example, we sailed relatively close to the Johnston Atoll where the US has tested nuclear weapons. Where we monitored, there was no indication of higher radiation. Some people may ask, ‘Well, what’s the point if you don’t find anything?’ But my answer has always been that that is exactly the point. Thanks to Safecast’s equipment, we now have independent data that verifies that this part of the world doesn’t have abnormally high radiation levels. Plus, from now on, the voyage is on the map and it charts data in pretty much a straight line across the world’s biggest ocean. I think that’s pretty cool.”

bGeigie data from the cross-Pacific sailing expedition.

About the Author

Marc Prosser

Marc is British, Danish, Geekish, Bookish, Sportish, and loves anything in the world that goes 'booiingg'. He is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Tokyo and writes about all things science and tech. He started volunteering for Safecast after writing articles about their work following the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami - and because he believes that data and technology should be open and readily available.