Smiles From the East Come West: Japan’s Petit Star J/70 Crew and Infectious Grins at ROLEX Big Boat Series

Day three of Rolex Big Boat Series and the photo boat is pointed at the J/70 fleet fresh off the start line. The fleet tacks left. We slowly follow for a few moments. That tunnel vision forward tracking racers yields to a huge surprise when dropping the viewfinder and stepping round to face back of boat. There’s a lone J/70 immediately behind and its bow splash is close enough to reach us. The surprised expressions from we three in the photo boat initiated a grin and a wave from all racers--those infectious smiles from the Japanese crew of Petit Star inspired this post.

Back on land, Petit Star’s Yu Stanly Fujinaga told me, “Every time we passed near a media boat I would say to the crew: ‘With a smile!’ because I was nervous about unfamiliar strong winds.” The team is comprised of members from the Osaka-Tannowa Yacht Club. The core crew, Akinori Takezawa, Hirokazu Hayasi and Akiba Kawaguchi, started sailing together on a J/24; three years ago they shifted to a J/70.

Following a Star
Fujinaga is the new tactician/navigator/sailing manager. “Our crew races in the Osaka-Kansai area. In Japan, handicap races use IRC and local ratings system so there few opportunities to race One Design. Mr. Takezawa, owner of Petit Star, and I both have a desire to travel abroad and compete in One Design competition. Racing One Design is a new experience for me.”

Six months ago a decision was made to enter the 2017 Rolex Big Boat Series San Francisco, J/70 division. In March, the crew began preparations. The local winds of Tannowa being on the weaker side, the sailors usually headed to Wakaura, approximately 19nm south, to participate in Wakayama Ocean Yacht Club competition.

Fujinaga is the newest of the crew. His experience counts Farr-31, Beneteau First-36.7 and X-35 boats; he says this was his first J/70 campaign. In preparation for Big Boat Series he steadfastly monitored San Francisco Bay marine weather condition for the six weeks in advance of the competition. Fujinaga personally put in more than 50 hours training, plus participated in many regional races back home. “I set my goal to be 70 hours practice, but that was still not enough. It was hard work but it paid off,” adding that he is very proud to work aside peers Akinori and Hiroko.” Smiling, he says it felt as if he was, “Starting from scratch with a fumbling start.”

Going the Distance
The crew chartered a J/70 from an owner in San Francisco, and transported two sets of sails, control rope and additional items within three suitcases. “I was worried whether it would fit within the weight limit of an airplane, but it was nice to stay safe. For racing, we have experiences of short distance [travel] from our home port, but this is the first time [for us to make] a long way traveling abroad.”

This was also a first time for Petit Star crewmembers to experience the signature heavy wind conditions of the San Francisco Bay. For the most part their field practice and race conditions saw southwest afternoon sea breezes at 15 to 20 knots. “Since we were only here for a short amount of time we did not have much time to practice in a lot of strong wind.”

Every time we passed near a media boat I would say to the crew, ‘With a smile!’
And immediately behind us was Petit Star.

And immediately behind us was Petit Star.

Skipper: Akinori Takezawa from Amagasaki, Hyogo
Pit: Hirokazu Hayasi from Settsu, Osaka
Trim: Akiba Kawaguchi from Misaki, Osaka
Tactician/navigator/sailing manager: Yu Stanly Fujinaga from Kanan, Osaka
Onshore manager: Hiroko Takezawa from Amagasaki, Hyogo

Looking West to Conditions in the East
Fujinaga says that things are notably different between the two sailing venues. “Back home in Japan there are numerous local yacht clubs at each marina. Kansai Yacht Club, which belongs to Softbank team Japan, is also located near us in Osaka Bay. At club races we usually see 10 to 15 boats gather.” Larger races, where 50 to 60 boats may compete, include events such as ‘Around KIX Yacht Race’ organized by the Farewell Yacht Club. There are about 80 boats at the club where Petit Star is kept. Organizers welcome entries from other countries and, for the most part, sailing occurs year round in the Osaka Kansai area; most popular times May to November. Competition is brisk during even the coldest months of January to March. “Those who sail at this season are serious people. I participate in ‘New Year Sailing’ every year.”

_CLA1355.jpg

Is sailing a popular sport in Japan? Is yacht racing in Japan a sport for the wealthy or do students and middle income people compete? Replies Fujinaga, “Unfortunately sailing is a minor sport in Japan. In general, the impression that yachting is a hobby of wealthy people is also believed.” While there are many sailing clubs at the high school and university levels, few people continue after graduation. “At Wakayama Ocean Yacht Club, I hold sailing events several times a year to recruit the public. I also ask friends to invite friends to join us on a day cruise. We try to increase the number of young people, but I think perhaps many have the impression that the threshold to participate in this sport is high; or that it is difficult to get on to a boat.”

He goes on to assert that with an aging sail demographic, attracting young people is important. “I joined Wakayama Ocean Yacht Club nine years ago when I was 18 years old. Since that time I remain the youngest member. Recently Koujiro Shiraishi, who first challenged in Vendée Globe and of Softbank Team Japan (America's Cup), was featured in the media. I think his participation and comments in the media will help the sport gain popularity here.”

Having spent one week in San Francisco, the crew cites time at Rolex Big Boats hosted by the St. Francis Yacht Club to have been very valuable. “It is important to our sailing careers. I am thrilled with the hospitality of the race organizers and the management staff. The greatest appreciation to all the people who have accepted our challenge to this event.”

With a wide grin, “Thank you so much! From Team Petit Star--Akinori and Hiroko Takezawa, Hirokazu Hayasi, Akiba Kawaguchi and Yu S. Fujinaga.