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Across the ocean's divide

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1998-08-14

Sailing through the waters surrounding the Kerama islands, and gently taking their yacht from one enchanted island to the next is what Kenji Matsumoto and his wife, Valeria, love best about Okinawa. The sea is like home for them, but it took many miles and many stops at far away places before their lives finally crossed paths, bringing the two free spirits together.

Sitting at their small apartment here in Okinawa, Valeria and Kenji explained the long story of how they met. In between, they squeezed in some of the amazing stories during their several years at sea. The very kind and friendly couple have lead a life that most people dream about, but for them, it is still very real.

Kenji Matsumoto decided in 1980 that he would take a 38 foot yacht around the world. At thirty two years of age, the native of Shikoku thought he would be back in three years, but his journey turned into an odyssey that would show him the wonders of the world, and also the wonders of life. Along with two other crew members, Kenji left Fukuoka, Japan that same year aboard the "Trade Wind", first stopping in Okinawa before heading off to Australia and South East Asia. His incredible trip eventually brought him to over 200 ports during seven years at sea.

"I did not have much experience with yachts, but I worked on a fishing boat for four years. I also learned a lot about the sea before we left," explained Kenji. His inexperience probably helped him with his decision to sail the globe, not giving him the chance to change his mind over the number of possible dangers that were waiting ahead for him.

A year earlier, Italian born Valeria Raso had left Sicily with her boyfriend. The young doctor decided to go sailing to get rid of work related stress. She left the port of Palermo with the thought of sailing the Mediterranean for only three months, but Valeria stepped aboard the 29 foot "Moana", and never went back.

Both Kenji and Valeria had no idea of each other's existence, but fate would have them meet in north Africa. After sailing for over four years in the Mediterranean, Valeria and her boyfriend, Silvio, entered the Suez canal and sailed through to the Red Sea. Sailing in an eastward direction they planned to enter the Indian Ocean. Already coming from that area, heading directly towards them was Kenji Matsumoto, who by this time was sailing with only one other crew member. Plowing the calm, clear waters of the Red Sea, both the "Moana" and the "Trade Wind" pulled into Port Sudan. It was Valeria Raso and Kenji Matsumoto's first contact with each other. Their meeting would change both their lives forever.

Laughing and remembering well their feelings as if it was yesterday, both Valeria and Kenji explained their first feelings towards each other. "It was the first time I had ever met a Japanese person, so it was very interesting. We liked each other right away, but I had my boyfriend, who I had already been with for five years. I wanted to leave with Kenji, but I couldn't," said Valeria.

"When I met her the very first time I thought she was very beautiful, but also very strong. I was really facinated by the way Valeria and Silvio thought about life," explained Kenji.

Kenji and Valeria were actually looking for sailing partners in Port Sudan. Although the Red Sea is extremely beautiful, its off shore reefs can be treacherous for yachts. There are also very few reliable charts to help navigate, and the barren coast puts any kind of help out of reach. Their boats were originally heading in opposite directions, but a bad tooth ache prompted Silvio to take Valeria back to Israel in search of a dentist. The "Moana" and the "Trade Wind" made the trip together, sailing side by side over the next six months.

The Red Sea is stunning for those that dive there for the first time. The desert shoreline gives no chance for any silt to enter the crystal clear water, and its abundant life underwater is a stark contrast with the desolate coastline. Sailing through the beauty and wonderment of such an amazing place brought the four members closer together. Many fun filled days, and long talks of past adventures out at sea helped to solidify their growing relationship, especially between Kenji and Valeria. However, Kenji also became very good friends with Silvio. Their love for sailing and their adventurous spirit gave them common ground to stand on. Silvio could sense the feelings between Valeria and Kenji growing, but he knew once they reached Israel Kenji would be gone. Atleast that is what he was hoping.

Kenji did sail on, leaving Israel and wondering all the time about this incredible woman, who he had just spent six months together with, sailing through one of the most beautiful seas in the world. He went on to Greece, where his other crew member left for Japan, leaving Kenji to continue his journey sailing solo. He crossed the Atlantic himself, arriving in the Caribbean. The year was 1985. Five years had gone by since he left Japan.

Valeria and Silvio decided to stay in Israel, where they worked for two years and saved money to continue sailing. They both started their voyage again heading west through the Mediterranean. Their plan was to cross the Atlantic and eventually sail to Polynesia. There was practically no contact with Kenji, but Valeria thought about him constantly. "It was like a dream. Like a fairy tale. I thought I would never see him again, but I always dreamed and hoped," said Valeria.

One day Valeria's wishes came true when a post card arrived from Kenji. He was crossing the Panama canal. Valeria and Silvio were in the Canary Islands preparing to cross the Atlantic. There were no plans for a rendezvous, but Valeria's hopes to meet again were very strong.

Silvio and Valeria arrived in Panama in 1986. They were on their way to Polynesia and were stopping for some supplies and a little rest. While walking down the street, Kenji appeared.

Immediately there was joy between the three over being reunited on the streets of Panama. Hugs and greetings were exchanged, and the two years since the last time they were together in the Red Sea, had all at once vanished. However, Valeria and Kenji's feelings towards each other had not. It was painfully obvious to Silvio that he was going to loose Valeria.

"I understood that I was in love with Kenji. I decided to leave my boyfriend, but it was very difficult. It was like a drama. I did not have the courage at first, and Silvio did not make it easy. When we decided to leave Panama separately, Silvio sailed off first, but he actually came back twice. It was very hard for him, and for all of us," remembered Valeria.

The circumstances seemed to be against them, but Silvio set sail for the third time. This time he did not return.

The emotional strain took its toll on Valeria, forcing her to return to Sicily with Kenji for some rest. They left the "Trade Wind" in Costa Rica, hoping to return after Valeria became well again.

Valeria did recover, and both she and Kenji flew back to Costa Rica, and decided to sail to Polynesia before returning to Japan together. They stopped in the Galapagos Islands in January of 1987. They were sailing, and they were together.

After crossing the Pacific, they spent several months sailing from one paradise island to another. Turquoise lagoons, the laid back lifestyle, and some of the most breathtaking scenery they had yet seen, made Polynesia seem like the ideal place to just relax. But, it was the calm before the storm. From Polynesia, the sailing would get rougher, both at sea and in their lives.

On the last leg of their journey back to Japan, they visited Ogasawara, a small island located south west of Tokyo. Its surrounding blue waters are the home to schools of dolphins, who playfully swim in the warm clear waters. With only a ferry bringing in supplies and tourists once a week from mainland Japan, Ogasawara is an isolated place of beauty. When Kenji and Valeria left the peaceful island in June, they had no idea that their worst nightmare awaited them.

"We already knew that there was a typhoon in the Philippines, but we checked the weather reports and asked at the meteorological center. They told us that at this time of the year the typhoon would not come this far north. We believed that it would just stay around the Philippines," recalled Kenji.

Three days out to sea they realized that they and the weather reports were wrong. The typhoon was coming, and it was approaching fast. "We did not have enough time, so we could not turn back," said Kenji. They had no choice but to face the full brunt of the typhoon in their small 38 foot yacht. "We radioed a friend of ours in Tokyo, and notified him of our situation. We told him to send someone to look for us if he did not hear from us," remembered Valeria.

The typhoon was one day away from hitting them, and they still hoped and prayed that it would change direction. But, the sky grew darker, and the ocean became more and more frightening. Huge swells were beginning to form, and the wind was picking up speed. The "Trade

Wind' was no match for such force. "All I did was cry for the first few hours, when we realized the typhoon was going to hit us. I asked Kenji what our chances were, and he told me about a million to one. We both thought that we were going to die," remembered Valeria.

"We tried to use the spinnaker, but it broke because the wind was too strong," said Kenji. "I thought to myself, what can I do to survive. We began to first tie down everything." Securing the boat gave them something to do as the typhoon grew closer. Night was closing in, and soon they would face nature's wrath in total darkness.

Kenji put out the sea anchor, which is like a large parachute. The anchor would help to keep the boat facing into the direction of the oncoming waves. If the boat should turn to the side, it would capsize from the sheer force of the waves. Valeria recalled, "We went below deck, and laid on the floor holding each other and praying." They wondered to themselves if this was the price they must pay for being together. Outside it was pitch black. The wind was howling, and huge walls of water were crashing over the deck of the "Trade Wind". The noise was deafening.

Huddled together on the floor, Kenji and Valeria fell asleep from exhaustion. They awoke the next morning. "We couldn't believe we were alive," remembered Valeria.

They had survived, but they were not out of danger yet. "We did not know where we were. We only had a sextant for navigation, but there was no sun to check our position," explained Valeria.

"We sailed for three days, but we had no idea where we were," said Kenji. Finally, on the third day they spotted Hachijo Island, which lay between Ogasawara and Tokyo. They were going to be fine.

The couple arrived in Fukuoka in August of 1987. They found out that the pressures of life on land were much more threatening than the dangers they faced at sea. Communication problems, cultural differences, and Kenji's disapproving parents all started to affect them. Their romantic adventures at sea seemed far away.

However, Kenji and Valeria eventually survived the onslaught of life's typhoon. They married in Fukuoka, and came to Okinawa in 1989. Together they have enjoyed sailing in Okinawa for the last nine years. Valeria teaches Italian language and cooking. Kenji is working on a sailing guide book.

You may think that they have finally settled down, but their adventure is just beginning once again. The couple is expecting their first child in November. And, they will be going to India to live in the next few years. For Kenji and Valeria Matsumoto, there is no ocean or challenge too big to keep them apart.

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