An experienced sailor, Kugiya explains how his time on the water has helped him cover Lawson’s disappearance, why boating incidents are different from other crises, and what it’s like to be an Asian American man navigating a hobby that’s pursued mostly by white men.
What’s your sailing experience?
Hugo Kugiya: I started sailing in earnest about 10 years ago with the goal of cruising, not racing. While I love making a boat go fast, I wanted to enjoy the water and spend time in new places. Of course, whatever your goal in sailing, once you start, you end up learning a ton of other stuff whether you wanted to or not. I started out with “formal” instruction, although I learned that there kind of is no such thing. Different instructors have different ideas and methods, and whatever you were taught required lots of time practicing it yourself or experiencing it in the real world.
Which led me to buying my first boat. Being a boat owner now opens up a whole new set of challenges and things to learn. It was a small cruising boat. Now I own a medium size cruising boat.
I’ve sailed in Puget Sound (inshore) and in Hawaii (offshore from one island to another in very windy channels) and along the East Coast.
The past year, I sailed from Massachusetts to Key West, alone, but not non stop. I took my sweet time, stopping each night to anchor and sleep ... using a combination of offshore passages (usually 5-10 miles offshore) and the Intercoastal Waterway, which is the I-95 of sailors and power boaters. It’s protected and predictable ... but also slower, with lots of bridges, and you are constantly steering by hand (autopilot doesn’t work well in a narrow passage) because there are so many hazards to avoid, but it beats sailing upwind in big seas.
How did your experience help you report this story?
HK: Lawson in some ways faced the challenges every boat owner faces cruising in new waters. Things break down at inconvenient times, you might make mistakes, you anchor in places you’re unfamiliar with and you’re doing it alone.
It helped me understand what he might have faced, what his blind spots might be and why he did what he did. I can’t imagine trying to manage a boat that size, so I could appreciate the degree of difficulty.
The other obvious thing is that I understand the sea, the waves, the wind — and I understand sails and sailing, and boat construction.
What stood out to you initially, as you covered Lawson’s disappearance?
HK: THE BOAT. This was obvious the second I looked up what kind of boat he was on.
A lot of sailors have dreams of sailing around the world, and quite a few actually do it. It can be pretty easy, believe it or not, if you have crew and a capable boat, and if you take your time. If you want to do it alone, but you make stops, that’s also kind of doable and becomes mostly an issue of patience and endurance.
But if you do it alone, nonstop, now you’re among a handful.
Most do it in a traditional monohull and take about nine to 11 months. And that’s hard. If you want to do it as a race, well, that is like climbing Mount Everest. The Golden Globe Race is the most famous example of this. Now you’ve got Lawson and he wants to do it in a high-tech trimaran.
When I first realized what he was attempting to do, and what kind of boat he was using, I mentally put him in a category of “extreme” sportsman: Like surfers who get towed into giant waves, or wingsuit jumpers and skydivers. He had set the stakes very high.
You’ve covered maritime disasters before. In fact, you wrote a book about one. What did you learn while covering the Arctic Rose?
HK: The dominant lesson you come away with covering any story about disaster at sea, is what a force the ocean is. It is a domain that is both all around us and apart from us, and there is something unknowable about it. I also developed a very deep respect for anyone who chooses to spend time on the water, be it for work or pleasure. It requires skills and a sense of your surroundings that a life on land doesn’t require. Apart from the philosophical stuff, I learned a lot about the fishing industry, life in Alaska, the seafood industry, the Coast Guard and how it operates, about boats, and seamanship, about marine ecology.
Aside from the setting, what makes maritime disasters different from other crises? What have you learned to expect covering boating incidents?
HK: With any kind of mishap that occurs at sea, everything happens more slowly. Everything is more difficult, more treacherous, more inaccessible, more mysterious. The weather is always a factor, and it is outsized on the water. Whatever it is you want to get close to, whether it’s a partly submerged boat or sunken debris, it’s going to be hard to see, hard to find, hard to get to. So I’d say the thing about maritime disaster, is that rescue/remediation/recovery — whatever it is you’re trying for — will happen slowly.
Donald Lawson seems committed to diversifying sailing and expanding access. What has your experience been with the sailing community?
HK: On the issue of diversity and sailing, it is very true that sailing is one of the most homogenous pastimes or sports out there. Whether it’s the people who enjoy it or the people who do it for a living. If I meet someone in the sailing world, even sailing journalists, it is usually a white man or sometimes a white woman. In my experience, if you meet a sailing couple, the man is more often the one at the helm, the one who does most of the sailing, the one who got the other started. Having said that, there are many expert sailors who are women and many more who do it recreationally. The most recent winner of the famous Golden Globe race was a woman, Kirsten Neuschafer from South Africa. She was the first woman to win that race.
As for people of color, yeah, that’s not super common. Again, anecdotally based on my experience, I’m often the only one around. I don’t see a lot of Asians who sail, but there are some. Well, I can think of two. In Seattle. I raced with them years ago. Can’t think of any others.
But I’d also say that despite its lack of diversity, the sailing community in general is very welcoming. I’ve never felt discounted or excluded or unseen. If you’re out there doing it, you’re taken at face value. You’re a sailor. I’ve been up and down the East Coast and encountered other sailors, mechanics, dockhands, etc.
Everyone calls you “captain” or “skipper,” and I think everyone wants you to succeed, wants to share their knowledge, wants to help. Sailors as a rule are very generous and welcoming.
There has been some skepticism about Lawson’s quest. What do you make of it?
HK: The perceived backlash to Lawson is interesting, because it seems like the sailing community is unforgiving and judgmental. And that is something I’ve noticed — that if you’re perceived as a knucklehead or reckless, you will feel the wrath of other sailors quickly.
It’s the flip side to that generosity, and here’s my theory on that:
We are conditioned to recognize fear and danger and risk, and have to constantly react to it (or not react to it), manage it, hide it, use it, and when something bad happens to a sailor, be it something major or minor, the criticism is our reaction to the fear. The criticism is our way of coping. Something bad happened because someone wasn’t thinking, wasn’t prepared, was doing something unwise. Therefore, that bad thing will not happen to me because I am always thinking and I am prepared. It’s a coping mechanism, a way of feeling safe.
I might be naive, but I think what others see is your boat, and not you. But they make presumptions about you based on how you handle your boat.
I’ve been scolded/chided at times in situations where what I did with the boat implied something about me. Whether I deserved it or not is debatable. But in those same instances, I also felt this desire of others to want to share/teach/instruct. We all want one another to get it right. Sometimes that takes the form of conflict, but ultimately I think we see the water as something of a sacred place, and as sailors, we are all in the same boat, so to speak.