“I went straight down under, spinning, twisting and turning. The pressure was so intense it felt like it would tear my arms and legs off. It was so dark down there; it took so long to surface. I caught my breath, but the next Jaws was in my face and took me under again…the next wave, too. I thought I was going to die.”
The monster wave off the north shore of Maui in an infamous area of barrier reef ominously referred to as Jaws churned Hisao Nakazato around in its turbulent belly, almost ripping the Japanese windsurfer limb from limb. But by the time Nakazato wiped out on that wave in January 2005, he had already been thrown into the depths of adversity many times before.
Having reached the pinnacle of the sport of windsurfing in Japan, it seems particularly incredible that as a child he had an intense fear of water. He hated the ocean and even the sight of a swimming pool reduced him to tears.
But an invitation from an uncle to visit Lake Kawaguchi in Yamanashi Prefecture changed everything. The relative owned a windsurfing shop and the 14-year-old Nakazato tried his hand at clambering on one of the boards. He found the experience exhilarating, “almost like flying in the sky.”
From then on he took a train out to the lake every weekend to practice. Not long after, he took first place in a senior windsurfing competition. Determined to turn professional, he begged his mother for months to let him move to Hawaii so he could fulfill his ambition. She finally relented and he left for the Pacific islands in 1982.
Attending schools in Honolulu then Maui, the teenage Nakazato was a reluctant classroom student, flicking through windsurfing and surfing magazines during class. Watching and learning from such windsurfing legends as Robby Naish, Nakazato says he sees himself as an alumnus of the “university of the ocean.”
During this time, Nakazato began competing in windsurfing competitions back home. Taking top honors in only his third contest, the Tokyo native became Japan’s No. 1 windsurfer at the tender age of 18. Sponsors flocked to him.
Sitting in his modest, airy home near Shirasato Beach, on Chiba Prefecture’s Pacific coast, one Friday afternoon in May, Nakazato, 43, explains what is required to windsurf at the highest level. “I always believed in the words of Bruce Lee: ‘Be water, my friend. Put water in a teacup and it becomes the shape of the cup.’ You need a flexible mind. ‘Don’t think, feel,’” he says, quoting the martial arts legend again. “If you catch a wave and start thinking, it’s over. You’ve just got to feel it.”
Despite having attained his dream of turning professional, after 11 years of top competition, bouts of depression and demanding sponsors Nakazato decided it was time for a “normal life.” He got married and started a trading company. But the pressures of running his own company and sleeping only four hours a night left him drained.
Flicking through a magazine one day, he noticed photographs of his old windsurfing friends riding the towering Jaws breakers off Maui. He felt a pang of envy. First ridden by windsurfers, the waves at Jaws can reach 20 meters in height. Due to the steep drop-off of the reef, large swells can create extraordinarily big waves.
With his wife’s backing, Nakazato hung up his suit, vowing to ride one of the giant waves. For the next six months, he pushed himself through a punishing training regime to recover the toned physique he had lost after five years away from windsurfing.
On April 4, 1999, he faced one of the immense walls of water for the first time. “It was really scary. It felt like a monster was attacking me,” he says. “The wave made a tremendous noise as I rode out to it, but when I rode it, I was so focused I couldn’t hear a thing.” He went on to surf similar waves—both on a surfboard and windsurfer—about 20 times between 1999 and 2006, including the one that almost killed him.
Just a few years after riding his first Jaws wave, Nakazato almost lost his life on dry land. Driving his Volkswagen camper van down a mountain road in Maui in January 2003, his steering failed on a sharp curve. Nakazato was flung from the vehicle, which crashed down on him. He broke his femur and spent four months in hospital having his left leg reconstructed with 15 bolts.
His doctor told him that he had only an even chance of walking again. What’s more, he was saddled with a hospital bill the equivalent of ¥10 million, his sponsors deserted him and his wife sent divorce papers to his hospital bed. But less than a year after his near-fatal crash, Nakazato was back out on his board in the cresting seas of the Jaws reef, astounding doctors and friends.
“Longing for Japan,” Nakazato finally returned to the land of his birth in 2006 after a total of 22 years in Hawaii. He now leads what he calls a “slow life,” speaking across the country and running adventure camps for orphans and deprived children, hoping they will “catch the wind, feel the wind, become the wind.” He has also penned several books.
The deeply spiritual Nakazato still has a taste for adventure, however. Earlier this year, he spent three weeks windsurfing the 650 kilometers from Kagoshima to Okinawa, delivering postcards on which children had written their dreams—a fitting task for a man who has realized so many of his own.
iNTOUCH magazine - July 2009