In the small living room of the sailing yacht, nearly 20 sticky notes reminded Jin Woo Nam and his crew of the tasks ahead: polishing and waxing, applying a special paint to prevent barnacles from sticking, repairing a gas heater. dripping water.
Nam, 63, did not appear stressed. On this day in early February, he smiled as he walked through a dizzying array of ropes and sails to repair the ship’s tracking system antennas.
Ever since he bought the Ignatella in 2011, selling his house to buy the used 37-foot boat, Nam has dreamed of sailing to Korea, his birthplace.
He had achieved modest prosperity as the owner of a coffee shop and a karaoke bar, among other businesses. But to him, the American dream felt empty. He had to be more than that.
And so, he was preparing for a voyage across the Pacific, some 75 days at sea from Marina del Rey to Honolulu to Incheon, retracing the journey of the first Korean immigrants in reverse 120 years ago.
After decades in the US, Nam needed to travel home, not by boarding a plane, but the hard way, like a salmon swimming upstream.
“We only know how to earn money, not how to spend it. We get sick and die. That feels so useless,” Nam said. “It’s so silly. We work very hard, so we have the right to play hard and enjoy our lives.”
On January 13, 1903, 102 Koreans (56 men, 21 women, and 25 children) aboard the RMS Gaelic landed in Hawaii, a US territory at the time.
They were promised a mild climate, free education, and jobs at $15 a month, with free housing and medical care.
“There was the promise of a dream,” said UC Riverside professor Edward Taehan Chang.
Instead, they scattered across the sugar plantations, forced to do backbreaking labor for at least three years to pay off their debts. Supervisors on horseback whipped them if they stopped to stretch, Chang said.
Nam also came to the United States in search of a better life. In 1979, after graduating from high school in Korea, she settled in Orange County, painting buildings and cleaning carpets. She eventually he opened the cafe in Garden Grove and the karaoke bar in Hawaiian Gardens.
He bought a house in Placentia and worked in an investment agency. But achieving those external markers of success wore him down. He had once dreamed of being a painter or an architect.
In his late 30s, he enrolled at the Laguna College of Art and Design, studying painting.
After earning his degree, he made a career change, teaching painting and running a gallery.
As a child in the seaside city of Busan, Nam fell in love with the ocean. In California, he took up fishing. Trying to economize on his travels, he stumbled upon the manufacture of wooden kayaks. That led to sailing.
He sold his house for around $300,000 and bought a sailing yacht for $90,000, naming it Ignatella, a combination of his Catholic name, Ignacio, and his wife’s name, Stella, and painting it Atlantic blue.
“I had talked about buying the yacht for years,” Nam said. “So even though my wife didn’t like it very much, she understood where it came from.”
Nam learned how to tie knots and dock his boat in strong winds, how to adjust the sail according to the wind and waves.
Sailing yachts are slow, with a top speed of less than 10 miles per hour. They can’t power straight through headwinds, instead weaving and zigzagging through the water. But this is how Nam, who now works as a professional sailing captain, wants to live his life.
“When we are driving on a highway, there are certain rules. You have to stay in your lane and you will face problems if you stray,” Nam said. “There are certain lanes in the ocean, but when you are sailing, you are making your own way… There is that freedom.”
If all goes well, Nam and his crew should make landfall in South Korea in mid to late May. Typhoons are among the many unknowns that could derail the trip.
Donald Kang was the first Korean American to sail the Pacific solo. He accomplished the feat in 1990 while a student at UCLA.
“Five hours after sailing from San Pedro, I got my first impression of the Pacific Ocean: it’s crazy,” Kang wrote in his book, “Yes, I am crazy about the ocean.”
On the first day, Kang wrote, he vomited his guts while moving in fierce winds. He had to take refuge on Catalina Island.
Weeks into his trip, his water tank and gas stove broke, forcing him to rely on rainwater. He dodged everything from typhoons to container ships.
“You have to plan everything,” said Kang, who recently met with Nam and his crew of three other sailors. “You always have to keep in mind the things that can break, the things that can go wrong.”
Nam’s wife, Stella Kim, sometimes wonders why she gave the trip the green light.
“I don’t know if it’s good that I gave him ‘permission,’” Kim said with a laugh. “But I don’t want to have scary thoughts. I leave it all to God…I am planning a 100 day prayer.”
Nam has logged thousands of hours in the open sea, including a solo voyage up the Pacific coast to Seattle.
Two of Nam’s crew members are Korean-American: Joseph Chang is an Iraq War veteran and Do Yoo a seasoned sailor.
The third, Sang Hee Park, flew in from Korea with no sailing experience and connected with Nam through a friend of a friend.
Park, 54, has been staying on the Ignatella for a month while learning the basics of sailing from Nam.
As he prepares to retire from the real estate industry, Park is trying to figure out what to do next.
“It is an unforgettable experience,” he said. “I hope the next two or three months will refresh my life.”
Nam has spent $50,000 fixing up the Ignatella and wishes he had tens of thousands more for new electrical wiring, water pumps, a weather shelter and many other improvements. He still needs to find a crew member to replace Chang on the Hawaii to Korea leg.
Nam, who has led community boating groups and taught boating to many, hopes his trip can promote the activity among Korean-Americans.
His ambitious journey has struck a chord with Korean immigrants who did not dream big for themselves, having worked long hours to get to the US.
The Korea Times, which is sponsoring Nam’s trip, declined to disclose a dollar amount, saying it has published several stories promoting the trip. The Korean consulate in Los Angeles has given away a South Korean flag to display on top of the ship. Others have donated food and supplies, including GoPro cameras.
At a party on the pier last month, Nam’s supporters ate fish cakes and posed for group photos.
“I’ve lived in the US for 40 years and I’ve only looked forward,” said Martin Kwak, a 62-year-old retiree from Koreatown who led a fundraising effort for Nam’s trip: about $15,000, including, almost $5,000 from a GoFundMe. “It’s great to see someone our age doing something and living life the way they want to.”
Wha Young Chang, a 63-year-old dog trainer and retired Korean-language TV host, said he told Nam, an old friend, not to go.
Why do this when you could die? Chang asked.
Chang was shocked by Nam’s response: “As people get older, their dreams fade. But I want my dream to come true.”
As he made his final preparations, Nam was already thinking about his next sea voyage: from Korea to Los Angeles, via Alaska.
On Saturday, Nam and his crew displayed a South Korean flag, then pulled the ropes and hoisted the sail. A version of the American flag, used by licensed yachts, flew from the stern as they headed toward the horizon.