From Hachinohe to Yokohama is a 470 nm run. As we left the port, to work our way south, we didn’t know if we would be running one or two days. The weather outlook was dicey. A typhoon had just left the area, and the seas were still settling down. Another storm system was predicted to move into the area. The one day outlook was fine, but for our second day, the outlook was less certain.
When discussing whether 'to go' or 'no go,' a key factor is whether or not there are any bail-outs along the way. By ‘bail-out’ I am referring to ports, or places to anchor, that we could stop at if we didn’t like the weather. We all wanted to get to Yokohama, and didn’t really want to sit still through another storm system waiting for a long window of good weather. As long as we had a solid prediction of 24 hours of good weather, and plenty of places to bail out if we didn’t like the seas on the second day, it was an easy decision. The GSSR was back on the move.
Our biggest challenge, in navigating around Japan, has been all the fishing gear. Roberta and I took the second shift running the boat, and throughout our entire shift (3pm to 9pm), we dodged an endless stream of the little flag poles marking fishing gear. During daylight, they are fairly easy to dodge, and we’ve decided we can safely run within a few yards of them, without fouling our props. Unfortunately, they are not all the same. Most have poles that stick up from the water, but some just have a ball floating at water level. Some have radar reflectors on them, making them easy to spot on radar, but most do not. The big freighters ignore them and just run them over, whereas if we wrap one around a prop, it would mean putting a diver in the water. Given the warm water we are now in, this wouldn’t be a big deal during the day, but at night it would be a real headache.
Steven (Argosy, on Seabird) struck one, dead on...
All of our boats have line cutters mounted just ahead of the props. Theoretically, if we run over a line, the line cutter will chop it off, and we won’t have any damage. This is exactly how it worked for Steven. He heard it pass beneath the boat, and felt it tangle briefly with the prop. Looking back he saw the diced up line in the water. Afterwards, he felt no vibration and all was fine. A single line of rope isn’t a problem, but some of these might have chain beneath them, which could damage a prop, or a net, which could have too much line to easily be cut.
When Roberta and I retook the helm at 9am, the seas were ‘sloppy.’ We were seeing 20 to 25 knots of wind from directly behind us. Usually, a breeze from behind is good news, however, in this case, it was whipping up a significant swell from behind. This was being complicated by a significant current that was going against us. We were completely safe, but it wasn’t a comfortable ride, and everyone was worn out. It had been a tough night dodging fishing gear.
The prospect of spending another night dodging fishing gear was not appealing, and the rough seas would make it impossible to ‘see’ the flag poles on radar. With the rough seas, in the dark, we would have no choice but to mow down any gear that gets in our way. Braun (Jones on Grey Pearl) referred to it as ‘playing rudder roulette.’
Sans Souci was the only boat with any crew left. Both Seabird and Grey Pearl were running with just two people on board. As soon as Roberta and I were at the helm, we had a radio discussion amongst the boats, regarding whether or not we should stop for the night. The discussion didn’t last long. It was quickly unanimous that we’d like to exercise one of our ‘bail-out’ options.
I contacted our agent, Mr. Furuno, at InterOcean Shipping (http://www.interocean.co.jp/), and asked him to find us a port to pull into. An hour later he was back to me to say that he was unable to find us a suitable port, but had a marina that would take us, the Iwaki Sun Marina. He asked if this would be ok, and after reflecting on it for about one microsecond, I said “Absolutely!.” I contacted the other GSSR boats who were also excited. This could mean shorepower, and being able to get off the boat. Possibly even a restaurant close enough to walk to. Luxuries we hadn’t had in a while. A quick internet search showed that we were indeed very lucky. The Iwaki Sun marina looked like a real winner, and Furuno-san was our hero!
It is impossible to convey how good the marina looked to us. There was a sand beach, with people swimming, and a beautiful marina, with a restaurant at the dock!
Chris, our son, decided that since we were only a couple-hour train ride from Tokyo, he wanted to get off the boat and stay at a hotel in Tokyo. He had lived in Tokyo for seven years, and didn’t want to spend his entire vacation on the boat. We didn’t blame him.
It was decided that he would leave the next morning, and asked if we wanted to accompany him into town, to the train station, to buy his ticket. He said that the good restaurants tend to congregate around the train stations. Going into town sounded fun to our entire group, so we had the marina summon three taxis for us, and we set out for what we thought would be a ride into town of only a few minutes.
Unfortunately, we hit a language barrier and instead of the taxi drivers taking us to the local train station a few minutes away, all three cabs went to a train station over 45 minutes, and a $60 cab ride (for each taxi) away. Oops! By the time we got there, all of us were unhappy campers. It was no one’s fault, and we had fun anyway.
A second language-related issue almost occurred. We were all so tired that we picked the first restaurant we came to, even though the menu was 100% in Japanese. We figured that between our son, Chris, who speaks Japanese, and pointing at pictures in the menu, we’d be fine. I noticed a picture of what appeared to be a good- looking beef curry, and decided I wanted it. One of the others in our group also chose it. As I was ordering, by pointing at the picture, Chris happened to notice the words on the menu. I was ordering a horse-meat curry!!! Uh oh… The restaurant had an entire horse-meat page on the menu, and the menu touted horse as extremely healthy. I passed, as did the others at our table.
One ‘too good to be true’ asset of the marina was that it was next to an ocean-front golf course! I’m not much of a golfer, but what I lack in skill, I make up for in enthusiasm. Our group wouldn’t be leaving for Yokohama until the next afternoon, so Chris, Jeff and I booked a tee time. All they had available was a 5am tee time, which we grabbed. I have always heard that golf in Japan is off-the-top-of-the-charts expensive, so I was afraid of the cost, but how often in life do you get a chance to golf with your son in Japan?
The course was incredible!!! We had wonderful ocean views, and to my enormous surprise the cost was only $70 each, including rental clubs. All of us had a huge amount of fun, and we were back at the boats, ready to go, by 9:30am.
We didn’t get underway until nearly 3pm. We had only 195 miles to go, and wanted our last eight hours into Yokohama (near Tokyo) to be in daylight. Therefore, we needed a late departure time.
At 9pm Roberta and I handed off the helm to Jeff and Kirt. At 3am, six hours later, when we returned to the helm, Jeff looked under stress. All it took was one glance at the radar to understand why. There were at least a dozen large objects that they were tracking. We were surrounded by freighters!
Freighters move rapidly in comparison to Sans Souci, usually 15 to 20 knots. This doesn’t sound fast, but you would be amazed how quickly a freighter can approach. Sans Souci was surrounded by freighters, several of which were headed our direction.
My general rule is that I will not allow Sans Souci within one mile of a moving freighter. Sans Souci’s radar (and, chart plotter) continually analyzes Sans Souci’s course, as well that of surrounding vessels, and shows me for each vessel their ‘CPA’ (Closest Point of Approach). With a quick glance at the radar, I can tell for any vessel how close we’ll come to each other, and when we’ll be at the closest point. For instance, the radar might indicate that I have a CPA with a particular freighter of .5 miles in 12 minutes. This tells me I’m on a path to get closer to the freighter than I like, and that I have 12 minutes to solve the problem. With a single freighter, this usually is fairly easy, but when navigating through a pack of them, in the dark, it becomes a bit more complex.
There were a number of other factors adding extra layers of complexity. For some reason, at least half the freighters didn’t have AIS. With AIS, each boat’s position, and other important information, is constantly being transmitted to surrounding vessels. One key bit of information, available via AIS, is the name of the vessel. I’ve found, in the past, that when I contact another boat via the radio, being able to call them by name makes a huge difference in their likelihood to respond. That said, whereas it would normally be relevant, it didn’t seem to be in this case. I tried repeatedly to contact the freighters via VHF radio, using their names, unsuccessfully. I wanted to arrange how we could move out of each other’s ways safely. But, no one wanted to talk to me.
Adding further ‘excitement’ to our cruise, there seemed to be no recognition of the basic rules of the road. The freighters seemed to want to pursue their paths, and weren’t moving for anyone, including each other. When Jeff gave me his update, at the start of our shift, he said, “Ken. I have never seen freighters pass so close to each other. These guys seem to actually touch each other when viewed on the radar.” The freighters were being driven aggressively, and not about to move aside for our GSSR fleet.
Prior to our run, I had carefully plotted out a route, which our group had been following. Jeff said that he had given up trying to follow the route, and was focusing on only one thing: ‘Safety.’ We were a mile or more off my route when Roberta and I took the helm, and maneuvering constantly. Whereas ordinarily, we run an entire shift in ‘Nav Mode,’ following a track to within a thousandth of a nautical mile, we were now actively driving the boat, dodging traffic continuously.
Here’s something bizarre from Roberta’s and my shift:
We observed a target coming at us at 6 knots. This speed, and the size of the blip on the radar, indicated to me that it was a sailboat. I was being squeezed by a couple freighters, so I had to get within a quarter mile of it. Once it was in visual range, I could see that it was lit only by two red lights. There are standards which dictate how boats are lit, and if you know how to read the lights you know a bit about what the ship is up to. Two red lights, one over the other, means a vessel is in serious trouble. There are some cute sayings that we use to memorize what the lighting means; for instance, Red Over White, Fishing at Night. This particular boat seemed to be lit according to the saying ‘Red over Red, Captain is Dead.’ I was never close enough to get a really good look at the boat, although I could see it was a sail boat. It was randomly zigzagging through the water. I don’t think I’d want to be dead in the water, floating, and surrounding by fast-moving freighters. Or, perhaps it was just a sailboat tacking upwind, and ‘red over red’ means something completely different in Japanese...
At 4:30am, daylight arrived, and in the daylight, the freighters were much easier to dodge.
At 9am, I handed the helm back to Jeff and Kirt, knowing that when Roberta and I woke up at noon we’d almost be to Yokohama.
Our destination, Yokohama, sits about half way into 40 mile-deep Tokyo Bay. There are many commercial shipping ports within Tokyo Bay, and freighter traffic is constant. In the chart snippet above you see traffic lanes, representing where the freighter traffic should move. I routed the GSSR within the northbound traffic lane. Tokyo bay has an 11 knot speed limit, and I figured we could comfortably run at 9+ knots. We could still be overtaken by freighters, but I had assumed dodging a freighter moving at only 2 kts faster than us would be easy. I could always exit the lane if needed to allow a freighter to pass.
I was too excited about reaching Tokyo to sleep, and returned to the helm at 11am. I immediately glanced at the radar, and was dumbfounded by what I saw. The radar screen had caught the measles! There were spots everywhere.
Even the chart was a mess. Ignore that this is a blurry picture, the camera goofed somehow - but, each of those yellow stripes is an AIS target, and keep in mind that AIS targets represent only a small percentage of the traffic we were weaving our way through.
We were still running at full speed, yet it seemed impossible to me that we could claw our way through all the boats I saw on the radar. Also, we were well outside the traffic lane, and nowhere near the route I had so carefully planned. I asked Jeff what was happening, and he said he was trying to find a safe path through all the boats. I asked about my idea to run the freighter lanes, and he said he thought we would be better off outside the lanes.
Jeff is a sharp guy, and has a 1,600 ton Captain’s license. When he feels strongly about something, listening to him is usually the right answer.
Prior to Jeff’s career running a yacht management company in Seattle, Jeff had a career running charter fishing boats. Many of the boats around us were fishing. Jeff could look at the charts, and the water, and predict where the boats were headed. He also seemed able to predict which boats were likely to understand the ‘right of way’ rules, and which were likely to shoot across our path, even though a strict adherence to the rules would indicate that we clearly had the right of way. Under the official ‘rules of the road’ it is designated which boat has the right of way. The boat that has right of way is supposed to maintain course and speed while the other boat maneuvers to avoid a collision. Ultimately though, a Captain has an obligation to protect the passengers and the vessel. Most of the boats around us seemed to have never read the rules, and a strict adherence to the rules seemed a sure-fire path to serious trouble. Whereas both Jeff and I agreed on the ‘right way’ to handle the situation, Jeff had solid experience and street smarts, which helped to keep us out of trouble. Sans Souci was in the leaad with the other two GSSR boats following right behind, single file, tight to our tail, as we weaved our way at full speed through heavy traffic. By 1:30pm, we were making the final turn into Yokohama Bayside Marina, safe and smiling.
Here’s a picture of just a couple of the boats we had to find a path through; a charter fishing boat, and a passenger ferry that we clocked at 42 knots.
I noticed that the Japanese freighters have a different look than any freighters I’ve seen before. They are newer, and have a sense of style. Some are enormous, many times the size of any freighter I’ve ever imagined possible.
I had thought it would be impossible to surpass the Iwaki Sun Marina, but the Yokohama Marina has done it. It is Japan’s largest marina and is surrounded by hundreds of shops and restaurants. Our initial plan called for only a week or two at Yokohama Bayside marina, but within minutes of arrival, we were asking our Japanese agent if a month-long stay was possible.
We happened to arrive at the marina on an evening when they were having a big party and fireworks. Roberta and I hadn’t known about the party, and had previously arranged to meet Chris in downtown Tokyo. Braun and Steven did attend, and were asked to speak to about 500 Japanese attendees. I have terrible stage fright, so I dodged a bullet by not being there. I asked Steven how he did speaking, and he said that once he realized that no one in the audience could understand a word of what he was saying, it became fun. There was no way to fail! He said it was a fun party and I would really have enjoyed it.
One of the associates of Mr. Furuno, our agent, offered to give Roberta and I (and Shelby) a ride into Tokyo. We’ve been to Japan several times, but usually we are just at a hotel in Tokyo. The drive gave us a different look at Tokyo than we’ve had before. It was quite an eye-opening experience. At home in Seattle, we live near the Port of Seattle. The Tokyo port appears to be an order of magnitude larger, stretching for miles. I’m not an engineer, but the highway we were on seemed of a quality, and scale, that I had not seen before. The architecture around me was stunning. First impressions aren’t always accurate, but my sense was that Japan is doing some very impressive work with their infrastructure.
And on a completely different subject….
The GSSR group has finally started thinking about ‘what comes next.’ We have one more major passage, to Osaka, which we probably won’t make for at least three weeks, after which, the boats may not move again this year. Until now, we’ve avoided talking about future cruising plans, mostly because there were too many unknowns for it to have any meaning. We weren’t even sure the group would hang together after this year, and still aren’t. The momentum is towards the group sticking together, but no decision has been made.
We now have a first-pass plan for next year’s cruising that is being discussed. It is preliminary and almost certainly will change.
With that caveat, I’ll share what we’re discussing…
To be honest, I am just starting to look at the maps, and I don’t really have a sense of what there is to see, or where to go. We had discussed exploring Japan’s inland sea this year, but are now thinking to save it for next year. From there, we would explore the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, work our way south to Okinawa, then visit Taiwan (including Kaohsiung, where our boats were built), finishing up the year in Hong Kong. We’ll be near Korea, and may add that to the agenda, although I am not excited by the idea. I’m hoping that as I start studying the islands I’ll somewhere find a series of white sand beaches, and with some good anchoring, diving and swimming opportunities.
There’s an old saying, 'You had better be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.' All of us have been asking for hot weather for months. I’ve always described myself as a ‘warm weather cruiser.’ Well, we’re in it now. It is hot and sticky outside. The water temperature is approaching 85 degrees. The inter-boat radio conversation was dominated on our way to Tokyo by topics like, “What temperature is your engine room running? What about your shafts? Transmission?” There are a wide variety of problems that come with warm water cruising. Air conditioning is suddenly mandatory. Working in the engine room can be miserable. Animals and coral seem to grow in the sea chest, strainers, and on the hull. After all of us whined a bit, I said, “So… does anyone wish we were back in cold water?” This was met with total silence. We’re all happy to be back in warm water, challenges and all.
That’s it for today, and probably for at least the next couple of weeks. We’re going to enjoy Yokohama, and do some serious relaxing.
Nordhavn 68, Sans Souci