GSSR 2010 No. 12 – A Little Bureaucracy Goes A Long Way

Greetings all!

My apologies for not sending a blog entry recently. The GSSR group has been busy and I’ve had trouble finding time to sit down and write something.

This map shows our route since my last blog.

When last I wrote, we were at the north end of Amami Island in a wonderful little anchorage. However, the GSSR rule, when in potentially dangerous areas, is: “Move when the moving is good.” We are in a part of the world where we have long passages across rough seas. And, unfortunately, we have a schedule to keep. We’ve tried to keep all dates as loose as possible, so that we have the time to wait for good weather before moving, and sometimes this means moving, even if you want to sit still, just because the weather says you can.

Taking on fuel in Nagasaki, from a barge. 103 yen per liter (about $4.50 a gallon). Very convenient!

Our run from the north end of Amami to the south end was very unusual for the GSSR, in that we moved the boats 40 nautical miles even though the weather reports were saying “Stay put!” The prediction was for 30 knot winds from the east, and we were on the west side of the island. Thus, we figured that by hugging the shore on the west side of the island, we’d avoid the high winds and seas, and have a smooth ride south. This allowed us to make progress on a rotten weather day, and it worked! We had flat calm seas, until we hit the south end of the island and turned into a channel that bisects the southern portion of the island. Once we were exposed to the wind we did see some rough seas, but only briefly.

If you do not see the video above, then click this link:

I haven’t done any video lately, so I thought I’d share this quick video showing how aggressive some of the freighters can be.

In this video, a freighter has approached us from the rear, running about 14 knots to our 8 knots. The channel was fairly narrow, so we couldn’t easily get out of the freighter’s way. Also, technically speaking, in a passing situation, it is up to the passing boat to maneuver around us. If the freighter needed us to move, it should contact us, or signal, that it would like us to move aside. Instead, it was aiming straight at us, and seemed to be saying, “I’m coming. This is your problem. You figure it out.” We tried to contact the freighter via channel 16 on the radio, to ask its intentions. No response. Finally Steven, from Seabird, got on the radio, and stated firmly that we had the right of way. The freighter seemed to get the message, and swung slightly to starboard to avoid us, but then when coming along side of our group, instead of passing, it made a sharp turn and cut straight through the middle of us, only to then pass me on the starboard side. We were shocked that the freighter could turn so sharply. But, why the theatrics? The bottom line in our opinion: He wanted to remind us who the boss was.

On arriving at our anchorage we realized that some sort of construction was blocking the entrance to the bay where we were supposed to moor the boats. We could have worked our way around it, but in studying the charts, the anchorage was tighter than we had thought. There was a small 45 foot shelf, with a steep drop to 100’ depth. Plus the bottom showed on the chart as coral. This position had been previously approved by the coast guard, so we knew that we should take it even though it looked challenging. However, in studying the charts we noticed another place, just across the channel that looked much better. The weather was turning nastier and nastier, and we were expecting to be locked in by weather for two or three days, so we wanted a good location.

We made the decision to slightly alter where we would drop anchor, and headed to the new location. We didn’t think it would be controversial, in that we were well out of anyone’s way, and very close to our designated anchorage. With the wind rising and the rain slamming us, we dropped anchor.

The anchorage was far from perfect, but the best in the area. Seabird and Grey Pearl were able to drop in 40 feet of water, but I had to drop my anchor in 86 feet. The bottom was gravel, which I was worried would be able to hold my boat, and in 86 feet of water, I couldn’t get the scope I wanted.

After anchoring, we settled in for the expected three days of bad weather, and I decided, “If we’re here for a while, why not fill the hot tub?” We then started relaxing and working on dinner. At which time, I noticed the coast guard entering the bay, with their lights blaring. I haven’t been mentioning it in the blog, but we can barely move without the coast guard coming to see us. This time I had the misfortune to be the boat anchored farthest out, so they came to my boat.

One of the coast guard officers came aboard Sans Souci, and politely but firmly said, “No permission this anchorage. Must move. Now.” The storm was kicking into high gear, and I didn’t want to pull anchor, so I convinced him, with neither of us speaking the other’s language, to come to the pilot house and look at the charts himself. I wanted him to see what we were looking at. He looked at the chart, and pointed at where he wanted us. It was in the main channel, in over 100 feet of water, and completely unprotected. I pointed out that we were expecting 35 knots of wind, heavy rain, and that it would be too dangerous a location. Roberta, standing behind me, looked him in the eye, and said “SAFETY!”. He pointed at another location, once again, over 100 foot deep, and I tried to explain that we can’t anchor that deep.

The coast guard officer was getting more and more frustrated with me. He said, “How deep can anchor?”. I called Seabird and Grey Pearl on the radio, with him standing beside me, and relayed the question. With a big wind coming, we needed at least five times as much chain out as our depth. I had 400’ of chain, implying I ‘might be ok’ in as much as 80’ of water. I didn’t know how much chain Seabird and Grey Pearl had, but thought it might be less. Or, at the least, I knew that they would know to apply pressure for the best possible anchorage. “50 foot maximum depth” came the answer back from Grey Pearl. Roberta looked the coast guard officer in the eye again, and repeated “SAFETY!”. And, of course, the rain was falling harder, and the wind was helping by voicing its opinion from outside the pilot house. The coast guard officer scrolled around my map a bit, and was starting to see it through my eyes. “I call boss” he said.

In no way do I want to sound critical of the Japan Coast Guard. They have been extremely attentive to us, and controlled/monitored our every move. I think this is partially because as our agent said, “There has never been anything remotely like the GSSR in Japan before.” They just don’t have rules or procedures for what to do with us. And, I think they are a bit worried about us. The seas here can be nasty, and they are accustomed to seeing freighters out in the deep water, but not smaller boats, and certainly not private power boats. They don’t know what we can handle and what we can’t. Sometimes, such as when they try to get us to anchor in 100’ depths they are over-estimating our abilities, and at other times, such as when I received repeated calls during anchoring at the upper end of Amami in 25’ of water, they were convinced we would go aground and were under-estimating our abilities. One of the coast guard officers, when I mentioned on the radio that I was traveling with two other boats said, “Oh. I know that very well. We have very thick file on you. You go very many places in Japan.” In every case they have meant well, and have wanted to help, but Japan is very rigid, and rules are rules.

As I was debating anchoring locations with the coast guard officer, and explaining on the radio to Seabird and Grey Pearl what was going on, I suddenly heard water flowing on the roof, and remembered I had left the water in the hot tub filling. It was overflowing onto the fly bridge! I needed to shut the water off, and couldn’t imagine how to explain it to the coast guard. The best I could do was to point at the roof and say, “Onsen. Too much water. Right back.” I dashed to the roof as the coast guard officer looked at me dumbfounded.

He couldn’t contact his boss, and our agent wasn’t answering the phone. We both agreed there was nowhere our group could safely go. He finally said, “I am leaving. If I am not back in 30 minutes, you can stay here. But, please leave when weather permits.” Victory! I assured him we wanted to leave as quickly as possible. He then explained that other boats would not expect us to be where we were and that we must light the boats brightly. I explained that we have anchor lights and AIS. He said that it was not enough. I agreed to his request, and he went back to his boat, and drove off. He did not return.

The weather pinned us down, as expected. However, there were breaks in the storm where we were able to enjoy ourselves. I wanted to try out my dive gear and Steven and I dived under his boat (Seabird) to clean his bottom. I then invited over Braun and Steven to experiment with my hookah. I have several hundred feet of hose, and it splits up to four ways, allowing us to dive together, and stay down as long as we’d like (within reason). The water temperature is 80 degrees, so we were able to dive without wetsuits, and had a blast just goofing around.

Our next leg would take us from Amami to Okinawa…

From Amami to Okinawa is a 155 nm run. This would take us about 19 hours, meaning we would need to run overnight. We prefer to avoid the overnight runs, and identified an island half-way in-between, called Okino Erabu where we could stop for the night. Unforunately, Okino Erabu is a closed port, so we needed permission to enter, and permission takes seven days. This meant contacting our agent, who contacted the coast guard, to beg for permission for us to enter on short notice. It also meant contacting the port to find a place for us. And, it also meant having a solid two day weather window, which was the toughest challenge. We identified one, but then the weather worsened. Then we identified another, and the weather worsened again. I am not accustomed to having to declare our intentions and ask permission. With the changing weather forecasts we have found ourselves frequently getting permission, only to change plans a few hours later. I am constantly contacting our agent saying, “Thank you for getting us permission. However, we have changed our plans. Again.”

On Sunday, I noticed that there was a brief break in the weather, possibly long enough for us to go straight to Okinawa. It was a short window, and if we missed it, we would probably be socked in for at least four or five days. It was not a perfect window, and the waves and wind were close to our minimum standards to travel in comfort. We don’t like wave periods under six seconds, or waves over six feet. The projection was for six foot waves on six second intervals. Acceptable, but far from perfect. We checked with our weather router (Bob from who agreed with our assessment that we needed to leave that night or not at all. His assessment of the weather was slightly better than ours, which was great news. Also, I was able to plot a course which ran us down the east side of the islands en route, with the wind/waves coming from the west.

Because the weather was forcing our timing, there was no time to alert the coast guard that we were underway. We just pulled anchor and started to move. Within minutes the coast guard was on the Radio. “Sans Souci. This is Kagoshima Coast Guard Radio.” They wanted to know where we were going. I explained that we were headed to Okinawa, direct. They accepted the response, and seemed happy. I worry that our being here is stressful for them.

Further complicating all of this, we had no place to go in Okinawa! We had spoken to every marina in Okinawa, and were told that none was large enough, or deep enough, to hold our boats. The best we could find was a large commercial port which would allow us to tie to a wall. Being tied to a wall is miserable. You can’t get off the boat safely. There is no electricity, and the wall is covered with sharp objects which destroy your fenders. And, in this case, the wall wasn’t even available for a couple days, and there was no place we were approved to drop anchor.

One of my blog readers, Sid Lampert, happened to read about my problems finding a marina in Okinawa and suggested I contact the Ginowan marina. I looked on the chart, and depths in the marina, according to the charts, run only about 3 feet. Sid put me in touch with an Okinawa-based American friend of his, John Rutherford, who has his sail boat at the Ginowan marina. John said he was 100% certain the marina could handle our boats, causing me to contact our agent, who contacted the marina, who said, “No way.” I spoke to John again, and he said, “Nonsense. Just come to the marina, and I’m sure we can find room for you.” I relayed this to our agent, who contacted the marina, who echoed their earlier comment, “Don’t come. No way.”

So … when we left the anchorage in Amami, we had no idea where we’d wind up, but we did have confidence that it was going to work out, somehow. I wrote to John Rutherford, who I’d never met, but seemed to know what he was talking about, and basically said, “We’re coming. I hope you can help us.”

I also wrote to our agent to say, “We’re headed to Okinawa. Help! Call the port and get us onto the wall, or find us a place to drop anchor. We need a place!”

Our run to Okinawa was perfect. The seas were exactly as predicted, and we had a good run. The bad weather was supposed to hit at 3pm, and we arrived at 3pm, just as the wind started rising, and the rain started falling.

Braun (Grey Pearl) called John Rutherford to alert him that we had arrived, and John Rutherford, who barely knew us, agreed to take time off from work, go to his sail boat, and guide us into the marina in the rain.

As we were waiting for John Rutherford to guide us, an email popped in from our agent with the good news that we now had permission to tie to the wall in Naha port, five miles away. I still didn’t know if John Rutherford could deliver on his promise to get us into Ginowan, but we decided to give him a try.

The entrance to the marina is at the back of a poorly marked, coral lined, channel. John warned that there was zero-depth water all around us, and that we should enter one at a time, staying close to the tail of his sail boat. I entered first, noting that there was 10’ depth inside the marina, even at low tide. The charts were wrong. Yay!

Ahead of me I could see a beautiful floating dock, and I started working my way towards it. As I started my final approach, I noticed several guys on the wall just short of the floating dock signaling me to approach, and that’s when I realized that life was not to be perfect. They wanted me to tie to the shipyard wall. Sadly I realized that there had been a miscommunication, and that we would NOT be in the marina at Ginowan, we would be tied to a concrete wall, covered with critters, with fender eating crud, and no easy way off the boats.

After a long night at sea, it was a tremendous letdown. That said, my sense was that a wall at the Ginowan marina was probably 100 times better than a wall at a commercial port in Naha. And, after I thought about it, it wasn’t really so bad. I could drop the tender and use it to shuttle to the floating dock, whereas at the port, I’d have an impossible time of getting off the boat. I relayed the bad news to the others, who were equally disappointed. I also sent an email to our agent, who still assumed we were tying up at the Naha port, 5 miles away.

As Seabird was tying up behind me, two customs officials rushed down the dock, to ask who I was, and why I was here. I phoned our agent, and put him on the phone with the customs officers, who chatted briefly and then pronounced, “Wrong port. Leave now.” Crap. The storm was starting to kick into high gear. We were exhausted. And, now customs was insisting we leave.

Usually, all the official’s we’ve met have had a good sense of humor, and are trying to think of ways to help us. These guys had no sense of humor, and wanted us gone asap. I’m not someone who wants trouble, and wanted to leave immediately, despite the bad weather. One of my worst fears is to someday be imprisoned in some foreign jail. I had just been asked firmly to leave by a customs official who looked irritated, and was standing by my boat. I was tired, grouchy, and wet from the rain. It wasn’t good. So… I handed my phone to Braun, and said, “Help.” I thought maybe since I was striking out, he might be able to give it a fresh try.

Braun called our agent, and fully explained the situation, and why it was difficult for us to leave, and why we needed to be at Ginowan. Our agent then called another agent who is local in Okinawa. The local Okinawa agent was still standing at the port of Naha, waiting patiently for our arrival. He immediately contacted the coast guard, and customs, and the word filtered down that we should stay put. About 20 minutes later our local Okinawa agent drove up, and said he had everything smoothed over, and that we could relax. He also said that we really dodged a bullet by not going to Naha. The commercial port is open to the sea and has tremendous swell, particularly with a north wind, such as we were having. He thought that our boats would have been slammed continuously into the wall, and that whereas we had complicated his life a bit, we made the smart decision.

So, with all that said…

This blog entry is getting overly long, so I’m going to save my comments on Okinawa for my next blog. I’ll say only that Okinawa is VERY different from mainland Japan, and that I have much to say about Okinawa, and Okinawa’s role in WWII.

In closing, I want to extend my deepest thanks to those who have taken such good care of us, including Sid Lampert, the blog reader who connected us with John Rutherford, Furuno, our agent, who has tolerated our unending changes in schedule, the Ginowan marina, Miyagi from the marina, who lent us his car, even though he doesn’t know us, and John Rutherford who has been unimaginably nice to us. When I asked John why he went so far out of his way on our behalf, all he could think of to say was, “Boaters need to take care of other boaters.”

That’s it for today.

Thank you,

Ken Williams
Sans Souci, Nordhavn 68
And, if you are interested in my books, check out : 


12 Responses

  1. As I stated below, in my reading of the Australian accident investigation of Jessica Watson’s collision with a Panamax coal carrier bound for China, I found citations confirming that English is in fact the required language of the sea.

    The IMO requirement embraces certain standard phrases and I thought that some of you would like to know them. I found one website where you do not have to pay for them:
    < ( >
    You may wish to download this document so that you might be able to converse with vessels whose bridge staff have a very restricted knowledge of English. That was the situation on the Chinese vessel Silver Lady whose second officer did not stop his vessel after the collision.
    Ron Rogers

  2. Earlier, there was a qurestion about whether English was the “lingua franca” of marine navigation. This excerpt from the Australian investion of Jessica Watson’s colliusion with a ship makes it clear that Emglish is the required language of the sea.

    “The VDR audio data indicates that the ship?s second mate appeared to comprehend
    what was being said to him. However, the data also clearly shows that others,
    including Ella’s Pink Lady?s skipper and Brisbane Harbour Control, were unable to
    clearly comprehend what he was saying.
    It is a requirement of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Seafarers?
    Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Code that all watch keepers
    have knowledge, understanding and proficiency in the English language24 and for
    standard phraseology to be used as much as possible in order to reduce the risk of
    important safety messages being misunderstood25. It is also a SOLAS requirement
    for all bridge-to-bridge and bridge-to-shore communications to be carried out in
    On 9 September 2009, it appears that the second mate was able to understand
    messages received in English over the VHF radio. However, he demonstrated that
    he could not effectively use the IMO?s Standard Marine Communication Phrases
    (SMCP) to make his own messages clearly understandable. Hence, it is likely that
    his training and certification in this area did not meet the requirements set out in the
    STCW Code.”


  3. that 5 short indicates disagreement and/or danger seems to be pretty standard, at least in the US. I’m still trying to figure out how to get tailgaters on the highway to back off…


  4. 5 or more blasts is disagreement and you are saying following that course of action is dangerous. That equals “NO” in my book.

    You have correctly interpreted the reason for the Adniralty Court decisions. I would sound the horn as CYA when in doubt. There have been collisions owing to the wrong vessel hearing a transmission intended for another and acting upon it. Also, never place your radios on scan as they will default to 16 just when you are exchanging critical bridge to bridge communications with another vessel. This happen to me on the Chesapeake and we werre almost run down by a barge pushed by a third tug who was mistaken arranging a pass with a third vessel. This is why IMO vessels have separate radios for 13 and 16. Now we have DSC channel 70 which can also take you off your selected channel. On some brands, this can mean even channel 16. The USCG is trying to get manufacturers to correct this since it is probably doable in software.


  5. Ron:

    Great research. Thank you.

    The reference discouraging the use of VHF for collision avoidance surprised me. When reading in detail, it is more clear. There are times when it is appropriate to use VHF and times when it isn’t.

    For instance, two ships 6 miles out from each other, who both speak good english, and have clearly identified each other, can and should arrange passing via VHF.

    Whereas, if ‘time is of the essense’, there is any confusion about the identities of the ships involved, or language is a barrier, then sounding a horn is more likely to obtain the intended result.

    In our freighter situation, there was almost certainly a language barrier. Both he, and we, had AIS, so we knew who each other were. The freighter never sounded his horn, and I’m not sure what I would have done if he had. The channel was narrow enough that I didn’t want him passing. If he had requested to pass, I suppose I would have found a way to get out of his way, or I would have sounded the danger signal (I don’t recall if there is a horn signal for saying ‘no,’ other than ‘danger’.)

    As it turned out, the freighter proved that there was plenty of room for maneuvering in the channel, and that our group was being overly conservative.

    Of course, my rule of thumb is that if you have to think about whether the channel is too tight or not, it is too tight.

    -Ken W

  6. International Telecommunications Union (ITU). ITU regulates all use of radio spectrum by any person or vessel outside U.S. waters. ITU rules affecting radio, which have treaty status in the U.S. and most other nations, are published in the ITU Radio Regulations. The ITU has established three VHF marine radio channels recognized worldwide for safety purposes:

    Channel 16 (156.800 MHz) – Distress, safety and calling
    Channel 13 (156.650 MHz) – Intership navigation (bridge-to-bridge)
    Channel 70 (156.525 MHz) – Digital Selective Calling
    International Maritime Organization (IMO). IMO regulates the outfitting and operation of most vessels engaged on international voyages, except warships. Most IMO radio regulations affect all passenger ships and other ships of 300 gross tonnage and upward. IMO rules affecting radio are promulgated in the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention which has been ratified in the U.S.

    < ( >

    In the Japan section of the “World VTS Guide” – everything is in English. That suggests that English is the “lingua franca” for ships over 300 gross tons.

    < http://www.worldvtsguide.or ( >

    Finally, Admiralty courts have recently held that negotiating passage via VHF is to be frowned upon and reliance should be placed upon horn signals per the Rules of the Road.

    < ( >

  7. Rita:

    Thank you. All is now under control in Okinawa and we are enjoying our time here. Yesterday was spent being ‘tourists’ plus doing various boat maintenance projects. Monday we plan on visiting the Karema Islands (Zamami) and doing a bit more exploring.

    Ken W

  8. Sam and Ron:

    You’ve raised great questions that I don’t know the answer to. My belief is that channel 16 is the standard calling channel worldwide, and that all mariners are supposed to be monitoring 16. That said, I can’t swear to it. We also tried channels 13 and 14 which are commonly used by the freighters.

    We think the freighter was monitoring channel 16 and understood us, but was deliberately ignoring our communications. It may have been coincidental, but when Steven made his very authoritative speech about right away, it was when the freighter turned slightly to port, and we thought he was going to comply.

    Instead, it was him positioning to let us know we had irritated him.

    I did a bit of googling to see if I could find an international reference designating channel 16 worldwide as the hailing or calling channel, and could not. So, perhaps it is not a world standard, although, channel 16 seems to have been adopted in all of the other countries I’ve visited thus far (the med, central america, caribbean, etc).

    Generally, at sea, I’ve had better luck contacting freighters on channel 13 (bridge to bridge communications) than on channel 16.

    -Ken W

  9. Ken, on a similar note to the first, what makes you think that they were monitoring 16 as opposed to 8, or any other channel for that matter? I’ve definitely tried calling working boats before and they were very clearly not monitoring 16.

    Thanks for the blog post.


  10. Ron:

    Perhaps you know the answer to this. I ‘think’ that english is mandated as the common language for all port communications around the world, but perhaps it isn’t. I’m not sure. I know that in aviation (or, think I know) that all communications with control towers are supposed to be in english.


    Perhaps you are right that the freighter captain did not know english AND did not know the rules of the road. That particular incident was not uncommon. The Japanese freighter captains are aggressive drivers and it is best to stay well out of their way (which is impossible in mainland japan).

    -Ken W

    PS I toured the Japan Underground Navy operations center here in Okinawa today. Amazing!

  11. Ken, our Acton Town Council member, Jackie Ayers is on Okinawa for the next year or so with her husband’s work commitments. Maybe she can be of help to you. Her email address is : airspecial@…. (Note: email address removed by moderator)

    She and her husband and son have been there for the last 6 months or so, on the base, and might be able to help you. She is one of the greatest members of our town council

  12. Excellent video with great narration. Why did you think that the deck officers on the freighter spoke English? When I was in China on the bridge of a huge river boat, I learned that they believed that the vessel with the biggest horn has the right of way and they demonstrated this time after time. If you ever go to a breakfast buffet in a Japanese-owned hotel, expect to be elbowed out of the way by Japanese businessmen. It was their regular practice in China. Otherwise, they were polite, but distant. So I would expect size and “elbows” to be determinant at sea. At least he didn’t blast you with his horn. {;*))

    It will be interesting to hear how American tourists will be received in Okinawa – especially after the Prime Minister’s resignation over his acquiesing on the USMC basing agreement.

    Thank heavens for fellow boaters! This is not the first time that they have come through for you.


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