GSSR#39 – Hiding from a typhoon, again

Our run from Shimoda to the port of Omaezaki couldn’t have gone smoother. After a couple hours of 20-25 knot winds, the seas calmed completely. It was almost spooky. We were chatting on the radio, while watching the wind gauges, and could see the wind dropping about a knot every minute. Nothing on shore seemed to be causing the wind to drop. We were just in the right place at the right time.

Omaezaki is a port, not a marina. Ports are giant concrete complexes, meant to accept commercial traffic. Big freighters use the ports, and commercial fishing fleets, not boats such as ours. There are no floating docks. Ports have only concrete walls that you can tie to. The walls, especially when the winds push you into them are hard on your fenders. There is no shore power, and no water. Ports will occasionally accept private boats, but it is not really the business they are in.

We entered one other port on this trip; Hachinohe. You may recall from my blog that, at Hachinohe, we tied to a wall where a freighter had recently unloaded cattle. Yuck. In spite of all this, we paid one of the highest per night costs I have yet experienced anywhere in the world.

I’m not complaining, and am in fact thrilled to be able to get into a port, when we need access. Normally, we would just run around the clock when moving long distances. However, the waters in Japan have a lot of fishing gear that makes running at night hazardous. Plus, each of our three boats now only has two persons. We could run at night if need be, but why do so, if we don’t have to? In the absence of a marina, or a suitable anchorage, a port is our best option. Our options for marinas are very limited due to the size and number of our boats. There are stretches of hundreds of miles where there are no marinas that can take us.

And anchoring is a struggle. Japan has many places to anchor, but we don’t know where they are. None are indicated on either our electronic or paper charts.

I had thought I might get some great information on anchorages at a party held in our honor, at the Yokohama Bay Marina, by a groups of local yacht clubs. However, few people had ever cruised beyond Tokyo Bay, and I received very little information on anchoring. My sense is that Japan doesn’t seem to have the same ‘anchoring out’ culture that we have elsewhere. Some of our books do indicate anchorages, but they seem more relevant to freighters hiding from storms than recreational cruisers in small boats.

In fact, I’ve been very reluctant to go anywhere near shallow water in Japan. I have no depth information on my charts for much of the Japan coast! I have two navigation charting systems on Sans Souci, and I’m disappointed in both. One of them, Furuno’s Navnet 3D, has no chart availability in Japan. I’ve tried, both in the U.S., and Japan, to buy charts, and it is impossible. For Nobeltec, I did buy the Japanese charts, but there are few ‘close-in’ charts. Seabird and Grey Pearl are also running Nobeltec as their primary charting system, and have the same problem. They are slightly better off than me, in that their backup chart plotting system is the older Navnet II, which has slightly better chart coverage in Japan than Nobeltec.

I always say that I’m happiest when at anchor, however, without cruising guides to tell us where the anchorages are, we are stuck trying to ‘find them’ by studying the charts. I assume that cruising guides do exist, but are in Japanese. I have bought everything I can find that is in English, including the Japan Coast Pilot, the British Admiralty Coast Pilot for Japan, and paper charts, with which to find anchorages. I am supplementing this with Google Earth. We are finding places that we think might be an anchorage, but it is very difficult. And, even once we identify an anchorage, it isn’t clear what we’ll find when we arrive. Entire bays can be blanketed with fishing gear, and anchorages can be dozens of miles apart from each other.

To make a long story short, we only had two options after Shimoda: 1) stop at the port of Omaezaki, or 2) run 130nm non-stop. As I said, we are certainly capable of a 130nm passage, but prefer to avoid anything that has us running at night. Thus, we asked the port for permission to enter. Through our agent we heard back that we could not enter the port. We mentioned this to a Japanese friend in Shimoda, who called a fisherman he knew in Omaezaki, who said he would arrange for us to visit, at no cost!

Once tied up, we went to thank the fisherman who had gotten us in, but because he was a ‘friend of a friend,’ we realized we didn’t know his name. While asking around, we accidentally stumbled into some port authorities. This resulted in a long discussion with port bureaucracy, and the Japanese customs agents. The port authorities did not understand why we were in their port, and because of the language barrier, we could not explain. They were very nice about it, and actually wanted to help us. But, one thing you learn quickly in Japan is that ‘rules are rules.’ Fortunately, they mentioned to us that the only way we could enter the port was if we were hiding from a typhoon, or had a mechanical emergency. This was good news. We explained that we were in fact hiding from a typhoon, and that we should be allowed to stay. They agreed, and we started on the paperwork. Of course, what takes a sentence to tell in a blog takes an hour or more, inside a port office, especially when it spans two languages. Our brush with bureaucracy also brought us to the attention of the customs agents, who had a bunch more paperwork. Once again, it felt like everyone was on our team, and wanted to do everything in their power to help us, but, since we had entered the port, a certain level of paperwork had to occur.

The experience was complicated enough, that when I mentioned that perhaps we should push harder to make anchoring work, no one fought me. We studied the charts, Coast Pilot, etc., and identified two places to drop anchor. These, with a couple of 12 hour days at the helm, would get us to Osaka, and the end of the GSSR. Complicating our quest to find suitable places to drop anchor, we needed to find alternative destinations, in case what appeared to be a great anchoring location was, upon arrival, flawed in some way.

Our first stop after Omaezaki, was to run 80 nm to an anchorage at Hamajima.

The weather was perfect; light winds at our back. However, freighter traffic was thick. I’ve always said that my ‘rule of thumb’ is to never let a freighter get within one mile of me. Or, at least that was my rule of thumb prior to this trip. That rule is completely impossible to maintain here in Japan, and I’ve revised it to be .2 nm. If I can keep the freighters two tenths of a mile away, I am happy. In the picture above you can see Seabird, Grey Pearl, and three freighters all converging on the same square inch of water. Whenever we turn to dodge one, we are turning closer to another. Running the boat in Japan is not a relaxing experience.

Here’s a look at a giant freighter that we had to avoid. In this photo Seabird is running at 9 knots, and the freighter at 18 knots. They are within a third of a mile of each other! That sounds like a lot, but only when you aren’t the one looking out the window at something that looks larger than the state of Texas bearing down on you!

This was to be our first attempt to anchor in Japan. Tina (Grey Pearl) pointed this out by getting on the radio and asking, “Who can remember the last time we dropped anchor?” Steven on Seabird was faster on the microphone and shouted, “Attu!” That was over a thousand miles ago!

We had a very nice night at anchor, in a great location (Hamajima Ko) however, getting to where we dropped the hook was not without excitement. I had given the latitude and longitude of where we wanted to drop anchor to our Japanese agent. He responded by saying, “That is too small for your boats.” I suggested an alternate destination, and he responded, “I spoke with the Coast Guard again, and they say that this location is too small for your boats.” I asked him to ask the Coast Guard where they would suggest. He responded with a location which seemed wrong to us. It was completely open to the sea, which would be fine for a giant freigher, but not our little boats. Braun (Grey Pearl) had found one location in a book that seemed, looking at the charts, to be viable. I was nervous about it, because it would require zig-zagging through some narrow, shallow passages without electronic charts. We decided to go for it, with the caveat that if it felt too dangerous, we’d back off to the Coast Guard suggested location, or wherever else we could find.

Within an hour of dropping anchor, the Japan Coast Guard approached my boat. They wanted to tell me something, but I had no idea what. I invited them on board, and we had a frustrating 15 minutes of inability to communicate. Finally, I phoned my Japanese-speaking son, Chris, in the U.S. He spoke to them and then explained to me what they wanted. They were concerned for our safety. They wanted to make sure that we knew about an approaching typhoon, and that we knew we were surrounded by fishing gear. If we were going to move, we must do so very carefully, and wherever we go, it must be a place safe from typhoons. They were greatly relieved when I said that we were aware of the typhoon, and that we had a plan for staying safe.

We’ve known for several days that a typhoon was brewing, and figured we would easily be into Osaka before it was a factor. We had planned departure from our anchorage at Hamajima at 4:30am, in the dark, and had ‘dropped tracks’ on Nobeltec, so that we could weave our way through the fishing gear in the dark.

However, when we woke at 3:30am, for our 110 nm passage, I opened my email and our day was to go differently than planned.

Here is an excerpt from an email we received from our weather router, Bob:

To: Captains Ken, Steve, Braun – G.S.S.R. Group
Fm: O.M.N.I./USA
1120Z 05 SEP 2009

TS [Tropical Storm] Dujuan is expected to continue strengthening to a Typhoon and should move along a more NE-NNE course over the next 24-48hrs. […]

The primary period of concern will be between 06/1200Z and 07/2100Z when the pressure gradients along the coast are expected to be their strongest. NE-ly winds ranging 22-35kts with intervals/gusts of 40kts along the coast of Japan are expected. […]

Therefore, based on the worsening trend for winds along the coast of Japan and your location being the furthest north/west you can get from TS/Typ Dujuan, we suggest you remain in port for at least 48hrs (possibly longer) and allow Dujuan to pass to your south/east and allow for easier wind/seas to develop. […]

Please keep us advised of your intentions. B/Rgds, Bob/OMNI

 A quick look at the Japan Typhoon Warning website showed us that the typhoon was approaching faster than we had previously thought. We had one day to get somewhere safe.

We discussed staying where we were, at Hamajima. There was a nearby commercial fishing port, but it was full, and not typhoon safe. We thought we were well protected at anchor, but weren’t positive. It was a tight anchorage. We had put out only 3 to 1 scope (three times the depth in chain). This was fine in normal circumstances, but would not stand up to a typhoon. We couldn’t put out more chain without running into each other and all the fishing gear. It was time to move.

This meant a 4am emergency call to our Japanese agent. Inpressively, he was already up and working on our behalf. He was working on trying to get us into a port called Katsuura, only 60 nm away, but the port wasn’t open yet. There were no closer typhoon-safe marinas within range we could go to. Unfortunately, at 4am, there aren’t a lot of people you can call, and we didn’t really want to leave a anchorage, where we thought we might be safe, for the uncertainty of a port we didn’t know we could enter. After evaluating the situation, we decided that we had to move, and informed our agent that we were moving. He needed to ‘make it happen’ for us at Katsuura.

As a side note, and because my blog will be read by future cruisers traveling to Japan, I should plug the agent we’ve been using: He has been incredible to work with, and I don’t’ know how we could have cruised Japan without his help: Kazuo Furuno, Interocean Shipping Corporation,

In an effort to ‘hedge our bets,’ we also called the Japan Coast Guard on the radio, and said we needed to move, and could they suggest a place. We were lucky and found an English speaking radio operator. The Coast Guard also recommended Katsuura. When we asked them if there was space at Katsuura, they said there was no way to know as the port office would not open for an hour or two.

We decided it was time to move, and that we would head towards Katsuura. If for some reason, we received word that there was no space for us, we could always return to our anchorage at Hamajima.

Within minutes of departing Hamajima, we received the great news that our agent had phoned, and almost certainly woke up, the person responsible for the commercial fishing portion of Katsuura. They did have space for us!

Our run to Katsuura was in dead-calm seas. I would have thought that if I were ever running from a typhoon, I’d be doing it in horrendous conditions, but it wasn’t like that at all. We had flat seas, and blue skies. It was one of our better passages. I even saw a shark! At first I thought it might be a dolphin, which we see often, but this was moving slow through the water. Shark sightings are rare for us, and although it didn’t hang out long enough that I could take its picture, I was able to see it swim along side, which I thought was fairly cool.

On arrival at Katsuura I immediately realized we were in a very special place. The port and city are protected on all sides by very interesting looking hills.

We are also surrounded by immense hotels. After a bit of googling, The hotel shown above spans five buildings. I discovered that Katsuura (or, is it Nachikatsuura?) is an ‘Onsen town.’ All of the hotels have Japanese-style ‘Ryokan’ rooms. Tourists come here for the onsen, or baths. Think of it as hot-tubbing, in hot, natural, spring water. The Japanese love it. In fact, the entire town around us, Katsuura, exists to service the demand for onsen. The bad news though is that onsen-ing is done naked, and the vast majority of the time, segregated by gender. Co-ed, I might consider it, but spending my day hanging out with a bunch of naked guys, is not at the top of my list. That said, I’m quite supportive of the underlying concept, and went way out of our way to build our Nordhavn with a hot tub. Although it’s not particularly my cup of tea, the onsen are one of the cooler features of Japan. Amusingly, the Japanese attribute the segregation to the puritanical Americans who frowned about the co-ed bathing when we arrived here centuries ago.

Anyway, I digress, and there is a typhoon coming! …

One of the worst features of tying to a wall is that as the tide rises and falls, your boat must go with it, even though the wall does not. If the wind is pushing you into the wall, this can mean crushed fenders, and popped fenders. When we tied to the wall, I had to climb up to the dock. However, as you can see in the photos above, once the tide rose, our fenders were almost above the dock. This is reasonably ok if the seas are calm, but a really good typhoon can change the equation. Imagine having your fenders about six inches below the wall when you have a two foot swell rolling through the marina. We could easily wind up with the boats sitting on land. After surveying the port, and analyzing the situation, we decided that we were in as good a position as the port had to offer. It is a very protected port, and the typhoon isn’t expected to be a direct hit. We decided that if worst came to worst, we’d move off the wall and drop anchor in the center of the port, but seriously doubt it will come to that. We feel very safe.

Today was spent just exploring the town. One thing is clear: although Katsuura is a tourist town, it is a ‘Japanese tourist town.’ I suspect we may be the first American boats in the port. If there have been others, there haven’t been many others. Roberta and I walked through the town today with a goal of finding any restaurant with a menu in English. No luck. We had planned a group dinner tonight, but Roberta and I decided to eat on board, rather than deal with not being able to order. It’s a lovely town, but we are foreigners and can’t communicate. Maybe we’ll find something tomorrow.

We’ve somewhat become a tourist attraction ourselves. As we’ve moved away from Tokyo, and areas where they receive frequent foreign visitors, the novelty of us being here has increased. Cars have been stopping since our arrival, to take our pictures. In Omaezaki, we could see people stopping, taking our pictures, and then phoning friends, so that they too could come see the strange-looking ships.

Interestingly, it was actually a very nice day. There is a gentle breeze, and nothing other than the internet indicates that a typhoon is coming. With a little luck, we’ll have the same good fortune as in Yokohama, and the typhoon will pass by harmlessly.

And, on a completely different topic…

I’ve been lazy about using the video camera. My apologies. I tend to forget about shooting video, because I’m not accustomed to it. That said, I did shoot a little video of our departure from Yokohama. We had high winds, and fairly rough seas, but because the wind was behind us, it really wasn’t a bad trip. However, had we been going the other direction, we’d have had a very bad day. Compare, in the video below, our ride, to that of the giant freighter going into the wind. If you don’t see the video below, click this link to see it:

That’s it for today. Thank you!

Ken Williams
Nordhavn 68, Sans Souci

3 Responses

  1. Ken,
    Why can’t Mr. Furuno get you Furuno charts from his brother?

    That ship with the big white tennis balls was an LNG tanker and in the US, armed CG vessels and a fleet of bow tugs would keep you far away from her – not .2nm! First it was safety and now it’s safety and terrorists.

    You are a Japanese cruising boat we thought. Why you need them stinkin Customs – no matter how nice they are?

    An onsen bath can be as hot as 107.2F! So it ain’t a cool feature.

  2. Adam:

    This is a very special part of Japan. It is very frustrating not to be able to speak with anyone. I’ve thought about trying to learn Japanese, but it would be too little, too late. I feel like I am missing out on 99% of all that is around me, and am meeting people who could be lifelong friends, that I’ll never know, if only I could speak with them.

    Today, I took the train, and went to near by Shingu. It was a very fun experience. The train went along the beach, and then we hiked for miles through town. We had no goal, other than to ‘sight see’. We got lost in the middle of a residencial district, then took another hour hopelessly trying to find the beach. We wound up in a casino, in the middle of no where, asking if anyone could call us a cab. It was hilarious (we came from Seattle, then couldn’t find the ocean in a beachfront community). And, it was a very cool experience. A great day.

    I suspect that some of the people we encountered today have never seen a ‘gaijin’ in person. It was fun watching them trying to figure out what we were doing here… Hopefully, we left a good impression.

    -Ken W

  3. Ken, I’m *super* excited that you made it to Katsuura. I have been wondering since I first heard about the GSSR whether you guys would call there. I was on the Kii peninsula in 1980 — my father had gone to Japan to sell his Japanese stamp collection — and I remember well the feeling of being a tourist attraction. Suffice to say Caucasians were not common in that part of Japan at the time, and as an 8 year-old I was very self-conscious about all the attention.

    I have one very strong memory of Katsuura — a hotel built inside a mountain; and I recall that the mineral baths smelled like sulfur.



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