Thursday, September 01, 2011

Sailing away to Tokashiki island

Memories of sailing adventures to Tokashiki aboard s/v Intrepid

Sometimes even the laid back Okinawa lifestyle can be too hectic. But if you need to escape, the Kerama islands are just out on the horizon. Heading out west from the southern half of Okinawa honto, the first inhabited island you will reach is Tokashiki island. The biggest of the islands of Kerama Shoto, the island is home to a few thousand residents who traditionally are self sufficient farmers and fishermen. Tourism is the island's main economic driver now, with visitors coming to enjoy some of Okinawa's most beautiful beaches and best diving. Visitors are welcome at numerous small hotels and guest houses, while other visitors choose to camp by the beach.

Most people come to Tokashiki by ferry. The 40 minute fast ferry leaves from Naha's Tomari port about once a day and the bigger 90 minute ferry leaves twice a day, depending on the season. If you're really lucky though, you might be able to catch the super slow green ferry which leaves from Ginowan Marina, a few times a year...

The five Intrepid crew members checked the weather and the charts and considered their options. Something about Tokashiki was beckoning them this weekend. With winds forecasted to be out of the north, some of the island's best anchorages would be well protected, so Tokashiki seemed ideal. After an evening of planning and a good night's rest, the crew met again on the boat early Saturday morning to get a head start on the 22 mile voyage. With provisions and gear stowed for sea, the crew was ready and without delay took in the mooring lines and started their voyage. 

With the clean and quiet electric propulsion system, Intrepid gracefully made her way out of the slip and away from the docks. It was only 6am but already there was a strong breeze this morning so just to be cautious and for practice, we put the first reef in the mainsail. With the reefed mainsail up, the boat is moving pretty good through the marina so there is no rush to unfurl the genoa. The winds are out of the north, so we're proceeding out the marina with winds on our tail, which is a little bit dicey. As soon as we pass the breakwater though, we can round up and we take the winds on our beam. It's still a little bit choppy out here as we weave between the two red and green buoys marking the entrance to the channel. Are we having second thoughts? A storm system just passed through, but the forecast says it should gradually get more calm throughout the weekend. To the sea, with courage...

Once we have Intrepid's bow pointed between the red #4 and the green #3 buoys, the crew agrees we need more speed so we unfurl the genoa. We don't need to unfurl it all the way before Intrepid picks up her pace to hull speed and we're heeled over pretty good. Her classic lines and long overhangs means that Intrepid heels quickly but once over about 15 degrees she's very stable and sailing the way she was designed. Although we're smashing and cutting through the two and half meter swells and getting a good spray in the cockpit, the boat feels stable and easily proceeds on track. The preventer and proper boom vang tension helps keep the boom out and the mainsail properly shaped.

Going out the channel, the water gets deeper and the choppy waves turn into longer and smoother swells. Past the #2 buoy, where the open ocean begins, we're in our groove and the crew focuses on the destination. Today we're going south of Chi Bishi, where we will be sheltered from the north winds. Steady on course 250, we're pushing 6.5, sometimes 7 knots with the wind on our starboard quarter and beam now with the sails reefed. This is awesome...

Let's get this over with. Man overboard!! We need to practice an MOB drill for our sailing class. Whose got their eye on Oscar? With the winds now howling consistently over 20 kts, it doesn't take long before the float is 5 boat lengths astern. Is that six boat lengths? We better head up and tack now before we lose the float in the big swells. As we tack, we can let the jib luff to kill our speed, but that beats up the sail so we try a "heave-to tack" like Aoki Yacht's Inner Sailing textbook describes, and let the jib backwind to calm the commotion and control our speed. This is nice too, because with the mainsail eased out for a broad reach now we're going just the right speed and able to sail downwind to approach on a close reach. This method is best when it is windy and rough, but sometimes in light conditions it slows the boat down too much and so we would luff the jib instead.

As we round up, our jib is still backwinded but our mainsail is luffing so we slow down to just the right speed. The float is... right... there... Ohhh! Not quite! With the boat hook it's barely out of reach and we somehow are knocked out of position by the wind and waves. If it was a real person who was conscious they could probably reach up and we would have them onboard but... this time we're going to have to practice it again, so... Man overboard port side!! Once more we do the drill and this time the crew is laser focused on success. The second drill is accomplished flawlessly and after some high-fives, we're back on course and heading for Tokashiki.

South of Chi Bishi the waves are smoother but the winds are still brisk. Even with the first reef in the mainsail we're flying at hull speed. We're going to get to Tokashiki in record time! The crew is thrilled and are reluctant to give up the helm when their watch shift is over each hour. The rest of the crew are watching the sails but don't have to trim much since our helmsman is steering a straight course. So the off-duty crew relaxes a bit, takes pictures, enjoys a late breakfast, chats about world events and grooves to Pure shores coming from the cabin's speakers.

By the time we get south of Mae Jima, the winds seem like they have shifted and are coming more from on our tail. On a broad reach, almost a run, we don't have the apparent wind in our face but we're still moving fast. You can see the water rushing past the hull and with the big swells the boat still heels. It's a good thing we got that preventer on! Still, we need to mind that helm very carefully since a wild jib would be nasty in these conditions. Intrepid has a very sensitive helm with a direct mechanical linkage to the rudder post. It's a little nerve wracking though to think about that little bronze pin that holds it all together. We want to be nice to the helm and try to achieve a balanced helm, not just because it's easier on the steering gear but because there is less turbulence from the rudder. With smooth and easy helm control, Intrepid is slicing through the water.

The swells between Mae Jima and Tokashiki are rough and turbulent. At this point we could head up and aim straight for Tokashiki port if that was our destination, but it's not. We're going around the south tip of Tokashiki and anchoring in Aharen bay. That means we need to keep the wind and waves on our stern. However somehow, either the current or our conservative helmsmanship has brought us pointed to windward a little too much. So we're eventually going to have to jibe in this crap. Or do a 270 and come about the other way. Maybe we should have put in the second reef? It's always much easier to shake out a reef when you're bored than to put one in when you're scared. A wise person once said that. Too late now, we have a lot of sail up and we're flying. It's exhilarating, but I'm a little worried about the stress on the rig and how we're going to jibe.

The crew discusses the situation as the rocks south of Tokashiki port get closer. Or I should say, all but one crew member who has been pretty silent for the last hour or so. Uh oh... Just keep your eye on the horizon and keep busy. Keep your face in the fresh air but know the quickest way to get to the leeward rail! We're almost to Aharen...

Since we have a little too much sail up for these conditions, we do a 270 and end up on a broad reach on the other tack. We don't have to sail on this tack for very long before we're in line with our track again and then do another 270 and sail right on past the southern tip of Tokashiki. With our last obstacle behind us, we round up and amazingly we're sailing into a glass calm bay that is sheltered on three sides by the high hills of Tokashiki. A nice beam reach with the breeze just coming over the hills, we glide into the middle of one of the most beautiful bays you have ever seen.

We sail through the bay for a little while but then as we get closer to our anchorage, we have to drop sails. Using the electric motor and with the sails down now, the white sandy beach in front of us is our homing range that lets us know where to point the bow of the boat. The change in color of the water lets us know it is shallow enough to look for an anchoring spot. This is the best anchorage in Tokashiki and one of the best in the Keramas. The bottom is sandy and perfect for our Danforth anchor. We look for a sandy spot that is about 20 ft deep. The water is a brilliant turquoise blue with the bright sun lighting the water up like a swimming pool.

The only problem with this anchorage is that at 20 ft deep we are still several hundred meters from the beach and we can tell by the color of the water that we can get closer to the reefs. So we carefully bring the boat to about 15 feet of water and to the edge of where the reefs start to guard the beach. There is still enough water over the reefs there but we don't want to damage the coral with our anchor so we're careful to drop it in the sand.

With the anchor dug in and with 7:1 scope out with our rope and chain rode we settle into a spot about 200 yards from the beach. Just to be safe we throw the stern anchor out so we don't swing too much. Once we're safely anchored the skipper leads by example and is the first one to dive headfirst into the warm clear water.

We've made it to our destination. The small village of Aharen is just a dinghy ride to shore now. The crew relaxes a bit, cleans up the boat and then inflates the raft and gets ready to row ashore. We don't have a motor for the dinghy so it will be a good upper body workout rowing back and forth. No problem. We throw our gear in the dinghy and fit three people at a time in the raft. If you row straight, it only takes about 10 minutes.

Once on the beach, the finely crushed coral sand with small wavelets gently caressing the shore is the welcome sight that we came for. The crew steps off onto the beach into knee deep water while the skipper rows back for the rest of the crew. It might be fun to describe our visit as an amphibious landing, but that would be insensitive. This is actually where the Battle of Okinawa began, some 60 years ago, but this time we come in peace. There's a few Tokashiki villagers, or maybe tourists on the beach looking at us like we just landed from Mars. But with smiles and our best efforts at speaking Japanese we know we just made some new friends.

Aharen is a small village, but it has all the essentials. A few guest houses, one or two good izakayas, the mandatory mango ice station, and a store for provisions. You have to support the local economy and so we definitely need provisions now: wasabi peas, rice sembei crackers, benimo chips and of course some cold Orion beer to enjoy on the most beautiful beach you have ever seen. The crew of Intrepid loses track of time as the rest of the day is enjoyed on Aharen beach.

It is night time and we find ourselves sitting on tatami in an old room with a bunch of friendly strangers. Aharen's best izakaya is where you can enjoy locally caught sashimi and the regular selection of goya, fuu or somen champuru, chicken karage... and I'm sure some other good stuff too, but this is what we want tonight. Tonight after dinner half the crew is staying in a guest house, while a few of us are camping by the beach. There's a camp site but I'm planning to just lay out on the beach and stare at the stars, keeping a particularly close eye on the bright star out on the horizon, which is Intrepid's anchor light.

Morning time and the boat is still there. Whew, good! I wasn't really worried but of course it's always reassuring. So after meeting the crew on the beach and visiting the village store one more time for ice, fresh bananas and apples, goya juice, assorted snacks and a few more bottles of water for safe measure, we're loading the raft and making our way back to the mother ship. The breeze is still from the north so the beach is sheltered and the row back to the boat isn't too bad.

It's a little bit easier rowing to the boat with the wind, rather than back to the beach, but luckily that's when the raft is unloaded with people and supplies. Once back on the boat, the crew decides to jump in the water one more time while we're here. There's nothing like a swim in the ocean in the morning to wake you up, and having slept on the beach, this is my morning shower. Ahh, so refreshing... a few of the crew venture further away with snorkeling gear and check out the beautiful reef near the shore. Our departure is delayed a little while we enjoy this beautiful anchorage.

With the anchor just in the sand, it's quick and easy to hoist. The electric motor comes to life only briefly to position the bow of the boat out of the bay before the sails are hoisted. The crew of Intrepid weighs anchor by mid morning and is once again, under sail. Around the southern tip of Tokashiki the winds are howling again like yesterday, from the same direction. But this time we're heading into the wind. It's going to be a close hauled beat to windward all the way home today. Great...

Actually the winds are north-north east and our track home is east north east so if we sail exremely close to the wind we can make it one tack if we don't have too much leeway. Unfortunately the current drives us south so we will have some leeway anyway and so we'll have to tack at least once to the north to stay above our trackline. As we beat the east-northeast, passing Mae Jima from the south it seems like we just hang there for awhile. The currents are very strong if you get too close to Mae Jima. Let's call it "jama jima." Jama means "get out of the way!" in Japanese. So Jama jima is our obstacle standing between us and home today.

Finally Jama Jima is astern of us and we can see the Ginowan Towers. We can't quite point directly at them though. Beating against 22 kt winds, with the second  reef in the sails, heeled over as far as is safe and with spray constantly washing the boat and her occupants, it's an exhilarating ride but her skipper is on edge. Constantly thinking about the strain on the rig and the safe heel of the boat. If a gust of wind comes, we have to be ready to dump and de-power the sails. The mainsail trimmer has the mainsheet out of the cam cleat and is holding it, ready to dump in an emerency. But now we have another situation. Rukan sho getting closer and closer. Damn! Too much leeway and Rukan sho, a big reef off of southern Okinawa, is sucking us in like a freaking magnet. Ready about! Let's tack...

Freaking Jama jima!! When we tacked now we're going north-northwest, back towards Jama jima! It always sucks going back to Okinawa against northeast winds. It took us 4 hours to get to Tokashiki. One time it took us 12 hours to return back to Okinawa in similar conditions. We have to do better than that this time! Is it the boat? Is it our sailing performance? Well, this is the boat that we have and our crew is motivated and doing their best. This is what we came for and why we're doing a sailing class. We'll stay on this tack just long enough to get back above our track before we get sucked in by Jama jima's tractor beam.

After tacking once more, we're heading just a little bit north of the Ginowan Towers now. If we hold a close haul, we can keep the towers at one, maybe two o'clock. Perfect... now we're really on track to get home and making 5 kts over ground, it wont be too long now.

Passing Chi bishi from the south and sailing just outside the breakwaters of Naha port, the winds have died down a little and have shifted more out of the east now. Very nice, now we're on a close, almost a beam reach as we search the horizon for the #2 buoy. I think we can almost shake out the second reef, maybe put in the first? But that always causes the winds to pick up, but a wise man once said, it's always easier to shake out a reef when you're bored than to put one in when you're scared. Um, wait... but this the corollary to that: it's easier to shake out a reef and go faster and put it back in if it get's windy again than to... yeah, scratch that.

We're moving along at three, maybe four kts now but we're moving. And right there, we see it dead ahead: Point "Alpha," The #2 buoy. The sun is starting to set and the red light is flashing twice every 4 seconds. Yep, that's the one! It doesn't take long now and we're passing it on the right: "red right returning" ...or since we're in Japan: "red reft reaving." The little red and green buoys marking the entrance into the marina and the green flashing beacon on Ginowan Marina's seawall are the last markers that guide us into our home port. We've almost made it! Now let's drop the mainsail and furl the genoa. The subtle but powerful electric motor quietly comes to life and pushes us along when we no longer have wind power.

With the dock lines and fenders out and the crew ready with their lines, the skipper takes over and prepares to back the boat into her slip. It's now dark and with gusty winds making our last evolution a challenge.  Not really though... we stealthily glide into the marina, our only sound is the rush of water on the hull and our foot steps on the deck. We glide within inches of Coral Wind, a boat that can barely fit in it's slip in front of us. Once past, and with the boat coasting with her momentum and the prop just barely turning, we get to the turning spot, the rudder goes hard over and with throttle full speed astern, the boat pivots perfectly and fits backward into her slip. The quick action of the crew with their lines, keeps the hull from hitting the corner of the dock broadside with the gusty winds. Intrepid is now safely back in her slip after another awesome trip to the Keramas.

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