Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Sailing away to Zamami island

Memories of sailing adventures to Zamami on s/v Intrepid

Looking west from Okinawa on a clear day you can see a group of islands out on the horizon. About 20 miles off the coast of Okinawa lies the Keramas. The Kerama shoto, as it is known in Japanese, consists of 22 islands, of which 4 are inhabited. On the islands of Zamami, Aka, Geruma and Tokashiki lives a population of a few thousand residents who have traditionally been self sufficient farmers and fisherman. Now these islands are all about eco-tourism, attracting visitors from all over the world with stunningly beautiful natural scenery and some of Okinawa's best beaches and dive sites. Several small hotels and guest houses welcome visitors and also offer dive tours and whale watching when the Humpback whales migrate through the islands in the late winter and spring.

Most people who visit the Kerama islands take the ferry from Tomari port in Naha. You can take the fast ferry, which can get you to Tokashiki, Zamami or Aka jima port in about one hour. For a cheaper fare, you can also take the bigger and slower ferry which takes about two hours. But one option that not many people know about though, is the really slow ferry...

The slow boat to paradise... Whose idea was it to meet so damn early? At 0500, the six Intrepid crew members are not too genki this morning but a cold can of Georgia coffee helps wake us up. As we depart our slip at Ginowan Marina, it is glass calm with Intrepid's electric propulsion system gracefully maintaining the peace and quiet. Without the fumes of a diesel engine, the crew enjoys the sweet smell of the early morning low tide in the marina. The gentle whir of the motor lets our helmsman know that she has just enough power to move the boat through the marina at exactly the right speed. With a full battery charge we can motor for several hours at low throttle if we needed to, but for this weekend trip away from shore power, with the solar panels and wind generator still yet to be installed, we need to conserve power. So while still in the marina, as soon as we get clear of the docks the crew points the boat into the wind and hoists the mainsail.

Then we bear off, point out the channel and unfurl the genoa. But there's not much wind so for a little while the sails just hang there and we have to motor sail until we get out of the wind shadows from land. It doesn't take long though before the sails catch a little breeze and the force of the wind is enough to get us moving through the marina. And then there it is, as we bear off away from the marina breakwater we have a nice breeze on our port beam and we're cruising along smoothly. We're moving through the water now better than we would with any type of motor propulsion.

It's about a half mile sail to the #2 buoy: our Point "Alpha." Since we're doing a sailing class, we have a few sailing drills to practice before we head out and sail to our island destination and can think about relaxing on the beach. The winds aren't too strong, but just for practice we put a reef in the mainsail and then shake it out. We also have to practice a crew overboard drill but you never know when that can happen so, never mind... let's go to the Keramas! Steady on course 270, we set the sails for a port tack beam reach and with about 10- 12 knots out of the south, we're making about 5 knots towards our destination now. Ahh, this is so nice... but before the crew gets too comfortable: Man overboard! Oscar goes for a swim and our crew skillfully posts a lookout and pilots a figure eight maneuver, coming back to pick up the life ring on the leeward side on the first try. Awesome... now, let's go to the Keramas!

Cruising along and steering a steady course, our crew gets Intrepid to Point "Bravo," the northwest beacon on Chi bishi in about 2 hours. We're about halfway to Zamami now, but at the point where the currents converge and create some heavy conditions. As we approach the north side of Mae Jima, the first island in the Keramas, the seas calm down and we're enjoying the ride again.

Passing Kuro shima to the north we see the dive boats at anchor and steer just far enough offshore to keep the wind in our sails. It's not too long before we get to the north side of Tokashiki and we have to make a decision. Do we sail south through the gap between Zamami and Tokashiki, where it's more scenic or do we stay north and offshore of Zamami and come around the west side? We decide to stick with the original plan and go north. This allows us to avoid a beat to windward and keeps us on the same point of sail and after tacking, gets us into Zamami in record time: about 4 and half hours, but whose keeping track?

Intrepid sails along smoothly through the islands, past Gahi shima as the crew skillfully avoids the reefs off of Ama beach in Zamami. Through the islands of the Keramas, the winds are at times both funneled and shadowed giving us lulls and lively gusts on a starboard tack close reach. As we approach the breakwater for Zamami port, we make note of the time and make sure the ferry isn't about to enter or leave the port. It's a narrow gap between the breakwater and the reefs and we don't want to get run over by the ferry. It must freak them out to see a sailboat enter the harbor under full sail, but we always do this in order to conserve battery power and just because we can... and it's fun!

Entering Zamami port under full sail, we can see people on the breakwater and the ferry terminal seawall and they're definitely watching us, too. A small dive boat comes as another goes out. Okinawan boaters and our fellow Umin Chu are serious about the custom of waving to other boaters. We feel like we are entering a place where all our good friends have been waiting for us, and indeed the Zamami villagers are some of the nicest people in the world. We don't want to embarrass ourselves though in front of spectators so now that the high hills of Zamami have blocked all the wind, it's time to furl the genoa and drop the mainsail.

With the sails furled and flaked and dock lines and fenders ready, the electric motor whirs to life. In fact it was always on for the whole trip, in "stand by" if we needed a boost through an accidental tack or to get through a lull. While we were sailing, the propeller just spun in neutral and could have maybe been re-generating power, but that's a project for another day. On our sail to Zamami today our Intrepid crew made full advantage of this boat that was built to sail. But now we need mechanical propulsion to bring the boat alongside the seawall and parallel park between two fishing boats. These two boats have their stand-off lines out pretty far so we have just a narrow space to maneuver. No problem... Our helmsman is new at this and our green painted hull is expensive to fix if it gets scratched, but the skipper has full faith in the crew and the boat.

The electric motor responds immediately to the throttle, giving exactly the right amount of power and allowing us to approach the seawall at a speed just barely enough to overcome the breeze that is pushing us away from the seawall. Oops, too much rudder and we're about to bump into the other boat. Just a touch of full back throttle throws a quiet but powerful torrent of water the other way and we're back in position again. Awesome... now we're alongside the seawall, our crew are over with their lines and we can finally say we've made it to our destination.  

Zamami is an amazing place. For such a small island, there's a lot to do. Or you can do nothing at all but relax and of course doing that is probably what we all have in mind. With Intrepid safely secured to the seawall, with chafing gear on the mooring lines to protect against the wake from the ferry and the change in tides, it's time to go explore the island. First we call Magyi-san and take the only taxi on the island, up the hill to Takatsuki Yama to enjoy the stunning view of the islands. Then we stop briefly at the 105 store, the village supermarket and get a few cold Orion beers, dried wasabi peas and squid jerky to enjoy on Furuzamami beach- one of the most beautiful beaches you have ever seen.

Pure white, crushed coral sand, the kind that's easy to brush off your feet, with crystal clear blue water that is accentuated by the sub-tropical blue sky. This is definitely paradise... We lose track of time and stay here for most of the rest of the afternoon. We would stay here into the evening except today they're having some kind of matsuri (village party) at the ferry terminal where we tied up the boat. We need to go back and check on the boat... no, not really, we know it's safe- but we definitely have to go back for the party!

Zamami village seems to always have an excuse to party. In the summer they host the Zamami to Naha traditional sabani sailing and paddle boat race. The annual Zamami yacht race is usually the following weekend. This year in November there was a matsuri event every weekend. These events and others are always accompanied by parties with traditional dancers, eisa drummers and good music and food. And of course plenty of Orion beer...

Today the show is a lot of fun. There's these old guys with funny make-up and wearing diapers dancing on the stage to a skit and some fun music. A sketchy looking character in a green swamp thing costume is lurking around the crowd, too. Crazy! It's almost time to get up and dance the kachashi with all the other drunk villagers. With Intrepid moored right behind the stage as a backdrop, sorry but I can't seem to wipe this smile off my face.

After a night of fun and some much needed sleep, of course the crew is completely sober and fit for duty. The minshiku was kind enough to serve us a somewhat early breakfast at 7am and afterwards the 105 store was open to sell us some ice and onigiri rice ball seaweed sandwiches for our trip back to Okinawa. We cast off from the seawall without much delay and with the quiet electric motor, ease our way into the middle of the harbor, point the boat head to wind and raise the mainsail and unfurl the genoa. There's not much wind so with our sails hanging like baggy clothing we use the electric motor to get Intrepid out past the Zamami port breakwater.

We're a little bit worried at first, but as we get a little further from land the wind picks up from the southwest and before too long we're on a nice starboard tack beam reach heading for the rocks south of Amuru shima. The chart shows that we can pass north between Zamami and Amuru, as this would be like the Zamami Panama canal and save a lot of time. But we tried that once and almost ran aground, so today we're content with savoring the view for another five extra nautical miles.

Around the south of Amuru shima we jibe and sail dead down wind for a little while. It's interesting because we have to sail like this through a rough patch and between some rocks and without a whisker pole the helmsman has to pay very close attention to keep the sails filled wing on wing. The preventer helps, especially when the currents get dicey and the gusts pick up a little bit.

We're only on this tack for a little while though because as soon as we clear the rocks, we're looking at the backside of Amuru shima where it's sheltered and where the chart shows it has a sandy bottom and a wide swath of about 20 ft depth water. So we get the anchor ready and tie the trip line with a bowline to the crown of our Danforth anchor on the bow roller. Intrepid has about 140 ft of chain on a manual windlass as our primary anchor. All chain is nice, but the manual windlass is actually broken. I don't know what happened to one of the levers inside but today we'll get our morning upper body workout.

With Intrepid's anchor now dug into the sand at 20 ft and about 100 something ft of chain out, we have less than the recommended 7:1 scope, but since its all chain and its very calm here, our anchorage is comfortable and secure. It's time for a swim call! Don't forget the swim ladder. The water is so clear and the coral reefs that we were careful to avoid with our anchor is so beautiful.

While the crew explores the reef, I take this opportunity to inspect the hull. The bottom was just cleaned, but I can see it's already starting to get some growth, especially on the white boot stripe, which bothers me since its so obvious. But with a little bit of scratching with my thumbnails, it's mostly gone.

We don't want to get home too late, so after a few more head first dives into the water from the boat, it's time to weigh anchor. The all chain rode and anchor is not hard to recover at all if it's not too windy and especially if the helmsman slowly drives the boat with the electric motor into position right over the anchor and chain. In no time the anchor is recovered, and the crew is careful to hook the trip line before it can get fouled on the prop. After the anchor is secure, the boat is pointed into the wind and we again raise the main and unfurl the headsail. The race is on to get back home.

We're lucky today the winds are good and steady just off our starboard quarter, so with our full sails up we make an average of 5 knots on a starboard tack broad reach that turns to a beam reach as we pick up speed. I don't know why but it seems like even though we have good conditions, it takes longer to sail back. I think subconsciously we're trying to slow the boat down to savor the experience.

On the trip back is when the off duty crew either takes a nap, finishes off the snacks that we brought along, engages in interesting philosophical and sometimes controversial but always interesting discussions or enjoys the music that goes along with the sailing experience. Of course it's not a sailing playlist without Enya, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Jack Johnson...

The sun is just off the horizon as we're passing Point Alpha again. Everyone is just a little bit red with sunburn even though we all put on sunscreen. It doesn't hurt yet though since we're all high on life after such a fun weekend adventure. The batteries still have plenty of battery charge to get us into the marina with the evening lull of the wind. The sails go down and fenders and dock lines go out once more before Intrepid easily backs into her slip under electric propulsion power and chalks up another magical voyage to paradise.

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