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.

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.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Choku geki sareru: Typhoon Muifa

Update August 6, 2011: s/v Intrepid survived completely unscathed and we're just waiting for the seas to calm down so we can get back out sailing!

s/v Intrepid is currently braced for a possible direct hit from Typhoon Muifa, currently forecasted as a category 4 tropical cyclone due to hit Okinawa mid-day on Thursday August 4, 2011. We're expecting sustained 100 + kt winds with gusts up to 140 kts. To prepare, sails and biminis are taken down and lines are tied to every cleat to put the boat in a spider web in the slip. Before the storm all is quiet at the marina... the calm before the storm...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bracing For a Tsunami in Japan: a Cautionary Tale

Featured in Lattitudes and Attitudes magazine, July 2011 p. 78

Ginowan Marina
            You’ve heard the stories and seen all the pictures of the devastation in Japan in the aftermath of the big earthquake and tsunami off Sendai, Japan. This is a story of one American sailor’s experience in an area of Japan that missed the physical effects but is still reeling from the psychological effects of the big tsunami.

            In the afternoon of Friday March 11, 2011, I was sitting on my boat in Okinawa, Japan. I was supposed to go sailing this weekend with my friends Rick and Maggie who were stationed here with the U.S. Marines. We were supposed to meet at 5pm but I arrived an hour earlier to prepare. When I first drove into the parking lot of Ginowan Marina, on the west coast of Okinawa, I thought there seemed to be an odd commotion of people hanging around, but I really didn’t think anything of it and went down to the boat. As I walked down the docks I noticed a few people putting out extra lines and fenders on their boats and vaguely wondered, is there a storm coming? As I got the boat ready to sail for the weekend, I had some time so I went up by the marina office to get a can of coffee. As I walked up I met another expat friend, Clyde who said, “Hey did you hear there was an earthquake and we’re on alert for a tsunami?” He said it half with a snicker, like yeah we’ve been through this drill before. As Clyde warned me, it was then that I realized that there were fire trucks and police cars driving up and down the street, announcing to people that they must evacuate. People around the marina were also starting to shuffle around more purposefully and many were leaving.
            People in Japan know that this island country sits on a fault line and gets earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis regularly. They always seem to happen somewhere else though, and never do that much damage. Even so, the Japanese people are amazingly well prepared and even if there was any damage it would be repaired the next day. Just last year, in fact there was an earthquake somewhere in Japan and we had a tsunami warning in Okinawa. They closed the marina all day and told us we had to evacuate, which was a big inconvenience since I was in the middle of painting. Last year when the time came for the tsunami to hit, my curiosity got the best of me and I sneaked in past the guards and waited off by the seawall, with my camera to watch. When the time came when it was supposed to hit, there was not even a ripple on the water and I was quite disappointed, to be honest. I was sure the same thing would happen this time. Tsunami, big deal. I sort of hoped it would come, wouldn’t that be interesting! I got my camera ready again this time.
            Sometime after 5pm, when my friends were supposed to meet me to talk about our sailing trip and also about the time the tsunami was supposed to hit Okinawa, I was hanging out on my boat, looking at the water with camera in hand. It was oddly quiet on the docks, when my phone rang. It was a very bad connection on the phone, with the antenna bars showing full service, but we weren’t able to connect. Just to check my phone, I tried calling a few friends, but with no luck. I wondered, did I forgot to pay my cell phone bill? Later, I would learn that as a result of the disaster, cell phone service throughout all of Japan was disrupted. Finally quite awhile later, my friend Maggie was finally able to get through and told me frantically, “I’m so sorry Greg, we have to cancel. I don’t even know what’s going on but Rick just got called for duty this weekend. I guess this tsunami really is a big deal.” Rick, I would later learn would be part of the US military’s Operation Tomodachi humanitarian relief operations.
            Disappointed that my sailing trip was cancelled and a bit lonely being the only person at the marina, I left and then learned on TV with everyone else about what had just happened. One of the biggest natural disasters in our lifetimes had just occurred, with tens of thousands of lives ended and entire cities erased in a matter of minutes by Mother Nature’s unforgiving fury. Words can’t describe what we’ve all seen in the news by now. It’s shocking to see what an earthquake and tsunami like this can do to the one country in the world most prepared to deal with something like this. What I thought was almost as shocking was watching a YouTube video of Santa Cruz harbor in California, that saw the tsunami wave wreak havoc- several thousand miles away- destroying docks, sinking a few boats and damaging several others. I still don’t quite understand why Okinawa was spared, with the computer models showing that we should have experienced something at least comparable to California.
            Looking back on it, the emergency personnel ordering residents to evacuate weren’t just going through the motions. The people who left the marina weren’t just following orders. They were smart. I don’t mean this to sound insensitive, but I have to wonder how many of the 20,000 or so people who died from the tsunami, did so while standing on the seawall with their cameras? Because I know that with my prior attitude, I’m quite convinced that if I was in Sendai, I would not be alive today because I know I would’ve been the idiot to stay behind to watch and take pictures.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Diving in Okinawa

Sailing for the sake of sailing is fun but sometimes where you can go on a sailboat is what it's all about! One of the reasons we like electric power is because it is easier on the environment. Check out the premier video of Intrepid Seas Productions to get an idea about why we care about the environment!

Monday, June 13, 2011

ASA Japan Hosts 5th Annual Instructor Meeting and Conducts Safety at Sea Demonstration in Osaka

Featured in ASA Bearings Affiliates Newsletter, Spring 2011
Aoki Yacht School Crew
            Since founding in 1999, Aoki Yachts American Sailing Association affiliate sailing school has been actively promoting the sport of sailing throughout Japan. Over the weekend of February 5-6, 2011 Aoki Yachts hosted the 5th annual ASA Japan instructor meeting in Osaka. Yoh Aoki, President of ASA Japan met with his staff and network of ASA certified sailing instructors to discuss instructor techniques and how to best practice the ASA system of sailing instruction in Japan. Instructors and staff discussed techniques and the format in Japan for the Basic Keelboat 101 course and the Safe Boating and Docking endorsement and conducted instructor demonstration lessons. The group also became familiar with Aoki Yacht School’s new web-based student and instructor communication tools and devoted some time interpreting changes in Japanese safety equipment requirements, which differ slightly from the standards in the United States.
MOB Recovery
            Aoki-san also reviewed with his staff and instructors lessons learned from a Safety at Sea demonstration, which was also held in Osaka in August. This demonstration was similar to a Safety At Sea Seminar which many American sailors are familiar with, and was conducted by Aoki Yachts ASA instructors for the public. The demonstration topics included water survival and a practical evaluation of the different crew recovery techniques, in which a swimmer was rescued and hoisted aboard a yacht doing the Figure eight and quick stop methods of recovery. Aoki Yacht School’s Safety At Sea demonstration was featured prominently in the popular Kazi Japanese yachting magazine.
            Aoki Yacht Schools’ ASA instructors came to the annual instructor meeting in Osaka from all over Japan. The meeting was also an opportunity for the two new instructors who joined the team or participated in one of Aoki Sensei’s two IQCs in the past year to meet with the rest of the team. Yoh Aoki is also an ASA Instructor Evaluator and has conducted eleven IQCs in Japan, certifying 41 instructors since 1999. IQCs are held regularly in Osaka and Yokosuka in Japanese and in English for foreigners living or working in Japan.
Instructor's Meeting at Aoki Yacht School
            Aoki Yachts ASA Sailing school is the largest recreational sailing school in Japan and has issued over 2500 sailing certificates since it became an ASA affiliated sailing school in 1998. The complete range of ASA courses are regularly taught in Osaka, Tokyo, Yokohama and Okinawa in Japanese and English. Aoki Sensei has translated all ASA course materials into Japanese and even wrote the sailing textbooks, Inner Sailing 1, 2 and 3 as the Japanese version of ASA’s sailing textbooks. Sailing courses are taught on a variety of types of sailing craft, including the new Aoki- designed Zen 24 auxiliary electric sailboat. Aoki Yachts is also a Japanese government boat licensing school and full service boat brokerage.  
            As an island nation, Japanese culture has always been intimately tied to the sea. As a recreational activity, the sport of sailing has been steadily gaining in popularity in Japan in recent years. If you are looking for a truly unique and unforgettable sailing vacation or if your sailing cruise takes you in the direction of this part of the globe, please visit and Yoh Aoki and his dedicated ASA instructors would be happy to go sailing with you and show you the beautiful sites of Japan.