A couple of weeks ago, someone from Wari, a tiny island in Papua New Guinea found my blog and asked me if I had any other photos of Wari Island, so I’m posting them today. Wari Island, along with many other islands in Milne Bay, was hit by a particularly fierce hurricane last year. We were in Wari Island last November, a few months before the hurricane hit. We met some very welcoming, kind people in Wari who showed us their island and fed us lots of fresh mangoes. Our friends in these photos took us for a hike to the top of the island and told us many stories. We learned a lot about local culture and made many friends.
According to news reports, Wari was already suffering a food shortage when the hurricane hit, so they were struggling after it hit. It has been quite awhile, so we hope that they have rebuilt their homes and that their gardens have recovered by now, but I think some things, like the yams, can take awhile. We do not know how to contact anyone from Wari Island, so we do not know how they are doing now, but we have thought about them, as well as all of the other wonderful people we met in the islands, many times.
So, here are some photos of your island. I hope that you find them. Thank you for your message!
After a few days in Bartlett Cove, our heroes sailed triumphantly into Juneau and tied their little Westsail snugly to a dock, where they will live for the winter.
Their grand adventure at an end, they lived happily ever after. Except that they weren’t sure they knew how to behave around other people anymore, and they had to get jobs, which they didn’t think sounded like very much fun.
Shhh… we think the North Pacific has been sleeping this summer, and we’re afraid that if anyone makes too much noise, she’ll wake up and we’ll finally hear her furious roar. The Aleutian summer has been very kind to us. Though we saw plenty of fog, we had more than our entitlement of sunshine, with more clear volcano views than we had thought remotely likely. We changed plans mid-sail several times to dodge weather threats, we had our taste of williwaws, and we saw just enough of the currents and gap winds to know that the Aleutians has earned its harsh reputation, but our time at sea was…I’m afraid to say it…almost pleasant.
It took us a couple of months to work our way through the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula. The trip was full of wildflowers, wild landscapes, and wild life. The Aleutian Islands are mostly tundra-covered grassy slopes, dropping abruptly into the ocean. Some had layers of snowy mountains. Other islands were gentle, with rolling bluffs and lakes, but jutting out of one end might be a perfect volcanic cone, smoking 5,000 feet above the ocean. As we worked our way eastward, the islands grew closer together and the volcanoes steeper. Some islands have geysers and hot springs. At Umnak Island, just east of the Alaska Peninsula, three deeply glaciated volcanoes tower 7, 8, and 9,000 feet above a field blanketed in blazing fireweed and purple lupines. On the Alaska Peninsula, the landscape is a mix of towering volcanoes, striated capes, and steep scree slopes, with purse seiners cruising the coast to round up salmon.
The concentration of wildlife also grew more intense as we sailed further east. We watched flocks of puffins fishing in the strong currents in tidal passes, sea otters munching urchins, sea lions growling on the rocks, humpbacks breaching, orcas prowling in packs, and massive Kodiak brown bears (the biggest grizzlies on the planet) frolicking on the beach. Whale dodging, a sport you’d think might be incredible, became a stressful past-time when we saw whale spouts everywhere we looked. One evening, we were utterly surrounded by fin whales. Fin whales can swim at up to 25 knots–our boat can only manage 6. They reach 75 feet in length and weigh 73 tons; only blue whales are bigger. One kept pace with our boat to port, while we spotted spouts in the distance as far as we could see. Another whale churned the water to starboard. It sped, its giant baleen-filled mouth open and skimming, directly for us. We watched in awe as the whale, twice the length of our boat and moving fast enough to create its own bow wave, charged right at us. Then it dove. It surfaced directly in front of us, 10 yards away. Our marine mammals book says fin whales are “indifferent to boats.” Indifferent might be too ambivalent. Rob stopped the engine and turned in a circle to stop our motion. The whale dove and we spun in place. It must have gone deep. It eventually resurfaced behind us and we continued on our way, dodging fin whales for the next several miles.
On land, after Dutch Harbor, we found foxes, bears, and ground squirrels. Rob caught a salmon when we stopped to swim in a stream at Umnak. A curious fox wandered by. Noticing Rob’s salmon, the fox came over for a trade. He dropped the ground squirrel in his mouth and offered it up–squirrel for salmon? Rob declined the trade, but the fox practiced his puppy dog eyes and Rob almost gave in.
Finally, we made our way to Kodiak and it was time to start thinking about crossing the Gulf or staying put for the winter. We thought we’d be in Kodiak for awhile, but the weather cleared up and we had what looked like a brilliant, if slow, window to cross the Gulf, so, with some trepidation, we decided to head for Cross Sound. We started with light wind and a lot of bouncing, and used the motor much of the way across. But our last night out was a warm welcome home. With clear skies, we had a pink, sunset view of the bulky mass of 18,000 foot Mt. St. Elias to the north, and the perfect tri-pointed pyramid of 15,000 foot Mt. Fairweather to the east. As the dark set in, the green glow of the northern lights appeared above the northern horizon, first faintly, then vividly, with bright spurs dancing to their own jazz beat in an arc across the sky.
In the morning, we had a sunny day and a clear view of icy Mt. Fairweather and its massive neighbors guarding the coast as we approached Cross Sound. We anchored for a night in a beautiful cove on the outer fringe of Glacier Bay, and picked enough blueberries for Rob’s belated-birthday pie in the morning. Then, yesterday, we sailed into Cross Sound under a light breeze. As we turned the corner, the deep blue of the open ocean changed abruptly to the glacial teal of the inside waters and we found ourselves struggling a bit as we waved farewell to the open sea. Today, the rain set in, but the sea lions came out to give us a welcome home show as we crossed the line where we first headed south, and entered into home territory. In the strong currents at the entrance to Glacier Bay, a massive bull sea lion tossed a halibut in the air, thrashing it and gulping it down. Another sea lion tried to grab a bite, and a momentary fracas erupted. A puffin surfed the current, and sea otters bobbed along to say hello as we motored into Bartlett Cove, where we’ll probably spend a couple of days before we start head back home.
The internet’s not letting me post photos from here, so those will have to come later.
Tomorrow, we leave Japan. We’re not entirely thrilled about this. It will be nice to get back to Alaska, of course, and we are very excited to see the Aleutians, but first we have to get there. That could well be the hardest sailing of our trip. And then, once we do get there, we probably have to go back to doing normal things, like working. That’s much less fun than being an instant celebrity everywhere you go. I mean, old ladies have just been handing Rob (that’s “Bobu” in Japanese–no one can say “Rob”) cookies all week. And tea, and coffee. Every time he comes back to the boat he has a new collection of treats. Tonight we have visitors at 6:00, and before we leave at 9:00 tomorrow morning, we have a traditional tea ceremony and a formal farewell on the agenda. We are not this popular at home.
We’ve made our way to Kushiro, on Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan, where we have been fixing a few things on the boat in preparation for the next leg of our journey. Though we had hoped that our next stop would be Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, we had a bit of trouble pulling together all the pieces and, in the end, were unable to get visas in time. That means no Russia. Instead, we have a 1,200 mile passage to the Aleutians ahead of us. We’re not terribly excited about that, as that’s a long time to expect the North Pacific to be cooperative, and it’s a long time to be on the boat in colder weather. On our way to Kushiro, it dropped to 35 degrees one night as we sat on deck in oozing fog so thick it drips from the dodger and the rigging. But, people hopped across the Aleutians in skin umiaks for centuries, so we ours is a cushy trip with hot chocolate and warm beds, right?
We’re not ready to leave yet, though, so we’re planning one last Japanese hurrah, which means we’re pestering the ladies at the tourist information counter with lots of questions they don’t understand. They respond in kind with lots of helpful information that we don’t understand.
We play this game a lot in Japan. I’ve had many deep conversations with the ladies at the grocery store check out. I think they are mostly asking me whether I have various discount cards, reciting prices so I know (or would know, if I could understand the numbers) that they are not cheating me, trying to convince me I need more plastic bags, and thanking me profusely and politely at every possible opportunity. I smile, nod, and say thank you.
Sometimes, I try a few carefully crafted questions designed to elicit “yes” or “no” responses when I want to buy something I’ve never seen before but don’t know how to cook it. Important questions like, “Is this a fruit? Vegetable? Do I boil it?” The nice ladies usually look a bit confused at my incompetence (linguistic and culinary) and continue to jabber away at hyper speed. I have mostly given up asking these questions now, but have continued to enjoy meaningful conversations with the chatty check-out ladies. Nonetheless, I am happy to report that in three years of food experimentation, I have only almost killed us once. We were saved from eating poisonous nuts by a chief in Vanuatu, who couldn’t understand why we paid 200 Vatu ($2.00) for a beautiful basket full of the nuts, which he thought were thoroughly overpriced. We thought they were green mangoes, and explained that we thought they were a bargain and couldn’t resist. He had his wife cook them correctly for us. Other than that and a few stinging taro incidents, my record for obtaining cooking information in languages I barely speak is sublime.
Rob plays the same language game with all the old men wandering the docks. We meet a lot of old men while we are sailing. They like boats, and they are retired and free to spend their days wandering the docks. They seem to be afraid to talk to me, but they love to chat with Rob. They stand inspecting the boat, and Rob tells them, in his very best Japanese, “I’m from America. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.” Not the least bit flustered, they blast him with rapid-fire Japanese. As it turns out, most old men, all over the Pacific, and probably the world, want to know the same things: “Where are you from? How long did it take to get here? Really? That long? Where else did you go? How many of you are there? How big is your engine? What is that you’re fixing?” Consequently, Rob simply answers one of the standard questions without regard to what the person is actually saying, which usually satisfies them. I, on the other hand, usually just smile or give them a quizzical look until I can pick out a word I know and give them a relevant answer. This probably says something about our personalities. It may also explain why they like Rob so much better.
Since my last post, we have continued to find the actual sailing in Japan a bit challenging, but that’s kind of what you get outside of the tradewinds. Making progress has been hard, as we tend to get about 2 or three days of light and fitful winds, followed by a gale (or at least a forecast for a gale—they don’t always turn out to pack much punch). That has forced us to do a lot of overnight sailing to try to make up some distance. At night, however, boat-dodging gets a bit exhausting. Japan’s seas are highways, with cargo ships and fishing boats everywhere. As we have sailed further north, there have been fewer cargo ships, but more fishing boats, and a lot more fishing gear. I spent two hours hand-steering to dodge fishing buoys one night. Near Kushiro, the entire coastline is fringed with set nets. All of these things are very hard to see in the fog, and potentially dangerous. We had thick, clammy fog dripping from the boat all the way from northern Honshu to Kushiro, and you could only see about a dozen yards past the nose of the boat, and you couldn’t see the huge boats blowing their fog horns a couple of miles away. Flashing buoys would occasionally appear at the fringe of our visible range, but it’s almost too late to dodge them at that point. We are kind of amazed there are any fish left in Japan after seeing all the fishing boats and gear out here. The weather looks like it’s starting to improve, though, so we are feeling a bit more hopeful about our next passage.
We have also had many very pleasant stops along the way, and it was starting to feel like summer again until about three days before we got to Kushiro. We have continued our tour of shrines and temples. We were searching for seafaring good luck charms, but, as far as we can tell, most of the charms at the shrines are aimed at fertility, childbirth, and luck with school exams. Two out of three of those seemed like bad luck, and the third irrelevant, so we’ve stuck to tossing coins and shells and asking the kamis for a pleasant sail home.
We spent a week in Shimoda, the first Japanese port opened (kind of by force) to the west. Our boat batteries died on us, and we had to replace them there, which was a bit of a challenge as no one seemed to understand what we wanted. Fortunately, a very helpful guy at the Department of Transportation, where we had to go for a permit, took us to the right store and a woman there who spoke some English found us exactly what we were looking for. We’re back in business now with half the batteries we used to have, but just as much power.
While we waited for the batteries, we did some bike touring on our speedy, new, yellow bike and visited a few monkeys at the monkey park. We’re not so sure about the monkey park (it’s less of a preserve than we’d hoped, and more of a tourism scheme), but we do love monkeys. One spunky little guy tried to fight Rob. He made lots of very intimidating Scream faces and slapped the ground with his front paw. Rob tried very hard to take him seriously, all 10 pounds of him, but he was just too cute to be threatening.
From Shimoda, we began the Fukushima hop. Locals confirm the plant is still leaking, so we wanted to keep some distance between ourselves and the toxics. The weather was not terribly cooperative, so we stopped in Suma Ko, about 30 miles north of Fukushima, to wait for a nasty storm to pass. It proved to be an interesting stop. A long stretch of the Honshu coastline near Fukushima, including Suma, was hit hard by the 2011 tsunami and the area is still recovering. In Suma, they had a 30-foot wave. The coastal area that used to be homes is now gravel and weeds. Teacup shards in the gravel are eerie mementos of people’s lives. A twisted metal swingset still stands on the beach next to a monument to the victims, and the harbor and town are under major reconstruction. Some people are still living in temporary housing.
We stopped again another 70 miles north in Miyako, a much larger town. Here, the entire town sits behind 25-foot high breakwaters, but shattered electrical poles atop the breakwater and massive, mangled flood gates are a sobering reminder of the force of the wave. It swept right over the top of the breakwater and demolished the houses on the plain behind it. There is still much left to clean up as they begin building the breakwater another 10 feet taller. It’s hard to imagine the scale of destruction—every town along this coastline was devastated, despite all the massive concrete that lines the coast. But all that concrete also seemed a bit oppressive. In Miyako, you could only see the bay from a couple of spots, so everyone is fenced in behind a massive wall of concrete.
After Miyako, we sailed directly to Kushiro. The wind was light, so it took us 3 days to cover the 230 miles. It was a relatively easy sail, just a bit dreary with all the fog and cold. You can’t gauge your progress very well when you can’t see anything, so it feels very slow. We cut our watches back to 3 hours, Captain’s orders, as 35 degrees is just a bit too chilly for long night watches.
But when we finally arrived, after navigating the busy harbor by radar and squinting through the fog, we found the best sento (public bath) we’ve been to in Japan. It had 3 hot tubs, a sauna, and even a coin-operated massage chair. Sento, admittedly, feel a bit awkward at first. They really are public baths. One for the men, one for the women. You strip down and head in to the tubs. And frequently, the old lady who takes the money gets to watch the men strip down from her perch between the two changing areas. Then you shower with a bucket and a stool (I got this wrong the first time, of course—who knew these were indispensable showering tools?), and then you can soak in the hot tubs to your heart’s content. Sometimes the tubs are a bit scuzzy, as sentos are the cheap, public baths rather than the tourist-oriented onsens (we always go for high class). But this time, it was brilliant. It was a veritable spa. A nice long soak in all of the tubs, and finally, the fog was but a bad dream as I snuggled under my sleeping bag for a long sleep.
Japan has presented us with a stream of challenges to keep us on our toes. Among them, linguistic ineptitude, cultural interpretation, stormy weather, shrimp-flavored ice cream, maps and bus schedules with only Japanese characters, rampant Japanimation, unidentified packaged foods, and busy harbors with intimidating concrete walls for docks. Most formidable among these challenges are ninjas.
We first became aware of the presence of these stealth assassins on a walk to the grocery store in Kagoshima, when we were nearly taken unawares by a bike ninja. The black shadow was so well disguised in the fading light that he was nearly past us before we realized the danger. Fortunately, this stealth artist had other business for the night.
Since that evening, we have had many more dramatic encounters. From Kagoshima, we sailed to Yakushima, an island with a World Heritage Area designated in recognition of its botanical diversity. At sea level, warmed by the not-all-that-warm Kurushio Current, palms and a few banyans grow. The sides of the extinct volcanoes shine with spring blossoms and green shoots, while the top, over 6,000 feet high, is covered mostly in dark cedars and leafy shrubs. We planned a hike, to admire the trees and search for monkeys, over the top of Miyanoura Dake, Yakushima’s tallest peak and the home of Ippon Hoju Daigongen, the most prominent local Shinto kami (deity).
Rob scurried ahead, as usual, and as we neared the top of the fog-shrouded peak, I heard the faint sounds of a scuffle. Rob had topped out at the summit, preparing to offer his thanks to Ippon, when a pair of ninjas summersaulted out of the mist, hurling throwing stars and twirling daggers in a surprise attack. Rob, fortunately, once held a black belt in karate, and was well prepared. He summoned his skills and karate chopped, made funny noises, karate kid kicked, and vanquished the pair.
By the time I reached the top, there was nothing left to do but bow low before the shrine, clap twice, and offer a sincere “Domo arrigato gozaimasu” to Ippon. An extremely responsive deity, she immediately swept aside the clouds and presented us with a glorious view of eerie rocks shrouded in clouds, and vibrant spring foliage.
I had my own encounter a few days later, back on Kyushu. After we’d sailed over night, beating into rather miserable weather, battered by waves kicked up by the current, dodging giant cargo ships in the dark, and flattened by the rain, we spent a few days taking in some of the sights in the Miyazaki region. One rainy afternoon, I left Rob on the boat and went wandering through town in search of the elusive internet. Not yet an expert at navigating in Japanese, I took maybe a wrong turn or two on the way home and returned just after dark. Shortly before I reached the boat, I caught a glimpse of motion and the steel glint of a katana blade in a dark corner to my right. I had just enough time to process the image before a flight of ninjas ambushed me, on a lonely street with no help in screaming distance. Luckily, because of my younger brother’s long-lasting obsession with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I am an expert at the Bo-staff. I dropped my bag, broke a branch from a nearby tree and systematically vanquished the ninjas.
Perhaps it is because of all this vanquishing that we have been the grateful recipients of so many gifts—instant noodles, nautical charts, fireman stickers, special onsen towels, beer, tomatoes, citrus, fancy cheese, strange seafood that Rob’s thoroughly vegetarian stomach can’t handle, dozens of cups of coffee that I can’t handle but can’t figure out how to politely decline in Japanese, and Elvis serenades on the ukulele. It must be an expression of gratitude to us for ridding Japan of this terrific scourge.
Though we are having a great time in Japan, the weather has been a bit dreary here lately, and we are missing the tropics, just a little bit. I, in particular, feel like maybe I missed my last snorkel opportunity without realizing it. Just before we left Guam, my mask broke and I’d finally convinced Rob that the spares really didn’t stay on my face, so I got to buy a new one. But it’s sitting, still unused, in a box on the boat. It’s very sad. So I’ve decided to post a tribute to the tropics, with photos I’ve never posted before. Mostly from the Solomons and the Marquesas, where we couldn’t find any cheap internet.
But we are having a great time in Japan, where the spring colors are incredible. And we even saw a monkey. Two monkeys. I’ll post Japan photos next time I manage to find wireless.
Three cheers for the tropics! I hope we get to go back some day…
I didn’t make it up. It’s a technical, meteorological term. When a low pressure system is hurled into the right conditions and its central pressure drops 24 mb in 24 hours, it is said to be rapidly intensifying, or undergoing explosive cyclogenesis. The result: a meteorological bomb. These storms tend to whirl into a fury and explode across the North Pacific in the fall and winter, covering massive swaths of the ocean. Sometimes they churn off the coast of Japan or Russia, then smash into an Arctic high along the coast of Alaska, generating howling Taku winds that blast through coastal valleys at hurricane force. They also kick up a fuss in the South Pacific. In 1994, for instance, the infamous Queen’s Birthday Storm thrashed the cruising fleet just as everyone was heading north from New Zealand to Fiji and Tonga. Dozens of yachts had to be rescued in the ensuing mayhem.
And that’s what Rob gave me for my birthday this year: The slightly less infamous Kate’s Birthday Storm of 2014.
We left Guam on March 18, still undecided on our destination. We wanted to finish off our tropical sojourn with a proper farewell—perhaps one last snorkeling extravaganza on a remote tropical island, with beautiful fish, warm water, white sand, and a bonanza of fruit and coconuts. We had hoped we could make it to one of the lightly inhabited islands of the Northern Marianas chain to realize the snorkeling celebration, then make a series of short sail-hops up the chain to hit Japan around Tokyo, setting us up well to get through Japan by the end of June, when the weather is about right for heading to Russia. All of those islands are pretty far into the wind, however, so we were not sure whether we could make our heading.
As we left Guam, we were pointing right for the Marianas, but as soon as we left the lee of Guam, the waves got big, a strong current kicked in, and we found ourselves pushed further and further off our goal. We gave in by nightfall, and decided it just wasn’t worth the bashing. It’s really not that much fun getting launched off the toilet or pitched into a pot of soup, and it’s pretty hard to sleep when you’re getting thrown in the air each time the boat comes crashing off the crests of the waves. Besides that, things just seem to break when we spend too much time beating into the waves, so we decided to fall off the wind a bit and think monkeys and sumo wrestlers. We set our course for Kagoshima, on Kyushu, in southern Japan.
As it turns out, we still ended up sailing upwind for much of our 1,300 mile passage, but we were at least able to point at our target the whole time. We stopped and heaved to for one night, a couple of days into the passage, when we had 30 knot headwinds and were not making much forward progress. With waves crashing on your head and the deck perpetually awash in several inches of saltwater, night watch is not much fun. It makes for a very itchy bum, and it’s really hard to read with the waves trying to destroy your book all the time. Heaving to means no night watch.
After that, we had a couple of quite pleasant days with light winds and calmer sea conditions. We sailed slowly across the Tropic of Cancer, feeling sad about leaving our long summer behind us. We took one last bucket shower with the last tropical ocean water, then drank our last coconuts to mark the crossing. I confess to pouting a bit as we tossed the husks and watched them float slowly south. That last bucket of tropical water was pretty much our farewell to shorts as well; we began sneezing uncontrollably thereafter as we pulled out our moldy jackets and blankets.
A couple of days from Kagoshima, as I was contemplating how much chocolate I should be allowed to eat for my birthday as consolation for the fact that we would still be at sea, a new low pressure system showed up in the weather forecast, scheduled to smack into us for a special birthday treat. Initially, it didn’t look awful. It would pass over us quickly, and we’d just have 12 hours or so of 30 knot winds to deal with. This time, the wind would come from behind, so we might even get to keep sailing. Thirty knots is a lot of wind, but it’s manageable. When you’re sitting at a harbor with a lot of sailors trying to get somewhere, you’ll hear a lot of them talking about how they like to leave on a 30 knot tailwind. You move quickly, you make distance before the next patch of rough weather, and you know what you’re in for. But, you’ll find that when there is actually a forecast for a solid 30 knots, no one leaves the harbor. Everyone goes to the yacht club to drink beer and complain about the weather. So, 30 knots is quite manageable, it’s just a bit more than we’d like.
But the day before the weather was supposed to hit, Rob tuned the radio into the Japanese meteorological agency station to get the weather fax charts, and we were glad he did. These showed a bit more of a serious issue than the longer range forecasts in the grib files. (Gribs are basically computer models—they’re great because you can choose the level of detail and size of the area, and you can get a forecast for a week or more. They’re very easy to get over the radio with our Pactor modem. The weather fax charts are the maps put out by human forecasters. They cover a larger area and sometimes include details that the computer models miss, but they only come out at scheduled times of day.) The gribs had bumped us up to 35 knots, a bit worse than 30, but the greater concern was with the nature of the low pressure system. The charts said we had a bomb. Our relatively nondescript low was projected to rapidly intensify and explode to the north of us just after it passed our likely position. Though we would be on the southern fringe of the storm, we were concerned that we might be in for a rough ride. With a serious low, conditions could easily be worse than the forecast. Though we wanted to use the tailwinds, it seemed like it would be foolhardy to race toward the center of a raging storm, so we decided to head south, pointing the bow into the wind once again, to put a bit more distance between ourselves and the detonation zone, just in case.
When the storm hit, we were pleasantly surprised. It was really kind of a non-event where we were, and I don’t think it really exploded into a full blown storm until a day after it hit us. We got ready beforehand, while conditions were tolerable. Rob stowed the epirb and some extra water in the ditch kit, stowed the dinghy below decks, screwed down the floorboards, and made sure the paranchor and the drogue were readily accessible. I made a giant pot of soup and some snacks so we’d have easy meals if things got hectic. When the wind picked up, we heaved-to so that we would stay well south of the action. As the front passed early the next morning, we had heavy showers and lightning, but the strong winds did not last long enough to build up big seas. We probably could have continued on our course and enjoyed the ride on the tailwinds.
After we were sure that the worst was past, we got underway again. In the evening, just before Rob’s bedtime, 4 or 5 sperm whales cruised past us, parting the waters with their massive, blunt heads, while a couple of false killer whales surfed the waves to our side. We’ve been looking for sperm whales pretty much since we left Juneau, but we’d nearly given up on ever finding them, so this was a pretty spectacular birthday present. It even made up for the Kate’s Birthday Storm. I think it was a roving band of juvenile trouble makers looking for whaling boats to sink, but they must have recognized that we’re friendly.
Despite lumpy seas from the big winds to the north, the rest of the trip to Kagoshima was pretty mellow. When the wind calmed to a whisper, we exercised motoring privileges to make sure we’d make it to a safe harbor before the next gale. As we entered the Kuroshio, we finally got a boost with the fast-flowing “Black Current” moving in our direction—a nice change after all the contrary currents we’d found on our way. The water was clear, but had lost its azure tropical luster. The phosphorescence was incredible, like thousands of tiny stars glittering in our wake.
On the afternoon of April Fool’s Day, we spotted Japan, a faint blue, hill in the fog, and began to write landfall haikus. It still took us another night to reach port, so we (especially Rob, who wanted to be awake for close to land maneuvering) had a long night of weaving through boats. I woke Rob when the glow on the horizon that I’d thought might be a distant point of land turned into a dozen fishing boats, all directly in my path, and he stayed up the rest of the night tacking around cargo ships and fishing boats, and weaving between islands. The current was no longer with us, and steep waves built up with wind against the current, so it was a swashbuckling good time above and below decks, and neither of us really got any sleep.
With a fresh pot of coffee warming his hands, Rob rounded the point into Kagoshima Wan as the sun rose softly over the land of the rising sun. Steep headlands form the entry into the bay, and a shrine is perched atop the steep cliffs on the eastern side, while sea stacks rise from the ocean along the opposite headland. Dolphins joined us in the clear morning light, and we reached our port of entry by late afternoon.
We’ve arrived just in time to see the last of the cherry blossoms–“sakura” in Japanese. Dozens of cherry trees full of pale, delicate blossoms frame the riverbanks and hug the seashore, and everyone is out in the sunshine to enjoy the flowers. They are a favorite in Japan, because cherry blossoms mean springtime, and because the fragile flowers last only for a week or two. They bloom into their most glorious along the walls of ancient castles and temples, and they are a perfect welcome for a couple of sailors desperate for the colors of land after 15 days at sea!
We’ve been in Guam for a couple of weeks now, waiting for Faxai, an indecisive typhoon, to pass us by while we enjoyed a visit from a friend. We left Pohnpei about a month ago, and had a relatively smooth passage here. The winds hit us further on the nose than we expected, and the bashing from big waves made for a bouncy trip, but we made good time and had a reasonably pleasant passage. On our way to Guam, we made two short stops–one at Oroluk Atoll and one at Nanonuito Atoll.
The first of those, Oroluk, can hardly be called an atoll. It’s more of a giant lagoon with about a quarter mile of sand piled up into a few tiny islands. People nonetheless garden on the biggest of those patches of reef. We stopped at a particularly tiny protruding chunk of sand, where a few boobies were nesting, and had a close encounter with a devil ray while we circumsnorkegated the tiny island. The visibility was incredible, and we were delighted to discover that we are now just far enough from the equator that the water temperature is no longer that of sweat, but once again feels refreshing.
From there, we hopped another couple of days to Ulul, a small island in Nononuito Atoll, in the state of Chuuk, where we met some of the last remaining traditional navigators. Folks in Ulul have decided that outboards take too much gas, so they are sticking with their sailing canoes for fishing and traveling. The navigators measure the stars and pay close attention to waves and swells as they follow traditional star maps and sailing directions from island to island, using the same techniques that helped the islanders settle the Pacific centuries before Europeans knew there where any islands out there to find.
Folks were extremely friendly, and people offered us food at every thatched roof we passed. We enjoyed meeting the chief, who was an elderly woman, and chatted with a bunch of very thoughtful locals, from whom we learned that there are many very cold Micronesians fishing in Alaska. If you happen to meet one of them, offer him an extra jacket.
The anchorage in Ulul, unfortunately, was a bit exposed, and the forecast showed a low pressure system kicking up nearby in the next couple of days, so we had to leave for Guam after just a short visit.
We made it to Guam with a broken staysail boom, thanks to bashing waves, but managed to fix that pretty easily a couple of days ago. We had a visitor arriving two days after we made it to Guam, and had hoped to stock up on groceries, then sail north with him to the reportedly quieter island of Rota in the Marianas.
Faxai would have none of it. That low pressure system churned in place, with forecasts for more churning. It grew. It turned into a tropical storm. They said it would pass right over Guam, smacking us with 65 knots of wind. We moved to Guam’s harbor of refuge and Rob spent three hours securing our boat, with chain, to four mooring lines. Tropical storm Faxai decided to do circles, and danced south of us. Then it decided to get serious and it headed north. It passed to our east, and things were pretty mild here, with no truly noteworthy wind. It reached typhoon strength for a short spell just north of us, then fizzled out as it headed west. The locals tell us that, although it’s true that typhoons can happen any time of year in Guam, it’s pretty unusual to get one in February (yes, typhoons and hurricanes are exactly the same thing).
Alas, we did not get to go to Rota. But, we had a great time in Guam instead. We ignored all the chain stores, big highways, and throngs of tourists, and headed for the beaches and the hills. We had some great hikes, swam in underground freshwater pools, explored limestone forests and caves, and found squids, stonefish, and pipefish in the ocean. We went to the Discovery Day festival in Umatak Bay, where the locals construct an old village, then burn it in a reenactment of Magellan’s landing, but they mostly celebrate their own heritage and eat good food.
And we were overwhelmed by the incredible kindness of all the local Chamorros we met (Chamorros are the traditional Guamanians). People just kept coming up to us to say hello, invite us to try some local food or drinks, and just chat for awhile. Tomorrow, we’re scheduled for a barbecue with some folks who just noticed us walking by their office a couple of times and wanted to say hello. We just keep learning that we really need to be friendlier–it’s hard to be as friendly as the islanders!
The weather has settled a bit, and we are now just cleaning up the boat and trying to decide whether we still want to head to Rota and up the Marianas Island chain, or whether it might be smarter to just head straight for Japan from here. We’re terribly undecided, so we’re waiting for the wind to tell us what to do.