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!
Mom says you might be able to see Toyatte on this livecam of Kamoike Port. —Sam