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Saturday, May 1, 2004

JAPAN LITE

The well-heeled, gut-knotting yacht life


I wanted to sail through the Seto Inland Sea as my great-grandfather had done 100 years ago on a U.S. Navy ship. He had kept a diary of his experiences, and I yearned to be a modern great-grandfather like him. I started near the Kii Channel, where he would have entered Osaka Bay, located at 33 degrees 45 minutes north, 134 degrees 50 minutes east. From there the crew and I headed west to Miyazaki on a 40-foot (12-meter) yacht called Louise. It would take a month to get to Miyazaki, just beyond where we would reach the end of the Inland Sea. We would have plenty of time to take in the culture and traditions of the Japanese islands and ports along the way.

Awajishima, the biggest island in the Seto Inland Sea, is a long island wedged between Honshu and Shikoku, separating Osaka Bay from the rest of the Inland Sea. The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge connects Awajishima to Honshu, and the Naruto Bridge connects it to Shikoku. This gap, the Naruto Strait, is the site of the famous Naruto whirlpools, which will spin you around and spit you out if you're a small vessel entering the gap at any time other than the highest or lowest tide. These are the slack times for the water that rushes through the gap into the Inland Sea from the Pacific Ocean on the rising tide and is drained back out during the falling tide. The middle of either an incoming or outgoing tide is when the water is rushing at its fastest, 20 kph. For this reason, boats can be seen gathered around Naruto Bridge on either side, waiting for the right time to enter the strait. We timed our tides and currents carefully, entering the strait on an incoming current just as the tide was changing from low to high, so we would be pushed along with the current through the gap and not get sucked into any whirlpools.

My first day at sea taught me a lot, mainly that I would have to get used to living on a sailboat heeling at 25 degrees. The whole boat leans over in the wind, so life on board is conducted at a slant. You eat at a slant, walk at a slant and use the toilet at a slant -- not always successfully.

Standing in the cockpit steering, you can stretch one whole side of your body, then tack in the other direction and stretch the other side. Imagine banking a turn on roller skates and holding that position for the rest of the afternoon. Then attach a yacht to your hands, and you've got the idea. The boat heeled so much, I wondered why they even bother building cockpits on top of sailboats -- they ought to install them on the sides.

When the bigger waves forced the boat to heel even more, scaring me enough to make my stomach knot, I realized that a great abdominal workout is built into yachting as well. But isn't there some way to hang the body from the backstay so you could just hover over the cockpit rather than having to stand in it?

With the constant heeling and stomach-knotting every time I looked down and noticed the leeward side of the boat way down at the bottom of the soles of my feet, I felt compelled to ask the skipper, "Has this boat ever tipped over?"

"It's rolled twice," he said.

"So, um, this rolling thing -- what exactly happens?"

"The boat turns over but comes up on the other side."

Great. Like four-wheel driving in the sea, but without the roll bars.

We pulled into Maruyama Port, the most southern part of Awajishima, at dusk. We awoke the next morning amidst a quiet port lifestyle where women sat in wooden sheds threading fishing hooks and their husbands tended to the fishing nets from the night before. The pace was excruciatingly idyllic.

That evening, a storm kicked up, and even with Louise tied up inside the harbor, she rocked all night long.

"I'm sure glad we're not out sailing in that weather," said the skipper as we went to sleep.

Little did we know that the next day, we would be sailing through a typhoon.

Have you mooed yet today? www.mooooshop.com


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