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Sunday, June 9, 2002


Roughing it on the high seas

Staff writer

We struck off before dawn, finally. I was annoyed and tired of waiting. We dragged our kayaks down the ramp through the water and scraped into the sea. The air was damp and chill. I had just spent seven hours drinking beer and shivering on a plastic sheet spread on the concrete dock as I tried to get some sleep while waiting for the rest of the group. With about five others, I was leaving Ito, near the top of the Izu Peninsula, heading to Oshima Island, about 35 km out.

I wasn't sure how long it was supposed to take, but such details didn't concern me. I had power to spare. Cycling, running and lifting weights for hours each day had me in mean shape. I wasn't letting a desk job get in the way of my life.

My idea of heaven was a kind of hell where I'd push myself to a physical limit or a threshold of pain, working my muscles to exhaustion every day in the gym, making grueling solo bicycle trips on weekends, or hiking for hours to the tops of boulder-covered mountains. I'd come back into Tokyo barely able to walk, calculating which station to transfer at so I could go down the stairs instead of up. I'd go half-prepared, but that was all the fun -- leaving Tokyo on the spur of the moment in the middle of the night, bound for the mountains or the coast. I felt freed of the boredom, of the mundane, the expected. Sure, it was dangerous. But when I came back, I knew I'd been gone. When the pain receded, I'd do it again.

Actually, this ocean trip sounded too easy for comfort. Straight across; a piece of cake. No white water. I could get there in no time. I had my newly made kayak, with a covered collapsible wooden frame and paddles that came apart. You stuffed it into a pack and heaved it onto your back. Sixteen kg all up: I could go anywhere, no car needed.

Eventually, I figured, I could go it alone. No one to hold me back. For now, I put up with a group. Just until I learned the ropes. So far I had no real skills except paddling forward, but I'd proved myself on river runs. Forward, tirelessly forward. I could keep the pace; give me a straight run and I could set it.

Before we cleared the end of the pier, I was caught in fishing lines. One person had to come back and unsnag me, then hold the lines out of my way. Stupid fishermen. Couldn't they stay out of the way?

We paddled nonstop for an hour, rested a bit, then paddled again. Hour after hour. It was slow going and my eyes hurt from the lack of sleep. My head hurt, too, and I was thirsty.

Ocean paddling is like running on a treadmill, but with no gauges and no clock. The scenery barely changes, and there's little sense of forward movement but lots of ups and downs. Although it was a calm day, we lacked stability and felt every little roll of the waves in our river kayaks. The movement of the ocean came through your seat and up your entire body.

Giant cargo ships came in from the ocean, their wakes bringing swells over which we had to paddle like crazy, or risk being swamped and submerged.

The peninsula behind us grew ever so slowly smaller. Unfortunately, Oshima was not getting bigger, because we couldn't even see it. It had disappeared in a heavy haze. We had a foghorn, a radio and a compass, but without something to get a reading on we risked heading to the right of the island, between it and the peninsula, and out into the open sea.

With the sun high overhead, we stopped to rest more often, but each break increased the effect of the ocean's rolling. Despite the haze in the distance, the glare and the heat were taking their toll.

I was starting to feel decidedly ill, and before long I was retching over my boat -- not an easy thing to do in a kayak as the waves bob you mercilessly up, down and sideways.

I was helpless, slumped over in agony, my head resting heavily on my chest as the nausea grew with each rise and fall of the water. I could barely hold on to my paddle. Now I was the one holding up the others.

Someone tossed out a rope, hitched my boat to his and towed me. On top of feeling physically wretched, I was utterly, totally humiliated.

We continued on like that for a couple of hours, and slowly my strength returned. I was able to paddle again, which helped to ease the nausea as it steadied the boat. The worst was over.

As a group, though, we were not out of the woods. Oshima refused to show itself. We were somewhere between the island and Izu -- where exactly, we weren't sure.

We stopped and considered our next move. The cargo ships were looming closer, their wakes ever bigger and more dangerous. A small fishing boat appeared out of the haze, and a weathered old man pulled up and asked if we needed help. But he couldn't help us find Oshima.

Suddenly, as we were huddling over our next move, dorsal fins broke the water's surface. Sharks! I thought. The ominous chords from "Jaws" sprang to my ears. My boat felt very small, very unstable, and the canvas between me and the water very fragile. Then they jumped, dolphins, about eight of them. They moved in close and circled around us, as if they, too, were seeing if we needed help. I'd never seen dolphins in the wild and never any as close. They were beautiful.

We decided to turn back in a direction that would land us somewhere on the peninsula. We ended up about two-thirds of the way down, where rocky cliffs and a boulder-strewn approach made landing difficult. Pulling up close to shore, we bailed out of our kayaks one by one while another person held them steady, then we swam in pushing the boats. The solid ground underfoot felt good after nearly 10 hours of being tossed on the water.

That trip was 17 years ago. I can look back and laugh at my smugness, my conceit, my thinking that going it alone was always best, and the disdain I felt for anyone who dared get in my way. It had never occurred to me that more could be more, that the getting somewhere, not the destination itself, was sometimes where you were meant to be going all along.

I'd needed a few lessons. And I think somewhere out on that ocean, where exactly I'm not sure, something more important than reaching Oshima started to sink in.

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