Illywhacker - Australia to Japan


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Author Peter Aston
Date 1998
Map Ref Timor Sea, Guam, Japan

This CCC article is a summary of passages from Sydney to Japan between 1996 and 1998

illywhacker in the Whitsundays


When you take your cruising one day at a time you can end up anywhere…. and I guess that’s the joy of it all; but how come Japan?

illywhacker left Sydney in the company of Neliandrah and was soon joined by Lahara and White Lady for a trip up the coast in June 1996. It was a shakedown cruise, both for the boat and for Lyndall and I. We had sold our previous yacht Dulcinea in early 1987 after living aboard with the kids for 9 years and illywhacker was to be our interpretation of the "ideal cruising yacht". We wanted a boat which would incorporate all of the "must haves" we had diligently recorded in our "next boat" book, a document owners of early Taiwanese yachts are often driven to devise. This rather thick book included items most would take for granted, (like no leaks through the deck) but graduated to the pretentious "maintenance free"… partially a result of having varnished exterior teak in the tropics. We studied the market looking for such a boat for 9 months and finally came across the bare and rather sad hull of the very boat we had begun in 1975 before heading off to a new life in PNG. Such serendipity is dangerous to ignore so we jumped right in as owner-builders. It took 8 years to realise our dream and if I don’t think about the cost or the time it took, I can say it has been quite a satisfying experience and a valuable background to living permanently aboard.

So here we are, just the 2 of us this time, grandparents slowly gunkholing our way to nowhere in particular. Well, at least we’re not game to make grand pronouncements as to our future destinations since Plan A tends to get modified with every bit of bad weather. The basic principle of course-planning we prefer to follow is to travel with the wind and current and any destination on the way warrants a stopover. This derives from our preference for sailing on flat seas with about 15 knots of wind aft of the beam.

Of course it didn’t take very long in June ’96 for us to remember that no matter how long you wait for a good forecast you can’t always guarantee even a day’s smooth passage. On the trip north to Townsville we ran into a few nasties but somehow a few days convivial company in port seemed to reset the optimism button and off we went again.

We had company on our first voyage offshore in illywhacker from Townsville to the Solomon Islands. Friends crewed with us as a kind of witness to this "rite of passage"… a new boat which hadn’t seen really continuous heavy weather coupled with the rather final act of cancelling the yacht’s insurance (since we would be more than 200nm offshore) seemed to be trusting the Weather Bureau a little too much not to have someone else around to complain to. The weather was not entirely to blame as it turned out, although it was more to windward and stronger than we like, the "incidents" on that leg were of our own making: we tore the crank pulley off the main engine with a pump I recently "reconditioned", shattered the windgen blades with a loose halyard, suffered a fractured maststep, causing the mast to drop 30mm, filled the chain locker with ½ ton of saltwater which entered via the hawse-pipe as well as discovering the main hatch that was improperly dogged shut causing a saltwater leak below…. and on the CD’s too…Oh No!!

But…the beer was great in the Solomons, we made some wonderful new friends and we spent 4 months there over Xmas 1997. It was fabulous cruising and the optimism level was high as all repairs had been successfully completed when we headed for Micronesia, 800nm to the north.

There’s a tale about a band of no wind near the equator where sailors of old threw their dead horses over the side in sweltering calm as they prayed for wind. We could have done with a bit of that in January at 156E, (not the poor horses but the calm seas) for as we made our equatorial crossing, the counter-current and strong winds, predictably swinging NW-N-NE as we headed north made hard, lumpy work of it. We even called a break one night and hove-to just to get some sleep. The next morning we decided to ease sheets and bear away on a more comfortable course to the small atoll of Kapingamaringi. We constructed a mud map from instructions received by ham radio and motored through the narrow dogleg entrance at first light 8 days after leaving the Solomons. This Micronesian community and another we reached later at Pulap are truly fine examples of a Pacific island paradise. The people there made us very welcome and proudly regaled us with stories of their prowess as traditional navigators of the Pacific, made famous to us through David Lewis’ books. Hypocrites we felt indeed, as they insisted on piling on board coconuts from their meagre stocks for us to continue our voyage.

Paradise at Kapingamarangi Atoll, Micronesia Tied to the coral at Pulap lagoon

After several weeks of open sea and simple island life it was a mixed blessing to get to Guam. A stark reminder that "civilisation", US Outpost style, can transform a tropical island and it’s people to a place you go sailing to get away from. Still, as a cruising stopover it serves well as a stock-up point before Japan and it has a modern airport. The bonus for us was having John and De Deegan tirelessly drive us around to complete our endless chores. We took the opportunity to fly back to Sydney to visit my Dad who was clearly ailing. At 83 he was fully supportive of our adventures and we were in almost daily contact with him over e-mail but we did feel guilty for not being close by at a time when we thought he needed us. I guess this is a problem that we all have to live with but one with special difficulties for cruisers.

We left with Dad’s blessing and sailed from Guam towards Okinawa, one of the southern islands of Japan. We knew this would be a different landfall but Wow!.. how different it turned out to be. At the end of a pleasant 10 day passage our approach to the southern end of the island was at dusk and necessitated steering a watchful course between a dozen or so huge container ships anchored 5 –10 nm offshore. After several hours sail north along the west coast dodging fishing boats, nets and floating fish farms the port of Naha came into view. Luckily we’d been talking by radio to some Kiwi yachties on their way home from Japan after 8 years and they’d given us pretty detailed instructions on where to anchor and how to get there. The port is marked by the airport at the southern end and air traffic was as heavy as Mascot on a Monday morning, and this was 10 o’clock at night! There were planes taking off and landing and flashing, moving lights everywhere of all speeds and colors so we went into full ahead slow mode…you know it, 2 knots and checking the depth sounder with 5 nm to go! We finally tied up against a fishing boat at 0100 with our Q flag flying to port and the Japanese courtesy flag under the starboard spreader for the first time and went to bed.

Our introduction to Japanese civility and punctuality came at 0600 (they’d waited for us to wake up) when 3 Customs men arrived; what followed has been mirrored many times since. The clearing process was very POLITE, terribly beauracratic and FREE. They arranged for more officials to visit; Immigration, Quarantine and the omnipresent Sea Patrol (the Coastguard equivalent) and responded readily to our queries for a place to tie up, shopping areas and so on, usually by whipping out their miniscule "Handiphone" with lots of "moshe moshies", "hai hai’s" and "arigato’s".. all Japanese to us!

By this time we knew that we couldn’t continue cruising knowing that Dad was dying and we might not see him again so we resolved to find a place to leave illywhacker for as long as it took. The local Japanese yachties took the problem in hand and soon we had a number of options to explore further north. Japan is in "typhoon alley" and people along the coastline are well experienced and willing to help you ride these out, (10 official ones last season) but you need to be there with your boat. As we couldn’t do that we needed someone we could trust to leave the boat with, preferably in a safe area and at a reasonable cost. In modern Japanese yacht marinas, costs can be astronomical but we learned that it might be possible to tie up in a free corner of a fishing harbour at low cost. As it was May already and the typhoon season could start in August …we had to find somewhere fast.

There are enough islands spread over the 400nm between Okinawa and Kyushu, the large island to the south of Honshu (where Tokyo is), to adhere to the illywhacker rule of thumb "daysail wherever possible". At each island we were met by enthusiastic locals keen to meet the Australian "gaijin" and to feed them and give them lots of beer, shochu and saki to drink. With no knowledge of the Japanese language we were unable to refuse!

At one place we were taken to an "onsen", a public bath in a natural hot spring. Getting your gear off in public is something I don’t do very often but here in Japan that’s how you get clean... and clean they get. They say that bathing is an art form to the Japanese like food and eating is to the French, and I believe it. Even wharfies in summer smell like Cashmere Boquet, true! On top of that, Japanese culture gives new meaning to honesty and public safety. Security is not an issue, at least in the places we’ve been, for you can leave your boat open and your bike unlocked. This was going to be a country where we could spend some time.

As it turned out, the choice between a fishing harbour and a marina was an easy one to make. Long term storage in a fishing harbour was really only viable when the boat was lifted out and placed in a quiet corner and the cost of a mobile crane to do this for a 20 tonne load was over $1000 each way. Eventually, the yachtie network and furious use of Handiphones had us heading for a 5-star marina where the manager was said to be able to "do a deal" for us. It was nearly 6 weeks since we knew we had to get home and although our daily e-mails indicated Dad’s stabilised condition we felt we were running out of time and this marina just had to be it. It was north of Nagasaki on the West coast of Kyushu and on a small inland sea "Omura Wan". Entry was through a tidal channel from Sasebo with serious currents, you just had to get the tide right to make it through safely.

While we were contemplating the Japanese tide tables in busy Sasebo harbour the sound of shoes being scuffed off on deck heralded the arrival of Nozaki San, one of the local yachties and a real "can do" man who speaks a little English and has been a helpful friend to this day. He guided us to his own jetty in a quiet backwater, just in the nick of time as it rained and blew furiously all that night. Next day it was a short sail to the village of Kashimae where the yacht club had arranged a tour of the area for us followed by a "social night" on board one of their yachts. We were fairly experienced by this time and but yet again were astounded by the generosity of the hospitality we received. Photographs all round were the order of the day, particularly on crowded illywhacker where Lyndall was kept busy baking cakes for what we told them was the "famous Australian tea ceremony" . I don’t know what they thought of that but the cakes all went and we felt a little better for accepting their hospitality. At night we were awash with their terrific beer, sake and shochu (sweet potato whisky) and plied with all manner of seafood from sashimi and salted fish to shellfish, with sushi, rice balls and yakitori while a range of tempura and (best left unidentified) dishes were continually arriving from the galley.

Somewhat later the next morning and with Nozaki at the helm we swished through the Sasebo channel at 13 knots (over the ground) to Omura Wan and took in the first sight of what has become our new home. In the harbour of Huis Ten Bosch we were met by the Manager, Inamitsu San who helped us to tie up at the poshest marina we’ve ever seen (and that includes Laguna Quays). Later and not without some trepidation we sat in his office to hear him make an offer of long term rental better than we’ve ever known in illywhacker. We were just delighted, even more so when he arranged our airline bookings back to Sydney for the following week.

That was June 1998 and as some of you will know, we flew back in time to say our farewells to Dad who died the day after our arrival. Cruising takes a back seat at such times and with the boat safe we used the opportunity of being back home to catch up with friends and family, to allow Lyndall to have a new knee fitted and to attend the CCC Xmas party. We are now back aboard illywhacker in Japan in Huis Ten Bosch marina… where? That sounds like Dutch to you? Well you’re right…. but that’s’ another story!


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