Monday, October 1, 2018

Around Hokkaido in 3 weeks

Festival celebrations continued in Otaru, an Onsen here and there, boat , sail and gooseneck repairs courtesy of Toru, Japanese sailor extraordinaire, departure of John for the States (which brought a surprising and prompt reaction from the Coast Guard), and soon it was time to explore Hokkaido.

Sailing south west with a good forecast we (Eric, Roberto, and myself) suddenly found ourselves bashing into the teeth of a gale around Misaki cape, and making no progress so we anchored close in on a shallow bay only to be tossed around for the night by katabatic winds and rolling swell. Dawn couldn’t come quick enough and we weighed anxhor at first light and found the sea sage had eased enough to round the cape and bear away to good reaching conditions. The winds soon disappeared altogether, and after motoring for a while I switched tanks only to hear the motor struggle and die - fuel issues for sure. After replacing the racor and primary filters and bleeding the injectors the same problem reoccurred on the aft tank- water and contaminated fuel with algal growths!
While working on this, the guys decided to take a swim, discovering that the water was toasty warm and clear. We also saw some large tuna swim by. Yes, lower latitudes here we come!
Further south we decided some snorkeling at a tiny offshore island would be a good way for us to finish the crewed part of the trip, and put into O-shima for a layover. The snorkeling was great, the climbing ( to an active crater) less so due to the rich growth of vegetation and steep slopes with too many scary slides to the water far below.

The following day we glided across towards Hakodate in following winds before catching the 6 knot current through Tsugaru Strait, arriving in Hakodate much earlier than expected.  Mizuno-San met us at the docks and directed to us the most perfect mooring in the downtown tourist centre, and suddenly we were the main attraction, with groups of tourists taking selfies in front of Whakaari, engaging us with Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and even a few European and Kiwi accented visitors.

The lads couldn’t believe their luck -free moorage in a beautifully sheltered harbour, with a constant trail of young women wanting their photos taken with intrepid foreign sailors.

Mizuno-San gleefully informed us we could stay for a month, a year, whatever we wanted! I started thinking -maybe this is the place to take some time and let the typhoon season move through some more, and spend some precious time with Carol back in BC whom I hadn’t seen for six months.

Eric returned home from Hakodate, leaving Roberto and I to explore the town, including a hilarious trip up the “ropeway” to Mt Hakodate, another great brewpub, and of course the all important boom repair by Konno-San and his welders.
This was the most cost effective option, and so far is holding up well throughout some pretty tough sailing.

We soon left Hakodate for Tomokamai to the east, Roberto having decided to make a move and take possession of his sailboat in Chiapas, Mexico.
An exciting and fast run brought us to Yufutsu Marina, where we were welcomed by the local sailors and promptly taken to an onsen then out to lunch as is their custom of welcoming new cruisers.

Roberto was whisked away the next morning to Sapporo airport and I was left to ponder my next move with a typhoon approaching fast. I looked at nearby Port Tomokamai as the marina wanted to charge me $100 per day, but then I was instructed to stay put by the Coast Guard due to worsening conditions outside the breakwaters. (Impressive waves smashing over the seawalls around the Marina)

So I prepared Whakaari for the predicted 60/80 knot winds and sea surge - a process I was to become very adept at as the typhoon season progressed: two side anchors set out off the bow and stern to hold her off the moorage wall, all sails wrapped with spare halyards and lines, dodger and bimini strapped over with bungee cord, dinghy removed to hard ground and tied down, every available fender and mooring line set and tensioned, radar reflector, flags etc removed, wind turbine blades tied tight, and a quick scavenger walk around the docks to see where I could borrow Japanese style fenders and tyres should the storm surge overpower my own resources. Then it is a matter of sitting tight, tracking the storm path, and a few stiff drinks when the anxiety rises too much!
Happily the storm veered out south east and apart from having to wait another day for the swell to ease before I could safely negotiate the passage between the breakwaters. A long bike ride took me to downtown Tomokamai and I found a street full of bars and clubs that was definitely worth checking out later that evening- some fun Karaoke, people watching and learning more Japanese.

Almost a week into my now singlehanded circumnavigation of Hokkiado I was bound for Kushiro, which involved some slow days waiting for wind and conserving fuel, having only one 33 gallon tank and five jugs on deck now that my (full with 75 gallons)) aft tank was out of action. Arriving in Kushiro in glass calm seas I was again treated to amazing Japanese sailing community hospitality, courtesy of Seki-San (again, he didn’t answer my phone calls on my way in but there he was, how did he know?) who called up a full tanker, paid for the fuel until I had a chance to change some dollars into yen, toured me around the town so I had my bearings and could find markets etc, then he was gone, to work on his catamaran.
The same impressive tall ship we had seen in Otaru, then Hakodate, and now here, was tied up nearby, and had I not been delayed again by Coast Guard protocol I would have gone over and asked for a tour of the ship, but when I was finally finished with the OTT form-filling, the ship had sailed.

i wasn’t impressed with the mooring conditions in Kushiro , esp with the heavy fishing boat traffic passing by at speed- another unprotected concrete dock designed for big freighters, and it was clear I couldn’t leave Whakaari unattended over the tidal cycles. I stayed one night, enjoying conversation with some local people in a tiny Saki bar in “Gasoline Alley”, then left early the next day for Abashiri, two-three days away on the north east coast where I hoped I could go inland to explore the Shiritoko Peninsula, a World Heritage Natural Area.

The passage from Kushiro to Abashiro involved passing thru the reasonably narrow Nemuro Strait, between Hokkaido and Russia (the islands taken by Russia as part of Japans surrender in WW2 but still contested by Japan). I was pushing wind and current for a very long day, dawn til midnight,  tacking across the part of the channel I was permitted to use. Shore fixed fishing nets extend perpendicular off the Hokkaido coast for up to 4 miles, and the Russian coast guard wont let Japanese vessels cross the mid point of the channel. So for much of my beat northwards through Nemuro Strait I was limited to 4-6 miles on each tack. Occasionally I would push the boundaries, so to speak, when I was getting a lift and as soon as I was overstepping the mark the VHF would spring to life and I would be hailed and instructed to change course immediately. The Russians initially had me switch to Ch12 and I was ‘interrogated’ as to my intentions, my homeport of registry, passport details etc. Many times I have considered turning off my AIS as the surveillance is constant, and in addition the Japanese make very effective use of AIS. They have AIS transmitters along the coast that auto-broadcast information and warnings as soon as you come into range, and the AIS alarm goes constantly if you don’t acknowledge and save the messages!

My arrival at Abashiri was very well attended by the authorities! Not just two Coast Guard and two Port staff, but two impeccably dressed Police Officers who insisted on boarding Whakaari, even tho their patent leather shoes were scuffed getting up and down the seawall. Turns out they were just curious about why someone would do what I was doing!? Nice guys who wanted to stay and chat but I was tired and ended up asking them -Are we done?
Can I sleep now?
On entering the port, which involved some well timed gybes on my part in big seas and narrow entrances until I could get into shelter to safely stow the main, I was waved into a nasty concrete dock and told this was the only place available. Well, that dock caused considerable damage to Whakaari’s beautiful teak caprails, and without huge Japanese style fenders there was nothing I could do about it. The corroded steel edgings on top of the concrete seawall chaffed through my mooring lines constantly, and by the time I left Abashiri, I had lost four fenders and four mooring lines, all torn apart without mercy, within the first 24-36 hours of my arrival.

Two days of wet, windy weather ensued, while I paced the docks begging and borrowing fenders and tires, and then finally calm conditions, blue skies and a good forecast, so I readied my folding mountain bike, some gear, and took a bus to Shiritoko Peninsula to finally get some time inland exploring.
The bus route ended at the entrance to the national park, and I found a really good Ramen Noodle bar for dinner (spent some time talking with Chinese tourists) before riding out of town to a small port where I made my bed for the night - on a rocky beach between two rock pillars and as it turned out, under a seabird rookery! so I was well awake by 3 in the morning (its light about 4.30 am, but the birds are up early, and you don’t sleep thru that!) and packing my gear ready to ride.
I enjoyed the riding into the wilderness, just a beautiful time of year, green green green! Deer and foxes on the highway verge, waterfalls and trails tastefully enhanced with typical Japanese architecture, amusing Anime-style signs about how to be careful around bears, gatherings of locals    (and their tidy lines of bicycles) at the river mouths fishing as the sun rose from the sea. By 7 am I was at the National Park Visitor Centre and not a soul in sight. I rode on another 25 km to the Goro Five Lakes and told to wait by security guards before riding further to the entry point. Met a young Tokyo woman while waiting who had climbed the highest peak in this area the day before, and she told me of all the hiking opportunities here, and a lovely hot spring that I would later find on my return ride.
Once allowed to proceed I was soon “being processed” for my experience, sitting thru a compulsory lecture on bear safety, environmental awareness, and how to walk sensitively! I kid you not, these park managers take their role seriously! Coincidentally, the ranger that gave the talk I attended ( all in Japanese) had obtained his job as a result of his course at Mt Aspiring College in Wanaka, NZ a year previously - prob. trained by my son Llewellyn!
The walk was only about 2.5 hrs, with every effort in trail design made to ensure you were rewarded with every possible aesthetic view of each lake, and concluded with an incredible raised boardwalk complete with electric fencing and controlled gates so that no-one could ever possibly be confronted by a bear. By the time I was back at the Five Lakes visitor centre the place was teeming with Chinese tourists, huge buses disgorging more every minute.
So glad I was wakened early by seabirds!

The hot spring was at the end of a narrow winding road along a river with the occasional fly fisherman, and then it became a twisting gorge and the road climbing through broadleaf and fir forest, but in contrast to the remoteness , cars were lining the roadside, parked in difficult places, straddling the water table, and I wondered if this hot spring would be overrun by tourists. At the roadend was this huge Hotel and Spa, and I guess everyone was there, tho no-one in sight.
I walked up valley only a few hundred meters and came upon this delightful little hot spring, no-one but me, and soaked for hours in nature, completely undisturbed.
Returning to the Hotel I found out from the concierge that out back was all manner of overcrowded spas and pools, at a high price, that everyone had come here for. I asked if here was a bar in the hotel but no, just the ubiquitous coin operated dispensers- but at least they had good brands of beer in stock and I sat in the large atrium chatting with two Australians and two Germans (who had hired a local Japanese guide who didn’t know about the hot spring) while enjoying Pure Malt Sapporo after a great private hot spring soak and ready for a mostly downhill ride back.

After a few hours back at the World Heritage Visitor Centre, doing all the hikes in that area and some more stunning downhill riding, I arrived back at my starting point in the late afternoon! So I decided to keep riding until I found a nice spot to camp along the coast somewhere. I would stop at a 7 Eleven and get some snack food and a drink, stop at a convenient place and soak up the view. The weather was dry and warm, perfect riding, and gradually the miles slipped by until I found myself leaving the coast and riding through market gardening country, people working the fields harvesting and the evening light just sublime. I kept going, stopping in a few choice places enjoying the activity around me, then encountering road information signs flashing warnings about thunder and lightning, so I kept on, keen to get back to Whakaari if indeed another storm was threatening. By 9pm I was back aboard and had covered 120 km plus my hikes for the day!

In the morning I was greeted with a most unusual sight - the water around Whakaari was bright lime Kermit green! All my mooring lines where they touched the water were green too! I was told later that Lake Abashiri upstream, grows this amazing algae,(completely natural, no pollution) and it drifts down to the port coating everything in its path. I spent a good two hours scrubbing the stuff off what was left of my fenders and lines-I’ll never forget it.

During the day I was troubleshooting my wind generator wiring and found a broken earth wire down in the lazarette - as I came up for tools a tiny Japanese guy sucking on a cigarette asked if I needed anything. I showed him the end of the cable in my hand and he came back with this heavy duty crimping tool -just what I needed, and didn’t have aboard - how do they know?! Everytime they’re in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff! Everytime!? Turns out he’s a sailor with a rep as well, knows all the sailors I have met since arriving in Japan, and he’s clearly got Emphysema, but keeps lighting up on the strongest cigarette you can buy in Japan, saying he would die if he didn’t smoke! Then he climbs aboard, checks out my boat quickly, spies my guitar, retunes it to Open D and plays me Norwegian Wood then leaves! Most of our conversing being Hai, hai, hai!

My next destination, according to the passage plan I had lodged with the Coast Guard, was Rebun To, a small island at the very extreme north of Hokkaido, It is a closed port and had required me to apply one week in advance to visit. But as I gleaned more information and received advice from my friend Akira back at Otaru on the next typhoon I decided it would be better to go to Rishiri instead, an island also, a more protected harbor, and, more invitingly, home of one of Japans top 100 most famous mountains, an extinct volcanic cone that is essentially the reason the island exists.

However, after an energetic sail from Abashiri, rounding Soya Misaki (cape) I encountered the full force of current and wind originating from the Kuril Islands and was virtually at a standstill in big messy seas and 30-35 knot winds. Coming closer inland wasn’t an option because of very dense fishing net areas, and going further out was more current, and I was still in the mindset that I needed to nurse the repaired boom, so I motored/laboured into it until I had no choice but to turn downwind so I could get some fuel into the forward tank. That manoeuvre put me very close to the fishing nets and the Coast Guard hailing me on VHF was constant until I had to tell them to let me deal with the conditions and leave me alone! (That resulted in some very serious but polite questioning when I eventually pulled into Whakaanai port on dark, in need of respite instead of continuing on to Rishiri non stop)
Whakaanai seemed far too exposed to me, and again the nasty concrete docks with no protection from chafe, so I headed for Rishiri in haste, to be safe in port before the typhoon arrived.

The sailing to Rishiri was some of the best I had had in Hokkaido, 20-25 ones and slight to moderate seas, and I arrived right on time, as notified to Caost Guard when leaving Whakaanai, tying up to a good looking seawall with new fenders and clean steel. However, as the storm approached, I soon realized that the swell entering the harbor, and the place the Port staff had insisted I use, would be dangerous to Whakaari. I went thru my storm prep, setting out anchors etc but by late evening I knew I had to move to a better place before the serious winds and seas started. I called the port and insisted on moving and asked for assistance. They were there almost immediately, and with five of us we managed to get Whakaari off the dock and around to a head to wind position, right off the Hotel with Onsen etc.
The conditions deteriorated quickly and I soon knew what was ahead if I stayed where I was - I had gathered tires but each swell snapped the lines securing them - nothing for it but to go on anchor inside the harbor. I managed it alone, and enjoyed a comfortable night on the CQR on 200’ of chain. Maybe one can imagine the effort required to paddle out on my SUP to set then free the side anchors in the wild winds, then once on anchor, go and pick up the bouys I had put on the anchors and secure one as a stern anchor to contain the swing in the confined space.

The typhoon passed through fast, and soon the mountain was visible looming above me -time to get back to the dock, set the boat up for some time ashore, and climb a volcano!

A memorable day, a rewarding climb in great conditions,
and to top it all off, an Onsen to soak tired muscles before
returning to Whakaari and set sail for Otaru, to complete my
circumnavigation of Hokkaido.

I arrived in Otaru nearly a whole day earlier than I had posted as my ETA,  having picked up some unexpected winds on the beam. Akira and Toru were there for me, having arranged a rotary pump and drums so I could pump out the contaminated fuel and separate the good from the bad. And guess what? Another typhoon on the way, and if I wanted to make that flight out of Hakodate to Canada I had to move it -waiting the storm out was not an option!
Thankfully the work went well, and two days later I was saying farewell to two very good men, and making the 220nm passage south to Hakodate for the second time. Again I had great conditions and arrived in the early morning 12 hours ahead of schedule. Then commenced the whole storm prep procedure I had become familiar with, to set up Whakaari for a period of absence, and potentially during typhoon events.

Totally unexpected, as they tend to be, an 6.8 earthquake rocked Hokkaido the day before I was to leave, shutting down all the power plants and plunging the island into semi-chaos. Mizuno-San insisted on taking me to the airport the evening before my flight to check if it was still possible. As it turned out everything (except late passengers that almost made me miss my Tokyo connection) worked out fine. Mizuno-San even spent time finding some Sea Urchin for me to take with me, after all the markets were closed due to the power outage. What a great friend!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Aleutians, Russia and now Japan - What a trip!

Whakaari arrived in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan on 24th July from the Russian Kurils. All my crew felt exhilarated after an intensive sailing passage, time spent in Kamchatka (tho we all felt it was much too brief), exploring the remote Aleutians, describing it as the Trip of a Lifetime. Without autopilot for much of the trip, and distances too big for my fuel tankage we really had to sail the boat, and sail her we did. The watches came and went, some demanding reefing in big seas, others just floating quietly along at  slow speeds in glassy seas. Four big men with all the necessary winter gear for high latitudes sailing take up alot of room, and after a few days things get a bit chaotic, especially when slamming in strong conditions. But we managed to prepare good regular meals, and due to the cold temps, the lack of a reefer didn't affect us too much. The occasional cod made up for the limited fresh meat in our diet.
I enjoyed returning to paper chart plotting as we left US territory and into the Bering Sea and Russian waters where there are no Navionics charts available. The six day crossing was an interesting mix of hard sailing, much of it on a beam reach, light winds when judicious use of fuel didn't mean just running on motor, power management with no sun for the solar panel, and the wind generator having died just after the last blow (and two long winters in the north at high speed-I feel it served me well, but a few more weeks wouldv'e been good!), so more hand steering than using autopilot, as we really needed power for the radar in the fog and dark with so much ship traffic around us- the AIS was working overtime! We arrived at the 12 mile limit in sublime conditions, just floating thru the early hours watching the sunrise over spectacular volcanoes on the Kamchatka peninsula. Then the protracted formalities began-enough said!

Since leaving Sand Point Whakaari put over 3400 nautical miles past her keel, much of it in cold temperatures (water temp 6 degrees) under low fog and cloud, and often big seas and high winds. The amount of equipment failures and damage to gear astounded and frustrated me, especially after the month long job of replacements and maintenance done in Sand Point, and more work in Dutch,
and the jury rig for the broken boom is still in place while I determine welding or replacement costs here in Japan.

An ascent of Mt Cleveland looked to be on the cards, the clouds parting to reveal the volcano to be almost fully snow clad and steaming quietly. Our first day there was spent reinforcing the boom with the spinnaker boom after two crash gybes in an unexpected blow running flat from Dutch. Then we lost an anchor and all the chain when a big swell knocked off the snubber and the gusts overwhelmed the windlass lock. So another day waiting for the conditions to improve so we could drag for the anchor chain, (which was successful) But although the forecast was great for a summit attempt there was a big storm heading our way, moving up from Hawaii, so with no shelter within 135 miles of The Islands of the Four Mountains we had to race away and hunker down in Sviechnikof Harbor on Amelia Island, where we spent 48 hours riding out constant 40 knot winds and 50 knot gusts.

The short time frame in Russia (due essentially to only being allowed 30 days with a pre determined start, and arriving 8 days late after that date because of many boat repair issues in Dutch, then storm damage and sheltering before making the run across the Bering Sea) was frustrating, so much so some of us just want to turn around and go back while we are so close.
However we had committed to a week long expedition type tour of the Kamchatka Volcanoes Park, and that was a huge amount of fun with a great VolcanoesLand crew, a summit was achieved, and we experienced some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen, lunar landscapes, dead forest, lava flows, caves, and hot springs....all the while enjoying great food, vodka, singing sessions and developing lasting friendships.

The captain and crew of Dumbo, a 40' motor sailer we were side-tied to, became great mates, and we in fact buddy boated with them to the Kurils, until our visa period was up and we were forced to close the border and make for Japan. But not before having a party with them in Severo-Kurilsk sharing vodka and snacks and some crazy karaoke before watching the World Cup Football final together. They had a Japanese research team aboard, filming  Orca and Sealion populations in the southern Kurils

Our timing for arriving in Otaru couldn’t have been better as the festival to celebrate the city’s 150th anniversary (and especially its connection with the sea) had just begun and culminated with very impressive fireworks, parades of dancers in traditional costume, and taiko drumming that was just awesome!

The change in conditions from Kamchatka to Hokkaido has been at once delightful and brutal. A modern port, with excellent facilities in Otaru, compared to being side tied to another yacht at simple small steel edged floats in PK with no services and surrounded by rusting hulks; the price of everything so much higher in Japan; shedding all our winter layers, needed for the -5 to +5 deg C only two-three days further north, as temperatures rose quickly heading south, now sweating and gasping in 32-36 deg C. Now we need that reefer!
But in terms of the welcome, hospitality, and open generosity, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski and Otaru are both at the top of my list - None of us have ever experienced such warmth and generosity as we did in these two wonderful places.