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Shiraishi to Yakushima: Nearly abducted by aliens

by Amy Chavez

I don’t remember whose idea it was to sail from Okayama in the Seto Inland Sea to Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost islands, but here we are — seven friends in a 45 ft (13.7 meter) yacht named Sea Fox, sailing in 20-knot winds down the coast of Kyushu in the Pacific Ocean. All hands on deck!

The journey didn’t start this way. Our crew (two Australians, two Americans and three Japanese) left Shiraishi Island the morning of Oct. 3 under fair weather. We motored our yacht most of the way through the calm waters and past the serene islands of the Inland Sea.

At the Hoyo Strait (the gap between Shikoku and Kyushu), we entered the Bungo Channel into the Pacific Ocean at the top of an outgoing tide. Things quickly became turbulent, with 2.5 meter waves and 15-20 knot winds. We flew through the night, our boat pushed along by wind and wave, down the coast of Kyushu. In just one day, we were already on the same latitude as the city of Miyazaki.

What brought these welcome yet trying winds was the tail of Typhoon No. 19, which had originally delayed our departure from Okayama by one day. The typhoon was way past us now, up near Tokyo, but we were still feeling its effects in the open water.

My experience has been that in conditions like these, you spend a lot of time sailing with the specific purpose of averting near crises, while hoping just to keep the boat going as efficiently as possible. So it was no surprise to me that after several hours of strong winds, the gooseneck pin snapped. This is the pin that holds the boom to the mast.

Seeking shelter from stormy seas is a skill sailors develop over time and luckily, we had sailed these waters before and knew of a small bay we could duck into. Main sail down, with just half the head sail and the mizzen still hoisted but reefed, we steered to calmer waters to replace the gooseneck pin.

If you’re wondering if we even had a replacement pin, I can say yes — we have a spare for absolutely every part on the boat — it’s just a matter of, um, finding it.

An hour later, gooseneck pin found and replaced, we continued down the coast and braced for the next crisis, whatever it may be.

Meanwhile, a new tropical storm had developed south of Okinawa. Although typhoons get numbers in Japan, when they are still classified as tropical depressions (i.e.: haven’t become typhoons yet), the Meteorological Agency gives them an alphabet letter instead. This tropical storm was simply named “a.” Harmless, eh?

Whether the little “a” would turn into a typhoon or just die out on its own was something only time would tell.

I have sometimes described myself as ame onna (the girl who brings rain), but I believe that now I can upgrade my status to bofu onna — the girl who brings storms.

It wasn’t long before the consistent rough weather caused one of our crew members to become seasick, but that didn’t stop our boat from hurtling on down the coast, all the way to Kagoshima. From there we headed along the east side of Tanegashima. It was here, 16 km off the coast of this island, in the dark perils of the night, that our second crisis struck.

It started when the magnetic compass started spinning in circles. Then the boat’s GPS system went haywire and the autopilot took on a life of its own. Our boat lurched here and there, directed by errant directions from the GPS that the autopilot was attempting to comply with, and accompanied by the force of insistent 20 knot winds and 3-meter waves.

Round and round our little boat spun, not knowing where it was going, heading north at one moment, then turning 180 degrees the next. All three independent GPS systems on board went helter skelter. Unable to turn off the autopilot, it was like riding a mechanical bull into a black hole in the sea. Armageddon was nigh. Or aliens.

“Everyone below deck!” the captain shouted while thinking of what to do next. Once below deck, we were able to turn off the autopilot from the main switch. Then the captain and skipper clipped into their harnesses and brought down all the sails, preparing for what they could only surmise to be the descending of a spaceship that would take us all away.

But with the manual steering restored now, the captain attempted to regain control of the boat by steering a course west, away from Tanegashima, as fast as possible. It wasn’t until four hours later that our electronics returned to normal.

What really happened that night off the coast of Tanegashima? Your guess is as good as mine, but Tanegashima is the site of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, where they launch satellites into orbit and conduct asteroid exploration. It is also the home of Tanegashima Space Center. It’s possible that someone jams the communications signals in that area to prevent intrusions.

Whatever it was, however, we had averted any further crisis, so I moved on to other things, such as getting seasick myself. Let’s just say that the salmon I had for lunch was successfully returned to the sea. With two crew members down now, the captain decided it would be prudent to head for land, and Yakushima was just a few hours ahead of us now.

Our battered crew had not slept in days and had eaten very little by the time we arrived in Yakushima’s Miyanoura Port the next morning. As we enjoyed the calm of the protected port and a renewed sense of friendship, we also checked the weather report. Tropical storm “a” had turned into Typhoon No. 21.

I believe I can now upgrade my status again — to taifu onna — the girl who brings typhoons.

Follow Amy Chavez on Twitter @JapanLite.