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Yakushima to Amami Oshima: Pursued by Typhoon No. 21

by Amy Chavez

Seasick and dehydrated, I was looking forward to our arrival on Yakushima, an island that is 90 percent forest, has 46 peaks at over 1,000 meters, and boasts more than 3,000 types of insects. I certainly needed a break after three days of looking at only sea from a 45 ft yacht pitching in 2.5-meter waves. Yes, greenery and solid land would be good for me.

A World Heritage site since 1993, Yakushima has attracted tourists eager to visit its ancient cypress forests and Japanese cedar trees: the great Jomon Sugi, which is estimated to be thousands of years old, the numerous Yakusugi (trees more than 1,000 years old) and even the Kosugi (those less than 1,000 years old).

Although Yakushima lies just 100 km south of Kyushu, it gets much more rain. This is because the Kuroshio Current pushes warm moist air up from the south which forms clouds over Yakushima’s Okudake mountains. These clouds deposit anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 mm of precipitation every year onto the island. Talk about always having a black cloud over your head!

So it was no surprise that you could get a Yakushima waterfall map to visit the numerous gushing streams and precipitous water drops. Hiking through the Yakushima Ravine to see the 3,000-year-old Yayoisugi tree, we even passed a heart-shaped waterfall. Kawaii!

After a day of hiking and hobnobbing with the local trees, however, it was time to return to flying fish and mackerel, and the Kuroshio Current. After all, our yacht and crew of seven still had the Amami Islands, Okinawa Islands and Ishigaki Island to visit.

Upon leaving the port of Yakushima, I took some seasickness medicine. I was relieved that the previous storm watch we had come in on was no longer in effect. The winds were a pleasant but strong 20 knots although the ocean swells were larger than before at 3 meters. The Kuroshio Current is similar to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. It is known by sailors as a place where the sea can be turbulent.

My office is below deck in my cabin, which has a double bed where I sleep at night and sit during the day to write my columns. As the sailboat heels to one side, I place my feet at the bottom of the bed to brace me and keep me from sliding to the bottom. Every time we tack, the boat heels to the opposite side, so I have to change sides of the bed and brace myself in the opposite direction.

But we hadn’t been sailing for long when the storm watch came back into effect on account of Typhoon No. 21 heading up from the southern seas. Although yesterday it was still just a tropical depression, it had since been upgraded to a typhoon. Although still a young typhoon, now that it was 21, it was old enough to suck us in and toss us down like a shot of tequila. No lemon but lots of salt. Even with the typhoon still days away, the effects were already bearing down on our boat.

By the next morning at 10 a.m., the winds were blowing at 25 knots. The wind passed through the rigging and the two steel masts of our ketch, creating a wind instrument that would make a composer cringe, for the sound produced was remarkably similar to two cats yowling before a cat fight. In the background we could hear howling gusts gathering force as they roared across the tops of cresting waves and slammed into our tightly reefed sails in 30-knot bursts.

I have often noted that in these kinds of conditions, sailing becomes a series of mishaps. The strain of the wind on the rigging, sails and steering is such that something is bound to give. The UV protector on the jib was already ripped to shreds from the force of the wind. It was among these meowing masts and howling winds that our next mishap occurred.

I was not on watch at the time, but as the conditions were too rough for me to be working in my little office below, I came up on deck to assess the sea conditions with the other crew members. Despite the reefed sails and the boat clipping along at 8 knots, we had the motor running to help keep the course we wanted to stay on. But suddenly the motor started sputtering. And went dead. We quickly changed course, but without a motor, we couldn’t get in or out of ports, which meant we also couldn’t take cover from the effects of Typhoon No. 21 that were already working their way into our sails.

The captain first did a check of the engine and decided to change the fuel filters. When this didn’t help, he surmised that it was a problem with the fuel lift pump. It would need to be replaced. Of course we were carrying a spare lift pump — somewhere.

We looked through the lockers for what seemed like eternity while the boat pitched and rocked. Finally, the captain held up a baggie with a tiny contraption inside it. I was never so happy to see a lift pump, even though I’d never seen one before in my life. It took the next three hours to fix it while the winds continued relentlessly. But once fixed, the captain discovered that the fuel filters already needed to be changed again — a sign that we had taken on some dirty diesel at some point on the trip. And this turned out to be the source of the problems with the lift pump as well.

We had no choice but to seek cover in the next port available to clean the fuel lines, flush the fuel tank, and change the filters again. We’d also have to replace the old fuel with some new.

The motor now sputtering again with dirty fuel, we limped into Naze Port on Amami Oshima. While the captain set to work on the engine, I checked with the Coast Guard on the latest weather forecast and Typhoon No. 21. The tempest was nearly upon us. It was clear that we had no choice but to wait for it to pass before pressing on to Okinawa.

The large and powerful typhoon was moving so slowly, however, that we could be stuck here a week waiting for it to pass. In addition, there is another tropical depression right behind it.

Follow Amy Chavez’s sailing trip on Twitter @JapanLite.