Back-to-nature nomads on the open sea

by Joel Dames

SEATTLE, Wash. — “I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”

For Ken and Sho Kirita, that line from John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” expresses an alternative lifestyle they chose more than 20 years ago.

In 1976 Ken sold his small interior decorating business in Shizuoka. With the money they flew to New York, bought an old Volkswagen camper and roamed across North America, camping from New York to Los Angeles and back.

In 1981 their first child, Hirohiko, was born in Los Angeles, and they began to rethink their lives with their son’s future in mind. Ken wanted to raise him “in nature,” so they decided to sail and live in the Shoken-maru, a 33-foot fiberglass sailboat they had bought in New York in 1979 and still own today.

In 1982, when they threw their cares to the wind (figuratively and literally) and set sail for southern seas, the Shoken-maru was in poor condition and without the proper navigation equipment. For six years they cruised the Caribbean. Their daughter Rika was born on the British Virgin Island of Tortola in April 1983. By the time she learned to walk, she could swim.

Hirohiko learned Spanish by attending school whenever they anchored off Puerto Rico. Ken taught them how to fish. The local islanders taught Ken, who speaks a little Spanish, how to harvest and prepare wild island plants and fruits, and he taught this, too, to his family.

In open seas Ken fished for tuna, mahimahi, even sailfish. The family could feast for days if Ken caught a large fish.

In early 1983, while anchored off Norman Island, passing sailors from a Panama-based boat shared half their fresh catch, a large coral fish. That afternoon the Kiritas enjoyed the fish as sashimi. In the evening Ken boiled the rest of the fish and ate it, but Sho and Hirohiko felt sick and couldn’t eat at all.

“In another half hour I felt very strong pain in every joint,” Ken said. “It felt like someone pushing down hard on me into the bed. I couldn’t move all night.”

In the morning, after discovering that Norman Island was uninhabited, they cruised till they found an island with a doctor. He had apparently eaten a fish that was poisonous. The doctor told Ken if it happened again within six months, he would die. It took six months before the intense joint pain started to subside, then another six months before he could freely move without pain and move on.

Their biggest worry had been Sho, who was pregnant at the time. They were relieved when Rika was born perfectly healthy.

As the Kirita family left the Caribbean in 1988, Akemi and Yoshi Amanuma were sailing from Tokyo in their 34-foot aluminum boat, Shirahae Foreigner.

The Amanumas crossed the Pacific to San Francisco and down to South America. They rounded Cape Horn and came up the other side of South America into the Atlantic.

Rounding Cape Horn can be as treacherous as scaling Mount Everest. After making it past the Cape, they picked up a Mayday call from another Japanese couple. The couple was adrift in the sea of Cape Horn, clinging to their overturned boat in a storm.

Akemi contacted the coast guard and relayed the couple’s position. Their sailboat was destroyed, but they were rescued by the Chilean Navy. The same storm then headed up the Atlantic coast and caught up with the Amanumas, whose sailboat was far too slow to attempt to outrun it.

“My captain,” as Akemi calls her husband, “prepared everything for the storm and we waited. The sky was very blue and the sea very quiet. After 40 minutes to an hour strong winds hit us and knocked out our electric generator and engine.”

With the generator down, they couldn’t use their satellite navigational system. No stars were visible, and so they couldn’t even use a sextant to calculate their latitude position. They calculated the speed of the current and counted the hours that passed as they drifted.

After 10 days when they finally talked via VHF radio to a passing Filipino ship, they were amazed to find their real position was only 16 km off their estimate. “We were both surprised and proud, since we hadn’t given up,” said Akemi.

Yoshi got the engine going long enough to get them up to Argentina where they stopped for eight months and did a major overhaul before heading up to the Caribbean.

Though the Amanumas and Karitas crossed virtually the same spot in the Caribbean, they didn’t meet until their paths crossed a second time in Seattle. There, they met at a swap meet at a marine shop named Fishery near Lake Union where they both anchored. The Amanumas had come to buy an anchor and the Kiritas to sell one.

The Amanumas discovered the Kiritas were the Japanese couple with two children they had heard all about who had left the Caribbean just before they arrived.

The Amanumas, both 55 years old, are now in Japan. They had planned to fly back to San Francisco where their boat is anchored, then sail south in November for someplace warm to winter, but they will be delayed in Tokyo for three months.

The Kiritas, both 49 years old, are grounded in Seattle waiting for Hirohiko and Rika to graduate from high school. Then they too “must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life, to the gull’s way, and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife.”