Sunday, March 25, 2007

Around Amakusa in a Day

Well, it was a success this time, but it’s remarkable how the expected and the unexpected combined to make this trip yet again different from my previous attempts. From the beginning I knew it would be a bit of a gamble, but as the next available window (that falls on a day I don’t have to work) wasn’t to be until October, I decided to give it a go. In my favor was the best yet alignment of the tides: a flow, an ebb, and another flow each of about 4 meters (in Hondo); that’s about as big as it gets. This was to be followed by a much weaker flow, which too would work in my favor as I made my way up the west coast against the current.

Another strong card was the beautiful Water Field Hayate Expedition kayak I had borrowed from Mr. Mizuno (literally Mr. Waterfield) himself; certainly this was going to be the fastest boat I have paddled to date. I had no time at all to test drive it beforehand, only sitting in it once in front of the shop (which felt great), but I put my trust completely in Mr. Mizuno, who seems to be one of those fairly rare individuals that put great care into all that they are doing. It shows at first sight: this boat was no piece of chintz. Finally, I was feeling strong and fit, with no bodily liabilities (last time around I had a bad cold).

The speed map this time around. Note the relatively slow eastbound leg and the express traverse of the Nagashima Strait. The West Coast was slow torture...

However, I had been dealt some weak cards as well, the chief of which was the weather. A high-pressure system dominated the weather here, so there was no chance of a sudden nighttime thunderstorm like the one that made me abandon a nearly successful attempt last fall. But winds up to 10 knots were expected, and as luck would have it, would be blowing dead against me in some of the most critical spots of the tour. So I figured: I have a fast boat, a fast tide; hopefully I will make up the time lost to the wind and waves. It seemed to be worth a try.

Following the correct track, I had learned from previous efforts, was absolutely key to success. This time I had modified my earlier track in several places, the most significant two being the Hayasaki Strait in the north and passing Hino-shima in the east part of the circuit. The former has some of the fastest currents in Japan (I personally measured 16km/h there on the spring ebb tide), and the way this trip goes one is obliged to fight the current for about 1 hour before it changes in one’s favor. One makes little progress doing this, and it costs precious energy, so this time around I planned to aim the boat at right angles to the current and let myself be carried a considerable distance to the left while making reasonable headway. I figured to gradually make up for this drift as the current weakened, and once it changed, it would flush me back to the right anyway. This method, in fact, worked great, and I gained precious time at no energy cost.

At Hino-shima, where I previously experienced a 15 minute delay that basically caused me to miss the boat, as it were, on the entire ebb tide through the ensuing straits, complex counter-currents extend a fair distance offshore. About a month ago, I made a series of measurements there under similar tidal conditions. Determining the extent of the back-current, I plotted a wide arc around the problem area. This also worked like a charm and though the resulting path was slightly longer, I blew past the island at double-digit speeds. I could see the waters colliding and churning only 50-100m to starboard, where going would have been painfully slow.

Hinoshima was one of the places where I fine-tuned my path to gain more speed from the current. The old track hugged the coast to cut distance but placed me in a back current/eddy area. The green/blue lines with black dots are actual measurements I made here a month ago; I added schematic stream lines to help visualize the currents. The new track was planned to use the stream for maximum possible speed. It worked great.

Such a scientific approach, however, can only go so far when dealing with something as organic as the sea. It’s amazing and hitherto inexplicable to me how much the current conditions differ each time I try this trip. In spite of the large tide, the going near Yushima was much slower than anticipated, for reasons unknown. By Misumi I had lost 20 minutes and I was very antsy taking a 5-minute break there while Leanne remotely focused the live-cam on me to record my passage. I had to make a stop a little later to reconfigure for daytime and to empty water out of the boat (a wave had washed over my open cockpit while I was answering the call of nature). To my credit I managed to do all this in only 7 minutes but now I was fully a half-hour late. By working harder than planned I caught this up in the next monotonous 30km, and by Goshoura, I was still gaining steadily.

Thus I entered the series of narrow straits that drain the Yatsushiro sea, and what happened next quite surprised me: I caught the tidal express. My speed soared and soon I was cruising at 14km/h, peaking out at 16km/h through the Nagashima Strait. (Last time, my speed was barely 11km/h, about an hour later in the tidal cycle. Clearly good timing is essential here!) It was now the middle of the day, sunny, hot, and the calm sea belied the speed of the current. I was enjoying myself but still paddling hard, knowing I was soon going to need all the extra time I could get.

Passing Ushibuka, I was 1 hour 25 min ahead of schedule. How much was the headwind in the next 50km going to cost me? So far, my body was in OK shape. I would give it my best. But the wind was already picking up and the waves were annoyingly irregular and steep. Just before sunset I took shelter on the lee side of Katashima to reconfigure again for nighttime. This would be the last shelter before the final haul. Not being able to land on the steep rocky coast, this break cost me 12 minutes, awkwardly putting on clothes and stowing gear while floating in the narrow boat. Leaving the island, I wonder what the sport fishermen perched on the rocks thought as they saw me paddle off into the sunset and the open sea in the general direction of China.

Katashima, Amakusa's most isolated islet, is the south-westernmost land of the archipelago. Beyond, the vast East China Sea stretches far beyond the visible horizon. Katashima is a pristine place, famous for its fishing and diving possibilities; amazingly, it contains not a single permanent trace of human interference. In centuries past, people stricken with the plague, smallpox, and such were sadly taken here to die. Today, the island's main inhabitants are a handful of wild boars who swim out to the outlying rocks to feed on fish bait left there by the sport fishermen. Including Katashima along with several other rocks and islands in the general vicinity extends the circumnavigation by seven kilometers, but also adds some variety and the excitement of venturing onto the open seas. My chosen circuit included this and all other land and drying rocks that are administratively (and therefore somewhat arbitrarily) considered part of the Amakusa district.

Thus began the final, torturous part of the trip. For the next 8 hours, I struggled against the wind and waves, steadily losing time in spite of working as hard as I could. I watched the day-old moon set, and a veil of cloud cover the sky. With no stars, or lights on the sparsely populated west coast, the night soon became pitch black. The horizon disappeared, and balancing became a problem (perhaps comparable to standing blindfolded on the deck of a rolling ship). I had lost interest in eating and my energy reserves were being steadily depleted. Now I couldn’t come to terms with how far I still had to go. Here and there, phosphorescent bits of plankton lit up in my wake and speckled on the deck. Psychedelic green tracers were left underwater by large fish darting sideways, startled by the kayak. Creatures unknown and unmoving occasionally lit up deeply underwater with the seeming brightness of a street lamp. Passing the mouths of valleys to starboard, I felt a cold wind draining off the mountains, and smelt the aroma of wood fire from the coastal villages. This was the most beautiful part of the tour: my mind blank, fighting the elements with all that I had left, but feeling absolutely no stress, fear, or despair. I can’t say it was fun, but at the same time it was exactly where I wanted to be. At times as my body wanted to give up, my progress slowed, and I was overcome by bouts of sleepiness. But eventually my mind prevailed and I pushed on. My time advantage having dwindled to nearly nothing, I really didn’t know whether I was going to make it until I was truly in the home stretch.

The anticlimactic end came. I wanted to stop awhile and grab a rest before straggling the final two kilometers to the beach, but I became freezing cold nearly as soon as I stopped. Thus I crept on, though at a much reduced pace. At the beach, I had a great deal of trouble exiting the boat, and even more trouble standing up: I could not keep my balance. It was a bit like those Russian cosmonauts that had to be wheeled away from their ship after returning from an extended stay in space. But in about 40 minutes, enough strength returned to me to load the boat on top of the car.

Driving home seemed to take an incredibly long time. A roadside nap did not help my condition at all. At the 24-hour convenience they didn’t have the fried chicken that had been floating in my field of vision for hours. It was 4am after all. I made do with a bag of Doritos. After a restless sleep at home, it was time to go to work. I didn’t feel so great that day, possibly because of toxins in my body from my decimated muscles. I had lost 3kg, not all of it water. But I had a very pleasant, long lasting body buzz. Ah, if it only were a bit easier to get to feel like this.

Leanne has said this already, but I would like to thank personally to all the people who helped out. Leanne, of course for her support. Mr. Mizuno for the use of his excellent boat (I’m saving money to get me one soon). Mr. Matsumoto of Waterfield Kayaks also for his infectious positive attitude. Kenji Suemitsu, our local kayak guide, for letting me use anything I want from his warehouse. And Nishikawa (aka. Ushi-kun), for lending me his shades after mine were busted while surfing the other day.


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