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Bringing CHERUB home

5 April 2000 Yokosuka, Japan. Less than a mile from where she was built by Far East Yachts in 1972, we departed with Cherub, our newly purchased 31-foot cruising ketch. The barometer is at 1004, with rain, and cold gusty wind from the north. Our destination is our homeport in Okinawa, some 1400 miles to the southwest. Our crew consists of my 11-year-old son Johnny, my fiancée Lulu, a sailing friend Roy, and myself.

Previously, the owner and I had sailed to a nearby port where we hauled Cherub. My intent was to inspect the hull and install a new MAX propeller. The rudder aperture was too small however, so I had to leave the too-small backwards-pitched propeller on. This unfortunate incident had significant impact later on in the trip.

We spent this first day with poor visibility making the long trip through Tokyo bay. The volume of ship traffic was astounding, and all of the sea traffic in this area is carefully controlled. We were approached by a Japanese Maritime craft and after much shouting and miscommunication, I am finally asked, "Do you know where you are going?" I’m thinking, "I sure hope so!" but I tell them, "We are going to Okinawa." Big pause, then: "Well, have a safe trip."

As we neared the mouth of the huge bay, we began to broad reach making good time. As the day wore on, the wind began to build until we are slogging against contrary currents and 40-knot winds. With a slab of jib and reefed main, I decided to head into the small Island of Ojima. This was once a volcano that collapsed, creating a caldera. This makes a very nice bowl-shaped bay that is extremely deep. At five miles, I still couldn’t see the island, but we pressed on under reefed mizzen and a sliver of jib. Eventually, its hazy outline appeared and we were able to surf into the narrow opening. It was a long first day, and perhaps a ‘wake up call’ for what to expect on the trip. We baked a loaf of bread, and cleaned the boat up, getting a good night’s sleep tied to the pier.

6 April 2000. We departed this beautiful island, not having had a chance to explore its rugged coastline. The light wind on the stern did little to move us against the current. I had spent many hours studying this current, called the ‘Kuroshio’ or ‘Black’ current. It is so named because it brings warmer tropical waters enriched with plankton, from near the equator. It flows according to the charts from south to north at three knots, moving 50 million tons of water per second. Like it’s cousin the Gulf Stream, this is one of the great ‘ocean pumps.’

We motored along in large swells, keeping an eye out for the ever-present ships. We had a pleasant night under jib and ‘iron genny’ with Lulu and I doing a four-hour watch followed by Johnny and Roy. The difficult navigation problems lay in overcoming the current, and ‘westing’ as much as possible in the fickle wind.

7 April 2000. We had put 20 hours on the engine, so I transferred some fuel from our deck-mounted jerry cans into the main tank. We got a break from the wind, and were able to hoist all three sails making over six knots. We continued on, cooking a nice dinner and enjoying the evening until the wind shifted to the nose. Again, we fired up the engine, and made four knots at a heading of 240. I found out later that this heading was a mistake.

8 April 2000. At 0400, the engine quit. I went down below and fiddled with fuel pumps, valves, and injectors, but I was unable to keep the engine running. With so far to go in a limited time, there was no way we could make it without the assistance of the engine. I berated myself, knowing a good sailor could sail all the way to Okinawa without an engine, but I also knew that we were on a time schedule. I was on leave without pay, Roy needed to be back to his work with the Marines and Johnny was on spring break. I decided to head north, losing hard won ground to arrive at a protected port called Owase. We were over 70 miles out to sea, with no engine.

Finally, we could see the lights of ships lined up to make the cut into Nagoya. As we drew nearer and the skies got lighter, the ships began to move. Soon, there was a steady line of ships going both ways as fast as they could go. They paid us no mind, as we tried to cross their paths. We ended up having to tack back and forth between ships and at times, it got pretty hairy.

Then the wind stopped. We had cleared the shipping lanes, but the sails just hung uselessly from the masts. I attempted to hail passing fishermen for a tow into Owase, to no avail. I even launched a couple of red flares, but still, no one saw us. Then with a fury, the wind returned. We quickly reefed the sails and moved towards the port, only to have the wind drop again. We played this game for the better part of three hours.

I was exhausted from the lack of sleep, and our tacking dual. I called a friend in Okinawa, who called the local Maritime agency and soon a gray boat arrived. They towed us into Owase where we tied up on a pier.

Being towed is a humbling experience. After answering all sorts of questions, the ship’s engineer began ripping my fuel system apart. The local engine mechanic was also on hand. I can understand Japanese fairly well, but I am not familiar with the dialect these people were speaking. I do know however, that they were teasing me and calling me a dumb-ass. As they berated me, the towns’ inhabitants began to line the pier above us. They were laughing at the verbal abuse I was taking. Getting fed up with being the butt of the jokes, I launched a couple of my own, calling the engineer an ‘elder Uncle.’ He stopped and looked at me and bellowed, "Who are you calling old man?" At that, the towns people laughed and I knew I’d scored a direct hit.

The engineer discovered that ‘someone’ had turned the fuel valve in the wrong direction. Now I really felt like an idiot. As my two mechanics departed, I asked, "How much?" They told me no there was no charge. We rushed below and got one of our valuable wines from the stash, and I handed it to the mechanic. He smiled real big and held the bottle up so the town’s people could see it. They broke out in applause and laughter. The whole scene became surreal to me. The engineer then asked me if I needed any fuel. I’m was doing pretty well on my supply, so I declined. He insisted however, and gave me as much as I could take: over 40 gallons.

We were offered showers in the oyster farm building. No one fishes from this port any longer, but instead they raise a few species of fish and shellfish for release into the sea. It was the cleanest port I had ever been in. It is one of five villages on the bay. Ringing the bay are low mountains, covered with beautiful pink cherry trees in bloom. The houses themselves while not grandiose are quaint and well cared for.

As the evening approached, I was able to sit in the cockpit with no shirt and enjoy the scenery. In small groups, the town’s people began to arrive offering gifts of crackers, cookies, and candy. I was overwhelmed by the good-natured folk we met. We still had not spent a dime in this place.

9 April 2000. We awaken, and I asked Lulu if there was anything we needed, as I did want to purchase something from these people. Lulu reminded me that we needed a bucket. So, off we went to the local store in search of one. We found it in a store and recognized the proprietress as one of our visitors from the night before. It was an ugly blue plastic bucket we found that was better suited for use in a home bathroom than on a boat. We purchased the bucket for around five dollars, and just before we departed, this lovely store lady fills the bucket with ten dollars worth of coffees, drinks and teas. I just had to laugh, as there seemed no way I can pay these people. I vowed to return to visit this ‘off the beaten track’ place someday.

10 April 2000. We had been making our way southwest under jib. At night, I did not raise the main, or mizzen, as I didn’t want my crew to be caught in the sudden violent storms that we had encountered. I checked the barometer and noted that it was falling. At 1130, the winds had shifted and increased to 35 knots. Soon, we were healing over 40 degrees in the waves, and they were coming from two directions. I could not continue on my course, as the waves and current stopped us dead in our tracks. Again, I had to alter our course and again, I had been errant in setting our course so far from the Japanese coast. We were 70 miles from the nearest land; Muroto located at 33’12"N 134’24"E. It is there that I plotted a course for.

By 2100, we were 20 miles from our destination, but were unable to make any way, except for north. I am dog-tired, Lulu and Johnny have been in their bunks ill, and Roy and I have been out in the mostly awash cockpit for 15 hours, surfing waves that came from two directions. I decided to deploy the sea anchor, as it was the only way we could get some rest. It eased the violent pitching we encountered as the waves crashed over the stern, then the port side.

We were still in the shipping lanes, but I did not fear the smaller ships that ply this coast, since we were too far out. Still, we hoisted a strobe up the mast just in case. I only had white strobes, but this proved to be fortuitous. Slumped on the companionway, I began to feel a ‘thump-thump-thump’ vibration in the boat. I scrambled to the cockpit where I saw a behemoth sliding by us at a distance of 200 feet. I hailed the ship on 16 where he informed me that he never did see me on radar, but that he saw the strobe at 3 miles and altered course. I had a large radar reflector hoisted on the main mast near the spreaders. I guess it didn’t work too well. The anchor eases the movement appreciably and although I remained awake, I was warm and dry as the crew got a couple of hours of sleep.

11 April 2000. We survived the storm and the night. My GPS track showed that we had traveled a horseshoe track of ten miles in six hours. The day was bright and we were surrounded by huge, blue waves. The wind was again off the bow, so we motored with the jib at four knots. As I altered course, I could tell the current was close to three knots. To bear a course of 343, I had to steer a course of 290. Johnny had been in his berth ill for 24 hours. Lulu was ill as well. For the first time in two days, we eat a warm meal. Roy ate it with relish, reluctantly by Lulu. I was so tired of running in circles. The miles slowly ticked down towards Muroto where we arrive finally at 1930.

On first glance, it was hard to distinguish Muroto’s port. In addition to dodging fishing nets, there was only a small narrow inlet that certainly couldn’t support the amount of craft we saw in the surrounding areas. I tied up to a pier among the fishing boats. I noticed that these fishermen used glass balls as floats. That surprised me, as these floats are very valuable in Okinawa and other parts of the world. I looked in one large boat and saw hundreds of glass balls.

We were told that we couldn’t moor here, as this area was reserved for the many fishing boats that work the area. We followed a boat that lead us into a narrow opening that seemed to spring at us as we passed it. I furiously reversed and brought the helm hard over, and we shot through the gap in the sea wall. This opened up and we found a large area with about 100 boats in it. We chose a secluded spot and tied along side a cement pier and tossed the Danforth off the starboard side.

This area was interesting with its weird, windy little waterways that opened into larger ports. It reminded me of a maze. We took the time to dry out and rejuvenate. The afternoon was warm, and there was water nearby…a good thing, since Johnny decided to leave the pressure water running, thus draining one of the tanks.

12 April 2000. Still in port. We should have taken advantage of the weather and got out, but it felt so good to rest, and get chores done like the laundry. I had been having trouble with the remote oil filter falling from its mount, so I jury-rigged it with large tie straps. I changed the fuel filters and performed routine maintenance. Lulu went to the market and charged my telephone and bought some fresh food. In the evening, we barbecued, although this effort was hampered by a lack of lighter fluid. Roy finally got the grill going by using lamp oil and rubbing alcohol. I discussed the trip with the crew, explaining that it has been more arduous than what I had planned. They remained keen on finishing the trip, but I worried about the time remaining.

1900: Sitting under the glow of the oil lamps sipping wine after a nice shower and stuffed with barbecued chicken, beef and fresh asparagus, I contemplated life aboard. I wondered what the world has to offer Johnny that could surpass what he is experiencing now. This was life on a different level, closer to our origins; Self-sustainment, and natural entertainment taking equal parts on stage in the huge theater of our minds. From vowing to never set foot aboard a boat again, to being a die-hard pirate to the very end. Have we been gone a week or a year? If it wasn’t for the schedule, it wouldn’t matter.

13 April 2000. Once again, under way, making six knots at 240’ with light wind on the nose, with the engine. The wind was building and we were able to sail, dragging a lure that Johnny and Roy had found and modified. I saw a huge whale surface in the distance, and we caught a nice albacore tuna. Then the furling foil separated. We could roll the jib up, but the forestay was too loose, and I did not want to further damage the foil. I decided to head for a small port called Okitu, as Lulu makes us some popcorn.

1930: Okitu, Japan is a quaint farming and fishing community on the Northern shore of Shikoku. The inhabitants were strangely absent. It was as if they were hiding from us, yet I did see signs of life with cars and boats. We barbecued the tuna and it was very delicious. Since I was unable to replace the propeller before, I had been running the transmission in reverse. Moreover, the Rpm’s had started to decay and I could hear a whine coming form the transmission. Roy climbed the forestay and repaired the furler foil.

14 April 2000. About three hours out of Okitu we passed a couple of fishing boats. The men on board franticly waved at us. I steered in closer and they said something about an approaching storm. Since I had no way of obtaining weather, I was leery of continuing, so, we put into the port of Saga and tied up to a concrete pier. This port was the largest we’d been in and seemed to have a large fishing fleet. Some of the boats were over a hundred feet long. We were seeing Japan a port at a time. It had been so hard to get south, and boat problems hadn’t helped. Sure enough, we were hit by a storm the next day. It was a dismal day with strong gusty winds and lots of rain. The inside of the boat was damp, and we busied ourselves by reading and snacking. The barometer continued to drop and I was glad we did not continue on.

16 April 2000. It was a nice day to leave, so that is what we did. We made it to the seawall at the mouth of the port when the transmission died. We limped back into port, and I went over the options. The transmission was a Borg Warner. It would be next to impossible to rebuild or purchase this transmission in Japan. We’d had wind and current on the nose, and putting to sea did not make sense to me given our time constraints. I decided to fly down to Okinawa with the crew on the next flight, which was not scheduled for three more days.

We did get to meet many nice people there. One family took us into their home and gave us baths and a huge meal complete with prawns, chicken, fruit salad, and plenty of beer and sake’. Lulu and Roy found a washing machine left on a loading dock, so they wash clothes. On the 19th, we closed the boat up and took the train to Kochi where we boarded the plane for Okinawa. I felt defeated.

1 July 2000. After flying a new transmission in from the United States, I flew in with a mechanic and we removed and replaced the transmission. It was a tight fit and it rained hard, constantly. Two friends, Jay and Jeff joined me, the original crew remaining in Okinawa. We made good time, but there was no wind. I decided to stay just off of the coast and sure enough we stayed out of the current. As we rounded the southern tip of Japan, we were elated at finally being so far south. We even had a couple of warm Kirins to celebrate. This marked the end of the ‘Japan’ part of the trip and began the ‘island’ part.

3 July 2000. Still under engine, we received word of three typhoons in the pacific area. Not believing it prudent to stay in an ocean with those storms, we headed for the island of Tanegashima. We found ourselves confronted with the dilemma of either standing off, or attempting a strange port at night. I opted to give the port a try, and trying it was. Eventually, we wound our way through a labyrinth of canals and lights, finally arriving at a fuel dock. After tying up there, Jeff sniffed out a small pub where we ordered the coldest draft beer in the world. After a few more back on the boat, we placed the Stars and Stripes in prominent view, as it was the fourth of July (barely).

4 July 2000. I was awakened by the sounds of people yelling and Jeff saying, "Dave, make these people go away." It turned out that we were in the way, of some fishermen needing to get fuel. We moved the boat and did some sight seeing. Tanegashima is an island that is about 30 miles long and 5 miles wide. It is the home of Japan’s space program and some really great waves. Surfers come from all over Japan to surf here. There were pictures of rifles everywhere we looked. Japan is not known for its love of firearms, so this was perplexing to us, until Jeff and Jay visited a museum next door. In the past, Portuguese explorers came to this island and introduced guns to the people.

5 July 2000. Again, we were rudely awakened, only this time; a huge ship wanted to moor in our place. So, again we moved, but this time we had help, as Yasuko, the proprietress of the little pub, knows all of the fishermen and secured a safe spot for us nestled between fishing boats. There are still too many typhoons out there and again, my crew is out of time. We got rides to the airport from our lady friend and flew to Okinawa via Kagoshima.

6 August 2000. Written in my log while quaffing a draft in a bar in Tanogashima: "Note to self:" "Sell boat ASAP and never get another." Another typhoon was headed toward Tanegashima, so I hopped a plane and stayed on board just in case. The typhoon didn’t come that far north, so I spent a leisurely four days eating kami-no tei, of the toes off of green sea turtles boiled in soy broth, drinking draft beer for five dollars a piece and cleaning the bilge. There was no one there who spoke English, so I was forced to brush up on my Japanese. I found a place ran by surfers that was frequented by some delightful young ladies. I suspect I was something of a rare attraction, since I drew the attentions of these customers. I was the epitome of a perfect gentleman of course. The name of the pub was "Dandy Boy." But that didn’t stop me. Anyway, they let me pour my own drafts!

25 September 2000. After numerous delays for storms and finagling more time off from work, Lulu and I arrived at Tanegshima for the last legs of the trip. We departed on a beautiful day and motor sailing, we made good time. Near the island of Okushima, Lulu found her glass float. One has truly not been a part of the Okinawa experience until they’ve found one, so this event was auspicious. We sailed on into the night, both of us in the cockpit trading snatches of sleep and droning ever southward. Sine we were short-handed, we planned on going only as far as Amami Island, some 180 miles away. As dawn broke, and still 40 miles away, I saw a large rock jutting from the sea in the middle of nowhere. I scanned my charts, and this rock was not marked, nor were there any lights on it. We arrived in Naze, Amami port at 1600 on the 26th, so close to Okinawa that we could taste it.

27 September 2000. During the night, I felt the boat bump the ground. I had moored us in a spot that was too shallow at low tide, the tide being a little more severe than I planned for. No problem though, so we departed at 0700 for the last leg. Only 160 miles to Okinawa.

28 September 2000. Again, under engine with no wind, we are making good time. We began to feel like we were in home waters again. Some of the islands we passed were previous racing destinations. Lulu took the helm and allowed me to get some sleep. After a record four hour nap, I awoke to find lights dead ahead. I checked the GPS and charts to find we’d gone off course a bit, but we are passing the northern tip of Okinawa.

29 September 2000. Only a few hours away from the marina, I call ahead and have a friend meet us at the dock with a beer. At 1500, we were in the channel headed for the marina. I saw Dave, with a case of iced beer there to meet us. The elation we felt was profound. What should have taken ten days had taken almost seven months, and thousands of dollars. I made many mistakes, but I always had some luck, good crew and plenty of strangers along the way to help. Cherub is home.