Sorry for the long blog silence. We had a great time in Okinawa, so great in fact that we did not have time to write. We met many lovely new people, saw new marine wildlife, witnessed a sports fishing competition, visited one of the world’s largest aquariums, took a magical evening walk in a park where tens and tens of fireflies swarmed around us, and contemplated the futility of warfare at the Peace Memorial Park. We played billiards, threw darts and went bowling – all things that we would not normally have had time to do as a family. Of course, the girls have also done schoolwork, and we have worked on the boat, and handled other everyday tasks such as cooking, cleaning and laundry that are way harder to do on the boat than on land.
We have also re-evaluated our sailing plans for this year. Ideally, we would now be in the Russian city of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula. However, we are just too late to make it up north during the summer. Timing-wise, things started to go wrong from the very beginning, with the Northeast Monsoon never giving us the break we were looking for to cross over to Taiwan. That lead us to making the decision to sail down to the Philippines first, which in turn led us to experience some very bad weather and forced us to stay in Subic Bay for longer than intended. The weather in Japan has also been a surprise to us. We knew that these sea areas would be rough, but we were not really ready for there to be such a regular and frequent pattern of gale-force winds (and mostly from the wrong direction too). As we are a slow boat, we mostly need at a minimum one night, two days of good weather to make a crossing between any two Japanese ports, and such weather windows have been rare. Therefore, progress has been slow. Japan is a very long country (the ordinary map distorts the size of Japan – the country is over 3000 km in length), so to get from Ishigaki to Hokkaido takes a very long time and requires a considerable amount of days with good sailing weather.
We are not complaining, however. We were originally not meant to visit the Philippines, but ended up having a really interesting time there – we’ll never forget the pristine snorkeling waters of Hermana Menor, the lovely hotel owner in San Fernando who not only let us stay anchored at the hotel beach but helped us in every way imaginable, or the two nights anchored in the middle of a river in busy Aparri where fishermen came to take photos of us. Likewise, even though we were never intending to stay in some of the Japanese ports for so long, we’ve met the loveliest of people and have had amazing experiences in those ports. Even the experience of very heavy weather in the South China Sea taught us an awful lot, so we would not even trade that experience away!
Accordingly, we’ll gladly take whatever this year still has in store for us, and will continue to enjoy the opportunity to sail along the Japanese islands for now. As the weather continues to play tricks on us though and it is very frustrating to constantly wait for a weather window that never arrives, we’ve decided to wait 2-3 weeks for the seasonal rain front to pass further north before continuing further into Kyushu. We’ve found a good place to leave the boat in the Ryukyu island chain and will take a short “holiday from the holiday” in Europe. We’ll try to write a couple of overdue blog posts about our sailing trip while in Europe, but the next time our boat moves will not be until mid-July at the earliest.
We arrived on Okinawa island late last night, but before we talk about that, we want to tell you about our visit to Ikema earlier this week.
Ikema is a small island with a surface area of only 2,6 km2. It is part of the Miyako group of islands, and is in fact connected to the Miyako main island by a long bridge. On the island, there is a small fishing village with a fishing port that we were moored at for two nights after sailing to the island overnight from Ishigaki on Tuesday. We found that the port is in very little use; it was very quiet during the day, and even quieter – perhaps even slightly eerie – at nighttime when it seemed that we had the place all to ourselves. Apart from the magnificent view over the bridge towards Miayko island best enjoyed from the terrace of a local restaurant right next to the bridge, few tourists probably venture further onto the island. However, what the island lacked in terms of hustle and bustle, it made up for by the quaintness and authenticity of the fishing village itself. Ikema is a place where fishing nets are still being dried on the stone walls surrounding people’s gardens, and where everyone you see greets you with a smile. It is like a step back in history, and we thoroughly enjoyed meandering through the village alleys. Unfortunately, like many other once lively villages in the developed world, including our home country Finland, the village looks like it is slowly dying, with many houses empty and most of the inhabitants (at least as far as we could see) being elderly. We could only assume that people of our own generation have not wanted to continue in the footsteps of their mothers and fathers, and the perception of a brighter future elsewhere has resulted in an exodus from this lovely little village.
The village enjoys a fantastic view over the turquoise coral-filled waters, and the sea area in front of the breakwater was a treasure trove for seashell collectors when it dried out at low tide (Lil Sis being somewhat fanatic in this pursuit, and the rest of the family enjoying it to varying degrees too). Hermit crabs had a field day looking for new shells on the dried out beach, and that was indeed the only lively location in the village with the crabs scooting along all over the place dragging along their beautiful shell-homes.
Our encounters with friendly locals that started in Ishigaki also continued on Ikema. We visited Miyako proper (which we didn’t particularly warm to) and took a bus back to Ikema in the evening; we had a short chat with the bus driver before it was time for the bus to leave (talking with our hands mostly as we didn’t really share much of a common language), and he knew that we were staying on a sailboat in the fishing port. When we were nearing the port, it started to rain, and to our amazement, the bus driver diverted from the normal bus route and drove us directly to the fishing pier that we were docked at! He even made sure that we saw where we were going in the rain by shining the bus lights onto the pier until we got onto the boat. Then he sounded the bus horn as a final goodbye.
The evening before we left Ikema, two local men (who we understood to work at a local dive shop) turned up by our boat and asked us some questions about our boat and our journey. They then left, only to return ten minutes later bringing us four bags of sweets to enjoy on the trip! We had not even had a chance to invite them onto our boat (which we would normally do), because we were busy getting everything ready for our early morning departure. Such a lovely and completely unexpected kind gesture from them.
We have been ready to leave Ishigaki since Thursday last week, but here we are still. First our “closed port” permit for the Okinawa prefecture was delayed by one day (although, to be fair to the Ministry of Transport bureau, we still got it faster than the official 7 days). We could not leave without official permission to visit the ports on our voyage plan. Then the weather turned really bad over the weekend – this is the rainy season and it was indeed raining non-stop, and the wind was blowing strongly from the wrong direction.
Yesterday we got quite a shock when our Navtex receiver churned out a message about “a flying object launched from North Korea”, and all vessels were asked to “keep clear when recognizing the falling object”. When it became clear that the “flying object” was a ballistic missile shot form North Korea in the direction of Japan, we were quite pleased that we are still in southern Japan rather than in the Japan Sea where it landed.
Even setting aside the odd “flying object”, it is slightly more stressful than normal to decide when to continue sailing to further ports in southern Japan. Even though we are in principle in no hurry, and can wait for a good weather window, we always have the possibility of a typhoon at the back of our heads since the typhoon season has now started. Last year, the first typhoon hit this area on 25 May. Should one come our way now, we need to be in a good location to take shelter, and somewhat to our surprise, it appears that there are not as many good typhoon shelters around as we had earlier thought. Therefore, making sailing plans involves not only considering the currents, the tide and the very fickle and often rough weather in this area, but also requires a plan for how to get to a typhoon haven quickly enough should it become necessary. It does not help that one is tied to the specific “closed ports” that one has permission for, and cannot divert to other ports or anchorages at will.
Having said all of this, we hope that tonight has been our last night in Ishigaki, and are planning a morning departure to the next port. Don’t get us wrong, we have loved our time in Ishigaki and really like this island and its friendly inhabitants, but we are sailors after all, and sailors always get itchy feet when moored for too long…
While Mr Finn and I are busy handling administrative matters and taking care of never-ending boat related work, the girls are busy with their boat school work. In music, they have together chosen to rehearse the very aptly named Con Te Partiro (English title Time to Say Goodbye) piece made famous by Andrea Bocelli. Big Sis arranged the piece for clarinet, cello and piano, and the girls then played it on their instruments (yes, we really do have quite a few musical instruments on the boat!).
The final recording can be found below. The piano part is played by Big Sis and was recorded in Subic Bay, Philippines. The cello is played by Lil Sis and the clarinet is played by Big Sis, and those instruments were recorded here in Ishigaki, Japan. Any odd noises heard in the background are due to the marine recording environment…
This recording exercise has also taught the girls some basics about boat electricity, as it has been necessary to use an inverter to get electricity for the piano without the hum of the generator in the background. Talk about a diverse learning experience!
“Time to say goodbye.
Places that I’ve never seen
Or experienced with you,
Now I shall.
I’ll sail with you upon ships across the seas,
Seas that exist no more.
It’s time to say goodbye”
(Con Te Partiro – music by Francesco Sartori, English lyrics by Frank Peterson)
I promised that we would write a proper report about our arrival in Japan, so here goes. Be forewarned, this is a very long post basically all about the port clearance process here in Ishigaki.
Japanese law requires foreign boats to inform the Coast Guard of their arrival at least 24 hours in advance of landfall. The penalty for not doing so may be imprisonment, and we have spoken to one Russian sailor who actually did end up being arrested. We were therefore very careful to inform the Coast Guard of our planned arrival already at the time when we left Aparri in the Philippines. We had little idea what to expect to happen in Ishigaki, and only knew that there would be lots of paperwork to be filled in. We had been told that the Quarantine, Customs and Immigration officials would finish work “at sunset”, and since we were arriving on a Friday (not due to choice, but because the Philippine authorities could not clear us out until Tuesday despite us having arrived in Aparri on Sunday), we worried that we would be stuck in quarantine on the boat for the whole weekend unless we got to Ishigaki on time. The last night at sea was rough, and we ended up being in a mad scramble to get to Ishigaki port on time. Ishigaki is surrounded by coral reefs, and there is nothing more frustrating than having to take your time going around a large island when you know that you had already been within a stone’s throw of the port but could not take the direct route for fear of hitting the coral. We arrived finally around 5 pm, not sure if we were too late already – in true Hitchcock style, a thunderstorm broke out right when we entered the port, and to say that we were nervous is an understatement.
When we got to the coordinates given by the Coast Guard, we were looking around for a good spot to tie up when we noticed an official-looking man standing on one side of the port. A few seconds later we realised there was also another man standing some 15 metres away to the left, and yet a third man standing some metres in the other direction. They did not seem to be waiting for a boat to pick them up, and it soon became clear that the Coast Guard had been very efficiently following us on AIS (a tracking and collision-prevention system for vessels), and all four administrative departments were at the dock waiting for us. We were obviously more than pleased about such punctuality and efficiency!
The officials took our lines and helped tie our boat onto the concrete dock. An elderly lady appeared from a car that had been waiting further away, and announced that she worked for the Quarantine department. She very politely asked if she could step on board, and whether she needed to take off her shoes. She did not speak a lot of English, but she was extremely friendly, and helped us fill in the many documents which were partly only in Japanese. Once she declared us free of diseases, we invited the other officials to board the boat, but they made a point of asking us to first lower the yellow “quarantine flag” that we had hoisted according to old maritime tradition. We lowered the flag, and hoisted the Japanese courtesy flag instead. Only once that was done, did the rest of the authorities board our boat.
We dealt with the Coast Guard questions and documents first. Where were we going? How long did we intend to stay in the country? Did we have a crew list? All Coast Guard officials were very friendly, something that we had already got a glimpse of when they cheerfully congratulated us for successfully making the long journey over to Japan in their response to our email when we were nearing land. However, they also made it very clear that we needed to obtain pre-approval to stop at most ports in Japan, and provided us with the information for how to apply for such approval from the Ministry of Transport.
Secondly, we dealt with two teams of customs officials. One team was clearly there to make sure that we would not be bringing any harmful germs to Japan. They wanted to know which footwear we had been wearing in the Philippines, and when we identified those, they politely asked us whether they could disinfect them. We had no problem with an extra shoe cleaning, of course! They asked questions about food products that we had imported and gave us instructions for how to store those (nothing was actually taken away, perhaps because we had made sure that we ate the last of any Philippine fruits before we got to Japan). The other team made us fill in a whole lot of documents, listing ship’s stores, medications and personal items that we were bringing into the country. Lastly, both teams wanted to inspect the boat. Somewhat to our amusement, one official swiped some surface dust off of a couple of places on the boat, and carefully sealed it into zip-lock bags. We have no idea what they were looking for, but it was obvious that the sample would be checked in a laboratory for either some germs or substances, or both!
Once the customs check was finished, it was already well past 6 pm. By this time, Mr Finn had been whisked off with an immigration official for fingerprinting at the nearby immigration office. We have not heard of many places where customs officials will drive you to their office to do a clearance that is your own responsibility! I was expecting that the customs officials would be in a hurry to leave once all the official work had been concluded. They had informed us that we could apply with Customs to change the status of our boat to “coastal ship”, a special category of ship that does not require further customs and immigration checks when in Japan (otherwise all of this procedure would have to be repeated in every port), and we were expecting to have to go to the customs office on Monday to fill in the paperwork. However, the customs officer offered to drive me to the building housing both the customs and immigration offices, so that I could also first be fingerprinted by Immigration, and then could fill in the “coastal ship” application. When I said I did not want to leave the girls on the boat alone and felt that I needed to wait for Mr Finn to return first, he happily chose to wait with me despite already being on overtime. While waiting for Mr Finn’s and the immigration officer’s return, he gave me restaurant recommendations and some other local information about Ishigaki. When Mr Finn returned, I was duly taken to the immigration office and then to the customs office, and my newly-made “coastal ship” application was promptly approved. In addition, I was given a local map (Mr Finn had also been given local maps by Immigration!) and many further recommendations for what to see. Not only that, but I was also driven back to the boat by a sweet, young customs officer. And it was already 2 hours past the official working hours for all of these officials! When we were finally alone on the boat, we marveled at everything that had been accomplished by these four government departments in the two hours we had been with them, and how efficiently they had handled everything. Even more so, we were in awe of their friendliness and will to help us out.
This was also not a one-off incident. Yesterday we visited the Ministry of Transport office with our “closed ports” application. The office is quite a bit from town, and we took a taxi there. Again, the officials were very efficient but also very friendly. When we were finished at the office, one official noted that it was quite far to town and asked us if we were going back to the port. When we said we were, he said he would drive us there. And so he did! There was absolutely no need for him to do so, and he went completely out of his way to do a favour for us.
All in all, there is a lot of bureaucracy in Japan and the Japanese officials take things very seriously (it is a very different approach to what we were used to from the Philippines – and, although not everyone might agree, to us the Japanese approach is much preferred). However, our experience is that if you are prepared for the paperwork and play by the Japanese rules, things proceed smoothly and you may end up getting far more from the encounter than you would have ever expected. We don’t of course know if what we have experienced would happen elsewhere in Japan, or whether the people in Ishigaki are particularly friendly, but needless to say that we currently feel very welcome in Japan and are more than happy to be here!
Events are completely overtaking our blog writing, apologies that we have been so slow to provide updates. This is a quick note to say that we reached the southernmost port of Japan on Friday evening, altogether 11 days after we left Subic Bay. The last stretch was a three-night passage from Aparri in the Philippines, as we managed to find the Japan current and flew with a speed up to 8,5 knots through the Luzon strait. This area of sea is known for its roughness, but for the two first nights our only gripe was that we experienced winds contrary to what had been forecast…we were meant to have had a nice beam or broad reach, but instead we were mostly close-hauled, which made the boat heel quite a bit and was not particularly comfortable. However, the seas grew somewhat for the last night and day and became rather confused, and the wind was right behind us, making for a very rolly boat and not much sleep to be had by those off-watch. Nevertheless, the journey went well and we arrived in Ishigaki just before sunset so that port clearance could still be carried out before the weekend. The Japanese port clearance was a very memorable affair that we’ll be writing about more soon (promise!). Right now we are busy drawing up our plans for the so-called “closed” ports that we want to visit in Japan, because the list of ports has to be submitted to and approved by the Ministry of Transport before we can continue onwards.
We have now been on the second leg of our journey for one week. It has been a very fascinating but also tiring week. We left Subic Bay on Monday 1 May, and have not been at a marina or dock since – there have been none heading up the northern coast of the Philippines. We have been at sea for four nights, and have anchored for three. We have had times of no wind, but also some rough conditions when rounding the northwestern corner of the Philippines. We have managed to get some fuel along the way, with locals bringing it to the boat in jerry cans. We’ve also managed to stock up on the lovely fresh fruit that the Philippines are known for, again with locals going to the market with our shopping list and bringing the goods to us for a small fee. However, there has been no place to fill our water tanks, which means that we are only using water as and when truly needed. I won’t say how many days we have gone without showering, but in the words of a friend, showering is overrated anyway…Also, if it gets to be too much, a dip in the ocean helps too.
We will write a longer report about the places we have anchored when we have better access to the internet, and more time on our hands. Right now, we are in the process of clearing out of the Philippines, and readying ourselves for an offshore passage.
Lil Sis is enjoying her school camp in mainland China, and between her drop off and pick up, part of the family are on a shopping spree in Hong Kong. It is not the kind of activity that one imagines when thinking of Hong Kong and shopping though; they are running around the city’s alleys buying (yet more) spare parts for the boat! It can be a challenge to find technical tools and items in Hong Kong. There are no large DIY or hardware stores, and instead you find that for each item, there is one (back)street where everyone sells that item but almost nothing else. So when you have 20 items to buy, it requires significant local knowledge to find everything, and even then it can be very time-consuming. Nevertheless, it seems infinitely easier to buy spares and other small items from Hong Kong than from the Philippines.
The boat has been around Subic Bay for almost three weeks, and we are starting to get rather itchy feet. The weather analysis has started again in earnest, and considering our success finding bad weather en route to the Philippines, we are taking it very seriously. However, the challenge with sailing is that waiting for the “perfect” weather window may mean not getting out at all, and even perfect windows are not guarantees of good sailing conditions (as we have just learnt the hard way).
All small repairs on the boat have been made, and we have acquired a sea anchor as a replacement for our trusted series drogue which was unfortunately lost when we tried to retrieve it in rather large seas on the trip to the Philippines. Drogues are notoriously difficult to retrieve, and we probably should have waited for calm seas before even attempting to retrieve ours, but by the time the weather started to show signs of easing, we were so ready to get on our way – not to mention ready to exit the hell that is being tied to a drogue in big seas! – that we just couldn’t resist the urge to get it off.
We are now also starting to go through our departure checklists. What shall we eat during our next passage? How much water do we need to carry on board? We have a water-maker, but it is still in a “pickled” (i.e. long-term storage) state, and we need to get it going once underway (it is not a good idea to un-pickle a water-maker in dirty marina water). We need to get fuel, and the propeller needs to be scrubbed once more to remove any sign of barnacles which grow with amazing speed in these tropical waters. We need to handle administrative tasks in the current marina, and need to inform coming ports of our arrival. Are we comfortable that we have paper charts of the right scale for our next leg and do we need further pilot books for port arrival? Are seacocks in a good state and do our bilge pumps work properly? What about fire and gas alarms, and our emergency devices such as EPIRBs and PLBs? Are all the communications equipment in good working order, likewise our chart plotter and autopilot? Do we have enough gas to cook food on the next leg? The list goes on and on.
Whereas the stress factor is high, the excitement over what lies ahead grows exponentially. We hope the waiting game will soon be over and our bow will once again be pointed towards news horizons.
We have now been docked in Subic Bay for ten days. We have spent a lot of that time repaying our sleep debt, and just generally resting, and we are finally starting to feel that we are back to normal. Of course, boat work has been piling up, and although we have slowly been working our way down the list, new action items are as usual being added to it.
We have met some lovely people here, both ones involved in boating, and others who have nothing to do with boats. We have been lucky enough to be invited into two very different homes in the area, giving us a tiny glimpse into the differences in the way locals and expats live. People here are generally very friendly, but as there are really not many foreign tourists around, we do sometimes feel that we stick out like a sore thumb.
We are likely to stay in the Philippines for a couple of weeks still, as we are waiting for the delivery of some spare parts, and also because Lil Sis has another school event that she needs to return to Hong Kong for five days for. We are quite enjoying Subic Bay, and it is a location that doesn’t weigh too heavily on a sailor’s budget either.
When we were hit by the gale on our way to the Philippines, we made the decision to alert the maritime rescue authorities to our predicament, as drifting without the ability to maneuver a boat in a very busy sea area is inherently dangerous (for us, but also for the other vessels). Would there later have been a need to issue any automatic emergency alerts (which thankfully there was not), those would have gone to the authorities in Finland where our boat is registered, so we chose to include the Finnish authorities in our alert at the outset. We are very pleased to have done so, as we received efficient and empathetic support from them over a communications system that the local authorities were unable to use to get messages through to us. However, the involvement of the Finnish authorities has led to our trip becoming an item of interest for the media in Finland, up to the point that our previous blog post about the Philippines leg of our journey has been quoted by the local press. We have therefore reluctantly had to make the decision not to elaborate further on the events from that leg on this blog. Instead, you can ask us over a cold beer or glass of wine next time we meet!
To that end, this blog post is about radios (again), but I will keep it short this time. We are over the moon as we managed to get our MF/HF (i.e. long-range) radio to finally work together with our pactor modem, and successfully sent the first email through our radio! It seems like some sort of small miracle to be able to send emails through radio waves. We can now send and receive emails basically for free through private radio stations while we are at sea. These emails cannot be long, and cannot contain images or attachments, but will certainly work as reassurance to family and friends that all is well with us. We are now trying to sort out a way to update this blog (with very concise posts) through our radio while underway.