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From Japan to Alaska, enigmatic but memorable...

by Andy & Sue Warman 1 Aug 2018 15:04 UTC
Arriving in the Aleutions © Sue & Andy Warman

Japan continued to be an enigma as we sailed north; past Kyushu, into the Sea of Japan, and on to the northern most large island of Hokkaido. Short passages were interspersed with longer legs when weather or schedule dictated.

Japan is suffering a depopulation crisis. We heard numbers will halve by 2050. Remote villages already show the effects. Once busy fishing harbours suffer from lack of maintenance. Older small craft lie in states of decay and dereliction, ownership hard to fathom as an aging demographic disappear. Communities attempt to reinvent themselves as tourist destinations, located far from international tourist routes they compete for a diminishing home market.

People are friendly, welcoming and hospitable to the point of embarrassment in their generosity. We were treated to meals out, home visits, tours of locales. Help and guidance was abundant: all this in spite of difficulty with language. A smartphone translator capable of reading Japanese character sets is essential. Unlike the main tourist areas of Japan, English is little spoken nor understood. A contrast is an overbearing level of bureaucracy. There seems to be a mistrust of foreigners, officials do not understand why we cruise, an underlying assumption seems to be "We must be up to something!" Frequent visits from customs and coastguard were the norm. Each visit involved an hour of filling in the same forms last completed a few days previously. At one three-day stop, we suffered two visits. Various explanations were offered: one suggested a welcome relaxation of "Closed Port" rules by the Ministry of Transport has caused the Coastguard to introduce additional scrutiny. A degree of paranoia would appear to exist.

Did we enjoy our second visit to Japan? A definite yes! Would we go again? Yes... but not with our own yacht.

In late May, Spruce left Japan for the USA, Dutch Harbor in Alaska. Our strategy was to pick suitable weather to reach the Aleutian Islands anywhere between Attu, the western most US island, and Kiska, 170-miles farther to the east. Adverse current from the Arctic, sea temperature down to 3C, and days with thick fog - one period lasted more than three days. Merchant shipping could see us on AIS and radar, most heartening. We expected a 12-14 day passage, and possibly three or four depressions. A departure on the edge of a high-pressure zone, 10-15 knots of tail winds proved adequate. We arrived in Attu after 1360 miles and 10 days; two gales. One blow for a few hours, the other from Siberia lasted 12 hours at Force 8-9 with around 20 minutes blowing at 48+ knots. It was an unpleasant experience made worse by the cold.

Wow! Orca, otters, seals, albatross, snow-capped volcanic islands and, unexpectedly, almost no fog for the three weeks it took to dodge successive weather systems as we traversed 800 miles along the Aleutian Island chain to Dutch Harbor. Artefacts from WWII and the cold war are abundant. The weather and climate are challenging but this is one of the more memorable regions visited during our travels.

Now we are poised to leave Dutch Harbor. Following the July 4th Celebrations we will resume sailing eastwards towards Canada through the short Alaskan summer.

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Ocean Cruising Club.

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