Move Over, Ahab

By Wolfgang Bechstein

TOKYO--By the way, thanks all for telling me to "break a leg" when I briefly left these premises to embark on a little trip recently. What, there was no trip, and you didn't extend that wish to me? Well, accommodating fellow that I am, I went and broke it anyway. Which is why I'm planted here in my bed, typing away on an ancient laptop, tethered via LAN to the desktop with the modem and all, with my right leg in a cast reaching from the toes almost up to the hip.

The leg is propped up on cushions and the like, and I can even move it a little, but when I lower it beneath the height of approximately my heart (or what passes for it), it hurts like hell and therefore I don't last too long on the two crutches thoughtfully provided by the hospital (they come in handy for short trips to the bathroom, though). But fear not, this state of affairs is supposed to last for a mere five or six weeks more, after which the fractured ankle bone (add scientific name to taste) should have sufficiently grown back into a single entity to allow the rehab rigmarole to start.

And what brought about this pathetic state of affairs in the first place, you may well ask. Well, inevitably although indirectly it has to do with boats. As I briefly mentioned, in June I finally acquired a sturdy 24-year old "stinkpot" (as sailors are wont to call them), that is a motorboat. It is somewhat over 20 foot long, of swarthy appearance, with faded green hull, covered wheelhouse but open to the rear, sporting a real cabin and an equally 24-year-old-but-in-neat-condition six-cylinder Mercruiser inboard/outboard engine and sterndrive that should be sufficient to take me almost anywhere within Tokyo Bay and a bit beyond.

Two-tier mooring available

What's more, I even discovered a possible mooring spot in a sheltered harbor basin in Funabashi (about the closest from where we are to the sea, some 30 minutes by train or car). The only slight problem in said spot (available, believe it or not, for free) was a half-rotten sunken old fishing boat that emerged enough at low tide to be a nasty threat to anything parked immediately above it. I enlisted the help of an optimistic Japanese acquaintance who, although not in the salvaging business, runs a small builder's outfit and has access to a truck with a crane mounted on it. He took a look at the situation which includes rather limited and tricky access for cars, and said "can do!"

As it turned out, the "can" as well as the "do" proved rather more challenging than both he and I had bargained for. The first truck we tried almost toppled over into the water, and it took a succession of three ever larger vehicles as well as a rigorous assault on the wreck itself (sawing pieces off here and there at low tide to make it at least a bit lighter and more amenable to be pulled from the oozing sludge) until finally the coast or rather the slot between two other moored boats was clear.

In the process, however, the builder acquired a nasty gash in the foot, when he slipped on the wreck and slid into a tangle of metal that once was an antique diesel engine. I wasn't there at the time and only arrived on the scene after he had already gotten medical attention and a sterilized bandage. Thus I could only admire his grit in nevertheless persisting with this task which he had made his own in "never say die" fashion, although I certainly wouldn't have blamed him if he had just thrown the towel and uttered the Japanese equivalent of "I'm outta here, mister".

At the time, my own foot was still absolutely fissure-free, so when the obstacle had gone I could finally move "Ui" into its newly cleared spot and begin the much more pleasant task of slowly acquainting myself with the vessel and applying the various touches here and there that would make it my own. (Sorry, in my mind even when switched to English, motorboats are "it"s while only yachts and larger ships are "she"s.) From what the dealer through whom I bought the boat told me, it had belonged to an aged doctor who kept it in the dry dock of a marina and almost never used it, which explains the relatively good condition it was in (considering its age).

Outboard reassuring

Still, problems there were (and are), such as deteriorated rubber packings of the cabin windows, allowing some rainwater to leak through, a non-working blower in the engine compartment, unreliable oil pressure meter, incorrectly placed navigation lights, and so on. But the hull, made by Yamaha of much thicker fiberglass than boats of more recent vintage, seems utterly sound. The gasoline-burning 165hp main engine and drive unit are largely rust-free and highly serviceable, although at that age, a major disaster could happen at any time, which is why it is reassuring to have an almost new 9.9hp outboard sitting on the transom for use in an emergency.

The cabin is small but cozy, just about big enough to sleep two adults. The wheelhouse is fairly spacious and even has a small galley. I had the dealer install a large clear hatch in the roof, so I can stick out my head and feel the wind on my face (as well as get better visibility) while at the helm. Since I consider boating not only a fine-weather activity, protection against the rain afforded by the wheelhouse is a big plus in my book. On the stern, there is a wooden swimming platform and ladder that will be great for snorkeling when anchored in some quiet bay.

During a few test outings, Ui proved very stable, handling even sizable waves with an aplomb worthy of considerably larger boats. The first small trip with the family (on a fine day with almost no waves) also was a full success. The kids liked to climb up on the roof and watch the fish jumping all around. Reiko expressed no regrets at having given the go sign for this purchase. The onigiri were good. No-one got seasick.

Unlike many outboards, the in/out drive installed in Ui ensures that the propeller gets a solid grip of the water even in rough weather. The four-stroke automotive-type engine (Mercruisers are really Ford engines in disguise) pollutes less than two-stroke motors or diesels and is surprisingly quiet, especially at non-planing speeds, where one can cruise comfortably (and economically) at six or seven knots. When the boat got on plane, top speed indicated by my portable GPS was in the range of 24 knots.

More goodies to install

However, the fairly large trim plates installed by the dealer (an old chap who likes to tinker with boats and is in this business largely for his own amusement) already seem to have gone out of alignment, and during recent outings, the boat refused to plane, churning up a large wake without making real headway when turning up the throttle. Clearly some more adjustment is needed, and there are any number of West Marine purchased little goodies still to install before I can really get out to explore Tokyo bay in my spare pockets of time.

And there is the matter of the little pier at Funabashi where Ui is moored. This consists mainly of a few wooden planks jutting out from a concrete harbor wall. Some of the planks are more rotten than others, and the entire thing needed some attention which I provisionally gave it in the form of two metal stakes driven into the ground to provide some additional support.

Now, a week ago to be exact, I recruited Andreas (currently absent from these pages for reasons of his own) to help me do some more work on the pier. Since the weather was amenable, we first went out for a little turn near the tidal flats where an amazing number of sea birds can be found, in spite of the busy port and industrial atrocities nearby. After dusk, we returned to the pier, switched on some flashlights and set to work with some more stakes and a heavy hammer.

On the other side of the harbor basin wall is a kind of walkway that is too narrow for cars but that is being used by people, bicycles, and the occasional small motorbike. The walkway is paved with concrete and is set about a meter lower than the wall in which some rough stone steps lead up to "my" pier. We had hardly started when a moped headed our way at fairly high speed. Remembering that I had left the hammer lying across the fairly dark path, I was worried that the bike might hit it, and intended to quickly descend from the wall to warn the driver.

A step--and no step

I set my foot on the first step--only there was no step, since in the darkness I was off by about ten centimeters. Losing my balance, I crashed onto the ground in what must have been a rather awkward fashion even for my ungracious self. The bike successfully avoided me (and the hammer) and went on its way, while I pulled myself up only to realize that my right foot wasn't quite cooperating the way it should.

If Andreas hadn't been there, packing up my stuff, getting back to the car and back home would have been a near impossibility. As it was, I merely left everything up to him and we drove home, boat moored, stakes provisionally fastened, foot and some other scratches throbbing, but still not in too low spirits. At first I thought I had merely sprained my ankle, but during the night the pain turned bad enough to warrant a visit to the hospital, where the X-ray soon revealed a clean fracture.

So now you know the rest of the story. Unfortunately, I will have to leave Ui to collect barnacles until some time in September, when I hope to resume my floating activities (and fix that pier for good).


Wolfgang Bechstein was born in Germany but says he has always felt more comfortable observing his country from the outside. While roaming the world in his youth, he briefly set foot in Japan, worked as a movie extra, and became fascinated by the local lingo. After studying linguistics and Japanese at Tübingen university, he came back to Japan in earnest in 1974 to work for a publishing company. He earned a B.A. in Japanese linguistics from ICU in Tokyo.   Turning a passion for audio into a profession, he started working as a freelance translator in 1981. He established his own company, Prisma, in 1988, and translates mainly from Japanese into English and German, specializing in electronics and computers. He and his family relocated to Yowie Bay, New South Wales, in March 2001. Although he has applied for membership in the cafe latte society of Sydney, just between you and me, what he really came for are the waters.

by Wolfgang Bechstein: Other salt-water adventures
"Lights across the bay"
"There was chirping, too"
"Sail ho"

<top> | home