Lights across the bay

By Wolfgang Bechstein

TOKYO--There are days where everything shatters, such as the glass bead day I described some time ago, and others where everything works out. Such as today. Got to Hota, a small fishing port on the Tokyo bay side of the Boso peninsula, shortly before noon. Turning the inflatable from an unsightly lump of PVC into a tidy 10-foot boat complete with wooden floor boards and loaded with bento, beer, and cell phone took about 30 minutes. Off the back hangs a shiny silvery 5-horsepower Honda outboard, about as non-polluting as outboard engines get, because this is a 4-stroke baby that keeps its oil to itself rather than slavering it all over the place as common 2-stroke engines do.

Thanks to the typhoon brush-by yesterday, the air is uncommonly clean. Miura peninsula on the other side, about 12 km away, can be seen as if waiting to be touched. To the south, Oshima, the first of the Izu islands, looms as a gray-brown but distinctly visible shadow. The sea is fairly calm (docile half-meter waves) and the wind is north-easterly, which is good, because it blows from the land and therefore whips up no great rollers, such as the southerly wind from the Pacific can.

It looked so easy

I set out, intending to do some coast-hugging as usual and maybe exploring Uki-shima a short way off the coast, doing a little snorkeling in my jellyfish-proof suit. But then, I suddenly remember that when I bought this boat a few months ago, I had had this crazy idea of crossing Tokyo bay with it. After all, it looked so easy on the sea chart--but a few bouts with serious waves a little distance off shore had soon cured me of the notion.

Yet today, conditions seem to be perfect. Next to the waves, the biggest problem when crossing this part of Tokyo bay is the monster ships that constantly ply the Uraga strait, headed for or coming from Yokosuka, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Tokyo, Chiba, and Ichikawa (between them some to the busiest harbor real estate the world has to offer). But today, I at least can see the ships from afar with pinpoint clarity, which makes it easier to judge their speed and keep out of their way. The waves look quite manageable, and the sky seems non-threatening as well (and of course I have heard the weather forecast), so after leaving the shore I simply keep on going, fixing my sights on the flashing chimneys of Kurihama power station.

Sounds like fun

In an inflatable such as mine (and in most other power boats as well) you cannot vary speed continuously as you can in a car. Rather, you basically have only the choice between slowly (very slowly) chugging along, being pushed this way and that by whimsical cross currents and playful waves, or getting "on plane," that is cranking up the engine until the front part of the boat (hopefully) lifts out of the water and the boat suddenly gains a considerable amount of speed. The latter sounds like fun, and it is, provided you do it on a lake with a mirror-like surface and no obstacles in sight. On the sea, planing usually means that you continuously burst through a wave crest, only to crash (sometimes pretty violently) into the trough on the other side, which can get pretty tiring (as well as thoroughly wetting in a small boat such as mine).

But here I am, heading into one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, and chugging along at 2 or 3 knots simply will not do if I want to evade the occasional (and surprisingly fast-moving) mammoth plus the many assorted mid-sized vessels that suddenly loom pretty large on the horizon. What I end up doing is using a combination: cranking up the power (and holding on tight) when I have to evade, and letting up a bit when it seems permissible.

Farther than it seemed

[GRAPHIC: nautical chart of Tokyo Bay]
As I knew already before I started, the Miura peninsula isn't really as close as it seemed, but after a bit more than an hour, I finally can make out some more distinct features and decide to veer south a bit, to avoid the crowded and over-built Kaneda-wan, heading instead for Tsurugi-saki close to the southern tip of the peninsula. As soon as I am out of the major shipping lanes, I go into chugging mode (seeing as how the waves on this side are quite bit higher than on the Boso side where I had come from), so it takes me over thirty minutes more to finally make it into a little bay near the lighthouse.

It now is already past two in the afternoon, and I know that I cannot dawdle too long, since I of course have to make the whole way back as well, and this time against the wind. So, without even cutting the engine, I give the coast a quick look-over (pretty quiet, only a few Saturday fishermen out on the rocks), and turn the tiller around.


Pacific feels alive

This time, the going is rather heavy, because of a head wind that temporarily whips up a few scary waves at least twice as high as those that I had encountered so far. The view south into the open ocean, a wide steely-gray-blue expanse dotted with tiny fishing boats, is beautiful and a bit frightening as well. But what I really love is the majestic swell that rolls in apart from the short-amplitude waves. It is wide enough (about 10 to 15 meters) to pose no danger--the boat simply goes up and down with it--but it really makes the Pacific feel alive under the bow.

But no time to dwell on this too long, because again I am in the way of traffic, and worrisome thoughts push themselves to the fore. If the engine quits now (and outboards are notoriously less reliable than car engines), I am dead meat. Sure, I have oars, but they won't do much good in the face of an 80,000-ton car transport ... And of course, inflatables don't show up on radars.

Planing home

But somehow I manage to keep out of trouble, and after about half the passage, the sea becomes calm enough to keep on planing for most of the time. So, what do you know, at three thirty I'm already within spitting distance of the Boso coast which suddenly seems much more like home than it ever has.

Because I have used Uki-shima, a bit south of where I started, as an orientation point, and since the 12-liter tank still had a parcel of fuel left (Honda 4-strokes are notoriously efficient), I decide to explore the island and find a bay where I can drop anchor and get out the bento. (Yes, I do have an anchor, even if it weighs about half as much as the boat.)

And shortly before dusk, I make it back to the little pier where I set out. The local ex-fisherman-now-harbor-factotum who saw me go out asks where I've been and is pretty surprised at the answer. He has a 26-foot launch and says he's never been on the other side. But then, I guess he has no need to.


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
"Thar she squirts"
"Sail ho"
"There was chirping, too"

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