Flotsam: part 1

The big engine that couldn't

By Wolfgang Bechstein

TOKYO--Ui is a stolid, solid 24-year-old motor cruiser built by Yamaha at a time when the durability of fiberglass was still somewhat in question, and to be on the safe side, the manufacturer adopted a "the thicker the better" policy. She sports a freckled moss-green hull and a dirty-beige cabin top. If we include the wooden swimming platform at the stern, she is about 21 feet long, although officially she is ranked as a 20-footer.

The front third is taken up by a cozy but smallish cabin that provides ample headroom (if you're sitting down, that is), with some wooden fittings, a nice patch of teak floor, and two cushioned berths that will sleep two adults in a pinch (or a passion) but that is more suited to, say, a single adult and a kid, or even better, just the captain by himself.

The helm station midships is covered but open to the rear. Besides the two seats for driver and navigator, we find a miniature galley and some stowage room under the same roof. The rear portion of the vessel is taken up by the motor well flanked by two additional seats and enclosed by a bulwark that is high enough to provide a reasonable amount of safety in a seaway.

The motor well used to contain (actually still contains) a Mercruiser six-cylinder engine built in 1976 by Ford, rated at 165 hp. When everything worked and the boat's bottom was not adorned by too many barnacles, that was plenty enough power for the stern drive to push the boat onto a plane and propel it to a top speed of some 27 knots. For some of the 16 months I have now owned this boat, this condition actually applied, and I was able to scuttle around the northern part of Tokyo bay from my mooring spot in Funabashi--weather permitting, of course.

Squalor and sea birds

That spot is convenient since it's easily reachable from home, safely located behind a flood gate, features a nice wooden pier, and costs me exactly zero yen in monthly fees (because I removed a sunken boat from the same spot, and also broke a leg there). The disadvantage is that especially in summer, water quality in the northern half of Tokyo bay is abominable and the surrounding scenery pretty squalid, although there are some tidal flats nearby where an amazing number of sea birds make their home.

Fairly recently, I found another mooring spot further down the Uchibou side of the bay, where the sea water is notably cleaner and actually amenable to swimming. The spot itself is on the Kazusa river, very close to its mouth, and while it is nicely deep where the boat is tied to a riverside wall, to get in and out from the bay proper I have to pass some shallow sections that are only navigable within about two hours each side of high water.

Still, I quite like the fact that I have to be in tune with the rhythm of nature like the mariners of old, and equipped with a tide chart, it is actually not too much of a bother. If a typhoon or torrential rains were to hit the area, the boat would surely be swept away (so the locals assure me; one guy said that his skiff was later found floating upside down in the bay although he had doubled the mooring lines), but so far that problem fortunately has not arisen.

Another problem, however, did arise shortly after a friend and I--on a perfect summer's day--had piloted Ui down to Kazusa-Minato: the above mentioned Mercruiser engine gave up the ghost. Or, more precisely, some sections of the manifold seem to have rusted through internally, letting cooling water seep into the first two cylinders and putting the whole, otherwise still quite competent looking power plant out of commission.

Repair possible but costly

To repair this would be possible but rather expensive, and since I have no idea what will break next, I am unwilling (and currently unable) to make the substantial investment required. Dropping in an entirely new or refurbished engine or converting to a high-power outboard are other options that are also out of my reach right now.

But as luck would have it, Ui possesses another piece of equipment that is coming in very handy now: an auxiliary outboard motor of 9.9 hp, mounted on a sturdy bracket at the stern, and much less than 24 years old. It is a like-new Yamaha that can push my heavily laden cruiser along at a pace of some 5 knots max, but in order not to overtax the motor, I usually keep that to about three-and-a-half or four knots.

A very sedate pace, to be sure, but it does make for a smooth ride, gives me time to contemplate the scenery and the water, saves enormously on gasoline costs, and makes getting in and out of the river mooring spot easier, because the boat has a much more shallow draft with the aux than with the main drive lowered. Normally, I would have to hang over the stern to operate the motor and steer, but I found that the main drive controlled by the steering wheel can be used as a kind of rudder to maneuver the boat quite passably (even the autopilot sort of works, which is nice when I'm in a laid-back mood--mustn't forget the lookout, though).

Slow speed a danger

However, the fact that the shaft of the auxiliary motor is shorter will certainly be a drawback in heavy seas, and if that motor fails, I have nothing to fall back on--except my mobile phone or a passing fisherman. Also, the slow speed can be a source of danger when dealing with other, especially larger ships. Of course, sailboats, even fairly big yachts, are in a similar situation because they often can't go much faster than this, but from them it is expected (which is why a yacht under sail--at least theoretically--always has the right of way).

A motorboat, however, is assumed to be able to evade quickly, and it can cause irritation and lead to a possibly dangerous situation when it doesn't. This almost makes me want to fly a big sign saying "limping along on reduced power--please be patient" or something like that, but to be readable that sign would have to be about as large as a sail, which sort of complicates the issue. ...

Sometime, I may have to navigate in the path of some of the monster liners that frequent Tokyo bay, especially if I decide to eventually make my way back to Funabashi. But I'll cross that bridge, I mean that shipping lane, when I come to it.


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"

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