The big engine that couldn't
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
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
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.