Flotsam: part 2

A light-headed dive

By Wolfgang Bechstein

TOKYO--Some misgivings about the facts of life related in part 1 notwithstanding, I recently decided to test the auxiliary on a somewhat longer trip, hugging the coast and puttering down from Kazusa to Ukishima, a rocky, uninhabited island of about a kilometer's circumference, only a little way off Katsuyama port. In Ui's old incarnation that would have been a fairly short hop, but this time it took a bit over two hours (still somewhat less than I had reckoned with, because the outboard just kept on purring and the water was nice and smooth).

I love turning on the autopilot and perching on Ui's bow, away from the noise of the motor and with my feet almost touching the water rushing by. Of course, every time another craft or any obstacle (such as one of the numerous seaweed colonies, fixed fishing nets, or other marine-life-threatening gear positioned at strategic locations all around the bay) looms ahead, I have to scramble back to the wheel or the tiller of the outboard, but especially at four knots, that usually is doable without any undue rise in adrenalin level.

Ukishima is one of my favorite spots in that area, because it usually has amazingly clear water that is great for snorkeling. On an earlier visit, friends and I were delighted to see large schools of little fish often breaking the surface simultaneously like a shower of silvery darts. Other inhabitants of the waters around the island include nekozame (heterodontus japonicus; small, entirely harmless mottled brown sharks), moray eels, needlefish, puffer, butterfly fishes, and many kinds of wrasse.

What's more, there are a few cozy mini-inlets at Ukishima, and one of these even has two convenient mooring buoys of uncertain purpose. Japan being the pleasure-boat-unfriendly nation it is, these are most likely not put there for the benefit of boaters such as myself, but they seem solid and none of the fishermen in the area so far has remonstrated me when I used them.

Too late for a swim?

So late on a Friday afternoon, I threaded a line through the noose of one of these buoys, secured it to my bow cleat, threw a small anchor from the stern for good measure, and settled down to spend the night on the boat. The sky was overcast and I thought it was too late to go for a swim in the rapidly cooling waters of the Pacific (around 20 degrees centigrade at the end of October).

So I first munched on a pear and a rice ball and then prepared myself a dinner of instant noodles (instantly regretting not having brought the ingredients for at least a slightly more decent meal). Then I climbed onto Ui's roof (not a long climb) and watched as night fell and the lights on the coast came on, along with various blinking buoys and the illumination of the small, mostly fake Katsuyama castle on a hill across a stretch of water.

While making my way down from Kazusa earlier in the afternoon, I had from afar watched a seemingly endless procession of warships passing the Uraga Channel--their brownish gray forms enveloped in a vague sense of menace modified by a certain utilitarian charm. On the marine radio, I heard that it had been a convoy of no fewer than 45 SDF ships headed for Yokosuka naval base.

Because the spot where I was moored was sufficiently out of the way of any passing traffic, I didn't see the need to turn on the anchor light. Shortly after six, the sky was wholly dark, with clouds giving only an occasional glimpse of stars, but since this was not some uninhabited island thousands of miles out in the ocean, the area still had quite a bit of ambient light. However, the stern of the boat, pointing towards a rock face of the island, was where it was darkest, and that is where I first noticed them--

A thousand points of light

Tiny flickers of light in the black water! Initially I took them to be some kind of reflection, but they clearly came from slightly beneath the surface. Looking closer, I observed that any wave or slight eddy produced a glittering at various depths such as I had never seen before. And suddenly I understood--I had after all often enough read about the "phosphorous wake" of ships in tropical waters, or heard swimmers tell of a glow in the nightly sea.

This was luminous plankton! The correct name for the phenomenon is bioluminescence, and it has actually nothing to with phosphor. It is produced by many kinds of marine organisms when water turbulence (shear force) incites them to emit light by various chemical reactions. It occurs in seas around the world, by no means rare, but I had never been exposed to its wonder, much less able to reach out and touch it.

I ran my hand through the water, and it created a tiny milky way! Did it again, and again. The relative warmth of the water against the slightly chilly night air then convinced me that the only logical next step was full immersion. I had to go in. This I did, but not without first putting on a thin diving suit that I carry on the boat but had never used this year so far. My first idea was to go in naked, but in the end, I was glad of the suit, because putting a hand in warm-seeming water at night is one thing while diving in bodily is quite another.

Before I let go of the swimming ladder, I slid on my mask and even strapped a waterproof flashlight to my head, but I did not turn it on just yet. Swam a few strokes across the smooth dark water surface, and marveled at the glittery flashes that followed every one of my movements. When I lay still, the glowing flakes slowly grew dimmer and sank, until the water became ink black again.

Ever so often, there was a deep flash, a blink from some stray particle further below. When I tentatively turned on the flashlight, the planktonic light show instantly vanished, and in the clear water I could make out no sign of what had produced the glitter, except for some slithers of almost transparent flotsam. But in the beam of the flashlight I now could see down to the sea bed some three or four meters below which had its own fascination.

I went exploring for a bit around the rocky edges of the inlet, but felt not brave enough to really swim any great distance from the security of the boat bobbing on the surface. My flashlight disturbed a few fishes, and a baby cat shark swam away indignantly.

Reset the anchor?

I also saw that the casually thrown out anchor had not set very well on the bottom and would not be a great help in holding the boat. But frankly, my dear PandAs, I did not have the nerve to dive down and try to set it properly (something that is easily enough done during the day). What if this el cheapo flashlight, which is not really fit for diving, gives out, and I am left in utter darkness (forgetting about the plankton for a moment)? Nah, after all, the boat is secure enough on the mooring buoy and I do not need to risk life and limb, much less an encounter with the unspoken dread that lurks in the darkness, where up may become down, right become wrong, and now become never. Rather play a bit more at the surface, with the fireflies of the sea ...

When I finally climbed aboard Ui again, I was shivering for a variety of reasons, and I was properly glad to have brought along a small propane gas stove as well that warmed me while I was drying myself and putting on my clothes.

Later on, there was still plenty of time to read, occasionally check on the plankton, sip the single can of beer brought up from the ship's hold, and then rearrange the gear and unroll my sleeping bag in the cabin. I do like the motion of the boat and the very idea of sleeping on it (although seasickness is not unbeknown to me), but in fact, on the few occasions I have actually overnighted on Ui, I've never slept well.

Part of the reason for this is the chines, which I shall refrain here from calling the chines of midnight. Unlike a yacht with a smooth rounded hull, Ui like many motorboats has several flanges along its hull just above and below the waterline. These help to keep the vessel stable when planing, but when the boat is stationary, the water incessantly plays against these chines and produces an irregular slapping sound that can be a bit unnerving. Worse, this happens just a few centimeters from where I am trying to sleep on the bunk inside. Add to this a certain uncertainty about what is at any given moment happening to the universe in general and this tiny nutshell in particular, and you find me usually lying awake for very long even if I crept into the sleeping bag quite tired.

Still safely moored

By the next morning, a bit of a wind from the land side had sprung up, creating a slight chop, and the sun showed only occasionally, making the air far colder than I had hoped for. But Ui was still safely moored, and thanks to the diving suit I managed to spend another half hour or so in the water, now entirely devoid of visibly flashy plankton but nonetheless interesting.

I even discovered a kind of small underwater cave that had a nice assortment of corals growing on its walls. Back on the boat, I brewed myself a nice hot cup of coffee (using prepackaged filter contraptions from Doutor, forsaking the instant route at least for that particular part of the menu) and enjoyed the rest of a rich home-baked chocolate-coated cake. The bacon and eggs I had to forego, since Ui is used too rarely for this kind of thing to make it worthwhile to really stock its galley.

Under ever more graying skies, I first explored one more bay south of Ukishima, then threw the helm around and headed back for my Kazusa mooring spot, a leisurely three hours away. The little Yamaha on the stern did its duty flawlessly, except for hiccuping once, when I had neglected to refill the small tank from a bigger canister.

The timing of the return voyage was right, too. I approached the river mouth half an hour before high tide, glided under my customary three bridges in the precarious temporary deep water channel, and just as I grabbed the lines at the mooring spot, the first rain drops began to fall. Because some of Ui's cabin windows tend to leak if not protected by polytarp, I hurried to put the boat cover on, then tidied up the cabin a bit, and headed for the station to catch a train home.


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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