A good thing about kayaking

June 14, 2006

I've always been interested in the sea. Since I was a little kid I used to love going to watch the sea especially on stormy days and we often saw such days on holiday at my uncles cottage near Crinan in the North West of Scotland.

Fast forward 20 years and I am 33 living and working in London. I was sent down to the Eden Project in Cornwall for the weekend as we were doing some design work for them. I am reading a series of sailing books starting with the novel The Lodestar by Peter Nichols. I enjoyed that so much I then read two of his non fiction books: Sea Change (about his crossing of the Atlantic) and A Voyage for Madmen (about the 1968 Golden Globe yacht race). Lastly I was on Sailing Alone Around the World by Captain Joshua Slocum on Peter Nichols’ recommendation.

So when I stayed on a very stormy November night in a hotel by the sea I feel like it is fate. I walk down to the sea and watch in awe as the huge waves break over the pier and the moored boats even behind the concrete breakwater bobble around like little corks. It is scary but also intoxicating. I watch the sea further out from shore the waves might be 6 feet or 20 feet I can’t tell but the sea is awash with white foam from the wave caps and the wind is howling around me. I imagine what it must be like to be alone at sea in weather like this – and much worse.

When I got back to London I decided I should start sailing again (I had done some dingy sailing as a schoolboy) and approached a number of yacht clubs near me. I was put off by the lack of welcome and the general tone to my questions. Yachting seems to attract snobby types who like to point out your inexperience.

By this time I was applying through the JET program for a job here in Japan. Three months later I found out I was accepted. I resolved that I should learn to sail in Japan and was delighted that my request for a seaside location was granted in spectacular style – Matsushima is known as one of the most beautiful seascapes in Japan.

When we arrived here I was a bit disappointed. Firstly that the sea is so unloved – the Japanese have either industrialised their coastline or covered it in concrete and the bits that aren’t hard tend to be covered in rubbish and industrial flotsam. But also that the sea is quite inaccessible – it is not used much for leisure.

The sheltered bay is very shallow many areas less than 1m deep, has a lot of marine traffic and is heavily farmed all of challenges its use as a viable sailing area.

So I moved on to motorboating. But was quickly demoralized that you need a license to power a boat with an outboard motor in Japan. And the process seemed very complicated – a lot of shaking of heads when we asked about me getting a license. While some Americans may not find this odd, wher I am from you don't need a license for pleasure boats. I have heard it said that Japan is one of the most regulated countries in the world and I find this easy to believe.
In the end perseverance worked and I found out through the expatriate community how to take the test, did and passed. I now had a license but what about a boat?

Buying one was expensive but we could get some of the outlay back when we sold it one again. The thing that put us off buying was the issue of mooring. Moorings are controlled by the local fishing organizations that, we were told, are not keen on ‘outsiders’ with pleasure boats mooring in their harbours. Even if we were allowed it would cost 500pounds a year. The nearest pleasure boat marina is a 30 minute drive away and cost twice that. We could have moored in our river, many boats do, but this would have been illegal and didn’t give me a good feeling – I am very conspicuous as the only westerner in my town.

We decided on a rental club but after a year as members we have only taken the boat out 10-15 days. This is for two reasons firstly it is very expensive about 150pounds a day; secondly going out requires a lot of forward planning, sometimes you just want to jump in the boat and go but you have to book in advance to get a boat (this also doesn’t work well with the weather).

What I want is to not ask permission like a little kid with his “cap in hand”. I want some freedom – to not have to ask anyone and to go where I like (obviously within reason and getting permission from my wife).
And that is what’s great about a kayak – you can put it on your shoulder (ok car) and off you go. So far I am loving this aspect of the sport. Also that you can drive to different place sto launch from is a great thing and I llok foward to exploring more of Japan.

Footnote:
I read that in some places in the US you have to pay a launch fee for a Kayak. I find this ridiculous and counter to any sense of communal ownership of the sea, lakes and rivers.

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