TOKASHIKI ISLAND, Japan (April 6, 2009) -- Scarlette's rainsoaked crew weathered 10-foot waves -- while the Japanese Coast Guard searched for the beleaguered father and son crew with two ships and two airplanes -- during a return trip to Okinawa that lasted nearly 11 hours.
The return trip included a host of problems that included:
-- a break in Scarlette's rig after heavy winds ripped out the traveler from the port side of the cockpit;
-- running out of gas twice;
-- dead running lights;
-- GPS battery failure;
-- Cellphone battery failure;
-- an out-of-reach VHF radio;
-- breaching humpback whales.
"We definitely were happy to dock Scarlette," said a worn-out Cap'n J after the mammoth journey. "For most of the day we had severly light winds as we shoved off from the dock at Tokashiki Island at 11 a.m. and attempted to sail to our homeport at Kadena Marina."
Around 3 p.m., former "Mental Floss" owner and fellow sailor Delaine Rivenbank, called Cap'n J with a weather warning. "You better put a reef in the sail Adam and break out your storm sail," said Rivenbank. "There's a storm headed your way. Where you at?"
As the winds started to pick up, Cap'n J was glad to finally get some wind in Scarlette's sails, but could see the dark clouds looming on the northern horizon.
Storm coming, Cap'n J failed to head Rivenbank's warning.
At 3:50 p.m. Rivenbank called to check on Scarlette's progress as she was approaching Chi Bishi -- a small reef area about half way to the Keramas from Okinawa -- that lays home to a shipwreck and at times strong currents.
Nine minutes after that call, the skies opened up and rain started dropping in buckets.
Then came the 20 knot winds and 10-foot waves.
As Scarlette's skipper wrestled with the ship, the sails went crazy, and he lost control of Scarlette during one of several 180 degree wind whips. "My main concern was to stay off the reef at Chi Bishi," said Cap'n J.
First thing Cap'n J did was drop the sails while steering the boat with his foot.
"I dropped the main sail and sheeted it down, but the wind was strong. As I moved forward Scarlette was healing pretty steep but I had to get the jib sail (front sail) down so I could regain control of the ship," he said. "I was tethered to the ship -- like Kai -- so I wasn't that afraid of getting knocked off. Paying for the extra safety feature was great for piece of mind," he said.
"I could remember telling myself, 'stay calm, you're the one that's going to get us out of this -- you and only you," he said. "After I got the jib sail down, I told Kai to hand me the sail ties so I could tie down the sails," said Cap'n J.
Despite being sick and already throwing up, Kai was able to muster the strength and hand the sail ties up to the skipper like an expert crewman. "Kai was pretty brave for a 7-year-old," said Cap'n J.
As Cap'n J regained control of the ship, he pointed the bow north toward the wind and started riding over the waves.
"No, not yet," said Cap'n J. "The worst part is almost over," he said trying to reassure his scared shipmate.
For nearly an hour, Cap'n J battled the waves and current as he kept drifting toward the reef.
"Finally I started "winning" and we were pulling away from the reef, then the traveler pulled out and the boom swung out all the way to the end not in the main sheet," said Cap'n J. "I looked up at the boom and the first thing on my mind was to get that pulled back in before it became a deadly catapult," he said.
Trying to jury rig the traveler as he pulled in the boom, Cap'n J couldn't fix it. With the rig broke, Scarlette started to redrift back toward the reef. "At this point I was a little scared," said Cap'n J. "But I didn't want to show how scared I was to Kai because he was depending on me and I thought if I sound panicky he's going to tell and really get scared."
Several times, Kai yelled "Daddy, are you out there?" after hearing water splash, the bow smack the backside of the wave as he climbed over or the engine scream. "I knew Kai was terrified and I didn't want to make it worse so I kept telling him, "We're almost through it, Kai."
"Frankly, I didn't know how long it was going to last," said Cap'n J. "But he's my kid and I remember telling him, "Don't worry. Stay calm and don't panic. Daddy won't let anything happen to you."
After nearly two hours, Scarlette finally got through the storm. As the seas calmed to about six to eight foot, we ran out of gas.
"Uggh!" said Cap'n J. "You've got to be $#!$ kidding me!" As he sat on his knees in the cockpit of Scarlette he started thinking. "Now what are you going to do." Last summer, Cap'n J had bought a new engine but the gas tanks didn't match and the hoses couldn't be interchanged.
Reaching into the portside laserette, Cap'n J pulled out the spare gas tank and the active tank and poured half of the spare into the active. "Gas was everywhere," he said. "I totally doused myself. The cockpit got really slick but I was able to get both tanks stored and crank up the engine after several pulls between swells."
Chugging toward Okinawa at a slow speed of about 3 mph dusk was approaching. "Right around dusk, I was looking to see if I could see land when I noticed the wake from a black object. At first I though it was a huge speed boat headed our way," said Cap'n J. "Then I saw the flippers follow through."
I said to myself, "you're shitting me."
Humpback whales on their way from the Antartic travel near Okinawa on their annual migratory path. Tokashiki even hosts tours that get close to the whales. Here's the link: http://www.vill.tokashiki.okinawa.jp/en/photo_g/gy_1/gy_1_004.htm
I wasn't on a whale tour and Scarlette was apparently near this migratory path. "I was both amazed at the beauty of the whales breeching about 150 yards of the portside-bow and called up Kai to get a glimpse," said Cap'n J. "But while I watched the huge humpback whale breech, I was also thinking, I hope one of them $%$!#% don't jump out of the water and land on us."
Scanning the now darkening horizon, I kept looking to see if any whales were closer to us. I didn't. I was hoping these whales had heard enough boat engines to recognize us. We were headed right toward these whales and I didn't know which way I should turn.
About 20 minutes later, I saw one whale breech about 60 yards behind us and hoped that we had made it through and the whales were behind us.
About 30 minutes later, the GPS battery went dead.
Without land in sight, Cap'n J yelled down to an unresponsive Kai. "I pulled on his tether several times, I knew he was sick but now he was not answering me, I really started to get worried about him."
Then he woke up.
He was asleep.
I asked him to hand me the cell phone so I could call Tomoe. As he placed the cell phone on the deck, Scarlette healed and the phone went sliding across the deck toward the starboard rail. "I quickly grabbed the phone as he almost went over the side," said Cap'n J. "Whew! That was close. As I flipped the phone open, the screen was black meaning it either got wet or the battery was dead."
Later I found out that the battery had died.
I asked Kai to flip on the running lights as it was now dark and the lights failed to come on. "Flip every switch," I said thinking seasick Kai had flipped the wrong switch. "Flip it again," I said. No lights.
Without running lights, larger ships would be unable to see us. "So, I told Kai to hand me up a large flashlight I would use as an emergency signalling device," said Cap'n J.
I tied the light to the mast in case it slipped out of my hand. With the tiller (steering wheel) in one hand and the flashlight in the other I pointed Scarlette toward the lights I could now see on the horizon.
The waves were still pretty big and every five minutes or so, I get a bigger swell, but I kept the ship pointed toward the lights and was looking for the two huge towers of the Okinawa Electric Company.
Finding them, I kept them in sight.
Then the engine died, again.
"Daddy, are you out there?" said Kai. "Yes, I said shining the flashlight into the mirror inside the cabin where he could see my face by looking back in the mirror."
To cut down on the fuel spillage this time, I took an empty water bottle and had Kai hand me a knife to cut the bottom off so I could use it as a temporary funnel. "That cut the gas spill down, big time. I didn't get soaked with gas this time."
After pulling on the engine for 10 minutes, it wouldn't start.
I cussed, I spit and was about to call for help. When I gave it one more try, it fired up. Worried about running out of fuel again, I kept us going at a slow pace toward the lights and Ginowan Marina.
"Are we almost there?" asked Kai. "Yep, almost there." I lied. "I had no clue how long it was going to take and if we were going to make it to the alternate marina."
After another hour and a half, I spotted the buoys for Ginowan Marina my alternate weather port. "I was scared another ship might hit us, I'd run into one of the unlighted buoys or we'd run aground on a shallow reef near the marina," said Cap'n J. "I had never entered this marina -- day or night -- and fortunately we just got lucky...no reef, no ships and no buoys."
It was 10 p.m.
After getting Scarlette docked, I woke Kai up nearly slipped on his vomit on the floor of Scarlette. With my life jacket and harness still on we found our way out of the marina, crossed the street toward a grocery store to find a pay phone to call Tomoe.
No pay phone could be found. "Nowdays almost everyone has a cell phone in Japan, so they've been quietly getting rid of all the public pay phones, because people just don't use them anymore," he said.
We talked to a store clerk and she told us there might be a pay phone at a convenience store around the corner. We quickly walked there, found a phone and called Tomoe.
"After nearly screaming, Tomoe broke down crying out of happiness to know we were OK. "The coast guard has been looking for you guys."
"What?" I said.
"I'll be home in about 20 minutes," I said. "We grabbed a taxi and when we stepped out in front of our house, Tomoe again broke down in tears."
I wasn't real proud of that moment for putting her through that. But I never intended to do that and I was damn glad to see her again.
While riding back in the taxi, Tomoe had called Delaine who had had his sons searching the horizon with a telescope at Kadena Marina for our ship lights and the Japanese Coast Guard to tell them that we had called and that we were safe.
The Japanese Coast Guard called off it's search. But asked us to stop by their office at 9 a.m. sharp the following morning to file our report.
"This was one of the most thrilling adventures, I'd ever been on," said Cap'n J. With a smile, Tomoe asked me, "So, when are you going to sell that boat?"