Beer-can Racing off Japan

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Close-reaching to glory off the coast of Japan

Close-reaching to glory off the coast of Japan

Every sailor, regardless of experience, feels some trepidation when meeting a new captain or crew for the first time. How well will their personalities fit? How do the others handle stressful situations? Will you live up to your own hype? These anxious thoughts were all racing through my mind as I approached my new captain. Then I found myself contemplating a somewhat unusual question: Do I bow or shake hands?

I was in Japan. The serendipitous story of how I got there is a tale for another time, but suffice it to say that my jitters were exacerbated by being about as far from Kansas (ahem, Toronto) as I could get—so I hedged my bets and both bowed and shook hands at the same time. While the captain didn’t look particularly impressed, I wasn’t immediately dismissed either. Accomplishing this one small task left me with only a mountain of additional uncertainty to climb.

Captain Makoto and his first mate, Ryo, get into the zone

Captain Makoto and his first mate, Ryo, get into the zone

Joining Captain Makoto, his first mate, Ryo, and crewmember, Suzuki-san, I had arrived at the venerable Aburatsubo Yacht Club, located just south of Tokyo along Japan’s Pacific coast, for its traditional end-of-season race against the nearby Enoshima Yacht Club. I was told that Aburatsubo is considered to be the country’s oldest sailing club, and the competition, Enoshima, has the pedigree of being associated with Japan’s Olympic sailing venue. This race, while casual, was an important one. I could feel the weight of expectation as the crew prepared our boat, Ranka, for the trials ahead.

My first reprieve came when I happily discovered that Japanese sailors use many of the same terms as we native English speakers. Ryo occasionally translated for me, but the fundamentals were already in place—including tack, gybe, port, starboard and hike.

Beyond that, while Makoto was stern and businesslike in the beginning, he quickly loosened up as we gained on the bigger boats and left a growing field of competitors in our wake. My own confidence also improved as he gave me an approving nod while I trimmed the jib in a shifting breeze. Next thing I knew, the joy of racing a fast boat in perfect weather had spread among us all, and I found myself laughing along with the others as a rogue wave gave us a salty rinse on the rail.

The race itself was a 20-mile windward-leeward that brought us into the jagged shadow of Enoshima island, tucked into the northeast corner of Sagami Bay. Gorgeous wooden temples peeked out from heavy jungle, so that at one point, I caught myself staring at my surroundings rather than paying attention to the headsail. Thankfully, Makoto didn’t notice.

The author (front row left) joins the celebration alongside some soon-to-be sashimi

The author (front row left) joins the celebration alongside some soon-to-be sashimi

Eventually, the 18-knot wind shifted east, and we were able to sail downwind on a broad reach, with Ranka flying over the light chop. During the final sprint to the finish, gusts over 20 knots were knocking many of our competitors off course. But expert main trim by Ryo kept Ranka on her feet the entire way, and we blew over the line with a cheer.

Cultural differences aside, the scene after the race would have been recognizable to anyone who has ever hauled sheets from Tahiti to Tenerife. Lines were coiled, winch handles were put away, sail covers went on—and the unmistakable sound of beer cans clunking in coolers began to make itself heard from every point of the compass.

A huge party followed, during which Makoto whooped joyously as Ranka was called out as the third-place finisher. Aburatsubo was also declared the winning club, but by that time, everyone seemed too suffused with good cheer and Asahi pilsners to really care. By now my anxiety had long since been replaced by an amicable inner glow, and I didn’t need to speak the language to enjoy the familiar rounds of tall tales being told. I felt welcome there, on the other side of the world, and I grinned like an idiot as I dug into a big plate of fresh tuna and raised my beer for yet another toast with my fellow sailors. 

Photos by Russ Rowlands

February 2018

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