Dr. Kirk Patterson is making sailing history. The former Dean of Temple University Japan Campus is aiming to become the first foreigner to circumnavigate Japan, alone in his 40-foot custom steel cutter, Silk Purse. After two decades in Japan, this citizen of Canada learned to sail, and in 2013 he started his voyage around the archipelago, from Hakodate in Hokkaido. As he pursues his journey in stages, Patterson is also considering the conundrum of why Japan never became a truly maritime nation, which he plans to discuss in a future book.
After unexpected delays in having his vessel stripped and repainted on Kurahashi Island in the Inland Sea, Patterson has embarked on what he hopes is the final leg of the journey. His plan is to sail up the Pacific coast and reach Hakodate by early July. Typhoons can have a critical impact on the schedule, forcing him to find a safe harbor and sit tight for up to a week.
Patterson is not expecting much fanfare when he completes his historic trip. “The friendly Hakodate yacht club may help me celebrate the circumnavigation. Asahi Shimbun wrote about my plan two years ago, and they may do a follow up article. In Canada, my sailing club might recognize my accomplishment when I’m back there next winter”.
As he wends his way around Japan, Patterson’s book is taking shape. “I’ve had interesting conversations with sailors and fishermen and visited many museums, archives, and sites related to Japan’s maritime history. My basic hypothesis that Japan, despite being an island nation, is not a maritime culture, has been strengthened, but the reasons are much more complex and nuanced than I thought”.
Besides this academic work, Patterson is keen to promote Japan as a cruising destination for yachties, and he aims to document the facilities available to sailors in a separate guidebook. “Japan is a fantastic cruising destination. I’d rank it as one of the best in the world. But it’s not the typical cruising spot — boats at anchor off unspoiled white beaches, sunset parties with other yachts, off the beaten track explorations. Except for the Ryukyu Islands, Japan’s coastline is heavily developed and so there’s virtually no anchoring.” But Patterson cites the good food available in ports, the hot spring baths, the friendly Japanese yachting community, the growing network of “Sea Stations” with basic facilities for yachts, and the generally honest and very high-quality boat maintenance services. A major advantage of sailing in Japanese waters is the absence of piracy which blights many other destinations today. Patterson rates the Seto Inland Sea particularly highly as a cruising destination, both for its services and scenery, as well as its relative freedom from typhoons.
But cruising in Japan is not without its challenges. “Since 1635, all ports have been closed to foreign vessels unless they’re explicitly open. At that time, the only open port was Dejima in Nagasaki. That principle, which is uniquely Japanese, is still in effect today, with the Customs Office having the authority to determine what ports are open to foreign vessels”. So foreign yachters need to get advance permission to enter all closed ports that they might want or need to visit. This poses a challenge to anyone without advanced Japanese skills, which is exacerbated by the fact that the authorities themselves are not fully conversant with the rules. “My suggestion is to simply give each foreign yacht an annual, renewable cruising passport that automatically gives them permission to enter closed ports.”
Other challenges which foreign cruisers must deal with include being unable to get foreign propane tanks filled and to use foreign cell phones or get Internet access. There is also a difficulty with disposing of rubbish, since each port town has its own rules. But, says Patterson, “Bottom line, these challenges are relatively minor compared to the many wonderful sights and experiences awaiting foreign cruisers in Japan”.
When he completes his circumnavigation, Patterson aims to make the island of Suo Oshima in the Inland Sea his future berth.