Entering the Seto Inland Sea

Entering the Seto Inland Sea

We left Fukuoka after an eight day stay–the longest we’ve sat still in a couple of months. It didn’t feel like we were there too long, but we were ready to see new places.

After much debate, we headed for the Seto Inland Sea. We waffled between a detour into in the inland sea versus a more leisurely cruise north along Japan’s west coast. The clincher was the opportunity to visit the Suma Yacht Club, just outside of Kobe.

Suma Yacht Club has a long-standing relationship with Seattle Yacht Club, where Don, Sharry, and myself are members. Every three years, members of the two clubs compete in a friendly sailing competition. Don and Sharry visited Suma Yacht Club once before, in 2010, and they’ve often reflected on the warm reception they received. In 2016, more than 25 Suma Yacht Club members enjoyed Seattle Yacht Club opening day on Starr. We felt like while we are this close, we must visit. But more on that later.

Getting to Suma Yacht Club requires transiting most of the Seto Inland Sea, which stretches about 250nm from west to east. The Seto Inland Sea is bounded by the large islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. More than 3,000 smaller islands are scattered across its waters. The Inland Sea is an important commercial waterway, connecting major ports such as Osaka and Hiroshima. It also has a rich history and culture, with numerous traditional fishing villages and historic sites, including the famous Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located on Miyajima Island.

Entering the Seto Inland Sea from the west requires transiting Kanmon Kaikyo, also known as the Kanmon Strait, a narrow, winding waterway between the islands of Kyushu and Honshu. The strait experiences currents to 7 knots during peak periods. Starr can only make 10 knots, so we must time our transit to coincide with favorable conditions.

We spent the night before our transit at Ainoshima, a small island about 20nm from Marinoa Marina (our marina in Fukuoka) and very near the western entrance to Kanmon Kaikyo. The island is known for its population of cats, which outnumber humans by a significant margin. In fact, Ainoshima is sometimes called “Cat Island” due to the hundreds of cats that roam freely on its streets and alleyways. The cats were originally brought to the island to control the mouse population on fishing boats, but they eventually became a fixture of the local community.

We tied up at a small fishing port. The only suitable wall had a mountain of fishing gear on it, and we worried we’d be chased away. Instead we received a warm welcome.

It was a rainy, blustery day, but knowing that we’d only be here for a night, I walked around the island to see what it was like. I found a tunnel, a school, and a closed down store.

Through the tunnel there was another small fishing harbor and a marine railway. Not big enough for Starr, but plenty big for the local boats.

The willingness of the Japanese to modify their landscape continues to impress me. Just look at all this concrete work:

On my way back to Starr, a small van pulled alongside. The man behind the wheel asked if I was from the yacht (what gave it away!?!?). I said yes. He asked what we were doing here. I explained where we came from and that we are sightseeing around Japan for three months. He seemed very happy that we were visiting his country and his village, and asked me to follow him to the harbor to show me his fishing boat. Then he invited me to his home, across the street.

Inside, he explained that he is a ship engineer. Pictures of the vessels he’s worked on lined the wall.

He asked if we had any problems and volunteered to help if we needed anything. We chatted for about 30 minutes through hand gestures and Google Translate. My Japanese is non-existent; his English was poor. Then I needed to return to Starr for dinner. Before leaving, he insisted on giving me a bottle of wine and a bottle of sake. My protests went unheard. I left with the gifts.

The next morning, I walked to his home to leave a small box of Hawaiian chocolates and a boat card.

An hour later, Don and Sharry were walking through town. A woman came running from the house with a bag. She showed them the chocolates and presented us with more gifts…bento boxes and rice balls, still steaming. We continue to be in awe of the warm reception we receive throughout Japan. Thank you!

From Ainoshima, we transited Kanmon Kaikyo into the inland sea.

Because Kanmon Kaikyo is the only way in or out of the Seto Inland Sea on the west coast, it experiences heavy traffic. Cargo ships, tankers, fishing boats, and other vessels constantly pass through the strait. Kanmon Martis VTS (Vessel Traffic Service), operated by the Coast Guard, provides monitoring and management of vessel traffic in the Kanmon Kaikyo. One of the key features of the Kanmon Martis VTS is its ability to provide real-time information to ships in the area. Large illuminated signs located throughout the passage indicate the velocity, direction, and trend of the current. Regular text messages via AIS update vessels on tidal and meteorologic conditions. Although we’re used to strong currents and narrow passages from cruising in the Pacific Northwest, we’re not used to receiving so much information from VTS or navigating with such heavy traffic.

Starr is small enough to avoid VTS scrutiny. We skirted along the edges of the lanes, staying out of the way. Our transit was near slack current. We had some large ship traffic and a few small fishing boats to navigate around. The passage required care and constant attention, but thankfully didn’t include any drama. I didn’t take as many pictures as I should have.

We spent the whole afternoon underway. It was a rainy, dreary day, reminiscent of cruising Alaska, but with much more traffic afloat and industry ashore. We arrived at a fishing port on Himeshima just before dark in pouring rain. I took no pictures.

The next morning Don and I were up early. We looked at the charts, our possible destinations, the currents. We realized if we left now, the currents to Miyajima would be favorable. Five minutes later, we were underway for the 75nm passage. I took few pictures.

As we approached Miyajima, we navigated a narrow passage filled with oyster farms. The first of the pictures below shows what they looked like with the naked eye; the second shows them on the radar screen. These oyster farms are not indicated on the C-Map charts that we use in Coastal Explorer, but you sure wouldn’t want to run over one!

Next: Four days on Miyajima

  • Peter Powell
    Posted at 02:33h, 22 April Reply

    So fascinating! Well done

  • Luuk Oleson
    Posted at 05:40h, 22 April Reply

    Great to read about the welcome you receive everywhere. Did you adopt a cat on “cat island”?

  • Andrew E Howard
    Posted at 06:19h, 22 April Reply

    Great commentary Sam. Sounds like you guys are continuing to explore and have fun. Continued safe travels my friends.
    Andy and Debbie

  • Chris Clothier
    Posted at 06:59h, 22 April Reply

    great story and a continuing great adventure! Looking forward to hear about Suma YC and photos

  • Julie
    Posted at 13:42h, 22 April Reply

    Amazing journey! Love hearing about your adventures!

  • Mary Ann Underwood
    Posted at 21:12h, 22 April Reply

    Wonderful trip! I hope you will be picking up a Suma YC flag on your visit there and that you have a extra SYC flag with your boat autograph to give to them.

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