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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Defiant Japanese boat captain rode out tsunami

Something I stress in all of the classes I teach is that the very worst thing you could possibly be in our line of work is a "famous captain". Because fame, in the maritime industry, nearly always means you screwed up really, really spectacularly. Think about "Captain Joseph Hazelwood", and then think about how many other boat and ship drivers you can name who you don't know personally. A boring and unrenowned career is a successful career. If they name something after you, it's generally because you hit it.

But hopefully the name of Captain Susumu Sugawara will be known far and wide, for what he did was truly heroic.

Something else I stress in my classes is that the very best place to be in a tsunami is in a boat. This is true, if the boat happens to be far out to sea. There, the largest tsunamis are only a few inches tall and miles from crest to crest; you'll never notice them. However, being in a major tsunami in a boat in protected (even very protected, occasionally) waters is a whole other matter.

I cannot even imagine confronting a 70' high wave in a 42 year old 25 ton boat inside Puget Sound, which is basically the scenario. In open ocean a 70' wave is terrifying, but usually the period of the waves from crest to crest is lengthened to the point that the 70' seas are huge but not terribly steep. But inside the breaker line the shoals push all of that energy vertically, and a 70' wave is a nearly vertical wall of water. Moving across the ocean at the speed of a commercial jet airliner.

So Sugawara made the decision to approach it like any other cresting big wave, realizing that once the steepness and speed were simply ignored he would simply start climbing it and then just keep climbing it until he got over the top. Had the tsunami barreled ("tubed", to a surfer) before it reached him this would have destroyed his boat, but Sugawara managed to get out far enough past the barrier shoals to avoid this.

Many thousand kudos to Captain Sugawara and the mighty m/v Sunflower.


Oshima, Japan (CNN) -- Susumu Sugawara looks bemused and a little embarrassed at all the attention he's getting.

The 64 year old has become a local hero on the Japanese island of Oshima. Smashed boats adorn the coastline of this once-idyllic tourist spot, but Sugawara's pride and joy, "Sunflower" is intact and working overtime transporting people and aid to and from the island. It can hold around 20 people at a time.

When the tsunami came, everyone ran to the hills. But Sugawara ran to his boat and steered it into deeper waters. "I knew if I didn't save my boat, my island would be isolated and in trouble," he tells CNN.

As he passed his other boats, used for fishing abalone, he said goodbye to them, apologizing that he could not save them all.

Then the first wave came. Sugawara says he is used to seeing waves up to 5 meters high but this was four-times that size.

"My feeling at this moment is indescribable," he says with glistening eyes. "I talked to my boat and said you've been with me 42 years. If we live or die, then we'll be together, then I pushed on full throttle."

"Here was my boat and here was the wave," he says, holding one hand low and the other stretched high above his head. "I climbed the wave like a mountain. When I thought I had got to the top, the wave got even bigger."

Sugawara's arms flail wildly as he describes the top of the wave crashing down repeatedly onto his boat. "I closed my eyes and felt dizzy. When I opened them, I could see the horizon again, so I knew I'd made it."

Then the next wave came. Sugawara can't remember if there were four or five waves, but he says he did not feel afraid, he was just focused on steering his boat.

Here's the full article, with video. Wow.