Ghost Ship

Stiv Wilson finds a lost skiff 1,500 miles off the coast of Japan

Stiv Wilson

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DCIM\100MEDIA The wrecked skiff below the water
The lost Japanese skiff The lost Japanese skiff

29°11.9 North
170°35.2 East

“It’s a whale” yells Tracey from above deck. I’m eating hummus below in the salon with Dani, after forgoing Kelvin’s lunch of fried Kim Chi with rice and seaweed. Wildlife sightings are like breaking news aboard Sea Dragon, sometimes the only demarcation from one day to the next. Dani and I both grabbed our cameras and went on deck. Tracey was peering far off in the distance, tracking some object with binoculars. The day before we had had a Sperm Whale breach within a 100 meters of the ship to the bow and we hoped our luck would give us something similar. But there was no breaching and no blowhole spouting from the object in the distance. “Is its fin just sticking out of the water? What is that? It’s white … is it a white whale?” says someone on deck. I move to the bowsprit, start snapping photos. There is no color in this day—a gray sky meets a gray ocean at the horizon, it’s as if we’re traveling through a monotone void.  

As we come up onto the object, we realize it’s not a whale. “It’s a boat!” I yell. Indeed it is—the front third of a small skiff, bobbing vertically, bow out of the water. The action is so gentle—the sea state is calm and the wind nearly nothing. On either side of her are written Japanese characters, and it becomes instantly clear what we’ve found.

Here, 1,500 miles east of Japan, we’ve found a boat presumably ripped from its mooring when the wave hit. Every day now, we’re spotting something—a spare tire from a light truck, a piece of traditional Japanese flooring, and several other objects that may or may not be from the March 2011 tsunami. But this is the biggest find so far. The dimensions of the ship however are not large—my guess is that it was about 16 feet when intact, and it looks like a Japanese version of the common Central American runabout fishing boat, the Panga.

We dive on her to survey what we can’t see beneath. In the water, there is little growth on the boat—just a few barnacles, maybe five or so. Tucked in the inside are probably 50 or 60 fish; Triggers, Rainbow Runners and some species that look clearly out of place—tropical coral dwelling fish. As we approach, they scatter, then return. What’s now a wreck of a boat has become a floating reef system for this crowd. The back two-thirds of the skiff are gone and the edges are jagged, which denotes some past violent action tearing the boat apart. “I wonder if the rest of this boat is sunk, with an engine still attached,” says Marcus. We go on to think about how many objects are anchored by some heavy thing, that when rotted, will bob to the surface.

A small frayed line remains from a wooden beam in the front of the boat, which was presumably a painter line that had been torn from it’s mooring when the wall of water engulfed her. As we survey, it’s like a game of forensics. But first, there is feeling of gravity as Marcus and I look at each other—this was some fisherman’s boat, a vessel that was taken to sea by some man or woman, used as a runabout and here now, lost, derelict. The feeling in the water is eerie, haunting. What brings solace is that the mooring line clearly looks ripped, which makes us deduce that most likely this boat was tied to a dock at the time of the wave; most likely no life was lost on her when the tsunami struck—at least that’s our hope. It’s a loss for sure, but not of the kind that can’t be replaced.

As Marcus and I tread water and our perspective becomes even more diminutive, we look at Sea Dragon about a quarter kilometer away. We consider the depths below us, some 5,000 meters, and the distance to land. Nothing makes one more aware of his powerlessness like swimming in the middle of the ocean, unattached from home and lifeline—our ship. That sense of smallness—a continuing meme that affects my thought process at sea—makes me wonder what we’re missing as we sail through the night. What objects and what stories from this tragedy pass by us, silently, unobserved and forgotten? And what piece of flotsam is just past our vantage as we watch the horizon from starboard and port?

We understand so little about this ocean, even with all our human ingenuity. A few days ago a boat washed up on the shore of my home state, Oregon, 2,500 nautical miles from where I am now. Why does one boat go so far? And why does another hardly drift? Well, that’s the hidden industry of the mighty ocean, a secret not for me to know.

Now, after some considerable effort, the remains of the skiff reside on the bow of Sea Dragon as we sail east. We hope that her name, depicted in these pictures, will get to its owner, and we hope that when we hear from them that we learn they are safe, dry, and alive. Our hearts are always with you on this voyage, Japan.