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Boats

A Daring Rescue of a Tsunami-Swept Yacht

Photos courtesy of Takayuki Nozawa

Golden Bay was first spotted from the air, trailing mooring lines.

Profile In Courage

When the tsunami hit northeast Japan in 2011, a Bertram 57 was washed out to sea. Her owner rescued her.

Takayuki Nozawa. When I met him for the first time at this year’s Miami Boat Show, I was already somewhat familiar with how he’d saved his beloved Bertram 57 Golden Bay from oblivion after the 2011 tsunami in Japan. I’d seen video footage of his jump from the helicopter. And we’d talked on the phone, him in the office of his Yasuda Shipyard in Tokyo, me in my office in the Florida Panhandle. None of this, however, had prepared me for the man’s seeming normality in person. Indeed, as we settled down for a long interview on the bridge of one of the brand-new Bertrams at the show, he seemed like just another middle-aged Japanese businessman, casually dressed in white jeans, an open-necked shirt, a white pullover sweater, and leather deck shoes. A reserved manner only bolstered the illusion. 

Takayuki Nozawa stands at the helm of his Bertram 57Nozawa’s story begins on the fateful afternoon of March 11, 2011, the day the most serious earthquake ever to hit Japan launched a devastating tsunami against her northeast coast. He felt the quake at his shipyard at about three o’clock in the afternoon. The shaking, he said, was incredible.

Mayhem followed. It was soon reported that Sendai Airport to the north was awash in a tsunami-driven slurry of cars, buses, and trucks, its runways drowned in thick layers of mud. Vast refinery fires began burning on the outskirts of the city. And word came that much of Fukushima Prefecture (the third largest state in Japan) was a veritable wasteland. Thousands of people were missing and thousands more were either known or presumed dead.

Nozawa worked the phones. Eventually, he determined that family and friends were safe. Then he turned to another matter—the eight-year-old Golden Bay, which he kept at Iwaki Sun Marina on the eastern edge of Fukushima Prefecture, not far from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear powerplant. “I am the number-one man in Japan who love his boat—she is like my family,” he explained, before adding that he slept fitfully that night, wondering about her.

Saturday dawned grimly. An explosion wracked Fukushima Dai-ichi. Moreover, the cooling systems there were reportedly failing, a development experts feared might soon cause a Chernobyl-like catastrophe. As the day wore on, the death toll from the tsunami continued to rise (along with radiation levels in and around the plant), the prime minister mobilized Japan’s military, and Nozawa was told that Iwaki Sun Marina had been totally destroyed, with docks, boats, and everything else washed out to sea. For reasons he at first did not fully understand, however, he began making calculations based on wind direction and speed. And he also began looking for a helicopter as well as an intrepid, fly-into-the-heart-of-darkness-and-be-damned pilot. Roads to Iwaki were impassable, bad weather prevented safe sea travel, and only rescue workers and soldiers were venturing anywhere near Fukushima Dai-ichi.

Nozawa persisted. And the following morning—Sunday—he departed Tokyo Heliport in a Robinson R44 Raven with the rear doors removed, having convinced a pilot to fly him north across Fukushima Prefecture to open water. In spite of the profound and well-reported devastation along the coast, he had a feeling that Golden Bay was floating somewhere north of his old marina, safe if not altogether sound. Around the time the R44 lifted off, Japan’s nuclear agency was announcing that one of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi had failed and 170,000 people were being evacuated.

“I get bad feeling when fly over many turned-over boats and ships in long current rip,” he noted, while describing the trip north, “but I keep on by thinking about direction of wind and wind speed.”

Click here to see a video of the yacht being rescuedNozawa’s calculations were spot-on. Within an hour’s time, he and the pilot saw what they were looking for—an aluminum tuna tower glinting in the sun. After grinning at each other euphorically, they approached and then circled Golden Bay, seeing little more in terms of damage than torn mooring lines trailing from her hawse cleats, a gouge in her port-side gunwale, and a broken bow pulpit. “I say go down—I am going to jump and swim,” Nozawa said, “but a National Defense ship is looking for survivor and victim there and I decide don’t interfere. Besides fuel low. We go back Tokyo.”

On Monday they returned, soon discovering that powerful southerlies had pushed Golden Bay north, seven miles beyond where they’d left her the day before. She now drifted upon an apocalyptically empty, debris-strewn sea, only a few miles east of the breakwaters at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Nozawa sat in the back of the chopper, looking down. He wore a wetsuit (seawater temperatures were reportedly hovering at 44°F at the time), an inflatable life vest, and fins. As the pilot descended to an elevation of 50 feet or thereabouts, the rotor wash flattened the rollers below. Nozawa tucked his glasses inside the wetsuit, motioned the pilot toward a patch of open water, donned a mask and snorkel, and, after ritualistically striking his chest with his left fist a couple of times, jumped.

“The cold so bad I think I die,” he said with a grin, “so I swim fast.”

Destruction at Iwaki Sun Marina.A martial arts aficionado and in seemingly superb physical condition for his age, 48-year-old Nozawa removed one fin immediately upon arrival at his boat’s transom, shoved his bare foot into an exhaust port, and lunged up, over the covering board, and into the cockpit. Without pausing, he then pulled the mooring lines in and dove into the engine room where he made a quick assessment, checked all vital fluids, and fired up the boat’s genset and her C30 Caterpillar diesels. Everything worked.

As the chopper continued to hover, but with the pilot now signaling a critical fuel level, Nozawa made a cursory inspection of his boat’s interior and then headed for the flying bridge. Once there, he pushed both engine control levers forward, felt the old familiar engagement, and then applied throttle, immediately feeling a wicked, thumping vibration, evidence of serious drive-train or running-gear issues. He backed off enough to minimize the thumping and began heading south toward Iwaki Sun at seven knots. The chopper peeled off southbound. It was late afternoon. Golden Bay and Nozawa were, in the starkest sense of the word, alone.

The trip to Iwaki took three long hours, the last two suffused in darkness. Periodically, chunks of debris would slam the boat’s stem, evoking a startle response from Nozawa that was sharpened by the presence of a dying nuclear powerplant just over his right shoulder. About halfway, he noticed a growing heaviness in the bow, an observation that immediately sent him below decks to the forward stateroom where he found freezing sea water sloshing under a hatch. He hit the engine room next, seeing water sloshing there as well. Wading forward toward the firewall, he found the valves for his boat’s engine-driven emergency bilge pumps, rotated them, and soon noted with relief that he’d stanched the incoming flow. He then returned to the bridge and, despite worsening steering problems, kept going.

“Hell,” said Nozawa. “That is what it looks [like] when I get to marina.”

Buildings were gutted or gone. Docks had simply evaporated, along with the powerboats and sailboats that had been secured to them. Only mountain ranges of wreckage remained in the eerie moonlight ashore. Using radar, Nozawa entered Iwaki as if at the helm of an icebreaker, pushing through scrims of junk, finally finding an open spot along the remains of a concrete bulkhead. He tied up. An old friend from nearby, having heard about Nozawa’s plans to save his boat, soon came to help, bringing a gas-fired dewatering pump and diving apparatus. Using underwater-ready epoxy, the two men temporarily sealed a lengthy gash in the hull. Then Nozawa slept, but just a little.

“Next day good,” said Nozawa. He and Golden Bay began making the long, slow journey to her new home—Yasuda Shipyard in Tokyo. When she finally arrived, complete repairs were effected, including new glasswork below the waterline and the replacement of props, a rudder, some of the portside gunwale, and the bow pulpit. Today, photographs show a 2003 Bertram 57 in like-new condition. Gold-leaf filigree even graces her transom now, as befits a ransomed queen.

“Was it martial arts that helped you do all this,” I asked Nozawa by way of concluding our talk.

“No,” he replied calmly, “it is only, what you say? ... Courage!” 

Bertram

Nozawa and the author talk at the boat show in Miami Beach.

Golden Bay, at left, with damage below the waterline fully repaired. 

The filigree that was added to her transom.

Nozawa says Golden Bay is like a member of his family. 

The boat has been restored carefully to like-new condition.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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