Lost in Translation

Luca Pozzi
Stile Libero
Published in
9 min readMar 8, 2021

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It’s the dead of the night, August 28th 2019. My dad is at the wheel of a boxy van (with drive on the right) climbing in the pitch black on a mountain road at the Northmost tip of the Island of Honshu in Japan. The other passengers are my Mum, my Wife Kris, and I. On the way we have to stop to honk a group of napping macaques off the road.

The question comes natural: what are you doing in the middle of Nowhere, in the middle of the Night, on the other side of the Globe?

To understand how we got here we have to rewind to approximately a year before, early September, just before my Anacapa crossing (a story for another time ;) ). I went for a last long (~4h) swim with the Legendary Steve and Cam, the latter just back from Japan where he conquered the Tsugaru Strait, between the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido.

A place culturally and geographically far, and a crossing exceptionally challenging for reasons I’ll get into. Since at the time I didn’t have anything booked before the English Channel in 2020 (who could imagine the pandemic?!) I got intrigued by the option. On the way back from the Golden Gate to the Club I picked Steve and Cam’s brains about it. I loved the idea: Tsugaru is one of the Ocean 7, and Japan would have been a great destination for my wife Kris and my parents, specially before dragging them to spend the Summer in Dover (not the most coveted European destination…). A chat with my hero Ryan, just back from the North Channel after conquering the Tsugaru earlier in the season, solidified my ambition. Ryan’s advice is always precious and I’m lucky to count such a World Class Athlete as a Friend and a Mentor.

In this post I’ll talk about the details of the crossing, the training, and the logistics.

The Target

The Tsugaru Strait in Japan is a ~18 miles channel between the islands of Honshu (Tokyo’s island) and Hokkaido (the Northmost island), between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific. Less than 40 people made it across between 2005 and 2018, and it’s one of the “Ocean Seven”, the marathon swimming equivalent of the seven peaks for climbers: the seven most challenging channels. The challenges of Tsugaru include a strong unidirectional current, and strong winds. The English Channel also has very strong currents, but they turn with the tides with a 6 hours cycle, effectively averaging out and allowing the swimmer to have a minimal deviation from the objective. The current in the Tsugaru Strait takes you away and never brings you back! When conditions are bad and the strong winds make the water boil, the locals say “The Dragon Woke Up” and the crossing becomes practically impossible.

The other peculiarities include a low success rate (around 50%), the remote location, and the fact that among the Ocean Seven this is the crossing with the highest language barrier for Anglophones.

The main contact is Yusuke Shimasaki who takes care of most details, from having you fill in the forms, to finding the boats (yes, plural, I’ll talk about this later), the observe, and, if needed, the interpreter.

The season starts in Spring, when the water is relatively cold (~55F) and ends in August/September when the water is objectively warm (~78F).

The temperature drops as you approach Hokkaido, so if you’re swimming during the cold season you have to deal with that, while in Summer it comes as a relief.

The window for the crossing is 5 days long (mine was from August 29th to September 2nd) and there are two slots per window. The first swimmer has the first 3 days, the second the last two, plus the scraps from the first swimmer (which mathematically makes it a more advantageous slot on average). Two boats escort each swimmer/relay and usually two swimmers/relays are departing in parallel for each good date.

Conditions can be extremely rough. The wind turbines on Tappi’s hill make clear that wind is strong and constant, adding to the challenge of the West-East current that I described above.

The Kodomari Route starts from the Kodomari Benten Cape in the Aomori prefecture on the island of Honshu, and arrives to Shirakami Misaki on the island of Hokkaido. This route is a little longer than the straight shot from Tappi, but it allows to compensate for the current with a S-shaped trajectory, going wide West from Kodomari and then letting the current course correct back, with the challenge of hitting the right point on the other side, escaping the embrace of the current, not dissimilar to hitting Cap Gris Nez at the end of an English Channel crossing.

The trick is to go out strong and gain precious ground, but to keep enough energy to fight your way across the current to get to the other shore: to be swept away within a mile or two from the last promontory can make the difference between victory and defeat.

The support boats are very spartan Japanese fishing boats. Being low on the water the swimmer is quite close to the support crew and feeds can happen without using a long rope, but they don’t have much cover, so the crew needs to be prepared for rain or shine. They’re roomy enough to move around, but don’t have seating arrangements. The Tappi hotel can provide crates or folding chairs to make the situation more comfortable. The “bathroom situation” is also quite particular, as you can see from the picture on the Left. Each swimmer/relay is escorted by two boats, very well lit, and the main boat drags a streamer under the swimmer which is very useful to focus and to keep the route without sighting (just as the black line in the pool).

The Training

Allow me a quick digression about the other important logistic aspect of the crossing: the training plan.

After the learnings of the previous year (which I’ll get into another time) I was planning to rely more on open water as my training ground, and to supplement with quality sessions in the pool and gym. In part due to a misunderstanding about water temperature, partly due to my friends (Cam, Steve, and Ryan) swimming much earlier in the season, and partially due to my ambitions to grow as an athlete, I focused a lot on improving my cold water tolerance during winter.

The main highlights of the season were the 3 hours in 53F water in winter, followed by 3 trips to San Diego, one for a 4 hours and then for two 6 hourss with the Legend Himself Dan S(w)imonelli on the kayak! The peak of the season were 3 back to back 6 hours swims. A Round Trip Baker Beach with Lauren Au in June, a 6 hours in SD with Dan for my birthday (June 29th), and another in mid July with the awesome peeps at Pacific Open Water Swim Co. (highly recommended, the Best on the Bay and beyond!): from Sausalito and then circumnavigation of Angel Island, being fed Twinkies!

Compared with the previous season, my yardage in 2019 decreased by 30% year on year, while my speed and stamina increased noticeably. Aside from the obvious effect of experience, this improvement is due to dryland cross-training sessions that allow me to work on strength without putting an undue burden on my shoulders, and it helped with the pain in my hips (my usual issue in previous years).

I have to thank my Pod: Lauren Au, Lauren L. (who’s my current training partner in the hunt for the Ocean 7), Ryan, Randy, and Keirafor the support and inspiration, and the “Elders of the Club”, i.e. Duke, Hal, and Terry for always being available to hop on a kayak and pilot us through tough conditions, and to do it with a great smile: I’d never made it without all of them.

The Logistics

Now, back to Japan!!!

The most convenient accommodation is Hotel Tappi, a very cute onsen (hot springs), perched on cape Tappi (Tappi in Japanese translates to“Tail of the Dragon”). Book far in advance even if the place is usually not very crowded. Tappi is the first stop for groups traveling between Honshu and Hokkaido through the (impressive) submarine tunnel, and it can fill up abruptly when buses stop for the night. Yusuke can also facilitate the communication with the hotel. In my case he helped out finding a room on a night that seemed completely sold out. The hotel serves two traditional meals (breakfast and dinner) daily. For me it was culinary heaven, but if you’re not quite into raw fish, or if you don’t want to risk it before your crossing and you’re looking for something less exotic, the hotel can provide something less adventurous but equally delicious based on meat and rice. For lunch there aren’t many options, the closest to the hotel is on the hill just outside to the right of the entrance. Go there early since they run out of supplies, but the ramen is fantastic! The hotel can also pack you a bento box to go for your crew to bring on the boat. Tell them with enough advance, since they can also provide folding chairs or crates for them to sit on.

Tappi is very remote. When you’re there it’s clear that you’re outsiders and that you’re there for the swim, and the locals will welcome you with enthusiasm and cheer for you! English is not very common and the hotel personnel used an automatic translator to help with communication. An app such as Google Translate is extremely useful to facilitate communications and translate signs. Be patient: as an ESL I am well aware that phrases that may seem clear to a native speaker could be very confusing to a foreigner.

There’s a few spots where you can get a swim in while you wait for your turn. This one and this other one with a very cute beach area. Nearby, on a hill, the temple where the legendary Minamoto Yoshitsune prayed for a peaceful crossing. A great distraction with a wonderful view of the Sea.

There’s no shops in Tappi, but there’s a Family Mart in Kodomari, so plan accordingly.

You can reach Tappi from Tokyo through the wonderful Shinkansen toward the Shin-Aomori station. Then the hotel is an hour of driving away. Having a car is also helpful for other logistics such as buying food, exploring the area, tc. Don’t forget they drive on the right side of the road like in the UK.

The Rail Pass that gives you unlimited access to the Shinkansen is also very useful for visiting Japan after your swim.

The car can be rented from JR Rent-A-Car at the Shin-Aomori station. When you’re reserving it the “area” is Tohoku and the “office” is Shin-Aomori.

After a couple of miles in Aomori where you’re driving in a City, the rest of the trip is very relaxing and rural (except from my dad screaming bloody murder frightened by my driving style ;P ).

The pocket wi-fi device we rented upon arrival in Tokyo is very useful to stay connected. It works great both in Tokyo and in Tappi (even in the middle of the sea!). It supports 4+ devices and it’s very reliable (don’t forget to recharge the batteries at night…). It’s offered by the same company that provides the Rail Pass and it can easily be picked up at the airport.

…to be Continued…

Stay tuned and please share.

Ciao.

[Versione Italiana]

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