George Kamitakahara knew his sailboat was doomed.
He’d struck a reef at night in the South Pacific while on a solo journey from New Zealand to Vanuatu and water was flooding in. He bailed frantically and plugged cracks in the hull, but there was no way the Amoreena would survive. It was time to abandon ship.
Now all he could do was launch his lifeboat and begin rowing. He was 950 nautical miles from Auckland but New Caledonia was due north. He thought he would eventually reach safety, so long as his supplies held out. He had enough food and water to last a week. But he was alone at sea and the odds were against him.
Kamitakahara came to sailing relatively late in life, although boating was in his blood.
Born in 1927 at Eburne on Sea Island, now part of Richmond, he was the third eldest of Miichiro (Fred) and Yaye Kamitakahara’s 10 children. His father worked for BC Packers as a fish buyer and ran a boat called the Frederick that collected the catch of other fishers. However, the boat was seized along with all others belonging to Japanese Canadians after Canada declared war against Japan in 1941.
Fred valued his boat at $1,000 but appraisals indicated it was only worth $250 to $450. Ultimately the government sold it to BC Packers for $288. The money was credited in trust to Fred — minus $39 deducted for “supervision costs.”
Adding further insult to injury, Fred had a terrible time getting the money, stymied by unhelpful officials who were reluctant to pay it out. Years later he finally received a settlement of $203, although that wasn’t solely for the boat.
Nine days after the Frederick’s sale, the Kamitakahara family was sent to Bay Farm, just south of Slocan, to be interned along with thousands of other Japanese Canadians in crowded, uninsulated shacks. George was 15.
After the Second World War, the family moved to Alberta, first to Turin, then Taber, and finally Lethbridge, where George worked as an auto mechanic. In his 40s, he finished his high school diploma and followed it by earning a BA in Geography from the University of Lethbridge.
Then he drifted around for a few years, adding a diploma in boiler mechanics to his resume and working at the Banff Park Lodge. While being treated for a knee injury suffered in a ski accident, a doctor told him how he’d sailed solo from England to the Caribbean. For the first time, Kamitakahara took an interest in boating.
In 1980, he went to Vancouver and bought the Amoreena, a 30-foot sailboat, and began to learn how to use it. His goal was a solo voyage around the world. After three years, he thought he knew enough and set off to purse his dream.
The beginning was not auspicious, however. At the northwest tip of the Olympic peninsula, Kamitakahara was thrown overboard in a ferocious storm. But the boat was undamaged and he pressed on. When a dolphin pod followed him for miles, he took it as a positive sign.
Kamitakahara sent letters to relatives from his voyage that were later compiled into a memoir, and which a niece has since transcribed. It’s a fascinating tale of how he made his way down the coast to Mexico before crossing the Pacific to New Zealand via Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Tonga.
The sailing fraternity was replete with curious characters, several of whom he ran into again and again at different stages of his journey.
There was Crazy Mike, who fearlessly maneuvered his 24-foot boat between 50 anchored yachts in a wind storm. “It was like watching ballet,” Kamitakahara marvelled.
On Bora Bora, he met Robin Lee Graham, whose round-the-world voyage as a teenager was recounted in a book and movie. Graham gave him a bag of canned goods as a parting gift and advice about surviving typhoon season in Tonga.
On Tonga, he was baffled to receive an invitation from the king to attend the opening of a new high school. The Japanese government paid for the building, so Kamitakahara figured someone must have thought he was Japanese.
It was in 1986, three years into his journey, that Kamitakahara ran into serious trouble. He was heading from New Zealand to Vanuatu, but the winds were so strong he was forced to change course, detouring around large reefs in heavy rain.
Then came the crash.
Before leaving his boat, he looked at the gallons of fresh water on board and decided that since he couldn’t take it all, he might as well have a bath.
“If people saw me, they’d think I’d gone nuts. At least I was clean when I left the boat,” he said.
Kamitakahara hoped to row to New Caledonia but “it was a desolate feeling to see water, water everywhere, and I’m in a tiny seven-foot dingy.”
Late that day, he reached an islet full of sea snakes. The wind was blowing hard, so he had to spend a night and a day with the snakes. By his third day, he reached another islet and climbed to its highest point.
“[I] saw a larger island to the north, so I rowed and rowed and rowed but the island was beyond my reach.” The current was working against him. At this rate, he’d never reach New Caledonia. Exhausted, he dropped anchor to rest and consider his options.
But luck was on his side. He spotted a large ship, which turned out to be two fishing boats in tandem. One turned towards him, and Kamitakahara pulled anchor and rowed madly to reach it.
When he got to the vessel, the crew was astonished to see him. Kamitakahara was equally stunned when he saw the boat’s name was Frederic. “My father’s fish boat was Frederick, and I thought my father had come to rescue me.”
The crew spoke only French, but through gestures Kamitakahara indicated his boat had sunk and he would appreciate a lift. Although the trawler was infested with cockroaches, he was just glad to be safe. His round-the-world voyage had ended prematurely.
“Losing my boat was painful, but I console myself that I had survived,” Kamitakahara wrote. “I call that a success.”
Being shipwrecked didn’t deter Kamitakahara from further sailing adventures.
When he returned to Vancouver, he bought another boat, the Tiffin, which he regularly sailed solo up the B.C. coast.
Later, he met a Japanese businessman with a large boat but little experience. Together, they sailed down the coast of Japan in 2006 and circumnavigated Vancouver Island in 2008.
George Kamitakahara died on Oct. 8 in Burnaby, age 94. He is survived by four siblings and numerous nieces and nephews, who cared for him in his final years.