Yellow Submarine comes to St. John
by Gerald Singer SeeStJohn.com
Back in January of 1995, I was returning from an agricultural fair on Jost Van Dyke and pulling into the Cruz Bay Harbor, and came alongside what could best be described a little yellow submarine, totally enclosed and very low to the water, with the exception of a small covered cockpit that rising to about three feet above the waterline with plexiglass portholes and an overhead hatch. Several flags flew from two short masts and on the hull, in large red lettering was the name “Seiko da Grindelwald.”
Standing up in the cockpit was an Asian looking man, with a goatee, wearing a blue woolen watch cap and smoking a pipe.
Now St. John is a place where you meet a whole lot of interesting people, and this guy was bound to be one of them. My curiosity piqued, I pulled alongside, greeting him and asked where he came from.
“Switzerland,” he answered.
Now that certainly was interesting. I presented him with a stalk of sugar cane and some of the native fruits I had bought at the Jost Van Dyke and we arranged to meet later on at Chilly Billy’s so he could tell me his story.
Originally from Japan, he worked for the Canon Corporation, a job that enabled him to travel to many places in the world. On a trip to Switzerland, he fell in love and married a Swiss woman who own and managed a hotel in Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps. It was a famous hotel that had been around since 1885, but was starting to fall into a state of decline. Together they put the hotel back on track, fixing it up and implementing a marketing plan that brought many guests from Japan.
Seiko da Grindelwald
His name was Seiko Nakajima, but upon adopting and falling in love with the town of Grindelwald as his home he changed it to Seiko da Grindelwald. Seiko now knows more about the history, culture, back roads and trail of Grindelwald than most of its native inhabitants. This is something I could relate to having adopted St. John as my home and falling in love with it.
Anyway, sometime early in 1994, Seiko saw the movie Yentl with Barbara Streisand and was inspired by the line “nothing is impossible.” Sometime after pondering this thought, Seiko, 61 years old at the time, came upon the idea of a “voyage of personal challenge and fulfillment.”
Seiko designed an ocean going, one of a kind, one man motor boat. He made models and tested them in his bathtub. He obtained sponsorship from the Tohatsu Outboard Company and within five months had built the boat which he planned to sail from Basel, Switzerland to Miami Florida for the Miami Boat show and then on to New York City and then back to Switzerland.
The boat Seiko constructed holds one person, is 21 feet in length, with a five foot beam and a two foot draft, weighing 440 pounds empty and 1100 pounds fully loaded. Powered by a 2.5 horsepower Tohatsu outboard engine, it has a fuel capacity of 159 gallons of gasoline. He calculated that it would burn 7.4 gallons of fuel per day enabling him to travel 140 nautical miles per day with a total range of from 2,100 to 3,000 miles. The boat is watertight with the hatches closed and self righting in the event that it would capsize in rough seas.
There were three 2.5 horsepower outboards, one that only operated in forward gear, mounted inside the cabin was for ocean going. The second, mounted externally was for navigating within harbors and a third was stowed away as a spare, just in case.
Navigation was accomplished with a hand held GPS, some charts, a compass and an auto piolot. Carried aboard were some tools and spare parts, personal effects, food and water. The food consisted of a trail mix of dried fruits, grains and nuts, onions, apples and canned milk, which would be supplemented from time to time with raw fish he hoped to catch while underway.
He carried no books, no music and no VHS radio.
Seiko launched the “Seiko da Grindelwald” in the Rhone River in Basel Switzerland on September 10, 1994 and before completing the first mile he had crashed into a bridge, scarring the bow of the boat. The damage was cosmetic and undaunted Seiko continued down the Rhone towards France and the Mediterranean Sea, then stopping at Corsica, Ibiza and Gibralta. Passing into the Atlantic, his next landfall was the Canary Islands and then on to Cape Verde where he met his wife and son.
Seiko’s journey was beginning to receive some publicity not only through the efforts of the Tohatsu Company, but also through the nature of the voyage itself.
It seems that someone at the Swiss Government, reading about the journey in a newspaper, realized that the nature of the registration and licensing of the “Seiko da Grindelwald” only permitted its use in inland waters. The small size of the vessel prevented it from having ocean going status. Switzerland is a place where everything is on time and everything goes by the book, so this departure from the norm needed to be rectified.
So it was that government officials got in touch with Seiko’s wife to inform her husband that due to these regulations Seiko would not be permittted to fly the Swiss flag and, furthermore, that if he attempted to sail the improperly registered vessel back to Switzerland, he would be refused entry.
Notwithstanding, Seiko was also informed that upon the successful completion of the voyage that government would be proud to display the “Seiko da Grindlewald” at the Swiss National Museum of Transportation in Lucerne, where it would join an exhibition of “firsts.”
Seiko complied. He took down the Swiss flag, changed his plans to sail back to Switzerland opting instead to ship the boat on a cargo vessel and continued on into the open Atlantic.
According to Seiko, the trans-Atlantic crossing turned out to be a spiritual journey as well as a physical one, full of exciting and insightful discoveries. Never having a great fear of death, he had assumed that his life was his own, but during one particularly frightening storm at sea, he was driven to reflect on the very real possibility of his own death, he realized this not to be entirely true. His life also belonged to those who loved him, especially his wife and son, who would be sad if he were gone. His life belonged to them also. The enormity of the ocean, his solitude and the absence of distractions led him to reflect on the existence of God and the wonder of life.
“The journey is my life,” said Seiko.
On to St. John
Seiko’s first stop after crossing the Atlantic was the island of Barbados. From there he headed up the island chain and on to St. John, which would be his last Caribbean port of call.
It was on St. John that Seiko provisioned the “Seiko da Grindelwald, topped off the gas tank, took care of customs formalities and prepared for the voyage across the Caribbean to Miami.
I offered to take him around St. John, before he continued on his way.
Seiko accepted the offer and we took a boat ride around the island on my boat at the time, which was quite a bit faster than Seiko’s vessel. We also drove around the island and had lunch at Miss Lucy’s restaurant in Coral Bay on the east end of St. John.
Miami, Annapolis and New York City
In letters and newspaper accounts, I was able to follow Seiko’s journey. He arrived in Miami and attended the boat show. From there he motored up the inland waterway to Annapolis Maryland, from where he went to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in order to see the airplane flown by Charles Lindbergh in the first solo flight across the Atlantic.
Seiko reached New York City in May of 1995, eight months after leaving Basel.
In a letter I received from Seiko in April of 1996 he wrote, “From New York my boat was shipped back to Europe and presented at the Dussledorf and Zurich boat shows. According to my wish it has now gone to the Swiss National Museum of Transportation in Lucerne where it will remain for the next thousand years, I hope!!!”
Back in Switzerland, Seiko wrote a book about his journey, which unfortunately I couldn’t read because it was written in Japanese.
In a letter I received from Seiko in December of 1997, Seiko oulined his plans for a new adventure: “…in two years time (age 65) I would like to go somewhere where there are no roads. Perhaps to Canada. I hope that I can find a good place which is far from any village…to be alone and to be by myself without any information…”