OFUNATO, Iwate Prefecture--Fishermen in this devastated northern city saved their boats and their lives from Friday's tsunami by drawing on old seafarers' wisdom.
About 10 boats were working in the bay at Ofunato when the quake hit at 2:46 p.m.
"It was clearly different from the usual quakes," said Hisashi Kashiwazaki, a 59-year-old fisherman. He heard a loud rattling from under the hull of his boat. When he looked up, he saw clouds of pollen rising from woods on a peninsula at the mouth of the bay "like sparks from a forest fire."
Then, he did something counterintuitive. He immediately stopped tending his cultivated "wakame" seaweed, turned his boat and started powering out toward the open sea with his 54-year-old wife Kumi and 26-year-old son Koji onboard.
After getting to an area where the water was 70 meters deep, he stopped his engine and waited for the tidal wave. About 15 minutes later, the ocean swelled.
"The entire boat rose with the sea, but there was no rocking," the fisherman said.
Takato Michishita, a 47-year-old fisherman, in another boat said he had been told repeatedly by older fishermen that "tsunami do not rise in deep water."
He powered at full throttle toward the open sea. He said he did not feel the tsunami coming in, but when he looked back he saw large white waves crashing into the port.
His 76-year-old father Yoshio was with him on the 3-ton vessel. He said he had heard from older fishermen that lives were saved when boats headed to open waters when a giant tsunami hit Ofunato in 1933.
The same lesson saved the fishing fleet when a tsunami hit the bay following a massive earthquake in Chile in February 2010.
"It is common sense among fishermen to head out to sea in a tsunami," said an official at JF Zengyoren, the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations.
When the boats returned the next day to Yoshihama fishing port in northern Ofunato, they found overturned boats and a small ship hoisted on the roof of the fishing cooperative's two-story building.
"We have never lost a boat before, even in storms or with typhoons coming in," one man said.
Not all of the fishermen working that day went out to sea. Mitsuru Shoji, 55, whose boat was small and did not have a cabin, took a gamble and headed toward the shore.
"I figured that I had 15 minutes. If I made it to land by then, I figured I would be safe," Shoji said.
He reached land in just 15 minutes and took his car up a hill. About 10 minutes later, the tsunami smashed into the port.
"It was a split second decision, a gamble. I managed to survive this time, but I never want to see that situation again," he said.
(This article was written by Yuji Endo, Yosuke Akai and Hiroki Miyayama.)
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