Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Defiant Japanese boat captain rode out tsunami

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Oshima, Japan (CNN) -- Susumu Sugawara looks bemused and a little embarrassed at all the attention he's getting.

The 64 year old has become a local hero on the Japanese island of Oshima. Smashed boats adorn the coastline of this once-idyllic tourist spot, but Sugawara's pride and joy, "Sunflower" is intact and working overtime transporting people and aid to and from the island. It can hold around 20 people at a time.

When the tsunami came, everyone ran to the hills. But Sugawara ran to his boat and steered it into deeper waters. "I knew if I didn't save my boat, my island would be isolated and in trouble," he tells CNN.

As he passed his other boats, used for fishing abalone, he said goodbye to them, apologizing that he could not save them all.

Then the first wave came. Sugawara says he is used to seeing waves up to 5 meters high but this was four-times that size.

"My feeling at this moment is indescribable," he says with glistening eyes. "I talked to my boat and said you've been with me 42 years. If we live or die, then we'll be together, then I pushed on full throttle."

"Here was my boat and here was the wave," he says, holding one hand low and the other stretched high above his head. "I climbed the wave like a mountain. When I thought I had got to the top, the wave got even bigger."

Sugawara's arms flail wildly as he describes the top of the wave crashing down repeatedly onto his boat. "I closed my eyes and felt dizzy. When I opened them, I could see the horizon again, so I knew I'd made it."

Then the next wave came. Sugawara can't remember if there were four or five waves, but he says he did not feel afraid, he was just focused on steering his boat.

Suddenly the sea was completely calm and he knew he had beaten the tsunami. Sugawara stayed at sea until dark, pumping water from the boat's engine room. He believed his island had been destroyed by the wave. He says he didn't cry but felt angry and utterly helpless. He didn't know if his family had survived.

Trying to get back to Oshima, he had to navigate carefully past wrecked houses, boats and other debris that floated past him. The island of Oshima was in complete darkness; the only way he could find his way was with the guide of raging fires at Kesunnuma -- 5 kilometers (3 miles) away.

For twenty days, he has been making hourly trips to the mainland. For the first two weeks at least he provided almost the only connection with it. Without Sugawara and the Sunflower, the island would have been completely cut off.

He doesn't ask passengers for money if they have none. Those that can, pay just 300 yen (US$3.5) towards fuel.

Oshima is an island of just 3,500 people. Locals say 35 of them are confirmed dead and some are still missing, though they don't know how many. Others are believed to have taken their boats out to sea and tried to ride the tsunami like Sugawara but didn't make it.

The supermarket owner, Tadaomi Sasahara, tells me he gave all of his food away for free after the disaster. Many islanders then brought their food from their homes and shared it out.

He adds, "Everyone used to look out for themselves on this island, but after this, the whole community is now helping each other."

With his supermarket shelves empty, he now helps Sugawara with his hourly trips to the mainland.

Sugawara risked his life for his boat and his island -- one of the very few to ride a tsunami and to live to tell the tale.

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