The Kaiwo Maru Comes to San Francisco

On Friday, May 2nd, passing beneath a fog shrouded Golden Gate Bridge, the Japanese sail training vessel Kaiwo Maru arrived at San Francisco. The steel hulled giant began her journey at Tokyo on the fourth of April and she spent nearly a month at sea under only sail power as the winds carried her across the Northern Pacific.

On Sunday, May 4th, the ship had scheduled an open house and the public was invited to see the ship and walk her decks and I made sure not to pass up the opportunity. This was the first real sail training ship I’d visited. She’s a four-masted, steel-hulled bark, and it didn’t really dawn on me just how big the ship was until some time after I looked at the many photos I took.

At just over 360 ft length over all (including bowsprit), she’s massive for a sailing ship. She’s about 60 feet longer than the Balclutha at Hyde Street Pier, and 80’ longer than the Star of India in San Diego. She is powered by a pair of diesel engines with a combined output of 3,000 horsepower that can drive her along at just over 16 knots, but their primary purpose is to get her in and out of port. Traveling across the ocean, her main source of propulsion is her 30,000 square feet of sails, which she used for about 90% of this journey.

The Kaiwo Maru is one of the more modern sail training vessels, having been built by Sumitomo Heavy Industries in Japan in 1989. She is the second of two vessel of the same class, the first being the sail training ship Nippon Maru II built in 1984. The two vessels are operated by the National Institute for Sea Training, which is a Japanese governmental institution begun in 1943 to train future maritime officers and engineers.


The ships are technically the Shin Kaiwo Maru (New Kaiwo Maru) and Shin Nippon Maru (New Nippon Maru) or the Kaiwo Maru II and Nippon Maru II, replacing the training ships of the same name that were built in 1930.


My own connection with this ship was purely by chance. I had been in email contact with a Japanese professor, Yutaka Masuyama, regarding research for my Edo Period Higaki Kaisen model, and found out he was going to be coming to San Francisco, and I’d have a chance to meet him in person. It turned out he was to be a passenger aboard the Kaiwo Maru and would be recording her sailing performance on the journey.



Visiting the Kaiwo Maru

After the ship arrived, I went to visit the Kaiwo Maru at the open house and I had a great visit. In addition to her officers, the ship carried 160 cadets, all young Japanese men and a few women too that must have been all in their very early 20s, and they were stationed all over the ship to answer questions and to just be as helpful as possible.

I tried to spend a few minutes talking with several of them, asking mostly about their lives aboard the ship. These cadets are required to take part in several cruises over the course of their training. They are divided into two groups: Engineering and Navigation. The Navigation group handles the sails, while the Engineering cadets operate and maintain the engines, generators and pumps.


The cadets live 5 to a cabin and they have to get accustomed to having very little freedom or privacy. Fresh water is scarce, so their use of it is rationed. Discipline is stressed, but they all know what they need to do and I was told by my new acquaintance, Professor Masuyama, that the cadets know what they need to do and need little prompting to do it.


The cadets told me that one thing that is very good aboard the ship is the food. They have a Japanese chef and they eat well. They even catch the occasional Tuna or other fish and have very fresh sashimi.

But, traveling across the Pacific from Japan, the shortest route took them up to the Northern Pacific and the seas were very stormy. According to Professor Masuyama, the winds were up to 50 knot and the ship could heel as much as 30 degree. But as a sailing ship, she was in her element and reached speeds of 18 knots.


She is, in fact, one of the fastest sail training ships in th world, having won the Boston Teapot Trophy on several occasions. That annual award goes to the sail training ship that records the furthest distance travelled in any 124-hour period. The Kaiwo Maru not only won the award four times, but also maintains the highest average speed recorded for the trophy.

I’m not sure how much of a consolation that was for the cadets who had to climb the ratlines under the conditions they did. I asked if they had safety lines, and one cadet explained that they did, except on the ratlines, which required them to simply hang on tight. He laughed it off, but admitted it was pretty scary.

For some cadets, this was their fifth or later cruise, for some, it was their first. One cadet admitted to feeling a bit homesick. But, they all seemed to enjoy their visit to San Francisco, and everyone got to visit the city. Most all of them went down to Fisherman’s Wharf and some trekked across the Golden Gate, visited Muir Woods or just saw the city sights.


The cadets I spoke to were from Hokkaido, Kobe, Tokyo, Aomori, Osaka… all parts of Japan. One told me he was from Miyagi Prefecture, which was hit hard the by earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, but he assured me that his town was spared the damage that devastated other parts of the region.


Saying Goodbye


After the visit, I thought that was end of my time with the Kaiwo Maru. But, as it turned out, I hadn’t had a chance to actually meet my contact, Professor Masuyama, so we arranged to meet at the pier to see off the Kaiwo Maru.

At just before 10am on Tuesday, May 5th, the cadets loosed the mooring lines and lined the decks in a very ceremonious departure. At the dockside, a couple dozen people came to see them off. The sounds of the bosun’s whistle called the cadets to action and they quickly climbed the ratlines, hand over hand. Some lined the lower yards, some went out on the topsail yards, some on the t’gallant yards or mast tops.


To the calls of some Japanese commands sung out over the loudspeaker, they took their stances. White overalls, yellow hats, bare feet. A shout from a cadet riding the end of the bowsprit brought about a call from all the masts above and was repeated several times, hats in hand held over their hearts and then extended out with the cheers. I didn’t understand the words, but I was told by someone that it was a cheer of thanks to their hosts.




Another call sung out in long tones over the loudspeaker and the cadets sharply turned “eyes right”. Another call and the their heads snapped forward, another salute. A final call and they all quickly took to the ratlines and were back down on the deck in short order.

By now, the ship had slowly been pulled away from the dock and the tugs were pushing her into the harbor as the small crowd on the dock waved goodbye. Soon, the ship was under her own power and heading back out under the Bay Bridge, giving a last blast of her horn.





I’ve never actually witnessed a ship’s departure like this, and I have to say it was strangely very moving. It was like saying goodbye to an old friend. But, it wasn’t just the crew, it was the whole ship. It was like a living, breathing thing in and of itself – a big white creature swimming slowly out to sea. I couldn’t help but wish it a safe journey home, with the hope that it would come back to see us again soon. Ω


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