All at Sea with The Conversationalist – Japan to Vancouver, Part 1

If you wish you were on an exotic cruise somewhere having a lovely time, enjoying beer and skittles, well look what we’ve got for you – an up-to-date account by Brian Stoddart, of The Conversationalist’s latest fact-finding cruise – this time sailing from Japan to Vancouver.

The Conversationalist is aboard Seabourn Odyssey for its seasonal repositioning cruise. Having spent recent months around Australia and New Zealand, the ship has now transited through Southeast Asia and Japan to reach the northern Pacific, heading for Vancouver from where it will do the summer runs to Alaska and back. Once that season is done, an emotional moment arrives for many Seabourn veterans – “ODY” will sail across the Pacific one final time before transferring to its new Japanese owners later this year.

We joined in Kobe, Japan so the first few stops as we headed northeast highlighted just how different that country’s different regions can be. Places like Sendai, Hakodate and Kushiro in many ways demonstrate the challenges Japan now faces: a slowing productivity rate, an ageing population and declining birthrate, all those conditions contributing to a growing social services call on the national budget which has many analysts concerned.

Even so, it is wonderful to see local and skilled traditional crafts still surviving, along with the markets and community centres that have driven those communities over centuries. Alongside those, a local train trip to Matsushima from Sendai allowed a visit to the main shrine there, well over a thousand years old and a peaceful reminder that Asia generally and Japan particularly have cultural depth and complexity that sometimes gets overlooked.

After Japan, though, came the hallmark of repositioning voyages, a string of six days at sea riding the Kushiro Current on which, my great friend and colleague Commodore Rupert Wallace reminded us, Spain’s Manila galleons also sailed across to Acapulco four hundred years ago. The modern world, then, stills works on the foundations of earlier ones despite technological improvement.

During those six days, weather and seas alike remained remarkably benign while growing steadily colder. That meant packed days of activity for guests including a range of Conversations, trivia contests, bridge lessons, craft and art, future travel planning, entertainment and, of course, food. And through those days there is also the opportunity to meet an even wider range of people aboard and, as always on Seabourn, there is a fascinating array of those drawn from the USA, Australia, Canada, the UK, several from different Asian locations, New Zealand, Europe – and one originally from Barbados with whom the chat was immediately about cricket.

The first stop after those six days was Dutch Harbour in the Aleutian Island chain which is a striking mix of Russian, indigenous and American traits. In this part of the world, Russia and the USA are not that far apart geographically, so the area bears the marks of conflicts past. These days Dutch Harbour is best known as the winter home of the crab fishing fleet made famous by long running reality television show, Deadliest Catch. Remarkably, the small place wears the show lightly – we had to ask to make a trip detour to the harbour moorings where the boats normally tie up as they bring in their (hopefully) million dollars plus catches following all sorts of adventures at sea during winter.

This time, Northwestern was there, the only vessel to feature in all twenty or so seasons of the show, and captained principally by Sig Hansen. As I write, Time Bandit, another show favourite, is tied up in Homer, Alaska according to the Marine Traffic app, so that might be another sighting when we pull in there.

But as the excellent Museum of the Aleutians records, Dutch Harbour is very much a product of its past, and there is a curious link to Australia in there. During 1878 on Captain Cook’s third Pacific voyage his artist, John Webber, sketched a “Woman on Unalaska” whose personality attracted the interlopers. Over the years the sketch turned up in Sydney and in 2001 was bought by the Museum of the Aleutians so that its subject is now just a few miles from where she was drawn originally.

As we left Dutch Harbour we had, for a while, an additional guest, a Bald Eagle who settled in, a reminder for some readers of last year’s stowaway on Encore, the Australian brown eagle once of Broome and now of Bali. But this visitor soon left, while we all marvelled at the sheer numbers of sea otters to be seen, along with the pod of whales searching for food near the shore.

And as the sun set about ten thirty that evening, it was a privilege to be in this rare part of the world.

By Brian Stoddart.


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