An In-Depth Interview on Tsugaru Strait Swimming with Haruyuki Ishii: Discussing Bárbara Hernández Huerta's and Mark Sowerby's Swims

An In-Depth Interview on Tsugaru Strait Swimming with Haruyuki Ishii: Discussing Bárbara Hernández Huerta’s and Mark Sowerby’s Swims

“Give up on giving up.” — Haruyuki Ishii

Bárbara Hernández Huerta successfully completed the Tsugaru Strait Swim from Aomori to Hokkaido on June 14, 2024 in a time of 11 hours and 36 minutes. After the swim, Maya Yatsu, our Japanese translator and valued member of our editorial team, met with Haruyuki Ishii, Barbara Hernandez, her fiancé Jorge, Nora Toledano and their Spanish-Japanese translator Luiggi in Tokyo.

Their first stop was the Chilean embassy, where they greeted the ambassador and Ishii-san handed Barbara her certificate of completion.

Despite the heavy rain, the group spent the entire day sightseeing in Tokyo. The day concluded with a visit to Casa de Eduardo, a well-known Chilean restaurant in Japan. The owner, Eduardo, welcomed them with traditional Chilean food.

Maya told us, “It was an honor to meet Barbara and Nora, two strong women who have completed the Oceans Seven.”

We asked Maya to ask Ishii-san a few questions about the conditions at the Tsugaru Strait. Ishii-san shared his insights on the current state and future of open water swimming in the Tsugaru Strait. He discussed the unique challenges that swimmers face there. He emphasized the need for thorough preparation and local knowledge. He also stressed the role of Nakadomari Town in supporting and promoting these swims and expressed his optimism for the sport’s future in the Tsugaru Strait.

Ishii-san, how did the conditions during Bárbara’s swim compare to those during Andy Donaldson’s swim last year? Have you noticed any significant changes in the currents or weather patterns?

Haruyuki Ishii: Compared to last year when Andy swam, the sea conditions were better during Bárbara’s swim. Both of them are excellent swimmers. Andy’s feeding was almost synchronized with his swimming, taking less than 10 seconds. Bárbara, like many other swimmers, tended to chat during her feedings, which the boat pilot found a bit annoying as he didn’t want to stop. Sometimes, Andy’s feedings were so quick that even the boat pilot didn’t notice. Last year, during Andy’s swim, the current was so strong that the boat had to maintain its direction with “Hokkaido on the right, Aomori on the left” for a long time. When Bárbara swam, the current wasn’t initially that strong, so the boat was slightly oriented towards Hokkaido. However, it suddenly picked up, causing the boat to drift significantly. The boat pilot was worried that if we missed Yagoshi (the point where Bárbara arrived), we wouldn’t make it to Hokkaido. Thanks to Bárbara’s strong swimming, we managed to get back on track and arrived at Yagoshi.

The currents in the Tsugaru Strait are primarily ocean currents, unlike the tidal currents in the English Channel, where the currents reverse every six hours, creating a back-and-forth flow. Ocean currents are like the Gulf Stream that flows along the east coast of the United States, forming a large swirl around the Earth. One end of this swirl flows through the Tsugaru Strait, creating a one-way flow from the Japan Sea to the Pacific Ocean. The fishermen in Tsugaru say the currents changed after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region, and they are only now gradually starting to understand how.

Both English Channel boat pilots and Tsugaru Strait boat pilots say the same thing: “There are days when it’s favorable to swim even during the spring tide.” This sentiment comes from their experience of being out on the sea every day. However, we don’t just jump into the sea without preparation. If we knew, for example, that July 8th would have good weather and be a favorable day for swimming, we would inform the Coast Guard and the Transport Bureau accordingly.

We base our plans on probabilities. If you ask any boat pilot whether there are more favorable days for swimming during the spring tide or the neap tide, they will all answer “neap tide.”

Were there any specific challenges that Bárbara faced during her swim that were different from those encountered by Andy? How did she overcome them?

Haruyuki Ishii: As I mentioned earlier, the main difference between Andy and Bárbara was their feeding (technique). I told Miyuki Fujita to finish feeding within 10 seconds and use a container made of soft material. The advantage of this container was that it could be squeezed and drunk from underwater. Miyuki often drank with her face still in the water. Chatting during feeding was prohibited. Andy used a cup, while Bárbara used a plastic container. Mark, who swam later, also used a plastic container. Both Mark and Bárbara fed every 30 minutes, while Andy fed every 15 minutes. Miyuki Fujita fed every 40 minutes with carbohydrate drinks, alternating flavors like Japanese tea and black tea, which helped her track time. (Green tea for the first and second times, black tea for the third time. This way, she knew that two hours had passed when she got the black tea.)

Have you seen an increase in interest from boat pilots wanting to assist with Tsugaru Strait crossings since Andy’s and Bárbara’s successful swims? What qualities do you look for in a good pilot?

Haruyuki Ishii: Several boat pilots have already been selected in Nakadomari Town, and they are expected to be active. The qualities required for an excellent boat pilot include keen use of all five senses. Nowadays, Japanese fishing boats prioritize speed. They need to go to the fishing grounds quickly, fish quickly, and return quickly. For this, equipment like sonar, in addition to navigation instruments, is necessary. However, younger fishermen today rely too much on equipment, dulling their own senses. When I used to swim in the eastern Tsugaru Strait, my trusted boat pilot could predict the sea conditions in Aomori from Hokkaido. This ability, developed through years of fishing in Tsugaru, is essential.

In Japan, “Oma tuna” caught at Oma, the northernmost tip of the Shimokita Peninsula on the eastern side of the Tsugaru Strait in Aomori Prefecture, is famous. This is due to the exceptional skills of the tuna fishermen there. On the western side of the Tsugaru Strait, the most skilled tuna fisherman is Mr. Mizushima. He was Andy’s boat pilot and will also pilot the next two swims. In Japan, there is a term “sixth sense,” which I think of as the “ability to predict.” In sports, it’s called “anticipation.” The closer one’s predictions are to reality, the sharper their sixth sense is considered to be. For future boat pilots, I look for individuals who use their five senses and have honed their sixth sense.

There is a growing interest in open water swimming. Are more observers and support crew expressing interest in being trained by you? What key skills and knowledge do you believe are essential for them?

Haruyuki Ishii: Today, I received a phone call from a lady I hadn’t heard from in over 10 years. As far as I know, she is the only open-water swimmer in Aomori. She is currently a school teacher and also serves as an official for the Japan Swimming Federation’s open-water swimming (OWS) events. Nakadomari Town contacted her to help with the Tsugaru Strait crossing swim. When my name came up during the conversation, she was surprised and decided to call me. Her name is Hiroko Hachinohe, and she has swum the Tsugaru Strait with Ocean Navi. She will probably be an observer or support crew. (There is a region in Aomori called Hachinohe, but she has no connection to it.) According to her, a man named Yamada, who was the president of a city swimming federation in Aomori, resigned to become the president of the Nakadomari Tsugaru Strait Swimming Federation. The involvement is spreading not only to observers and support crew but also to the town’s upper levels. What I require from observers and support crew members is a maritime license. I want them to learn about marine nature, navigation, and laws.

Reflecting on both Andy’s and Bárbara’s swims, what lessons have you learned that could improve future crossings of the Tsugaru Strait for other swimmers?

Haruyuki Ishii: Both of them knew that, according to the Japan Coast Guard, swimming in the Tsugaru Strait is not allowed at night. They were both anxious about when they might be pulled out of the water, praying, “Please don’t pull me out; I’m swimming as hard as I can.” The unique time limit for the Tsugaru Strait swim adds stress to the swimmers, preventing them from relaxing. This stress, for better or worse, is something the swimmers have to deal with themselves. I believe it helps in developing a tough, resilient spirit.

Ishii-san, can you share your thoughts on what makes the Tsugaru Strait such a challenging and unique location for open water swimming?

Haruyuki Ishii: As mentioned earlier, the Tsugaru Strait is characterized by its strong one-way ocean currents and the restriction of daytime swimming only. Unlike the English Channel, where water temperatures rise as you approach France, Tsugaru’s temperatures drop as you approach Hokkaido. The fact that the water temperature rises as you approach the destination is favorable for swimmers, but a significant drop is tough for them. The strong ocean current, time restriction, and temperature difference make Tsugaru a challenging and unique place.

In your experience, what are the key factors swimmers should be aware of when preparing for a swim across the Tsugaru Strait?

Haruyuki Ishii: A tough mental strength to overcome the strong ocean currents, time restrictions, and water temperature differences.

The currents in the Tsugaru Strait are known to be particularly strong. What strategies do you recommend to swimmers for dealing with these currents?

Haruyuki Ishii: If the main component in Tsugaru were tidal currents like those in the English Channel, they would reverse every six hours and return to their original state after 12 hours. This means that keeping the boat pointed straight towards France isn’t much of a problem. However, in Tsugaru, where ocean currents are the main component, the flow is one-way, so it’s common for the boat to be oriented with Hokkaido on the right and Aomori on the left. This boat direction is hard for both the swimmers and the supporters to understand. But in reality, even if it’s gradual, they are heading towards Hokkaido. As long as you keep swimming, you are gradually moving towards Hokkaido. Do not complain and just focus on swimming.

Weather conditions can change rapidly in the Tsugaru Strait. How do you and your team monitor and respond to these changes during a swim?

Haruyuki Ishii: In Japan, there is a term kantenbouki*, which refers to weather prediction based on the unique characteristics of the local area. For example, “If clouds appear on the mountaintop of Mt. XX, it will rain; if the mountain is clearly visible, it will be sunny.” Such local weather predictions are sometimes more accurate than official weather forecasts. Fishermen still value and use this method today. However, sudden weather changes do occur, and the swim is canceled if conditions exceed the (safety) standards.

*kantenbouki = weather lore

Nakadomari Town has been very supportive of the swimmers, even greeting Bárbara with a grand welcome. How has the community’s involvement impacted the swimming events and your work?

Haruyuki Ishii: It is still unclear at the moment. Nakadomari Town is making various efforts to revitalize the region, including promoting the Tsugaru Strait crossing swim. However, the town officials are amateurs and very sensitive about appearances. I just hope they can quietly support the swimmers coming to Tsugaru.

For those aspiring to swim the Tsugaru Strait, what are the most important pieces of advice you would give them to ensure a successful crossing?

Haruyuki Ishii: Give up on giving up.

Given the environmental changes and the unique challenges of the Tsugaru Strait, how do you ensure the safety of the swimmers while preserving the integrity of the sport?

Haruyuki Ishii: If something is dangerous, we should identify what the danger is. Instead of stopping because it is dangerous, we should figure out how to handle it safely. That is human wisdom. The most frightening thing is ignorance. Sports often start with the thought “it looks fun,” but they are profound.

Occasionally, we need to explore and shed light on these depths.

What are your hopes for the future of open water swimming in the Tsugaru Strait, and how do you envision Nakadomari Town’s role in this journey?

Haruyuki Ishii: Recently, I was interviewed by the Asahi Shimbun. I didn’t know about it because my family doesn’t subscribe to the Asahi Shimbun, but a friend called to tell me that I appeared in the Saturday evening edition. The content was about the future of OWS and Nakadomari Town’s role. I’ll show you the newspaper when it arrives. That’s all I have for today.