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  • Joseph Polack

OUR DEADLY PACIFIC RACE & OBON REUNION (3-Parts)

Updated: Aug 30, 2023


On that stormy Saturday afternoon during our 2023 Pacific Swim Race we never expected one of us would die before reaching the finish line.

Among the over six hundred international competitors registered for the 3 km, 1.500m, 800m races were dozens of my fellow lifesavers & Henna Gaijin Swimming Club HGSC teammates.

Since the casualties of last summer, our beach neighborhood has been hit by typhoons, heatwaves, rebounding pandemics, and many other on/offshore misfortunes.


The sound of ambulance sirens became more frequent as the days were growing warmer and humid. More people were losing their lives, or falling into comas in the overcrowded local hospitals.

Though the registration deadline for our annual race was approaching, I hesitated. My lengthy rehabilitation caused by a winter accident was still bothering me at times.

It was a close call. A head-first fall from the height of several meters in stormy weather had left me unconscious in a pool of blood. My elderly neighbor Satosaka-san found me lying face down between the concrete wall and slippery iron staircase. He summoned help. I heard one of the ambulance crewmen calling me by my beach name of Marek. I guessed he was a fireman serving as a volunteer lifeguard in our beach community. Then my hearing was gone and I lost consciousness again. When I regained consciousness I heard a crying child. I noticed my daughter Akane and my sobbing granddaughter Sara sitting next to my ambulance stretcher. My ear was stitched back to my head at the Fujisawa Hospital. Then my severed nerves and tendons were gradually restored by a Kamakura neurological team that was recommended by my 82 year old fellow beach-cleaner and local physician, Prof. Keitaro Hashimoto.

Though my physical rehabilitation was progressing steadily in the following months, I was still struggling to overcome my memory losses and fear of open spaces. Gradually a feeling of resilience and hope was returning. Under continuing guidance of my daughter I began to overcome my fear of indoor stairs and learned how to use my bicycle again. First, by just walking beside the bike helped me to keep my balance. My short rides to a nearby supermarket had extended to longer trips along the coast. The bilingual doctor Hashimoto advised me to deal with my occasional memory blackouts by more actively socializing offline across cultural boundaries. And indeed my increased mingling with members of our cross-cultural Shonan community forced me to use different languages that helped me to regain control over my head trauma. With the arrival of the rainy season my hearing improved further and the ringing-like-sounds in my left ear eased. My coastal biking tours extended to Kamakura beaches. One day, while watching our Junior Lifeguards being trained in Kamakura by the Japan National Team’s Coach Riku Sakamoto and his senior colleagues, my mind suddenly slowed until it froze on long ago half-forgotten memories of my first lifesaving experience in a faraway European countryside. The emerging face of my first swimming instructor, Bohdan, was overlapped by an image of a small boy struggling to catch his breath in a muddy village pond. Then his cries for help and my earliest childhood memories of a near to death experience were drowned out by the sound of thunder.


My confused mind travelled back and forth in time. The traumatic memories stored in my native language were once again being replaced by the Japanese voices surrounding me. The past and present were merging together with another swimming instructor’s lifesaving commands. I was back to a familiar Kamakura shore where another group of kids was learning survival skills.

As the storm passed over and there were no more typhoon updates, I decided to rejoin my Henna Gaijin Swimming Club’s training in the early summer. The regular testing of my physical endurance before entering the open water race, helped me to gradually regain my mental strength.


Though the race attendance wasn’t mandatory, the Shonan lifeguards were expected to prove their fitness for lifesaving duties by participating in preseason ocean swimming competitions.

The 2023 Rough Water Swim Race was part of the annual Power Sports Japan Series that I had competed in for the past decade. Our 3-member senior team entered in three age categories: Tetsuya (80+), Marek (70+), Atsuko (60+). Our female captain and a fellow Japanese lifesaver, Atsuko, had overseen my outdoor-rehabilitation and slow return to open water swimming for the past three months. Her promise to swim beside me all along the race gave me confidence to rejoin the competition this year. Four hundred swimmers of different ages and different walks of life gathered for the opening morning 3 km race. Some of us who were registered for more than one race, had to wait for hours to join the 3x800m relay that was scheduled for an early afternoon. The timing of the final event depended on the shifting weather updates. The uncertainty and tension were eased by the jokes exchanged by veteran swimmers and their family supporters. The mood was getting upbeat, the adrenaline was mounting, and the ocean was turning more turbulent. To chill out between the races, I chatted with the fellow competitors from Japan, USA, Portugal and the other nations. Some were the jokes-cracking-veterans I had known well from our past races, but there were also many newcomers, who remained aloof. Due to increasing velocity of the wind, the 3 km race was shortened to 2.4 km as well were the 1500 meter and 800 meter races. Our start was delayed again. The latest alerts about undercurrents were interrupted by repeated communiques about the safety precautions. During the past ten years, it was the first time that our racing distances were substantially shortened at the last moment.

Awaiting our delayed start, we tried to defuse our uncertainty by exchanging anecdotes about our past races.


Though the racers varied from former Olympians and elite triathlon swimmers to retired seniors like me, we all were bonded together by our love for the ocean.


The ocean that would take the life of one of us by the end of the day seemed calm. Then it turned rough again.

A Japanese man in his late fifties, who was going to compete for his Oiso town in the series-ending 3x800 meter relay, asked me where I was from. When I tried to assure him that I was a local swimmer he couldn’t stop laughing. “…Local?!” The Oiso-man grinned. “Very funny!” “Yup! Happen to be a local lifesaver and a member of our Kamakura HGSC.” “Never heard about your HGSC,” the Oiso-man searched in his beach bag for a mobile phone. “Well, the HGSC stands for Henna Gaijin Swimming Club and our Chair-for-Life Phil Jones is 79… and still swims around the year without a wetsuit.”

When Phil left us to cheer up someone else, the man said that he was from the nearby Oiso-town. “You should join our Oiso Rough Water Races and Bonodori festivals. Just an hour drive away.” “Don’t have a car. I only ride bicycle.” “If you got a triathlon bike and good helmet, it’s even faster… But be careful, traffic jams before Obon always get heavier.” He seemed disappointed that I mostly used my bike for shopping and shorter tours. Then he switched the topic back to his Oiso-team’s swim races, and asked me how many distances I had completed in Kamakura Power Sports races. “All of them.” I said. “You mean all four of them? Including 3K in Japan Series?” “Yup! Seven years ago I was second in a 3 km race… second from the end!” We both burst into laughter. “Still great!” The Oiso-man said. “At least you didn’t give up…” “Yes, but I should have waited for a few more minutes before crossing the finish line.” “Why?” “I only got lukewarm applause, but a senior guy who came in last, got standing ovations…” “So how did your next race end?” “Much better! I actually ended up at the winners’ platform by getting a real 2nd place!” “Are you kidding?” “No. I was simply lucky…On advice of Phil and our HGSC teammates who keeps lifeguarding our Shonan beaches around the year, I turned my age to advantage…” “What?” “After years of competing in a 60-69 age division, I turned 70, and switched from 3K to 800 meters. Of course, as Phil said, there were far fewer competitive senior racers in my new age category…” “How many seniors made it all the way?” he asked while checking the cloudy sky. “Well… Maybe in our 70 plus age division we were only three,” I joked. “I am not sure because the third finalist didn’t arrive on time for the award ceremony… Anyhow, I got my official certificate to show off to my two ladies.” “You got two wives?” He laughed. “No. Just was blessed with two granddaughters, Mia and Sara, who were born ten thousand kilometers apart.” “Did they come to cheer up their racing grandpa?” “Not this time. They are too busy.” “Too busy already!?” “Yup! The older Mia is dreaming about becoming a bilingual junior lifeguard, the younger Sara wants to be a bilingual kindergarten teacher…” Before I could ask him about his grandchildren’s dreams, he switched topics again “Isn’t it odd that Japan’s first orphanage for mix-race kids was built along our Oiso seaside soon after the war finished… Some of these orphans got their own kids who had become our local lifesavers…” Our chat about the sea-loving biracial kids from the Oiso orphanage was interrupted by a swimmer worrying about thunderstorm updates. The speaker announced security preparations for the upcoming 800 meter race.

While the Oiso-man was looking for his teammate’s goggles and his racing yellow cap that were somewhere misplaced in his plastic beach bag, I was screening the increasingly cloudy shore looking for my HGSC team. “You are welcome to join our Oiso summer festivals before Obon. Anyhow, let’s catch up after the race. Remember my mobile is 090…” Before he finished repeating his mobile number, we were separated by the crowd of swimmers running to the starting line.

At the starting line I rejoined our 62 year old captain Atsuko Matsuda and our 87 (!) year old veteran teammate Tetsuya Kato. The pre-start electronic safety procedures were quick. Our respective numbers 496, 508, 580 were matched against our wristbands containing the security chips. After our chips were activated, a dozen lifeguards assigned the responsibility of protecting us mounted their boards and paddled to their posts along the buoys. Though the number of lifeguards seemed smaller than in the previous races, their waves-riding technique and speed control looked impressive. In the latest World Lifesaving Cup, the Japan Junior & Senior Teams placed in the top ten among 54 participating countries. How many of them were on lifesaving duty during this stormy Saturday, I didn’t know. After the lifesavers disappeared behind the high waves, I took a starting position between Atsuko and Tetsuya. With the sound of a siren we all ran into the ocean. Unlike a year before, when the ocean was bluish and less turbulent, this year we were confronted right from the start with headwinds and rip undercurrents that were turning green waves to ghostly monsters. I managed to reach the first two orange buoys alongside Atsuko, but the undercurrents kept pushing us apart. Though Atsuko was trying to keep her promise of swimming along my injured left side, I was being pushed off course with each passing minute. Twenty minutes into the race when Atsuko, Tetsuya, and I had already lost sight of each other and tried to reach the shore on our own, I was entrapped by a darkish undercurrent. I was getting out of breath but couldn’t free myself from the darkness surrounding me. I was near panic. The childhood memory of sinking in a muddy water, flashed through my mind. I could hear my Uncle Bohdan’s calming voice urging me to keep my head above the water. I thought it was odd, Bohdan had been dead for almost a year. And yet my first swimming instructor who had passed away ten thousand kilometers away from our Pacific coast was swimming along with me.

As soon as I surfaced, another wave crashed into my head before I was even able to catch my second breath. I was spinning around. It felt as if some centrifugal forces took control over me, and didn’t let me go. In a matter of seconds I was covered by another monstrous wave. The voice of Uncle Bohdan was gone. I was on my own again. I didn’t know then that right behind me Atsuko was also struggling against another undercurrent that was pushing her further out into the ocean. Though the finish line was only hundred meters away, we both knew from our lifesaving training and HGSC races that there was no way we could win fight against Shonan undercurrents. Instead of losing strength by battling them, we had to swim parallel to Zaimokuza shore with the currents and then angle ourselves gradually back to the buoys marking the Japan Series finishing spot. I was exhausted when I had finally reached the shore. What was supposed to have been a shortened 600 meter race ended up as a 900 meter fight for surviving rough underwater traps.

I thought I was hallucinating when I noticed my 87 year old teammate Tetsuya Kato cheerfully rooting for me near the finish line. “How did you manage to finish ahead of me?” I asked our most senior swimmer. “Oh, that was easy,” Tetsuya smiled. “In any race, safety is first!” “Sure! But how did you get on shore before me?” “When I was caught by the first undercurrents, I had no problem getting ahead… and retired from the race. Safety first, isn’t it?” Before I could respond, Tetsuya turned his attention to another swimmer struggling to get safely on shore. “You have much younger eyes… Isn’t it our number 5-8-5?” “Atsuko! Atsuko!” We ran towards the water shouting “…Speed up, Atsuko!” After she reached the finish line, her security chip was deactivated. Then her wrist band and a yellow racing cap bearing her ID number 585 were removed by the organizers. “Bravo!” I handed her a cup of water. “You’ve done it again, Atsuko! You deserve something stronger…” She was too tired to laugh when I said that she deserved a cold beer after making it third in our team. “So who won?” Atsuko asked. “Our Senior Member, Tetsuya… He retired first!” We all burst into jolly laughter. Then thirty minutes later when the last swimmer was welcomed at the finish line with a standing ovation, the official result list was taped to the information board.

Tetsuya, after checking the results, announced that Atsuko made it third in her 60+ age category…

I was second in the 70+ category and used my certificate to cover my beer-belly during our traditional photo session.

While we were showing off our certificates, we were joined by the younger Kato Masato who was Nr 511. He told us that the 3x800 m relay race was already going on. Though it was shortened from 2.4km to 1.8 km, he feared that the tides may turn stronger before the end of relay. Masato Kato, who served together with me and Atsuko at the Tokyo Olympics Water Sports Security Team changed from his swim suit to a windsurfing gear. Worrying about the safety of the relay swimmers in the rapidly increasing undercurrents, Masato decided to use his windsurfing board for additional patrolling along the race. After the younger Masato Kato (61) returned to the ocean, Tetsuya Kato (87) hurried back to Saitama to cook dinner for his sick wife.

Both Atsuko Matsuda and I returned to Fujisawa to prepare our lifesaving gear for our weekend duties.

The following day we learned from the media coverage that one of our fellow competitors tragically didn’t complete his 3x800 m relay.

The swimmer’s motionless body was found drifting 300 meters off course by the lifesavers at 14:45 on July 8, 2023. Though the on-duty lifesavers had risked their lives to bring the man back to shore, all attempts to revive him failed. According to an ongoing police and coast guard’s investigations quoted by the Japanese media, the victim was only identified as a 60 year old competitive swimmer from nearby Oiso. His name wasn’t disclosed due to family concerns.

https://www.kanaloco.jp/news/social/case/article-1003198.html I wondered if he was the same man I had chatted with between our races or was it his fellow Oiso teammate whose missing goggles he was worried about before our 800 m start. After learning the sad news the following day, I was asked by my fellow swimmers why the race wasn’t immediately cancelled after the tragic accident. And why did the awards ceremonies continue as if nothing had happened? I recalled the costly and elaborated safety precautions during preparations for the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Yet, with each passing year, the Olympic spirit that had once brought together our local cross-cultural community seems to be weakening further. With many elderly leaders gone into retirement, the number of Japanese lifesavers had dropped as well. The remaining few Japanese speaking foreigners who were once interested to join local lifesaving groups had almost given up hope. Their repeated on/offline inquiries were never rejected by the Japan Lifesaving Association (JLA) functionaries, they just never got any reply. While the number of JLA’s departments, sections, subsections, and other administrative entities kept growing, the number of volunteer lifeguards patrolling in the field kept steadily decreasing. Only after an alarming lack of field patrols and increasing number of casualties among beach goers did the critical voices within the Japanese lifesaving community begin to be heard. The emerging younger generation of the more dynamic field leaders introduced a more open recruitment in order to revitalize the dying volunteer spirit. Yuki Shirai, a young, plainly speaking President of our Kanagawa Lifesaving Association (KLA) wasn’t afraid to say on the record in one of our open for public workshops that “Only upgrading our swimming skills isn’t enough for becoming a lifesaver! We need to keep our passion alive!” Yuki brusquely alerted the gathered Japanese field leaders. I was the only foreign lifesaver present at the Kanagawa prefecture’s annual workshop. At the end of the workshop, I asked Yuki, who happened to be my Fujisawa neighbor “Why has the number of lifesavers been steadily decreasing not only in our Kanagawa prefecture, but in the entire Kanto area?” “Lifesaving needs more passionate volunteers from different walks of life, and different cultural backgrounds, including our foreign residents,” Yuki added. “We need more synergy to revive a genuine spirit of change.” I asked a female lifesaver accompanying me whether ‘passion’ might also be understood in this very context as ‘compassion’, but she wasn’t sure. Meanwhile, Yuki continued sharing his ideas about revitalizing our local lifesaving spirit: “Lifesaving skills could be gradually upgraded by our internationally active coaches and more experienced local lifeguards… But if there is no passion, nothing could be changed…”

Yuki Shirai’s focus on drafting more passionate volunteers was gradually introduced to the local Nishihama lifesaving community by another of my young neighbors, Ryo Ueno. Ryo, who in his late twenties represented Japan in last year’s Lifesaving World Championship in Italy and still continued in summer of 2023 as field captain of the Nishihama Lifesaving Club assured me during our beach brainstorming that changes are on the way. “To prevent accidents among foreign visitors, we need more English-speaking lifeguards in the field. Both female and male volunteers who can share their overseas lifesaving experiences are welcome. Our Shonan lifeguards’ communication ability could be naturally improved by always having an English speaking Japanese volunteer on duty in our field post during high season.” Ryo pointed at a mature Japanese English teacher who had joined the Nishihama beach post in July. “She is our new field instructor in English communication and an experienced rough water swimmer...”

A month after the death of the Oiso-man in the Rough Water Swim Race, I followed a morning training for Life Saving Certification of about twenty high school girls and boys in Nishihama. The basic certification exercises in the rough waves were personally conducted in the ocean by the two Japan National Senior and Junior Head Coaches: Masato Ueki & Motoshi Kitaya.

In the 2022 World Lifesaving Championship (attended by 54 nations in Italy), the Japan Senior Team led by Masato was awarded 7th place (the best ever); and the Junior Team led by Motoshi was awarded 9th place. Surprisingly, while the number of active lifesavers continued to decrease in Shonan, the younger generation of lifesavers including high-schoolers seem to be increasing because of the more youth-oriented Japanese international coaches.

While Masato & Motoshi allowed me to learn from their international lifesaving experiences during our unplanned field interviews at Nishihama beach, the question that had bothered me for the last decade remained the same: Why had so many of my Japanese-speaking foreign neighbors, with lifesaving experiences in their native countries, given up their years long attempts to become lifesaving volunteers? There were many questions our cross-cultural community had continued to ask ourselves, whenever we were confronted with tragic loss of lives. The lives that could have been saved. Remembering the Oiso-man’s joyful story about the local Bonodori festivals our HGSC Rough Water Team of volunteers planned a bike ride to Oiso before the Obon traffic jam. We hoped to revisit the Oiso biracial orphanage founded by Miki Sawada and to celebrate memory of our fellow Rough Water Swimmer who didn’t reach the finish line in the Japan Power Sports Series. On the way, we stopped as usual by a seaside bamboo grove to deliver food supplies to our free-camping-friend, Mr. Satomi. We couldn’t find him anymore.

His tent was burned down to the ground. Worrying if he was still alive, we called the Fujisawa Welfare Office only to be told that due to privacy laws nothing could be disclosed about the accident.


Our other attempts to learn about Mr. Satomi's current life circumstances by calling a church associated with Shelter for Homeless were unsuccessful as well. Though we identified ourselves as a non-religious group of local volunteers, we couldn't prove that we were active members of the local church community. Our worries about death of the neighbor, whose rough habitat in a seaside grove was destroyed by fire, were met with polite understanding, followed by a silence. Nobody seemed to ever heard who he was. Or if he was still alive.

Yet, in contrast to an anonymous church administrator, my fellow Shonan lifesavers, like many others of my Japanese neighbors, believed that the tragically deceased humans and animals would be coming back to life on Obon day. The day when the departed souls revisit the living ones, and remind us about a meaning of our life journey.


With Obon coming closer, the still unanswered question continued to bother me: Could the tragic off/onshore accidents among rough-water swimmers and rough-living free campers have been prevented if our cross-cultural communication had become more open? I didn’t know then, that another tragic offshore accident was going to happen in a near future. Just a few hundred meters away from an ocean spot where our fellow racer from Oiso had lost his life on 8th of July, a teenage boy would not survive his Obon Holidays. Sadly, that very Wednesday morning on 16th of August, Phil Jones, would also go for his usual HGSC offshore patrol. His warnings about dangerous undercurrents would never reach the Japanese lifeguards. That Obon Wednesday afternoon a young Japanese swimmer’s soul would leave our Kamakura shore and go on its journey to the other side of life. But we didn’t know it then. We were living in the present. https://youtu.be/5EtrSBdtXfM?si=nebjc81_6girF5cN In the time of Obon it almost felt as if the past and the future were happening in the present. The time boundaries were becoming increasingly blurred. I was not certain anymore if our human-made cultural boundaries could be as easily crossed, as I thought a half century ago when I had become a refugee lifesaver crossing the world with a camera. And now being a few weeks short from my 76th birthday I was slowly preparing for my annual Obon reunion with my dear ones. The ones who had already left for the journey to the other side of life during the passing year. One of the people I had missed very much, was my first swimming instructor. The always cheerful man who made me believe at the age of five, that our village pond was almost like an ocean. The name of my father’s youngest brother and my childhood swimming coach is Bohdan Kaminski of Kamionki.

Until his sudden departure to the other side of life last fall, Bohdan used to collect both pictures and certificates of all my overseas races in our family album. The tragic 2023 Rough Water Swim Power Sports Japan Series was the first annual race that Bohdan wouldn't be able to record anymore in our multicultural family's archive. When I mentioned it to my two Eurasian granddaughters who have learned about their great grand uncle Bohdan's life story as if it were a manga, both Mia and Sara didn't sound too sad. They believe Bohdan will soon visit them in Japan during our forthcoming Obon celebrations. Uncle Bohdan, who was only six years older than I, was born heavily handicapped during World War II. Yet, his handicap had never affected his passion for coaching me in swimming. When I together with my children Akane and Ken revisited Bohdan in our ancestral Polish village of Kamionki, we tried to search for a muddy little pond where I had learned swimming in my childhood. We couldn’t find it. Though the pond had already dried out, the memories of my first swimming adventures in a faraway village have continued to live with me during Obon.

I celebrated this year's Obon in the town of Oiso by recalling memories of two men who had never met each other: My tragically deceased Uncle Bohdan and an anonymous fellow rough water swimmer. In my latest Obon journey to Oiso Long Beach on August 12th, 2023, I was accompanied by three other swimmers: my Tokyo-born son Ken and two young biracial dreamers: my Manhattan-born granddaughter Mia, and my Fujisawa-born granddaughter Sara. Though I am uncertain on what side of life I may celebrate Obon in the following year, I am happily looking forward to my forthcoming journey.

[* SINCE BEING DIAGNOSED WITH COVID 8/20/23, THE FIELD CHAPTERS OF MY FORTHCOMING BOOK “LIVING AMONG JAPANESE” MAY BE DELAYED FURTHER]

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Philippe Valdois
Philippe Valdois
Aug 28, 2023

I enjoyed very much reading this post and the previous ones. I hope you are recovering well from COVID. Take good care of yourself. I caught it only 2 weeks after my 5th vaccination and felt miserable for ten days.

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jones
jones
Aug 26, 2023

The first photo of the crashing breakers shows how difficult the conditions were on race day and suggests the treacherous under-currents being pushed by an approacing typhoon. Amidst global warming, typhoons are increasing and this can result in dangerous conditions in waters that are usually safe. The appeal of this blog for more Shonan life guards is salient. This will require increased training opportunities and incentives to participate. Chair For Life, Henna Gaijin Swimming Club

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