Lifeboat in a box: Northeast Japan’s new marine rescue service

KAMAISHI, Japan — A British charity has set up one of Japan’s first community-run marine rescue services in a region devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“This beach used to be full during the summer,” laments hotelier Akiko Iwasaki as she stares out at the picturesque Nebama Bay in Kamaishi, Northeast Japan. “Now people are scared of going in the water.”

 Part of that may be about to change, thanks to a project run jointly by Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London, U.K.-based charity Atlantic Pacific and Future Lab Tohoku, a Japanese NPO committed to the redevelopment of the Tohoku region.

Robin Jenkins, a lecturer at UAL and volunteer lifeboat crew member on London’s Thames River, said he was struck by two things when he viewed the area after being invited there by Future Lab: the similarity of the coastline to his native Wales, with its many bays and narrow inlets, and the lack of a coordinated marine rescue service.

The concept they developed was to design and build a lifeboat to be crewed by the people of Kamaishi that could respond to regular marine emergencies, but also be agile and versatile enough to cope with the unique challenges of a tsunami. Logistical support for the project came from Bunkyo Gakuin University in Tokyo.

Rescue operations off the U.K. coastline are carried out by lifeboat stations run by teams of local volunteers overseen by the country’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution. In contrast, Japanese waters are patrolled by the coast guard, and many rescue missions are left to the country’s close-knit fishing communities, who possess vital knowledge of their local coastlines, but often lack specially designed rescue craft.

The boat, baptized “Wales-Go” by its new custodians, was designed and built by students at Jenkins’ old high school, the United World College of the Atlantic, which has a long history of marine rescue service. At 4.8 meters in length, it is designed for a crew of four, but can hold up to 18 people in an emergency.

Construction and shipping were funded through UAL’s social regeneration scheme fund and charitable donations, and the vessel was given to the Kamaishi community, where local NPO Nebama MIND will oversee its day-to-day running.

Production was carried out in the most cost-efficient manner possible, yet failed to address the crucial issue of where the boat would be housed once it arrived in Japan. The construction of an entire station would have involved insurmountable costs, not to mention time, and been subject to a host of regulations.

The answer, it turned out, had been staring the team in the face. Transportation would be made in a shipping container that was only half-filled by the boat. UAL students were tasked with designing and converting the remaining space into a small changing room and workspace providing everything necessary for the container itself to become Kamaishi’s new lifeboat station.

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