Americas Cup Heda (photo: expansive views over Suruga Bay from the roof top hot spring bath at Isaba Ryokan, Heda. Views of Fuji in the distance on a clear day)
1851. A precocious American schooner by the appropriate name of America thrashes the British fleet in a race on their home seas. The world’s eldest continuous international sporting event, The Americas Cup (named after the first winning yacht) is born.
3 years later. USA Pacific Fleet’s Admiral Perry steams into Shimoda Port, Izu Peninsula, and forces Japan at cannon-point to sign a cooperation agreement. Shimoda has long been the customs clearing port for domestic seafarers carrying cargo for Japan’s capital, then called Edo (now Tokyo). The paranoid Shogun in Edo is not taking any chances that his loosely attached regional Lords around the country might try to stage a coup by smuggling armaments into the capital. After Perry’s forced entry, Shimoda now also has to service American shipping plying the Pacific for valuable trade with the world’s largest economy, China.
3 months later. Not to be outdone, the Russian navy arrives in Shimoda and also signs a cooperation agreement with Japan. The Cold War is already alive and well in the mid 19th century. The day after negotiations open however, a tsunami damages Shimoda, and the Russian’s 3 masted flagship Deana. Local Japanese help the 500 stranded Russian sailors relocate to Heda Port on the other side of the Izu Peninsula, sheltered from the direct impact of the tsunami and therefore better equipped to accommodate the large foreign contingent. En route, the badly damaged Deana founders in Suruga Bay (Japan’s deepest bay) and the sailors have to complete the journey to Heda on foot partly along the Old Tokaido Foot Highway that links Japan’s main centres of Edo (Tokyo), Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka. The Russians and Japanese collectively build a new ship at Heda, taking the name of this western Izu port, to enable the Russians to sail home.
Or so the story goes when you visit Shimoda. The story starts to unravel though when you learn that the 21m schooner Heda can only carry 10% of the original Deana crew. The other 450 Russian sailors return home on various conventional American and German traders. So no need therefore to build the schooner Heda for the purpose of returning stranded sailors. Things then get really interesting when the Heda Port folks tell you that the schooner Heda was no ordinary boat. The Russians had in their possession design plans of the schooner America, proven by the Americas Cup as the world’s fastest ship at that time. One can imagine that a sweetener in the Russia/Japan cooperation agreement would be to transfer technology of the pushy Americans that had just humiliated Japan. But that couldn’t happen at Shimoda, now open to and crawling with Americans. So off to Heda Port, still closed to internationals and therefore the perfect place for some secret building. The tsunami/Deana cover story would make the perfect smoke screen and be told actively at the American’s Shimoda base to this day. Another example of moving military secrets away from prying American eyes in Shimoda is the Nirayama Reverberating Furnaces (now a World Heritage site). These were moved from Shimoda to Nirayama, hidden away in central Izu not too far from Heda, for the purpose of manufacturing cannon to protect Edo from the American fleet.
In total Japan made 5 vessels to the schooner Heda (America?) specifications. There is some academic debate that the schooner Heda was not designed based on the schooner America, but rather on a similar schooner named Opuit. However, Japan’s popular yachting magazine Kazi (September 2020 issue) is happy to support the America theory. Anyway, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Today you can enjoy learning about these mid 19th century intrigues at the small but fascinating museum at Heda Port. 166 years after construction of the schooner Heda, today’s America’s Cup boats continue to break new boundaries in design, notching up speeds of 100km/hr on windpower alone!