In March 2011, a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan. The damage was so severe that the small fishing town of Rikuzentakata was nearly flattened with 80 percent of it destroyed and more than 1,600 people dead. Almost five years have passed and the city is still recovering, but thanks to a few high school students on California's North Coast, a little bit of hope has emerged from some recovered tsunami debris.
It started at a beach in Crescent City. Cmdr. Bill Steven, of the Del Norte County Sheriff's Department, remembers answering a phone call one night in April 2013.
“We’d received a call from some people that said, 'Hey, there’s something suspicious happening on South Beach.' "
At first he thought people were stealing things from the harbor. But after he and other officers from the Sheriff’s Department arrived, he saw that people were actually trying to lift an object out of the water. It was a small 20-foot fishing boat that washed up on the beach. It had flipped over in the ocean, and he could see that gooseneck barnacles covered the boat’s interior.
After transporting the boat to the Sheriff's Department, Steven was still curious about its owners.
"I went to a number of people. I went to NOAA and I went to our Office of Emergencies here in town and said, ‘Hey, who’s laying claim to this boat?' "
It turns out that he and the officers were in control of the boat, at least for the time being. That wasn't quite the answer Steven was looking for, but that did give him some time to figure out more about the boat. After removing a few of the barnacles, he saw some Japanese symbols. That’s when he realized the boat was debris from the Japanese tsunami of 2011.
The symbols translated to: Takata High School.
Steven didn’t know where that was exactly, but it made him think of his son, John, who was at the time a junior at Del Norte High School. That's when he approached John with a proposition.
“I called him into the living room and said, ‘Hey I got an idea. Tell me what you think.' "
The idea was that his son and a few friends could clean up the boat and send it back to the high school in Japan, sort of like a small weekend project for Del Norte High.
John and six other students spent a day cleaning the boat, which included scrubbing barnacles for several hours. He never thought anything more could come out of it.
“We just thought it was something fun to do. You know, like send the boat back and it would be cool. We never had any idea how big this would get.”
After a bit of hard work, they could see the boat's name: Kamome, which means "seagull" in Japanese.
The community felt a deeper connection to the little boat. Crescent City has a long history with tsunamis. One nearly destroyed the town in 1964, and in 2011 part of its harbor was damaged from the same Japanese tsunami when it moved across the Pacific.
A few more people found out about the boat, including Humboldt State University geologist Lori Dengler. She recognized the boat's origins because she studied recovery efforts after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake.
“I knew where it had come from. I had seen the city before, and I recognized that this was just an extraordinary connection," she said.
Dengler submitted paperwork to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Japanese Consulate. She also used social media to find out if anyone wanted Kamome back.
“All I did was just post a little note on the Facebook page. It said, 'We found this boat, It says Takata High School. Is it by any chance your boat?' ” she said.
That's when she informally met Amya Miller, the global public relations director for Rikuzentakata, who happened to be on the Facebook page.
“So I write back to Lori and say, ‘Yes this is our boat.' And that's how this incredible journey began.' ”
Dengler was ecstatic to receive a reply.
“Getting that message just sent chills up and down my spine. I jumped up in the air, pumped my fist up and said, “YES! We've connected!' ”
She also realized that Kamome was more than just tsunami debris. For Rikuzentakata, this boat was a glimmer of hope for the community.
Kamome eventually returned to Japanese shores, thanks to the NOAA and the Japanese Consulate. It was transported on a freighter via the Port of San Francisco. City officials from Rikuzentakata greeted the boat at the docks in October 2013, and as part of the celebration Takata High invited John Steven and his friends -- who had cleaned the boat -- to visit them in Japan.
John remembers meeting with Takata High School students in February 2014. That's when he realized how much this boat had affected them.
"You didn’t realize how much they actually appreciate it till you were there and talking to them face to face. It was really amazing and I was really honored to be a part of that," he said.
He never thought they'd have so much in common.
“You know, well, we’re a small fishing community and so are they. They’re right on the ocean like we are," he said.
Takata High and Del Norte High became sister schools earlier this year and both schools are hoping to create more programs that connect them, including an event that let Takata High School students visit Crescent City and see the Coastal Redwoods in February 2015.
As for Kamome, it was on display at the Tokyo National Museum for several months. The boat is now in storage back in Rikuzentakata, where it will be exhibited in a new museum that’s still being built.
The story of Kamome is not one to be forgotten. This year, Dengler and Miller published a bilingual children’s book about the experience: "The Extraordinary Journey of Kamome: A Tsunami Boat Comes Home." They held their first reading in Crescent City and will visit the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco and Eastwind Books in Berkeley in January 2016.
While Kamome’s journey across the Pacific has ended, the students of Del Norte and Takata high schools are forever changed. Kamome reminds us that hope still floats even after a tsunami.