A group of men attempted to retrieve a boat that washed ashore on a Northern Californian beach Sunday night, not knowing it was likely from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, and thought to be the first of the debris to wash ashore in California, according to officials.
The 21-foot-long panga boat -- covered in muck, 18-inch-long live barnacles and Japanese writing -- washed ashore on South Beach in Crescent City more than 4,500 miles from Japan.
"It's the same size as the 'Life of Pi' boat, but instead of a tiger, we have all these barnacles," said Lori Dengler of Humboldt State University’s Redwood Coast Tsunami Work Group, an organization that helps state and federal agencies investigate tsunami damage.
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Del Norte police contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, a federal scientific agency, to investigate. NOAA officials are currently working with the Japanese consulate in San Francisco to link the boat’s owner to the registration number located on the back of the boat.
But Dengler and the Humboldt Tsunami Group believe the circumstantial evidence proves the boat is debris from the tsunami.
Handwritten Japanese characters on the side of the boat roughly translated to "Takada High School,” a high school in Rikuzentakata city -- one of the places hit hardest by the 2011 tsunami that came after the magnitude-8.9 earthquake and killed 18,000.
“There’s no question that the boat is Japanese,” Dengler said. “And that school puts it right in the tsunami zone.”
The strong south winds over the weekend likely pushed the boat ashore due to the coriolis effect, a wind force that causes currents to twist to the right in the northern hemisphere, Dengler said.
Based on research, debris from the tsunami would take two years to end up in Northern California, so it is not unusual that the boat ended up there, Dengler said.
Dengler came to investigate the vessel after local Del Norte Sheriff’s deputies spotted the group of men hauling the boat up to the highway in an attempt to take it home, police said.
“These guys probably thought it would clean right up,” said Commander Bill Steven of the Del Norte Sheriff’s Office. “For what it went through -- traveling 5,000 miles for two years in water upside down -- for all of that, it looks like you could stick a motor on it and take it out today.”
Dengler also said frayed ropes on the front and back of the boat were hardened -- something that occurs when rope is violently jerked and torn, possibly from a dock.
Barnacles growing on the boat for at least a year were long and noodle-like, Dengler said.
“It looks like it’s covered in spaghetti,” Dengler said. “Despite that, it’s in pretty good condition.”
The Japanese fiberglass vessel is currently housed in a secured Del Norte Sheriff’s parking lot after deputies scraped the marine life off to prevent the barnacles from dying off and causing an odor. Steven said the sheriff’s office is awaiting word from the NOAA on what to do with the boat.
“It still smells a little, but now it’s not going to stink up neighborhood,” Steven said.
As of last week, the NOAA has received 1,691 reports of tsunami debris, and only 25 items have been verified.
Among those includes a Harley Davidson in its case washed up 4,000 miles from Japan in Canada, and a soccer ball from a school in Japan found in Alaska.
The boat, if officially linked to the tsunami, would be the first piece of debris confirmed to have washed ashore in California.