January 12, 2013

New Years in Wotje Atoll

With just a few days remaining in 2012 we set sail for our next adventure sailing with our friend Bob on Braveheart to Likiep atoll some 200 miles to the NW.  The winds were forecast to blow out of the east at 10-15 knots but we found ourselves motor sailing in little or no wind the first few hours.  We set sail at 10 am and calculated our arrival sometime the following afternoon using 7 knots as an average speed.

When making a good Plan A we find that we must also include a good “Plan B” just in case things go, well….Not like “Plan A”    This trip started just that way… We were going much slower than 7 knots average speed and calculated that at this speed we would arrive way after dark thirty the next day and there is no way either of us were going to attempt entering a poorly charted atoll at night.

Plan B was to stop at Wotje Atoll some 60 miles closer but was also 20 miles further east (closer to the wind).  We changed course with plan B in full force when things started getting interesting.  After motor sailing for 5 hours the winds stared picking up and a series of squalls could be seen in the eastern skies.  Bob had pulled ahead about a mile and had a lot of sail up when the first squall hit.  He thought he would be in front of the system but was caught by 30 knot winds and torrential rains.  Conditions like these cause mono-hulls to lean way over and Bob found himself standing knee deep in the cockpit trying to get the boat back on course while cushions and whatever else was not tied down washed out to sea.  While he was battling the squall I took the hint and rolled up our jib and turned down wind to ease the pressure of the wind on my mainsail because I also had way to much sail up!

The squalls had caught us off guard but the weather forecast had not shown any storms heading our way? Forecast like these are what sailors hate because they tend to allow you to let your guard down.  We have found that the ocean never rests and is always looking for a way to get inside the boat.  Every time we leave a hatch open to get some air in the boat a wave, even on a calm day a wave finds it’s way in!  Bob had just this experience, he had a hatch open when the squall hit and gallons and gallons of water came aboard!  Enough  to fill pots he had stored in the oven and soak the refrigerator controls!  After the squall we both reduced sail and Bob spent the next hours getting thing back in order on Braveheart.

With the sails reefed and the sun setting the winds filled in to the forecasted 20 knots and Downtime was in her element, chewing up miles while charging across the ocean swells at just under 10 knots.  At these speeds it is very noisy and rough aboard when the boat crashes through the waves.  But after many, many miles of sailing her I am confident in the machine we are sailing on and know her limits.  Even though we were on the outer limits of being comfortable I knew the boat would stay together and pressed on. There is no way to describe the feeling of being out on the ocean on a dark night with a fresh breeze driving you to your destination.

We were ready for the next squalls and seen them clearly on the radar as they approached.  Like before the winds would pick up to over 30 knots when they passed but only lasted 30 to 40 minutes.  The last squall of the night was the most amazing storm I Have ever seen. Not so much the storm but how it developed and ended with the full moon.

The moon had been up for an hour or two but was blocked by the clouds,  I could tell this by looking up and seeing the stars in the clear skies over head.  I could see the storm fast approaching on the radar and was ready with the sails reefed and prepared for the blow.  The squall hit and passed like the others with the same force but what happened after the storm was what was truly amazing and something I had never seen before!

The full moon was to my right and about a third of the way up on the horizon. The storm had passed and was about the same height on my left when we saw our first ever “Moon Bow”.  I do not know if that is what they are called but an arc the same size as a rainbow during the day was on the horizon starting at the water and shining a bright white bow that was about a fourth as bright as the moon itself!   I stood in awe at the site of this amazing phenomenon.  We did not know it was even possible, but will remember it forever.

We sailed on with the last of the squalls behind us in 20 knot winds and calculated our arrival at the pass  somewhere around 6 am.  Bob left his sails reefed and got some sleep as we put some distance between each other during the last hours of the night.  We would be passing close to Erikub Atoll  which we found out is the slash down zone for long range missile testing for the USA.  We hoped there would be no testing tonight as we sailed by!

Plan B was working out well and we cleared the pass by 7 am but found ourselves motoring the last 12 miles across the atoll strait into the 20 knot winds towards the anchorage on Wotje Atoll.  Luckily the bombas(coral heads) inside the atoll had been wire drug (knocked down)by the navy years ago because our new charts seem to be off by a few hundred feet!  We figured this one out when our track line went right through the middle of an island on our way through the pass!

By noon we had the anchor set and spent the rest of the day napping and taking it easy after a rough sail.  Bob arrived a few hours and did the same.

We woke refreshed the next morning and put SD down to go find the Mayor (they don’t call them chief any longer?) and give him a white out and island name changed copy of our permit paper since Wotje was not on Plan A which had official documents……

Wotje Atoll was occupied by the Japanese since the early 1920’s. Wotje is one of 74 islands that make up the atoll and the largest isalnd.  By the 40’s the Japanese had sugarcane plantations and had heavily fortified the island with many large concrete bunkers and even built a air strip down the middle of the island.  Thousands of square yards of concrete were poured and now serve as the town center and are used as roads.  Roads? Yes we actually counted 3 pickup trucks on this 3 mile long island!

The concrete along with the bunkers is riddled with pock marks left from bombs dropped during the war.  The bunker that protected the generators took a direct hit on the roof and the blast had the force to buckle 3 foot square heavily reinforced concrete columns but the 3 foot thick roof is still intact although resting on an angle over the buckled columns.  The bunker next to it has a tank battery inside and you can still smell the fuel oil inside after 70 years!  One of the generators was in the middle of a rebuild with pistons the size of 30 gallon drums lined up in a row next to the cylinder head when the bomb was dropped and is now one of the longest engine rebuilds in history! And you thought your mechanic was slow!

We had one of the locals show us the other war remains and saw several 5 inch guns slowly rusting away.  One gun was amazing  in the fact that it actually had bullet holes through the barrel!  You have to wonder what kind of gun has the power to shoot through another guns 2 inch thick steel barrel?  Toward the south end of the island is the Generals Quarters which we also found heavily bombed but still standing.  The heavy steel doors were full of bullet holes but the thick walls stopped anything that struck them.  A few hundred feet through the coco nut trees is a cemetery with  two markers covered in Japanese writing.   Walking down the path we arrived in a the village of London home to about 40 people and had a coconut to drink.  Continuing down the path we came to the end of the island and a small bunker.  I went to look inside the 4 foot high door and to my surprise came face to face with a fully grown pig who came charging out towards me!  Apparently this is his place to get away from it all and take a nap.  Way on the south end of the island is another battery that the big guns were placed at.  The guns are long gone but the bunker remains in an amazing condition considering it was built over 80 years ago!  The people from London keep the weeds down and the floors swept.  There is an unspoken respect for what happened here on these islands.  Many peoples lives and futures were changed during this war and we would be living much different times if the war had the opposite outcome……

While we were on this island we had intermittent but slow internet to our amazement.  I posted where our location was on Facebook and one of my best friend Phil’s dad,  James Odem sent a message that said “ I was there on Wotje in 1944!)   James was born in 1927 and was only 17 when he was stationed here all those years ago!  I can only imagine what it would had been like to be 17 and thousands of miles from home serving in the war.  I want to say thanks to Jim and the countless other brave souls that made a stand and help make America the country it is, The land of the Free and the Home of the Brave!

New year was spent on Downtime eating a roasted duck with Bob, We had planned to go ashore and celebrate with the locals but the weather had other ideas as it continued to be stormy.  The duck was my idea and Daria did good job, but it was pretty tough to serve three people on…  Daria saved the day and fried up some yellow fin tuna and then she brought out a seven layer Medovik cake with layers white cake and creamy lemon sour cream which was amazing!  New years found us with sleepy faces and ready for bed.

 We hope 2013 is as amazing as 2012 has been and we wish every one of our fiends and family the best in 2013.

HAPPY New Year from Downtime!

Pete and Daria