April 23, 2013

Ulithi Atoll

Leaving Woleai was a bitter sweet experience… This would one of our last "South Pacific" islands to visit and we knew it would be an experience that we would compare many islands to in the future, but we had to move on. Very few islands left a deep impression on us and the friendliness of Woleai definitely was one of them.

We set sail with intention to sail strait to Sorol Island 220 miles to the west but the shifting winds had other plans for us. The wind was predicted to be easterly at 15 knots on the weather report but shifted a little more north and intensified to 25 knots. With winds of this force Downtime moves between 8 and 9 knots and at that speed we would arrive at 7-8 pm and just after dark. Our choice was to turn north to Ulithi or try to slow way down to be able to arrive during daylight at Sorol. We decided to head north and set a course that would get us to Ulithi by the following morning after sailing 280 miles and two nights at sea.

Sailing during our first day we only had one line get hit but the fish did not take the bait. I put the lines back out at sunrise on the second day and we drug them all day before we had any takers. But, when the fish did finally show they came in force and all 4 lines were screaming with a mahi on them! Somehow we managed to get them all aboard before the shark that was following us took a bite out of any of them. I seen his dark shadow going after one of our fish but Daria must have been reeling too fast for him to sink his teeth in.

All that wind we had been having kicked up quite a swell by the second day and we were feeling the effects of the big waves pounding against Downtime. It is a great feeling at the end of a passage to see your destination appear on the horizon. The first thing you see is coconut trees, the highest points on the islands appear on the horizon at about 10 miles out. As you get closer you start picking up the island itself and the waves crashing on the reefs around them.

Ulithi is the 4th largest atoll in the world and is 20 miles long and 8 miles wide with a giant lagoon in the middle surrounded by small islands. This atoll is where the US navy staged over 600 ships to make the final assaults of WW2. Most of the islands spread around the atoll are small and uninhabited and just a few of the larger ones are inhabited with less than 200 people living on them. The exception of Falalop which has a high school and airport and about 600 people.

With the winds still blowing strong we were looking for and anchorage with protection from the strong NE winds but only a few islands in the entire atoll provided that. The first one was Fassarai which is located on the lower south east side of the atoll. The island is just over a mile long and you have to anchor 200 yards off shore to stay out of the coral heads. The anchorage is rolling at high tide from the waves wrapping around the island but the holding is good.

We no sooner had the anchor set and we were hailed on the radio by Martin on the island. We told him we would be ashore after we settled in to say hello. An hour later a guy name Pive came by and gave us a few coconuts and also welcomed us ashore.

We went ashore later that afternoon and were met by 8 or 9 men sitting under the men's house next to the church. The seen was much different than at the last islands and nobody was drinking tuba. Apparently the chief of this entire atoll banned the making and drinking of the stuff and everyone was just sitting around chewing bettle nut. Everyone warmly welcomed us to their island and Pive then took us on a tour of the rest of the island and to the school to meet the kids.

As always the kids were happy to see us as we gave our gifts to them. The elementary school only has about 30 kids and the entire village has less than 100 people.

What they did have that they were proud of was solar power! The whole village was given a solar station and underground connections to each home by the EU several years ago. Each home gets enough power to run a small fridge and lighting for just a few dollars a month. This was an impressive setup with over 150 solar panels feeding a huge battery bank. Power is limited to the basics and air conditioning is not allowed.

All the water they drink is collected from rooftops and stored in cisterns since the groundwater is too salty to drink. The breadfruit and banana trees seem to grow just fine though as well as the taro plants.

After our tour we met the men back at the men's house to see what else was going on this week. We met Martin who had hailed us on the radio and who was also one of the sons of the chief that had recently passed away and is acting chief of this island.

Naturally Daria asked about coconut crab! Martin told us his family owned the islands 7 miles across the lagoon and if we took him and a few guys over there he would be happy to catch us a some. Well that sounded like a plan to me and we told him we would meet him in the morning for a crab catching adventure.

The next morning we met Martin at the village along with Jaymin and Luciano, two very good crab catchers and we loaded into SD for the bash across the lagoon. The winds were still blowing strong and the waves toward the west side were 3 to 4 feet and I was soaked by the time we arrived at the island. We dropped the guys off at the island and Daria and I went out to the edge of the reef and went for a snorkel. With an off shore wind the ocean was nice and calm and we saw lots of interesting fish and even a sneaky moray eel and several sharks.

After about an hour we went back to the island and found the guys who were having a little trouble finding the coconut crabs. They did manage to find a few and decided to give the next island a try. The tide had fallen sine we had been here and now we found ourselves dodging coral heads on our way across the shallow pass between the islands. We wound up getting out of the boat and walking to the island while Jaymin walked the boat through the shallows. Daria went along the shore and took pictures while I went into the jungle with the guys to find crab.

The creatures live in holes any where they can burrow into the ground. So the first thing is to find the pile of dirt they dug out and then see if the entrance to the hole is open or closed. Closed holes mean someone is home and then you start probing the ground with a stick to see where he is at. They are usually not deep and when you find a soft spot you start digging to find them. When you get lucky you find a nice size crab and you grab him by the top of the body and make sure you watch out for the powerful claws that can take a finger off!

Luciano is a seasoned professional and can tell just by looking at the size of the hole just how big the crab is and if he is there or not. The ones that are there are dug up and bound in less that 5 minutes and he off to find the next one.

We wound up with 7 nice sized crabs and called it a good morning and headed back to Downtime for a fresh a mahi lunch. It was Darias turn on the way back to catch the waves on the windward side as I stayed dry. She did not care though she had a sack full of her most favorite food in the world - coconut crab!

Daria was more than happy to feed these guys lunch for all their hard work, a fair trade for all those crabs. I asked the guys what they needed in trade and dug into the fishing tackle and "hooked" them up with a bunch of new gear. Next they asked if I had any rum?…well they do drink!! Just not tuba? I broke out a bottle of Bounty Rum from Fiji and warned them to be careful and the rest is history! Soon after the rum disappeared they were happily dancing to their favorite band CCR on the back of Downtime.

Jaymin eyed my ukulele that I just bought in Majuro and asked if he could play it? I replied: Can you? I brought it to him and he tuned it and began playing. I have to admit this was much more music than this instrument had ever played since my learning to play was short lived. Then he boldly asked if he could have it and I told him why not since I would never learn to play. This made two people very happy, Jaymin and Daria, who would not have to listen to me practice and longer!

It was quite a day and later that afternoon we went ashore to bid our fare wells since we would be leaving in the morning. I have to say this is the third island in a row where we really made a connection with the people and had such a wonderful experience. You can tell this is a place where everyone shares and you could also tell everything they had they would gladly give to help someone out. Lucianos daughter gave Daria a beautiful necklace with over 100 tiny shells woven in a beautiful design.

Thanks to Martin, Luciano and Jaymin for an amazing day!

We headed north in the morning fighting the north winds the whole way, it took us 3 hours to make just 12 bumpy miles to the next island of Asor. This was another small island in the top NE side of the atoll and the anchorage was just a rolling at high tide, but beautiful. Again we were met by a few guys that welcomed us ashore and to their island. In the morning we went ashore and met the chief and paid the $40 entry fee. The village was small and about the same size as the last island and we had enough gifts for all the kids on the island. This island also had solar panels and everyone had cheap power available.

What really got my attention of this anchorage was the 2 mile wide reef that the 20 knot NE winds were blowing strait across onshore creating perfect kiting conditions! In the morning we moved Downtime right in the middle of the reef behind a tiny island and got the kite gear out. The conditions were all coming together with enough wind and low tide falling behind a long reef all at one time. I was able to kite 3 hours strait the first day skimming over crystal clear 1-2 foot deep flat water of the reef. The outer reef absorbed the crashing ocean swell just yards away while I glided over the calm inside reef for a mile in either direction. This was by far the best kite spot I had ever enjoyed with 85 degree water and no obstructions to dodge. It is amazing to skim across the reef and see all the fish darting away inches below you! I even saw an occasional shark scooting away wondering no doubt, what was that? On the far side of the reef was another small treeless island just a few feet high and a half mile long that blocked all the waves and had perfectly flat water behind it. The wind blew unobstructed over the island while I kited on glass behind it going as fast as I could just feet from the beach! This never got old and we spent the next two days enjoying this very special reef.

Just to the west is another island, Mogmog, which is known for being very traditional and we went there for church on Good Friday to meet the villagers. The surrounding islands came here for church and everyone was dressed traditionally with the women in lavalava's and the men in Tu's (loincloth). There were not as many flowers as on Woliea though, but I guess there never will be! It is too bad all the services are in the native language…but we did enjoy the warm welcomes of the villagers.

The anchorages in this entire atoll are marginal and it really depends on wind direction where you will be able to safely anchor.

With another week coming to a close it was time to move on and Monday we set sail for Yap, the island where we would finally have the first store to shop at in 6 weeks and would also clear out of Micronesia before we head to Palau.

In our next adventure we will be in Yap, our first chance to shop and to check e-mails in 6 weeks!

Until then, Peace

Pete and Daria

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April 15, 2013

Woleai atoll

We set sail around 3pm for the short 120 mile sail west to Woleai Atoll from Olimarao island.  The forecasted  were showing winds to ease to 15 knots out of the east so we set the screecher sail and expected a slow 20 hour passage.  Instead of easing the winds did the opposite and increased to over 25 knots!  With a breeze like this Downtime was really moving and surfing down the swells at over 11 knots at times! Needless to say we were going way to fast to fish and just sat back and enjoyed the smooth downwind ride.

Around 10 pm with the winds still blowing strong we decided to change sail and slow the boat down so we would not pass up our destination during the early morning hours.  Furling this huge sail can be quite a challenge in high winds like we were experiencing and I was not looking forward to going on deck and wrestling with it while the boat going 10 knots and sliding down waves in the dark.  We were lucky tonight and everything rolled up like it was supposed to and the dreaded job was done in 15 minutes and Downtime was now cruising along at a comfortable 7 knots.  Having cover nearly 80 miles in the first 8 hours of the trip we had just 40 to go and were due to arrive a 7 am at the south pass into the atoll.

As we approached the island we were hailed on the radio 4 miles out by a watchful eye on shore who asked us our vessel name and intention.  This was a first in a long time that we had been spotted so far out and we were impressed that they were watching their waters so closely.   After entering the lagoon we were handed over to a guy name Tommy who would be our go to guy for the week and he gave us directions into the anchorage.  After we got settled we were contacted by him again and he welcomed us ashore to meet the chief.  We lowered SD and went ashore after breakfast and were greeted with a beautiful lei and a warm handshake.  There are several villages on Woleai and Chief Francis lives on the south end of the island.  We met in a circle under a men’s canoe house with the 78 year old blind Chief and few other village leaders.  Everyone we meet gets the condensed version of our travels and most are amazed by all the places we have been.   We gave the Chief a zip lock full of tuna filets and a hat and he welcomed us to stay on the island as long as we like.

After all the formalities were done we set off to do our favorite thing on a new island, find the kids and hand out gifts and candy.  Soon after we arrived at the elementary school our bags were empty and we were surrounded by smiling faces.  Most the kids spoke English and it was fun to throw a Frisbee and blow bubbles with them. The elementary school has about 120 kids and  there is also a separate high school with another 200 students from here and also a few surrounding islands like Likiep and Elato.  The dress code is loin cloth for the boys and lava lava for the girls and everyone is topless including the teachers.

Five 8th grade girls from the elementary school showed us the way to the high school, down a path that took us through the jungle and across the island.  I was thinking as I walked among them that if I was 15 again and walking through the jungle with 5 top less girls that I would be the luckiest man alive…..

We met with the principle’s at both schools and gave some supplies to the grade school and accepted an offer do a presentation of our travels to the high school.   I have to say that it looks like they are doing a good job teaching and they have enough resources to do their jobs.  The kids are very well mannered and are attentive in class.

We made it to church on  Sunday and caught the end of the service.  It is kind of hard to get motivated to get to church and sit there for hours listening to a language you do not understand….. So we just show up late and meet with the people afterwards.

The night before I had asked permission from the chief to be able to teach some of the boys how to wake board and he said it would be fine after church to go have some fun.  I met the kids on the beach at 10 and the fun began in the rain.  I had 40  5th and 6th grader boys ready to go!  I started the first load of 5 kids on  the wakeboard.  The second kid who tried got up after 2 tried and went a few hundred feet!  I thought great now I have a teacher who can help me explain to the other kids…..WRONG!!  I was only able to get 1 out 15 kids up so I switched to the much easier surfboard, where they could just lay on it and be pulled across the water behind SD.  I kept encouraging them to try and stand and only one brave soul hung ten for a few hundred feet before he wiped out.  I tried telling them all that  it is OK to let go of the rope when they crashed, but most held on for dear life and became human torpedoes!

There were big things going on at the high school with the arrival of 24 new computers filled with tons of information.  John Bush a computer tech from Hawaii and longtime island volunteer was just finishing up the installation.  The mainframe was state of the art and will supply limited information to these students who most of have never operated  a computer.   They are still a long way from having internet but that is not all that bad considering what a waste of time it can be…..instead the mainframe is loaded with all the national geographic issues, the latest world book encyclopedia’s and lots of other useful information that can broaden these kids view of the world.

A few days later we returned and John set up a projector and Daria and I showed the high school kids where we were from.  Daria had lots of great picture from St. Petersburg and I dug up a few of the cows back in Kansas.  Next we showed them a few places like Maccu Pichu, the Mayan ruins in Belize and then shots from the Panama Canal and  New Zealand.  I think they had the most fun with shots we took on their own  islands since they rarely see pictures of themselves let alone projected life size on the wall.  It was good times sharing with all these kids and we were loudly applauded after each presentation.

The winds had been calm for a few days so we  contacted Tommy to see if he could find us a dive guide.  We were in luck, Morgan had recently returned from Yap and is a professional dive guide with over 2000 dives in his log.  We set it up for Monday after we had our presentations at the school and hoped for sunshine.  The weather cooperated and we did two good dives along the pass.  We spotted lots of things with the help of Morgan who could find a needle in a haystack!  We saw several moray eels,  octopus, starfish, a flounder that I thought was sand until it moved, nudibranch, sea stars and even a few pieces of discarded artillery from WW2.   It was strange to see a 5 inch shell laying on the ocean floor knowing it was most likely fired at some unlucky ship so many years ago.

Wolbai Atoll has 8 islands surrounding a beautiful lagoon.  Inside the shallow lagoon  are two small island that might have been candidates for the Corona Beer commercial with a few swaying palm and white sand beaches.  The main island is Woleai which was occupied by over 7000 Japanese troops during the war.  Chief Francis remembers the war vividly and told me that when the troops were here there was not a tree left on the island and you could see from one end to the other.  Like many other islands in the pacific it has a runway built on and has many concrete bunkers doting the landscape.  All the locals were evacuated to Yap during the war and he told me he went to school there until one day when bombs fell on the island and blew up the schools and that was it for school for a while.  Very few locals were killed during the war itself and the only casualties were from people playing with hand grenades they found afterwards.  The Japanese were not as fortunate….he told me only 3000 of the 7000 walked on the ship after the war the rest remain buried on the island.

 Every afternoon the men gather around at 5 to drink tuba (palm wine) and discuss what went on that day and they all seem to want the new visitors at their villages circle for the night. There are 5 circles on main island.  I have learned on thing and that is to bring your own cup and drink slowly!

The men were sitting around one night and discussing fishing and turtle hunting, neither of which they were having much success at lately.  It seems turtles are harder to find and there are not many large fish left on the reef.  I had seen the boat come in and there were 7 or 8 guys with spear guns and maybe 50- 4-6 inch long fish on the ground that they were dividing…not much meat for all that work…..Things used to much much better….

Being a farmer I asked the question of what they were doing to sustain their resources?  Their answer was that they closed certain parts of the reef to fishing certain times of the year.  I asked them to explain how they thought this was helping when obviously a few months was not really helping the catch size…..I took the floor and presented the idea of closing certain parts of the reef for years not months so that fish could mature and actually become old enough to reproduce.  Then they would spread to other parts of the reef and replenish it.  The idea was well received and they said it made sense….but implementing it will be a whole other mater in itself….The next idea I had was how they could harvest more and larger turtles….The practice now is to catch and kill everything you see no matter what size or time of the year it is.  It is even fair game to track the females onto the shore and kill them when they are nesting and laying eggs!  Sadly the eggs are a bonus and they dig them up and eat them too!  What chance does a turtle have when only 2 or 3 eggs will develop into a mature turtle undisturbed in the wild….now with hunting [practices like these it is ZERO!` A turtle lays 70 to 80 eggs and most baby turtles are picked off on their way to the ocean or are eaten by sharks or fish before they are 3 months old.
I suggested to the chief that it would be in everyone’s best interest to stop digging up the nests and taking the eggs and to also stop  killing the females during nesting season.  Another idea was instead of eating the eggs they should gather them and move them to one of their uninhabited islands and protect them.  They also need to build a pen to keep them safe for the first 6 months of their life and feed them.  When they are big enough to survive turn them loose and in 2-3 years these same turtles will return weighing hundreds of pounds.  Only then after a female lays its eggs can they harvest them for meat having created a sustainable farming program.  Again the idea made sense to them…but time will tell if future generations will even know what a turtle looks like……

It seemed every time we went ashore we were given fresh flowers by some one… Wednesday was Raymond’s birthday one of the teachers at the high school and he invited us ashore for a small party. Daria made some chocolate cupcakes and I put together some fishing gear for a present.  Both were very much appreciated and soon  Daria was covered in flowers again.  There was no shortage of tuba either….but I was still in pain from the night before when I almost drowned in the stuff at another party!  We made a short night of it and went back to Downtime early.

The next day we met Tommy and he took us around to see the war ruins.  We saw a few planes in the jungle and some old equipment rusting away.  Most the building were bombed to smithereens and only foundations remained .  Walking through the jungle we saw many craters where bombs had dropped which now were taro gardens where the plants like to grow in standing water.

Our week here was quickly coming to an end and we told Tommy we planed to leave on Saturday.  Next thing we knew a going away party was being planned at the main village.  There was one other boat leaving on Friday so, Thursday night it was.

The culture here is much different than back in the states and only the men showed up to the party!  The women obviously spent many hours preparing the food and flowers but the men served it to us.  The younger guys had been out fishing all morning and our meals had one small fried fish and boiled taro in coconut sauce and had enough food for two people!

The tuba flowed freely and the guys from the other boat brought a few cases of beer so there was plenty to drink. We brought some yellow fin tuna which the men sliced and ate raw, a favorite of theirs.
It seemed that everyone that showed up brought flowers and soon we had 2 or 3 lei’s and 4 or 5 head bands stacked up on our heads.  I had never seen so many flowers!
The next night we asked John to bring down the projector so we could do a slide show at the church for the village.  There had to be 70 or 80 people sitting around as Daria and I showed them pictures of our travels.  We were glad we could share our world with them since they were so generous with sharing theirs.
Our last night on the island Raymond invited us over again and had another bunch of fresh flowers for us to wear.  Wow what an amazing experience!  The generosity and love these people showed us will be treasured for a life time!

In our next adventure we will be stopping Ulithie Atoll the 4th  LARGEST atoll in the world!

Until then, Peace!
Pete and Daria

April 7, 2013

What's up Bob?

Hey Bob,
We are a Ngulu Atoll our last stop in Micronesia! We got here yesterday morning and were greeted by George the Ranger for the preserve. Daria asked about coconut crabs and george and his son went to the island after coffee and caught us four huge ones that yielded a 2 quart bowl full of meat after we cooked them!
Anyways the reports about Yap being difficult and expensive are all false! It cost us $75 total to clear in/out and we had free internet all week that was amazingly fast 24 hours a day! the clearing process is strait forward and you just call the port captain on ch 16 and he arranges everything. The report that other boat gave was a bunch whooie and we were treated nicely. If anyone would have trouble it would have been us since we stopped at 7 islands after Pohnpei!
The town is small and shopping can be done, just watch the dates on the packages since most every thing is old!
We will sail to Palau late this afternoon and should arrive by morning. Oh and the latest fishing report!
The purple/pink squid strikes again!! This time I left two poles out at night just for fun..At around 11 pm on a pitch black moonless night we get a strike! Something huge too!! I am like what could it be and fought for an hour to get it to the boat. Then the leader finally starts winding on the reel and we see a 8 foot sword fish! The bill must have been over 3 feet long and i was wondering how the heck I was going to get it aboard! I got a gaff into it and pulled but it was just too big to lift and the gaff ripped out! I re-gaffed and the fish kept fighting and we finally got the boat stopped and I was attempting to get a line on the tail when the gaff came out again and we lost the fish after all that hard work!
Then the line with a yellow feather that was just dangling short has something on it? A foot long squid attacked it while it was dangling in the lit up water! Calamari anyone!
one last thing...we had an intruder last night!! Daria woke me up saying: "There is someone on the boat"! I got up and looked around thinking what a bunch of crap we are anchored on a uninhabited island! Well in the morning we found the intruder...a black seabird had flown into an open port on the far side of the boat and was disoriented and still trying to get out bouncing off the walls. I thew a towel over it and let it go.
Pedro and Daria

PS: we will post stories about Woleai, Ulithi and Yap in few days from Palau!

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