Landfall Palau

That was a quick but boring passage, that’s for sure. The winds were light and we spent two days trying to balance the desire for a short trip with the hope to sail when we could. The wind was behind us and varied between 4 and 14 knots. Sometimes we motored, sometimes we sailed, but mostly we motor-sailed. We arrived at the island early Monday morning as planned and found a barrier reef with no marked passage across, and a 2.5 knot outgoing current in the 3 mile channel around the inside reef. It was a bit of a white-knuckler for me, but we arrived safe and sound at the dock where we found all the officials waiting for us. So far it’s cost us $100 to check in, which is $200 less than we expected, so we’re happy with that.

The dock at Sams Tours where we are anchored beyondWe’re tucked into a little bay where a very large dive organization also hosts the yachtie community. One of the other cruisers came by while we got lunch yesterday and gave us lots of info about Palau. One of the things I kept hearing from her was about this boat that came for 3 months and has been here for 12 years, or that other boat that came 4 years ago for two weeks and is still here. We are definitely pondering the notion of staying here and skipping Hong Kong. As much as we love a big city and were excited about eating dim sum until we fell over (ok, maybe that was me and not Rob), the 1,500 miles to get there from here just might not be worth it. Plus we’re still a little east of Japan, so the trip directly up from here shouldn’t be too bad, and we’ll avoid the nightly convection along the Chinese coastline.

Watching and listening to all the divers come in yesterday afternoon certainly convinces us of the validity of Palau’s reputation as the dive capital of the Pacific. One of the cruising yachts here knows all about diving independent of the expensive dive companies, so we’re hoping to meet up with them soon and get the scoop. We’ll likely head out to the Rock Island cruising ground next week to spend time with our friends on Irish Melody before they set sail for the Philippines, where they’re putting their boat up to travel home.

One other interesting thing here is that they have a vet ashore. The quarantine official told us yesterday that they would assist getting Maya ashore to the vet if she got sick while we were here. That’s the first time we’ve heard that offer, and thought it very kind of them to mention. It also makes us think we can find a kitten here to keep her company. The only challenge is that we have to figure out if we’ll have issues bringing a kitten back into the US who is too young to have been inoculated with a rabies vaccine. Internet is very expensive here, but hopefully we’ll get that research done soon and get Maya some company.

Today on Yohelah we’re happy to be settling in at Palau and hope to linger for a while…..


Palau is here.

Weather, luck , and the good side of the storm

The weather…

Between sailing the west coast of the America’s, long passages in the South Pacific, and crossing the equator four times we have experienced a lot of different weather and sailing conditions. Sailing across the Pacific has been challenging at times but very educational. We are truly different sailors than when we started out four years ago.

We have always avoided storms, ensuring we are safely ensconced in the northern hemisphere during hurricane season in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa. When we left Majuro to head across Micronesia, we entered an area of active hurricane formation for the first time cruising. Why? There is no off-season here. Well, technically there is, the off season is the same as for the rest of the North Pacific, which we are currently in. However, this area of Micronesia still spawns cyclones in the off season. A little over a week ago a cyclonic disturbance formed between Pohnpei and Chuuk, 1000 miles to the east of us. At the time we arrived in Yap the weather professionals were ‘watching’ the disturbance to see if it was likely to gain strength and move off towards us or dissipate toward the equator. They have several ‘models’ they use to predict future behavior, one was showing it developing into a storm system and heading north west towards us. This was the situation when we arrived in Yap. Four days later it HAD developed into a tropical depression and was moving west. By the end of our first weekend on Yap we were sure it was coming our way, the only question was it’s exact path.

The winds in tropical storms and cyclones in the northern hemisphere rotate counter-clockwise and the whole storm system travels between 10 and 20 knots. Since the winds rotate counterclockwise, the storm winds on the right side are enhanced by the 10-20 knots of storm movement. If the storm is moving at 15 knots, then the winds on the right side are 15 knots faster. The opposite is true on the left side of the storm. These winds are blowing into the winds caused by the storm movement and so have the 15 knot storm speed subtracted from their speed. The end result is a 30 knot difference in wind speed based on which side of the storm hits you – you may remember this from when Katrina ran over New Orleans they were hit by the fiercer, right side of the hurricane.

With the storm a couple of hundred mile away NOAA was predicting a path for our tropical depression that went south of Yap, putting us on the more dangerous side of the storm. It was officially a tropical storm at this point, with winds over 40 knots. It was moving at 15 knots, giving us a 30 knot difference in wind from one side to the next. We all had our fingers crossed that the storm would veer north and give us the good side. It slowed down and indeed started veering more northerly, eventually passing 50 miles to the north of Yap. We were spared the higher winds, the peak we saw was 38 knots with most of the wind in the 20-30 knot range. And so we weathered our first tropical storm.


An Australian catamaran left Yap the day we arrived. We hadn’t met them but were sad to see them leaving because they had spent a lot of time in our next stop, Palau, and were a wealth of information. Fortunately they briefed mutual friends in the anchorage and so we have benefited from their knowledge. Before they left Yap one of the other sailboats asked them about the cyclonic disturbance around Chuuk, they thought an atoll would be better than being in Yap.

When the storm veered north and spared us it’s stronger side it just about ran over Ulithi atoll, where the Australians were set to weather the storm. Our good luck was their bad luck as they were hit with the strongest winds and seas from the tropical storm. They reported massive waves coming over the boat and lost two anchors. The boat ended up drifting across the atoll and ran aground on the reef, virtually destroying the boat. The good news is the couple and their two young daughters survived, bad news is the state of the boat. At last report it was still in the surf zone on top of the reef with the hull breached. They are attempting to get the boat off the reef and have committed the next six months to rebuilding the boat.

Risk management…

Sailing a boat around the Pacific is an exercise in risk management. I was just reading the January edition of Latitude 38, the San Francisco sailing magazine, marvelling at the letters criticizing the decisions of a boat in the South Pacific that was caught in a hurricane and destroyed in Fiji. I love armchair sailors and Monday morning quarterbacks, just not combined in the same person. It strikes me as arrogant to question someone else’s decisions when you are not in the same part of the world and do not have the burden of decision making in the same conditions as the boat. Seems to me the only critic should be someone else on the same boat, and not in a magazine.

Everyone out here does the best they can with what’s on hand. With mediocre holding in a small harbor surrounded by reefs there may have been a few more problems in Yap if the storm hadn’t veered. We’ll never know, but it did make me wish for a couple of more anchors and another hundred feet of chain. We already carry three anchors, 400 feet of chain, and 600 feet of rope rode, but traveling in an area of active tropical disturbances is a bit different than the off-season traveling we’ve done up ’til now. We’ll add more anchors.

Our boat is much heavier than a catamaran and carries much heavier anchoring gear. We also have less windage, less surface area exposed to the wind. All this means we are much less likely to drag in storm conditions. Our heavier boat also weathers large seas and high winds better than light catamarans, making the option of weathering a storm at sea much more attractive. So what would we have done? I don’t know, and won’t know until we are in those conditions. And our decision will be based on the strengths of our boat, so the correct decision for two boat in the same place at the same time can still be different, and still correct for both boats.

No Monday morning quarterbacks need apply.

Today on Yohelah we are surrounded by land in Palau…


Beautiful Palau

One question we ask other cruisers, and ourselves get asked frequently is “what was your favorite stop”. I had for a long time believed the answer varied based on where we were most recently. Then we found Niue and fell in love with the island, and that became a standard answer. But now there’s Palau, and it’s going to be hard to beat this as a favorite stop on the Pacific Loop. The main islands are beautiful, the harbors safe and comfortable, the water warm and crystal clear, the people friendly, the provisioning exceptional, the cruising fabulous and the diving spectacular.

Restored traditional meeting house called a Bai in AiraiWe came in with three other boats from Yap and decided to rent a couple of cars right after we arrived to do an island tour. The car rental company only had one large van, which conveniently sat 7 people – our exact number. So there we were, with Rob driving, Dave navigating, and myself, Linda and Lulu giving directions (all at the same time, usually to different places). It was hysterical. We were all amazed when we managed to accomplish our first stop, but ended up with a marvelous day touring nearly all the sights we set out to see. Rob has posted some nice pictures in the photo gallery of that tour.

After some rest and provisioning we applied for a permit for the Rock Islands, which is Palau’s premier cruising ground. Recognizing the value of protecting both their ecosystem and significant tourism economy, the leaders of Palau have passed a fair number of laws around the use of the Rock Islands area, and patrol it regularly to ensure those laws are obeyed.

We anchored first at the Omekang Islands, near what the map described as Palau’s most popular and famous dive sites. Luckily there were two other boats there at the time who told us about diving the area, which it turns out is like Cocos Island where you need a buddy boat to tend the dinghys on the surface. The currents can be swift and unpredictable, so it’s not always possible to leave the dinghy on the surface, swim one direction for a while then turn back and return to the dinghy. We were happy when they invited us to join them for two dives, where we found that Palau’s reputation for spectacular diving is well earned. Generally when you’re diving and want to stop and look at something or take a picture you can grab ahold of a dead spot on the reef and balance yourself. Not so at Blue Corner – there are no dead spots on the reef anywhere! Our second dive was a wall dive that had lots of absolutely gorgeous soft corals that Rob hasn’t seen anywhere in the world since the Red Sea. We’ll get some pix posted of the dive and anchorages when we get back to Koror.

On anchor in our little spotToday we’re anchored in a little island group call Mecherchar, where fans of Survivor will remember the reward trip to Jellyfish Lake. It’s a lake where the jellyfish have evolved to a state of exceptionally mild stingers. They eat algae from the water, then float in the sun while the algae photosynthesizes and nourishes them. I have absolutely zero interest in swimming with a few thousand jellyfish, stingers or not, but Rob joined our friends Linda & Dave from Irish Melody for a swim yesterday and enjoyed it enough that he’s going back again this morning with the camera. Tomorrow we’ll head north to another island group where there are several Japanese shipwrecks to explore and some good snorkeling. Then we’ll go back to Koror to renew our permit (only 10 days at a time allowed for each permit) and come back to Blue Corner for more diving.

Today on Yohelah the plan has been updated to stay in Palau as long as possible, then head north to Japan – Hong Kong dim sum will have to wait for another voyage…..


Which Way is Up?

We have two units in the cockpit we can see while driving the boat that display electronic charts. We left Seattle with just one – a trusty little Garmin plotter – but it failed us before our last trip across the equator when we discovered they didn’t have detailed charts for Micronesia (obviously not many people go this way). So we bought a chart chip for the Raymarine display that we use for radar and AIS. There are three ways you can orient the charts to display as you move – course up (planned), heading up (actual), or north up. I definitely prefer heading up, keeping the graphic of the boat always pointing to the top of the display.

When we left Majuro in February we had a route planned to head across Micronesia, into Asia, up through Japan and back to the Pacific Northwest. Three days ago we were stopped by another cruiser here who knows of our intention to sail north from here, and also knows that we have a cat onboard. Who would have guessed that Japan is rabies free and has strict rules about importing animals? Suddenly I’m in the internet cafe scrambling to find documentation and contact information for the Japanese Animal Quarantine Service folks. Just pondering the notion of a direct 5,500 mile trip home if we’re unable to stop in Japan was too painful to consider, so I started surfing a little bit. And what should appear on my browser? That Oracle job in Kwajalein that I had seen the posting for so many times before we were in the neighborhood. It had been reopened and posted two days earlier, so I emailed some folks in Kwajalein.

Now here we sit today with three options, only the worst of which is a sure deal. Will the hiring manager give me a shot at the Kwajalein job, and if so, will the timing work out for a job for Rob also? The course back to the Marshall Islands is east. Will the Japanese allow us to keep Maya onboard while we sail through Japanese waters (New Zealand will with very strict limitations – Hawaii will not)? The course to Japan is north. Or do we make the direct passage 5,500 mile trip home – the first 2,500 sailing to weather and the last 3,000 sailing in the very cold and contrary high latitudes of the North Pacific? The course home is northeast.

Which way is up?
Which way is up?

The good news is we’ve got time here to figure it out. Besides the fact that we love Palau, as US citizens we can stay for a year with no questions asked (that has something to do the the millions of dollars the US gives them every year). And the weather in Japan is still way too stormy to even consider sailing that way for probably another month. We’ll wait for emails from Japan and Kwajalein and hopefully hear something this week. And then we’ll plot a course on our charts and figure out which direction to point the boat, because today I have no idea which way is up.


Palau Diving – It Does NOT Get Better Than This

Wow. We just finished up a morning dive at Blue Corner, which is one of Palau’s most popular dive sites. When we went in the water there were 2 or 3 big dive boats out on the reef. When we came back up 45 minutes later there were 15! Amazingly, we didn’t see any other humans before we surfaced. But we did see hundreds of fish and some turtles and sharks a very alive and healthy coral reef. Tomorrow we’re taking a rest day, but I’m sure we’ll be back out on that reef bright and early Sunday morning. Hopefully Rob will bring his camera this time and get some good pix for the photo gallery.

We’re on anchor out at the south end of the Rock Islands again, enjoying what is likely our last 10 day park permit. This is truly a perfect anchorage, with one little exception. Actually, thousands of little exceptions in the shape of flies. What’s amazing to us is that the wind and rain doesn’t slow them down a bit. We never imagined we would need our bug screen for flies, and never thought we’d have the bug screens up in 10 knots of wind. Hopefully it’ll cool off a bit with this next rain squall and I can go out for an afternoon kayak around the islands, even with the flies.

She also licks the inside of all grocery bags
She also licks the inside of all grocery bags

Rob discovered something interesting the other day. The cat likes to be iced down. Shouldn’t be surprising, since she doesn’t mind the rain and often comes in soaking wet. She’s taken to sleeping on top of the freezer, and must be getting just enough cold seeping up through the crack in the lid to give her some comfort in the heat. So one day Rob was getting ice for a drink and held a piece to the top of her head. She’s not one to put up with something she doesn’t like, but she just stayed put. When I repeated the event this morning she seemed happy, and was completely wet by the time the ice cube was all melted. She’s finished her mid day nap and has moved back to the top of the freezer again for her late afternoon nap.

We’re starting to watch the weather up north for our upcoming transit through Japan. We finally have permission from the authorities to bring Maya into the country, we just have to report to them all the stops we plan on making in advance so they will know where she is. They’re much more generous than either New Zealand, Australia, or Hawaii, and we’re grateful for that. There is one late season storm causing horrible weather in the North Pacific right now, but hopefully it’s the last one. Another yachtie here in Palau is also sailing to Japan and confirms that mid-May is a perfect time to head north. We haven’t heard back from the hiring manager in Kwajalein, but still do have our fingers crossed that something materializes there before we have to head north.

My lesson for this week is to never trust a Filipino cross-dresser to mix hair color according to the swatch she/he showed me. Here’s hoping the sun and saltwater bleach the color out in a hurry.


PS: Rob said that is definitely my lesson, not his. He would never have trusted the Filipino cross-dresser with a pair of scissors, much less a bowl of hair color.

Coming Home Again

When we left Seattle four years ago we were pretty sure that our boat would not see the cold waters of Puget Sound again. It’s an uphill sail to the Pacific Northwest from anywhere south (meaning both upwind and against the current) in the summer. Sailing in the high latitudes of the North Pacific is challenging enough in the summer, we would never try it in the winter. Four years ago the world was a different place economically, and our plans were to work as we traveled. These plans were approved by our financial advisor, who said happily “just go sailing and send me some money every couple of years and you’ll be fine”. We hoped that at some point in our travels we’d find that perfect little island or piece of land where we would build a little house and live happily ever after.

We also always knew that leaving family behind may at some point require us to come back for some extended period of time to help out. While out on anchor in the Rock Islands this week we received an email from home that convinced us that time has arrived. Given the global economic conditions of today, it also makes sense for us to work in the states while we’re home helping out. Most importantly, what we have learned in the last four years is that Dorothy was right – There’s no place like home. So we will set sail for Puget Sound next week, bringing our boat back to the short summers and long wet winters of the Pacific Northwest. Are we coming back for good? Are we tired of cruising? Absolutely not. We’ll leave and sail south again as soon as it makes sense, we’re just not sure at this point when that will be. In the meantime we’ll enjoy the quiet waters of home and return to weekend anchoring in the many favorite spots Puget Sound has to offer.

The route home is long and cold. From Palau to Elliott Bay is over 5,600 miles if sailed in a straight line. But since the first 2,000 miles may be hard to weather (certainly forward of the beam at best), a straight line likely will not be possible. We expect this trip to take at least 45 days, with little of the easy downwind sailing we’ve learned to like.

The to-do list will keep us busy this last week in Palau. Rob needs to recommission the furnace, which of course we haven’t turned on since we left Alaska. We’re going to take the anchors off the bow, stow them aft, and move all the anchor chain out of the anchor locker from the bow to somewhere midships. Lightening the bow will make the boat pound less when sailing to weather and make the trip much more comfortable. We’ll get the parachute anchor and storm sails ready to deploy, in the event we get caught in a late season storm. We’ll load up on diesel to help if we need to motor sail into big winds and seas, or if we accidentally get into the middle of the North Pacific high and lose our wind. We’ll refill our propane tanks and I’ll figure out where to store enough food to last for two months, which sadly means lots of canned fruit and veggies. And somewhere in the midst of all the preparations I’ll get back out on that reef for what will be our last warm water dive for possibly a very long time.

As we talked last night about the upcoming passage and both agreed it was the right thing to do, Rob made the comment that we should check the timing and make sure we left Palau at the right time of day so that when we made landfall at the customs dock in Port Angeles it would be during daylight hours. Funny guy. That’s hard enough to do when traveling on short hops between the atolls of the Tuamotus. Right now we don’t know how many weeks this passage is going be, how many miles we’re actually going to have to sail, or how many days we might need to heave to and wait for storms pass by. What we do know is that it feels good to be coming home again.


Farewell Palau – Japan Here We Come

We’re very sad to be pulling our anchor this morning and heading out the northwest pass of Palau’s barrier reef. We’re in an anchorage on the island of Babeldaub that’s either called Ngeremeduu Bay or Karamadoo Bay, depending on which side of the map of Palau you’re looking at. It’s one of the quietest and most remote anchorages we’ve been at since we left Alaska.

When we left the anchorage at The Royal Belau Yacht Club (Belau being the original spelling of Palau) yesterday we left behind four boats that either came in with us or right after us, who are all staying for the year. Two are single men, one is a couple from Madison Bay on Bainbridge Island near home, and the third is a Swiss/Kiwi couple who are going to have their first child in another six weeks. We really didn’t want to leave, that’s for sure.

But since our last posting and speedy return to town to call family, the news at home has improved. What was thought to be a cancerous biopsy turned out not to be. However, we didn’t know that it was only an infection until I was done provisioning the boat for a 5,800 mile passage home. We were looking forward to landfall at home, and also dreading the long nonstop trip, so we breathed a sigh of relief when we found out we didn’t need to hurry home. Then I had to figure out how to stow all the food I had bought, since we didn’t want it in bins in the aft cabin getting in the way while we were traveling through Japan. Needless to say, the lockers are packed to the brim.

This morning we set sail for Kagoshima Japan. It’s about 1,450 miles from here to there, and the weather forecast looks good. We’ll have winds in the 15 knot range near the beam (hopefully on or just aft) for the first several hundred miles, then they go real light. But they should still be on the beam or just forward, and around 8-10 knots, which is sailable for us. As we approach Japan, all bets are off, since it’s still early enough for stinky weather in the high latitudes we’re heading to.

Having spent 44 years of my life north of 48 degrees, it sounds funny to be calling 30 degrees north a high latitude. But it’s going to be cold for us after four years in the tropics. We’re certain Maya will be relieved, after watching her laying on the floor panting yesterday in the heat. We’ve pulled out our cold weather gear and have it ready for the night watches, which we think will cool very quickly. I’ll post the cabin temp and water temp in our updates as we sail nearly due north.

Today on Yohelah we’re sad to be saying goodbye to Palau, definitely our favorite stop in the the Pacific….


Or Not

Something you neither want to say or hear: “Honey, why is the engine making that funny squeaking sound?”. We were nearly ready to up anchor this morning when Rob started investigating the new squeak from yesterday. It’s hard for us to remember that our 10 year old engine with 3,000 hours on it isn’t spanky new. And there it was, the front right side engine mount sitting kattywompus next to the engine. Needless to say, we rolled out the jib and sailed back to Koror.

With our port clearance in hand and no longer having valid visas in our passport, we knew we needed to clear back in with the officials. But it’s Saturday here and our calls on the VHF to Port Control went unanswered. We grabbed our buoy back at Sam’s again and went ashore to telephone, but couldn’t raise anyone at the port or immigration by telephone either. So into our dinghy and around to the commercial dock between downpours and squalls we go. Luckily the customs officers were working overtime and the guard at the dock brought them to us. They were very kind and signed us back into the country, telling us that if we had it repaired before Monday just go ahead and leave. If we’re still here Monday we’ll need to talk to Immigration and Port Control again. Don’t know if we’ll have to pay the $70 exit fee again, but we sure hope not, because with everything but the dive shops closed here on Sunday it’s unlikely we’ll get this fixed tomorrow.

Today on Yohelah we’re back at Sam’s in Palau…..