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Saturday, February 21, 2004

February 22, 2004-Palau, Palau

wingssail image-fredrick roswold

After a few days in the town of Koror, we went for a cruise to Palau’s famous Rock Islands. Saving the northern Rock Islands for later, we sailed to the southern part, at the very end of the Palau Lagoon, where we found a place to anchor WINGS and then got into the dingy to go exploring.

WINGS had been in Palau for nearly a month, and this was our second trip into the Rock Islands. We were cruising this year from Australia to Hong Kong, and Palau was just one of the stops, but the beauty and isolation of cruising here was turning it into a highlight.

Around a corner, in a hidden nook, we found that the lowering tide had exposed an underwater cave in the side of the island. We carefully nosed our way in. It was wide enough for the dingy, barely high enough, but the water was plenty deep for our motor. We could see light ahead. It was a tunnel! We inched along in darkness, the sound of our motor echoed on the walls of the tunnel. Oyster shells hung from the ceiling and we ducked to avoid scraping our heads.

Soon we came out the other end, into a hidden, saltwater, lagoon. The jungle hung over our heads around the edges, and fish stirred the surface. White herons flapped from limb to limb in the trees, and we could hear other birds. We wondered who had been here last, and when, but of course there was no way of knowing. No one had left any signs that they had ever been here.

We motored out of the tunnel, and looked back. Was that real?

Around another corner we came upon a sand spit, also exposed by the low tide, white and curving perhaps a mile across the larger blue lagoon. We stopped the motor and beached the dingy on the edge of the sand spit and walked with bare feet out towards the end. The ocean waves had left ripples in the sand which we crushed with our feet. We saw some strange tracks in the sand and we followed them to a large sea shell. The shell was the house of a Hermit Crab. We picked it up and saw the crab shrink back inside his home. We placed it back upon the sand and walked further. At the end of the sand spit we waded into the water and we looked out to sea. In the distance the SE swell of the Pacific Ocean crashed on the reef, white and rolling. The other direction, an island, Emagong Island, was turning into a silhouette. The sky was filled with a variety of clouds and colors, as the sun got lower and the light began to fade

The next morning, with the outlook of a great day ahead, we decided to swim at one of Palau’s premier dive sites: “Big Drop Off”. This is where the shallow reef plunges into the Palau Trench, and divers come from all over the world to experience the rich sea life and coral here. Leaving WINGS safely anchored we took the dingy out to the reef. We had no problem finding “Big Drop Off”. It was where all the dive boats were congregating. Every day in Palau, the tour operators bring a several boat loads of divers and snorkelers out to “Big Drop Off”.

We stopped nearby and surveyed the scene. One tropical island to the West, another to the East, and to the South, nothing but the vast ocean. A swell rolled gently in. The sun shone. The sky was blue. We looked over the side. The water was gin clear and it was deep! We donned our fins and masks and rolled into warm clear water. Since the tide was beginning to run, we drifted with the dingy in tow. There were thousands of fish…and turtles…and sharks! They were all cruising down the wall below us. We saw some scuba divers angling down below us too. The sharks ignored everyone, for now.

We swam for an hour, then we pulled ourselves back into the dingy and motored over to the nearest island. It was pristine. Two herons perched nearby. We took some photos. Then a ranger came along in his boat.

“Can’t stay here.” he said, “ Restricted”. Even paradise has rules.

So we left, looking back at a perfect beach, empty except for two herons.

We saw John McCready’s Cal 48, ECLIPSE nearby; they’d brought a charter party out to dive at “Big Drop Off”,

Coming along side John greeted us warmly, “Our dive party just went in”, he said, “Come on aboard.”

Aboard ECLIPSE we looked over John’s charts and found some other promising spots. We discussed with John where we might be the next day. Then his wife, Charlie, asked us if we’d stay for lunch. She was fixing dumplings, which looked like pot stickers to us. Charlie is Manchurian, and a great cook of Chinese food, but we didn’t want to infringe on John’s charter party, plus, we wanted to get back and check on WINGS. We said, “No thank you, but it does look delicious.”

Charlie said, “Well, at least stay 10 minutes and I’ll send you home with some dumplings.”

We couldn’t say no to that.

Ten minutes later we were heading back to the Northeast in our dingy, portable GPS showing the way, with one zip loc bag of fresh hot pot stickers, and as a bonus, one zip loc bag with fresh Yellow Fin Tuna Sashimi. Lunch on WINGS, an hour later, with the pot stickers, sashimi, some Jasmine rice, wasabi sauce, soy sauce, and ice cold Philippine San Miguel beer, and us remembering a great morning of wonderful snorkeling, could not have been better.

That night the weather forecasts looked worrying. There was a tropical depression up North and we didn’t know which way it would go. In the morning we weighed the anchor and started looking for a safe haven. We found it at Mikado Cove.

Mikado Cove was a perfect hideaway. Completely landlocked and surrounded by high cliffs with jungles at their tops, the water inside was absolutely calm, clear, and deep. This was what we needed. We’d bumped the coral the previous day, trying to get into another “bullet proof” anchorage, and so we couldn’t stay there, but with the TD up north, we were still looking for some protection and some peace and quiet. We found it at Mikado. Birds dove and swooped between the cliffs inside and high above, others circled.

The wind did build that day. We watched the clouds sweep over us and saw the trees atop the cliffs swaying in the wind, but it did not come down to our level. Later the rain came and it grew from a mist to a downpour. We set up our water collection system and filled all of our tanks. After that we didn’t know what to do with all the water we had. We just let it run. During the night the wind grew stronger and gusts began to come over the hillside and down into our cove, but not enough to bother us. We were glad we were anchored in Mikado, not outside in some exposed place.

A couple of days later we motored back to Koror.

Palau cruising was turning out to be pretty good.

Fred & Judy, SV Wings, Palau
Click here to see a few photos we did manage to get in Palau


Monday, February 09, 2004

February 8, 2004-Turn Left to Palau

wingssail image-fredrick roswold

We did make it to Palau, maybe you heard, maybe you didn't either because we haven't written yet. We were waiting to get a good photo to send. We didn't get it. It seems that the film we bought in Kavieng was counterfeit. It wasn't a Kodak moment when we had it processed in Palau, flat, grainy, washed out, no detail. SHIT! One more memory of Papua New Guinea to add to the list.

Well, we did some creative work on the computer and salvaged the shot you might be getting with this email, at least you can see a bit of what it looks like here in Palau.

So then, what about Palau? This is not the South Pacific any more, Toto. Right about's the North Pacific. We're back in the Northern Hemisphere after more than four years, but that's not what is different about Palau. The most striking difference from anywhere we've been are the lack of people out in the islands. This is an island country, just like Papua New Guinea or Solomons, of Fiji or Vanuatu or any of several other countries we've visited. But here the islands are uninhabited. No villages, no villagers, no pangas driving every where, no canoes full of people trying to trade for T-shirts or maybe just get a good look at us and our boat. It isn't too surprising that there are no people on these islands, other than tourists and the Palauan population which lives on the main islands of Koror and Babeldoab. It would be very hard to live on the outer islands of Palau. You can't get ashore. There are no beaches. The islands themselves are limestone rocks with vertical sides and impenetrable tangle of vegetation on top. No soil to speak of, and the shorelines are all, invariably, undercut by the sea so that they have rock overhangs of about 10 feet. They look like a bunch of cupcakes overflowing the paper cup. They are called "the Rock Islands". You can't even climb up. But they are beautiful to look at and there are thousands of them, with winding channels between them and quiet little coves. The diving, snorkeling, and fishing are good here too. The water is clear. The word everyone uses to describe Palau is: pristine. Sailing here is only fair, because there are coral reefs everywhere which you have to be on guard for, and little or nothing in the way of charts. Sailing can be nerve wracking, although we met one man, John, who, after 20 years, has learned where the reefs are and he sails his Cal 48. Eclipse, pretty casually. We're a little more tentative with WINGS. But if you motor, you can retreat into the Rock Islands and be totally alone for days or weeks.

So it is a beautiful, and empty, country, all except the one city, Koror. Koror is crowded, and since we're now in that part of the Pacific called Micronesia, its full of Micronesians. The people are a mix of Malay and Japanese/Chinese and I am not sure what, but they are different from the Negroid Melanesians of the South West Pacific and the Polynesians of Tahiti and Tonga: smaller, lighter, and very Asian looking. In fact there is a big Japanese influence here. Japan ruled this place during the first half of the 20th century, after the Spanish and Germans, and built the schools and hospitals, put up the factories, and fathered a lot of mixed race children. Japanese is still spoken here among the older people. Japanese products abound in the stores. Japanese tourists fly here by the thousands each month. Sometimes I get the feeling that if the USA hadn't bombed the dickens out of Palau in 1944 and kicked out the Japanese, Palau might still be content to be a Japanese Island.

What Palau is now is a small piece of America. The currency is the US dollar, the postal system is US, they have a senate, a president, and a congress. And they get a big chunk of US dollars each year, which surprisingly, everyone seems to think they spend pretty wisely. We're pretty happy to be able to buy US products, (like mayonnaise and paper towels and bagels) and get shipments of boat parts delivered in something less than the eternity it took in the South Pacific. But it's expensive here, that's one of the down sides. Everything is shipped from Japan or the US, (except some stuff from the Philippines, which is cheap). Another is the fact that, despite the attractiveness for cruising sailboats, Palau does not encourage people like us to visit. They are big on regular tourism. They get 5000-7000 visitors a month, in a country with only 19,000 people. Most are Asians, here to dive or snorkel around the reefs and lagoons. There are 40-50 tour boats going out each day to the Rock Islands. With business like that, a few yachts are just a nuisance, but they tolerate us, so we are content.

We like the Palauan people. They are friendly, smart, and somewhat industrious, which is a relative thing. We're comparing them to Papuans and Solomon Islanders. They speak pretty good colloquial English, so it's easy to communicate.

We've been having a good time. Dave and Sue, cruising friends from Australia, had a going away party Friday night before they departed for the Philippines. They tied their boat up to the dock at the dive shop and put out a lot of food and booze. At first it was mostly other cruisers and local expats that came. About midnight the local Palauan glam crowd showed up. Young, stylish, looking like models. The tempo of the party went up a few notches. The music got louder. Everyone got really drunk. About 2:00 AM the party headed off to a disco, except for Judy and I. We went home. Dave and Sue went to the disco, but they claim they don't remember that, and no, they didn't make it away from Palau on Saturday, they just took their boat around the corner to Hangover Cove, and slept it off. We think they left on Sunday, we're not sure. We drug our butts out of bed on Saturday and went sailing and snorkeling onboard Eclipse and met John's delightful Manchurian wife, Charlie, and some other guests they had along. It was a good day. We're glad we came to Palau.

Click here to see a few photos we did get from Palau

Fred & Judy, SV WINGS, Republic of Palau


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