Kosrae & Pohnpei

Favorite Part of the World 

Since leaving New Zealand in May we have been sailing northwards continuously through Rotuma, Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands, but finally, on leaving the Marshalls, we turned due west which will be our predominate direction from now until the west coast of the Malay peninsula when we will head north to Thailand and Burma.  It was about 500 nm (a three-day sail) from Wotje in the Marshalls to Kosrae, one of the four independent and unique states within the nation of Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and the visible difference between the low-lying atolls of the Marshalls and the mountainous silhouette of Kosrae was immense  and a very welcome change it was after so long among the sandy slivers of land where the tallest object is a palm tree.  Kosrae has a couple of peaks in the 2000 ft. range plus numerous others less lofty, waterfalls and streams and lush forest/jungle as well as a nice lagoon within a barrier reef that boasts clear turquoise waters with nice corals and underwater life, so for our tastes it is an excellent place. 

About 8000 people live on Kosrae and overall they seemed friendlier with more social skills than the Marshallese, and immediately on arrival we felt more welcomed by the kindness displayed by the bureaucrats who cleared us in.

FSM uses the US dollar for its currency and is beholden to the US for most of its income, and many of its peoples have travelled to and even lived in the States, especially Hawaii.  The business and cultural center for this part of the American-oriented Pacific islands is Guam, which is not a part of FSM yet closely affiliated with it, and local islanders look on visiting there as provincial Americans look on visiting Manhattan.

On Kosrae we rented a car and explored as far as the coastal road allowed.  We went scuba diving in the lagoon and hiked with a guide five miles or so to an archaeological site he claimed dated from 1200 BC (the name is something like Menche – I forget and do not have access to research materials while writing this underway).  The hike was fairly high inland and crossed a stream ten times and was undertaken in intermittent showers.  In the dense forest prolific vines entangled the trees and our guide stopped at one point and harvested a few citrus fruits from a tree planted by his grandfather, the alleged discover of the ruins.

There were also numerous Japanese fortifications and junked military hardware, as is common in this part of the Pacific.

We also had a nice social life with a Tennessean and his Italian wife who ran our favorite restaurant (the food was good but the wifi system even better) and a dive resort, as well as with an Australian whose wife is a teacher there, and some Japanese tourists.

After a week, we tore ourselves away from Kosrae and sailed about 300 nm to Pohnpei, the largest of the islands in FSM and its capital with a population of about 30,000.  Like Kosrae it boasts mountains and rivers and waterfalls as well as a lagoon packed with coral reefs.  Its two highest peaks are around 2500 ft. high and suffer some of the highest rainfall in the world – over 400 inches a year.  (Point of reference:  Albuquerque averages about 10 inches.)

Of all the places I have sailed, I think Pohnpei is my favourite, with Kosrae not too far behind.  It is not the most beautiful nor does it boast the friendliest people nor the lowest cost of living nor the best anchorage nor does it offer the most activities, yet it is among the very best in all these categories.  On the negative side it is somewhat squalid and fuel is expensive, but both Glen and I felt very comfortable there, liked the people a great deal, frequented two of my favourite restaurants in the world (alas, with just so-so wifi systems), and made good friends among other cruisers, especially one hyperactive couple from Washington state and another more languorous Irish-English couple with a four-month-old baby. 

We stayed in Pohnpei six weeks and even then did not want to leave.

We went scuba diving, one time with manta rays, and snorkelling and hiking and Glen helped other cruisers with water pumps and starter motors and radio installations, and just about every day at some point we would gather with the other cruisers.  It was really an interesting, fairly healthy, and satisfying life.  

One day we went ‘drop-rock’ fishing with two local Kapingas, whose families hail from Kapingamarangi, an island within Pohnpei state but Polynesian and not Micronesian.  Due to overpopulation and devastating storms at one time or another, many Kapingas have transplanted to Pohnpei and are largely grouped in a village fronting our anchorage, and several came out to Backbeat to hawk services and goods (coconuts, mostly, but also crafts and fish).  We had heard about the unique Kapinga method of fishing and were able to arrange a trip with Robinson and Tom on Tom’s wonderful 26 ft. open panga with a 40 hp outboard.

Our first stop after they picked us up off Backbeat was a quarry within a mile of our anchorage where ships come to load building stone, coral and sand for construction sites.  We wound our way through a canal-like waterway to an area that a bulldozer had recently worked, tied Tom’s panga to some large rocks, and then Tom and Robinson went ashore and began searching a mound of stone and earth for palm-sized rocks which they gathered and piled up, then tossed to Glen and me in the panga where we placed the rocks into two milk crates – about thirty each.  After the rock harvest we went out to a pass in the barrier reef, perhaps a fifteen-minute ride, where we tied up to two mooring lines.  From an ice chest Tom and Robinson pulled out twenty pounds or so of sardine-sized fish and chopped most of them up into a fishbait hash.  From other milk crates they got out their very substantial black woven fishing lines with big four-inch hooks, then camouflaged the hooks with whole and parts of whole sardines. 

This is the unique part:  they then took cardboard (originally their ancestors used large leaves from the taro or breadfruit plants) and tore it into a piece about a foot square, wet it thoroughly, then set the baited hook on it, then atop the hook they placed a good handful of the fishbait hash, then folded the cardboard around it all so that it was similar to a bulging burrito with the fishing line leading out.  Next they took one of the palm-sized rocks they had gathered then placed the bait-burrito on top of it, then used the fishing line to wrap a half dozen or so times around the bait-burrito and rock sandwich, and finished it up with a partial surgeon’s knot which served to partially secure the sandwich. 

They threw this overboard and let the line  a handline secured on the boat end  descend to its entire length of about 600 ft., then with a strong tug on the line, opened the sandwich dropping the rock to the very bottom and allowing the fishbait hash to spread out and serve as chum around the baited hook at that deep, 600 ft. level.  I could definitely feel when I tugged on the line that the line around the bait-rock sandwich unwound and released the rock and chum.

We would set out one line each, wait a few minutes holding the line, hoping for a tug, and if nothing happened then we would haul in the line and reset it with more bait and another rock.  But the technique worked well enough, and we caught three nice 10-15 lb. yellowfin tuna and two rainbow runners, which I had never seen before and were in the 5-10 lb. range.

Pulling in the line from 600 ft. took several minutes, whether empty or loaded with a hooked fish, and demanded many pounds of bait and a lot of rock, so is not something one does spur of the moment, nor without being physically ready to haul line over and over and over.

One day weeks afterward Tom came by for a visit and told us he had caught twelve yellowfins the day before.  He told us he sells the yellowfins for $1.20 a pound.

Pohnpei has several open-air markets where one can buy freshly caught fish, most caught with nets, and although we looked several times we never saw yellowfin which are snapped up as soon as they hit the market.  The markets, like on Kosrae, also offer locally grown produce, some of which was quite unknown to me, but we frequented them mostly for bananas, of which there were several varieties, the best one of which we though was a short but thick cream-colored one from Kosrae that has a very pleasing nutty flavour.  There was also a delicious but messy golden-meated banana from Pohnpei that was very soft and best eaten with utensils.

Pohnpei also has a fascinating archaeological site called Nan Madol, the building of which started around 900 AD.  We hired a local man named Anter (pronounced An-tcher) to take us at high tide in his panga, otherwise at low tide we would have had to drive in the car just about as long – one hour – and then wade in ankle- to knee-deep water among the man-made canals and imposing stone structures.  How a stone-age people were able to move such massive slabs of rock is truly a wonder.

There is also a mysterious area with petroglyphs, but we never could find any information about the dates.  Some of the carvings looked fairly recent, some ancient because of erosion.

Pohnpei boasts over forty streams that flow down from the highland interior and several amazing waterfalls, both high ones and broad ones.  We did not go but apparently there is a guided hike that goes to six waterfalls in one day.  We just went to a couple of individual ones and were overwhelmed and thought six at once overkill.  We also went on a hike up an oceanside cliff where several Japanese fortifications can be found.  The US never invaded Pohnpei but bombed the heck out of it when it was under Japanese domination during the war and it is claimed only three buildings in the main commercial area survived, including part of a Spanish-built church.  Japanese tourists still frequent the island, and there is both a hotel and scuba company that cater strictly to Japanese. 

One clear advantage Pohnpei has over Kosrae is that where Kosrae is a single island, Pohnpei is a state with several outlying islands, some like Kapingamaringi hundreds of miles away, but two others, Ant Atoll and Pakin, only about 20 nm away.  We went to Ant, which is uninhabited, and spent four lovely days snorkelling and exploring.  It has an amazing pass into the lagoon that is S-shaped and a mile or so long, and we would go out in the dinghy and drift the whole length with the tide then, pulling the dinghy behind us, climb back in, motor over to the starting point and do it over again.  We saw amazing turtles and rays and schools of barracuda, among other interesting sealife in the pass, as well as ubiquitous sharks that seemed curious about us.

Kosrae and Pohnpei both also offer the adventurous a chance to ingest substances unusual to the West but common to many Pacific islands:  betel nut chewing, and drinking sakau.  Naturally, we tried both.  Betel nuts are from a palm tree and traditional preparation goes like this:  split the nut, put a healthy dose of mineral lime (from baked coral) on it, wrap it in a betel leaf, and chew.  It causes one to salivate greatly and produces a red liquid that one spits out.  Everywhere there are signs prohibiting the spitting of betel juice, and even one with a graphic representation of a betel nut with a slash through it. 

Glen, who does not drink alcohol but does smoke tobacco, tried his betel chewing in the modern style, which omits the betel leaf and adds an inch of a cigarette.  I tested the traditional style and both of us found betel chewing not too bad, Glen preferring it more than I.

Sakau is a product of the root of a certain pepper plant, and is more or less the same as kava served elsewhere in the Pacific.  Locals here pound the root and add water, and sell it for about $5 a large bottle, close to a fifth.  Although we had tried kava before both in Samoa and in Fiji, we bought a bottle each of the local Pohnpeian product and it tasted muddy and slightly peppery, and because Glen did not much care for it, I drank a bottle and a half.  Neither betel nor sakau had any great effect on either of us other than an unfortunate gastro-intestinal one, but supposedly a pleasant peace-of-mind effect is attained after cumulative consumption, and the older generations prefer the young people to partake of these rather than alcohol and marijuana, the other common intoxicants.

I can easily see how I could easily live on either Kosrae or Pohnpei, spending part of the day in the lagoon (I would love to have a panga like Tom’s or Anter’s) and part gardening (this is a gardener’s paradise other than an overabundance of rain) and Glen feels much the same way.  There is something about the semi-Asian culture and the closeness to nature, yet having most American amenities that makes these islands profoundly interesting and charming. 

We are now anchored in the lagoon at uninhabited Oroluk atoll about 180 nm to the WNW of Pohnpei after a miserable 48-hour beat into the incorrectly forecast strong west winds that peaked at 45 knots (we expected moderate southerly winds).  From here we plan to go to Chuuk, then Yap (the westernmost state of FSM), and perhaps some outlying atolls along the way, before heading to Palau where I expect to leave Backbeat until the first of the year before returning to the States in November.

(September 2013)

        Clearing in with Immigration — filling out forms, paying fees — at Kosrae

                                                        Kosrae anchorage

                                            Alternative view, Kosrae anchorage

                               Yacht anchorage at Pohnpei, Backbeat in middle

                        Tuna clipper from Taiwan, with chopper scout, at Pohnpei

     Lookout over tuna clipper anchorage (from Japanese fortification, unseen)

                             Cruising on dinghy in mangrove swamp, Pohnpei

                                   Anderson preparing ‘drop-rock’ fishing rig

                                 Kelly hauling in yellowfin tuna, Tom at side

                Glen on wifi at our favorite restaurant, Backbeat 2nd from left

                                Archaeological site Nan Madol on Pohnpei

                                                   Kelly at Nan Madol

                                Glen at one of many waterfalls on Pohnpei

                                       Nightmare for telephone receptionist

© R. Kelly Wright 2014