Oroluk, Chuuk, Puluwat

Pohnpei to Puluwat

Glen and I are frustrated:  we have not been able to sail nearly as far as we planned by this point, and as I write have been at anchor in the lagoon of Puluwat atoll, just 155 nm to the west of Chuuk, for twelve days waiting for favorable winds (that is, winds with an easterly component), after waiting nearly as long at Oroluk and Chuuk.  We still have about 1000 nm to go to reach Palau, our ultimate goal this year.  Tropical storms have been forming to our NW just about every other day and causing westerly winds and disturbed seas.  We await a weather window to head out for Lamotrek, our next goal, 170 nm to the west.

Leaving Pohnpei we had a forecast of southerly winds and so we expected sailing due west on a reach, our favorite and most efficient point of sail, but the winds veered back to the west so that we had them right on the nose, and there they stayed the entire time, forcing us to motorsail almost the whole way to avoid long tacks off-course.  We arrived off Oroluk at night and hove-to (that is, drifted with the heavily-reefed headsail backed and rudder hard over to counteract one another) not far offshore until sunrise when we entered the pass into the spacious lagoon.  For the first couple of days, we saw no islands along the barrier reef or within the lagoon with any vegetation at all, just sand and a few rocks.  Later we moved westward to another spot in the lagoon and by then could see a wooded island in the NW corner of the atoll.  Our second anchorage was next to a broad pass with a long reef wall leading into the lagoon and offered outstanding snorkelling and fishing, with Glen one day catching seven nice reef fish, including grouper and snapper, trolling from our dinghy.  I also nabbed a very nice emperor spearfishing.

Snorkeling one day there Glen was accosted by a silvertip shark, and he had to poke the shark twice (Glen snorkels with an aluminum tube for just such eventualities) to get it to move on.  It turns out Glen had scraped himself on the leg and was bleeding. 

My favorite activity was snorkeling in one particularly vibrant area where the reef was shallow near a canyon wall yet the current was not strong, and where I could just hang on to a coral and observe reef life at the small, not quite micro level.  The small fish are some of the most beautiful and it is fascinating to watch them flitter around, feed and defend territory.  My focus lately has been the Longnose Filefish which has a long orange snout and a greenish body with golden orange spots, and it moves through the water by undulating its translucent dorsal and ventral fins astonishingly fast, hovering similarly to a hummingbird, although the fish is about twice as large.  There were also an exotic smaller fish I couldn’t find in our reference book that looked like an inch-long glossy variegated leaf that mostly floated about, first on one side then suddenly on the other, and darted here and there occasionally.  The diversity in color and form within just a square meter of a lively coral reef never fails to astound me, not just the fish but also the corals, sponges, seafans and other sealife.  One can snorkel for hours in a healthy reef and never get bored.

Oroluk atoll is almost uninhabited, with a small number of Kapingas (a Polynesian people from the island of Kapingamarangi that is a part of Pohnpei state in the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM) rotating in for a year or so in order for the Kapinga community to keep their claim on Oroluk, and these people live on the wooded island on the NW corner.  One day two small traditional sailing boats, maybe twelve feet long each with an outrigger and tablecloth-sized lateen sail, approached us and we invited the occupants, two per boat, aboard, all young men, the oldest 35, youngest 15, guessing.  We gave them drinks, smokes, fishhooks and lures, a cap for the hatless kid, and AAA batteries.  Two spoke good English.

They informed us that 15 people live on the island, including women and children, and that they have a chief.  They fish using several methods and collect shellfish and they raise taro, breadfruit, bananas, coconuts, and yams as well as chickens and hogs.  A supply ship comes about once a year, they said, and the rest of the time they are on their own.  They have solar panels for electricity and have a HF radio for long-distance communication.  They wanted us to come visit, seeking strangers to break the boredom, no doubt, and lured us with the promise of coconuts and lobster, or perhaps they thought we would take them there on Backbeat that very afternoon, obviating the need to sail back in their uncomfortable rigs under the baking sun.  We told them we would come for a visit if we stayed another day, that is, if the wind kept a westerly component.   After a couple of hours the young men left on the about three-hour sail to their island, 7.5 nm away.  One who spoke no English had been on Oroluk three years, the others less than one.

The next morning brought nice easterlies so we did not go visit the Kapinga village and instead headed towards Chuuk (ex-Truk), about another 180 nm to the west, and enjoyed fair winds almost all the way, but again arrived at night a couple days later so lay drifting around outside the pass into the lagoon until morning.  The pass was well-marked and we could have entered at night, but if so we would have had to tie up at the government dock with its bright lights, noise, grime, and lack of breeze, all of which we wanted to avoid.

By the way, we have found our GPS charts often off-target so that a pass into a lagoon is maybe a couple hundred meters away from where it appears on our electronic charts.  We use both C-MAP (now Jeppesen) and Navionics charts and both have errors in this part of the world.  In NZ, even Fiji, they were spot on, but they are usually not perfect here, although occasionally they are.  Even at major islands like Pohnpei and Chuuk, for example, the charts showed on our electronic charts that we were anchored on land.  That is the major reason we do not enter unfamiliar passes in the dark – our charts may be too imprecise.  (We carry paper charts, too, but not detailed for every atoll.)

Chuuk has a bad reputation for crime and unfriendly bureaucracy and most cruising boats skip it, but we decided that it was too perfectly placed on our route to miss and, moreover, we wanted to see for ourselves if it was as bad as people fear, knowing how false rumors circulate in the sailing community (including some about the demise of my previous boat, Anna).  The officials who cleared us in were all quite polite and upfront about charges we could expect when clearing out, so we were pleasantly surprised by our first encounter.  A South African from the only other sailboat in the main anchorage area approached us in his dinghy and suggested a mooring to use not far from where we were clearing in, which we readily took up, being tired from our watches throughout the previous night and eager to nap.  I dove on the mooring and found it satisfactory with anchor chain wrapped around a coral head and a stout two-inch diameter sheathed line running up to the mooring buoy to which we tied on.

A couple of nights later at 2:45 a.m. Glen and I both heard the wind build and so got up and better secured some flapping overhang shades, turned on the wind instrument and sat out in the cockpit monitoring what seemed to be a squall.  Winds gusts were up to 45 knots, but everything seemed to be holding fine so ultimately we returned to our berths, yet for some reason – probably linked to the fact that I man the midnight-to-4 a.m. watch when we are on passage and so was used to being awake at that time  I was especially wide awake and keenly alert, no sluggishness nor cloudy head evident from the several glasses of wine I had consumed a few hours earlier, and so I read.  At 3:45 a.m. I felt waves hitting us abeam, indicating we were no longer headed into the wind, so I hurried back up into the cockpit and immediately noticed that we were adrift and headed for nearby rocks – the squall had placed us on a lee shore  then heard the South African yelling for our attention and saw his boat just next to ours, so I started the engines and headed out to deeper water.  Glen quickly came up and went forward to handle our mooring bridle and whatever remained of the mooring line it was attached to.  The shallowest I saw on the depthfinder was 1.1 meter, where we had been moored in 10 meters just moments earlier.  At one point while trying to motor to safety, the city lights went out and we were plunged into total darkness and so we had no visual reference points  no illuminated giant fuel tanks, no commercial docks, no brightly lit restaurant, etc.  There was no alternative but to trust the compass and other instruments and head to where they indicated we would be safe.  Glen and I then anchored not far away in ten meters again and spent the rest of the morning on anchor watch, the winds soon dying down to the teens.  We had come within seconds of major damage to Backbeat, at the least banging our rudders against the rocks, and worst case being holed.  If either of those had happened I am unsure we would have been able to repair Backbeat in Chuuk.

Later, we discovered that the robust two-inch thick mooring line had been tied around a thimble to protect it from chafe from the chain, and that it simply had come untied, the thimble still attached to the chain.  I had not inspected the knot when I dove (snorkeled) on it – at 11+ meters (our depth gauge displays depths from the bottom of our mini-keels) one doesn’t have a great deal of time  or perhaps I would have noticed its pending coming untied.  It is a weakness of mine that I am impatient and not always thorough with inspections, such as when searching for a misplaced object, and this instance of a hurried assessment perhaps caused me to come within seconds of wrecking my boat.

Anchor chains do not slip free like that, so we felt much more secure at anchor and subsequently did not use a mooring again.

It also turns out that our bowsprit raked the South African boat as we drifted by, waking its occupants, and bent one of their stanchions.  I offered to pay for the repair, but they refused, feeling a bit responsible for the mooring.

The next day the winds piped up again from the west and we had to move the boat around to the NE side of Weno island, the main island in Chuuk lagoon, to evade the rambunctious swell.  Near sunset a boatload of fishermen came by while I was below and Glen visited with them without inviting them aboard.  They were from an outer island, Namonuito, 120 nm to the NW and they intended on taking their small 20 ft. open panga (see below for discussion of pangas) home and wanted to know about weather.  They said the trip takes 53 gallons for their 40 hp motor, and it is a full day’s work, taking at least eight hours, which is over twice as fast as we can sail it.  I have ridden a couple hours in a similar panga on the relatively flat seas of a lagoon, and even there it is terribly jarring, and I fear I would be down in the back and suffer a tender tush for several days if I had to make such a long trip in the much rougher open ocean.  These outer islanders use GPS, by the way, but have no communications if they break down.  A six-year-old girl and two women came on the last trip, they said.

We get weather info through our Iridium sat phone, mostly text but also GRiB files that download very efficiently and then open into simplistic graphic depictions of wind and wave and convection probabilities (‘lifting index’, which shows likelihood of squalls) for a given wide area over a multi-day period of time.  GRiB files, though handy and cheap, are computer-generated and are not reviewed by a human, and one cannot but doubt the accuracy of such automation.  (The largest GRiB-file generator is the GFS model that employs 300,000 data points globally every six hours.)  The forecasts we have received all this year have been notoriously wrong on wind speed, underestimating on average by close to ten knots, while the wind direction has been better predicted although has been perhaps no more than 50% reliable.  I prefer to review both the computer-generated information as well as textual analyses by professional forecasters.  In this part of the world, which is under US control, the weather services are varied and plentiful, with Guam, 550 nm to the NW of Chuuk, the focal point, and we stay well abreast of developments, so Glen was quite conversant with the subject and told the outer islanders about the typhoons raging up north and the monsoon trough causing us westerly winds, etc.

The next morning at 5:30 Glen was out in the cockpit (he takes the 4-to-8 a.m. watch when we are on passage) enjoying his first cigarette of the day and a panga with half a dozen exuberant young men came up – I was reading in my berth and quickly sprang up at the noise.  They were laughing and joking around and were very pleased with their giant ice chest full of lobster, evidently having harvested them out on the barrier reef during the night when the lobster are on the move in the shallows.  A young man using both hands held up a very large lobster, and Glen asked how much it cost.  Another young fellow held out 4 fingers, but a third one said something and then the young fellow’s thumb popped up to join the four other fingers and so indicate $5.  We whisked out a $5 bill and they gave us the large lobster and then, after a brief pause and without solicitation from us, they gave us two more smaller ones.

These Chuukese young men were not good businessmen.  In fifteen minutes, the young men returned and one of them, holding up three smallish lobsters, said in an imploring sort of voice “cigarettes?”  So Glen gave them three cigarettes and they handed him the three lobsters which, considering that a pack of cigarettes had cost Glen only $1.25, making each of the second round of three lobsters cost a little over 6 cents each, has to be one of the best deals for protein I have ever been involved in.  $5 and 3 cigarettes for 6 lobster!

Lobster and eggs for breakfast;  a nice nap at noon;  ice cream for dessert in the evening  life doesn’t get much better than that.

Buying diesel in Chuuk was interesting.  We had to take the dinghy with our jerry cans (we filled 15, requiring six trips, three futile because they did not have diesel at the time) to a shallow area off the main commercial harbor brimming with pangas and people, and then go around the corner to a gas station.  The gas station did not have a diesel pump and sold it out of the barrel.  From a tipped-over barrel with a tap in a 20-foot shipping container that housed a dozen or so upright barrels, an attendant filled a long-spouted metal canister that he said held five gallons, then used the canister to slowly fill our jerry cans – except what he claimed was five gallons showed slightly less than that on the fill level mark embossed on our jerry cans.  We protested but he was just an employee and was just following procedure and so wouldn’t top our cans up.  He also asked us if we wanted to buy marijuana.  $1 a joint he said.  Diesel was $5.65 a gallon.

Chuuk atoll (as opposed to Chuuk state which includes outer islands like Namonuito and Puluwat each over a hundred miles away) is comprised of eleven major high, lushly wooded islands  the highest peak is 1400 ft. and looks like the Matterhorn  towards the middle of the lagoon and 80-odd tiny low islets of sand and occasional palm trees mostly along the barrier reef but with a few scattered in the lagoon.  The lagoon is 40 miles wide at its widest point.  The high islands in the lagoon are populated and some of the islets as well, requiring a great deal of transportation by the ubiquitous boats we call pangas, virtually all of which are identical, a 20-foot Yamaha or knockoff heavy fiberglass boat (some refer to such a boat as a ‘skiff’ or ‘runabout’) with a flared high bow and pleasing sheer line to help keep the boat dry and 40 hp Yamaha motor with simple tiller steering.  Part of the time we lay at anchor just outside the main commercial harbor on Weno island, where government, fuel, the airport, the larger retail establishments, the hospital, and other major installations are located, and I estimate each workday morning at least 100 pangas came roaring into the several shallow areas near the commercial harbor, delivering and picking up goods and people, especially schoolkids.  Then from 4 p.m. basically the same thing occurred in reverse as people returned to the other islands from Weno.  It was not exactly rush hour on water but close to it. 

Provincialism runs high among the Chuukese, and the different islands within the lagoon are home to different dialects of the Chuukese language, so that the people identify first with family and clan, then with their island, then Chuuk lagoon, then the state of Chuuk (which includes islands up to about 150 nm away), and finally feel some affinity with the rest of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).  There is even a separatist movement, we heard, on Tol island about 15 nm SW of Weno but still within the lagoon, where people dream of their own state because they feel the Chuuk state government does not grant them their fair share of American aid.  Evidently there are some bitter feuds that are age-old among several of the islands, especially due to resentment towards Weno.  All this tribalism lends itself to criminality when the groups mix on Weno, with groups stealing from one another and fighting.  For a while the government outlawed alcohol on Weno, but now taxes it at 50% in an attempt to discourage its consumption.

There is no big fishing fleet in Chuuk like there is Pohnpei (when we cleared in at Pohnpei we were the 17th vessel clearing in that very day, all the rest Asian fishing vessels).  When I inquired why I was told that up to the ‘80s a lot of fishing boats did stop here, but then the other islands like Pohnpei constructed new infrastructure such as docks, fuel depots, and ice and processing plants while Chuuk’s infrastructure went into decline.  There are several partially sunken wrecks along the shore, but not nearly as many as in Pohnpei which must have had thirty visible ones.

While at Chuuk we experienced a prolonged storm, alluded to above, with high winds from the SW and had to move from the lee shore of the W coast, convenient to the retail area, to a more protected and secluded spot on the N coast of Weno.  The storm lasted for five days and four nights during which time we never even lowered our dinghy into the water and just stayed aboard waiting for the storm to blow itself out, spending most of the time reading (and writing this travelogue).  Highest wind I saw on our wind gauge was 58.6 knots – 60 knots is considered a hurricane-force wind – and for many hours we regularly had over 40 knots, and for too long a time winds 50-plus – and we were sheltered in a bay by hills!  Our anchorage did provide protection from the seas, however, being shallow and with no fetch for the seas to build, and we never had waves over a meter or so, so we rode the storm out in relative comfort, although always somewhat on edge, aware that we were constantly on the precipice of an emergency.  We didn’t sleep well with the racket of the wind whistling through the rigging and whipping over and around the bimini (the shade over the cockpit) and we made regular checks of our position both visually and on the GPS to determine if our anchor was dragging.  (Our anchor is a Manson Supreme, by the way, and, once set properly by backing down on it, has never dragged;  of all the various anchors I have ever used, the Manson is the best, and I heartily recommend it for any kind of seabed.)  On returning to the more comfortable anchorage on the west coast – that is, next to a restaurant with a nice dinghy dock and, most importantly, ice cream and wifi  we noticed a panga on a mooring that had water lapping over the gunwales, the bow and the cowling of the outboard poking up clearly, the waves having swept over and inundated it during the storm.

We rented a car for a couple of days but found the roads on Weno the worst we have experienced so far with only a few street blocks with newly laid concrete where there were no potholes and mud pits.  On the main commercial street one had to drive walking speed, the ride was so unbelievably rough.  A grader had not been over the road in years – decades, maybe.  It was almost like the road had not been repaired since the US bombed during WWII.  Glen has lived in very remote areas of South Island, NZ, and is a great outdoorsman and he exclaimed, “I’ve driven down river beds that were better than this!”  To give credit to Chuuk, however, they are working on laying concrete roads through the heart of the commercial area on Weno.

Speaking of American bombing, one of the greatest single slaughters of naval vessels in history occurred here (it was called Truk then), when American aircraft caught a Japanese fleet here in the lagoon and sunk over 60 ships.  Now Chuuk is considered the premier wreck diving spot in the world.  We considered going ourselves but, one, I don’t really care to see metal junk underwater (although the sunken ships are supposedly rife with corals and sealife), and two, the ships are a bit too deep for both Glen and me who prefer shallow diving (the shallowest sunken ship lies about 40 meters deep, I understand), and finally, the weather was bad almost every day we were there. 

Chuuk  we were only on Weno island and perhaps it is different on other islands  was in our limited appraisal the messiest, most ill-kept place we have visited this year with litter everywhere, and ugly buildings in various stages of disrepair.  When we were up in the busy panga anchorage procuring diesel, for example, a youngish man in the boat next to us poured oil into his fuel and when he finished, he tossed the plastic oil container into the water.  Attempting to be generous, I suppose that these people come from a traditional culture where everything was organic – coconuts husks, pandanus and breadfruit leaves, etc.  and they tossed all the refuse into the sea, and subsequently they have yet to be educated to the effects of throwing modern man-made materials into the lagoon where it accumulates and breaks down over decades and centuries rather than days and weeks.  Although the Chuukese people seemed friendly enough in our limited interactions, other than wreck diving Chuuk has nothing to attract tourists.  There is no sightseeing whatsoever as it offers neither archeological nor historic sites (other than the dive sites) nor public parks nor museums nor even any beaches.  (High lush islands like Weno and Pohnpei do not have sandy beaches and instead have mangrove swamps because of the runoff from the rivers.)

Our voyage out of Chuuk westward to Lamotrek, our next intended stop, was fraught with poor weather forecasting again and what were to be southerly winds of 10 knots turned quickly into westerly winds of 20-plus, so after a day of fighting the wind on our nose we pulled into the lagoon of the apparently uninhabited atoll of Pulap (our GPS charts were a good half mile off) to wait for a wind shift which, to our good fortune, came the next morning and we sailed off in beautiful conditions of 20 knots from the south, our boatspeed around 8 knots, Glen and I pumped, slapping one another on the shoulders, saying how great it is to be sailing again.  The winds kept rising, however, and within four hours of leaving Pulap, they were regularly over 30 and touching 40.  Triple reefed (that is, with the mainsail reduced in area as much as possible), we saw 49 knots when the mainsail ripped about a two-foot-long tear.  We doused her and thought we might motor on and wait for what we thought possibly to be a squall to pass by, and we even headed due south hoping to outflank it, but we never could.  We then reluctantly detoured back to the SE to yet another atoll, Puluwat, so we could mend the sail, and we reached it at sunset and entered the narrow and very tricky pass with some trepidation, but our GPS charts proved to be very accurate there and we anchored without a problem.  First thing next morning we mended the mainsail by using sailtape then handstitching over that with waxed marline.

Puluwat is part of Chuuk state but is more related to the islands of Yap state, to which Lamotrek belongs, by language and culture.  For one thing, where the Chuukese wear modern clothing, the men of Puluwat and many Yapese wear loincloths, a most revealing form of attire.  Walking in the village, which was largely traditional thatched-hut construction, we noticed that everyone of both sexes were often adjusting the cloths tied around their waists, the men their loincloths, the women longish wrap-arounds, variously called a sarong or lava-lava.  The affable man who befriended us on our initial foray to the village to pay our respects (and $30 anchoring fee), Stan, 57, who wore a loincloth and spoke good English, came out to Backbeat in his dugout canoe for a visit one day and declined to sit on a cushion in the cockpit and insisted on sitting on the side deck which is just hard fiberglass with non-skid embossed in it, as if he were afraid that he might somehow foul our seats.  (On visiting his house we found no chairs, the only furniture being a table by the sink and a table for the TV and DVD player, which ran on an inverter powered by a car battery.)  Also revealing more than we are accustomed to, a couple of women in the village were topless – something Yap is known for.  Both ladies were about my age, and while some male-oriented witticisms come to mind, let it suffice to note that the ladies must have mothered a couple dozen children between them.  Furthermore, small children in the village ran around with no clothes at all.

The people of Puluwat, like those on Oroluk, lead a subsistence life, raising chickens and pigs, gardening taro, bananas and yams, harvesting breadfruit and coconuts and betel nuts, and fishing.  Stan said they get two supply ships a year.  Solar arrays provide most electricity.  They have a few motorboats, but mostly paddle traditional dugout canoes (made from breadfruit trees) with an outrigger (ama) for balance, some with sails.  One of their larger boats, about 25 feet long, sailed to a neighboring atoll some 40 nm away while we were there.  I find it difficult to believe but Stan told us that the population of Puluwat is about 1000.  On first seeing us walking in the village, a little girl about three years old started wailing, evidently frightened by the relatively large gringos, one with multiple tattoos.

We found the village quite trashy, litter everywhere, plastic refuse abounding, even shards of broken glass here and there, a clear danger for all the bare feet.  And the young people have adopted the appalling habit of the more developed world and deface almost any surface, including trees, with graffiti, here none of which was artistic and consisted mostly of words in permanent pen.  The small health center was shockingly blemished with juvenile scribbles, for one.  Polynesians I generally find clean and orderly, but Micronesians do not appear to value cleanliness in the same way.

Immediately on our first appearance in the village we were asked for this and that, and asked to do repairs, all done in a friendly, but needy sort of way.  Over the course of our stay we ended up giving the following to various people in the village, many of whom rowed out to Backbeat to make their pleas:

  •    20 kilos of flour
  •    10 kilos of sugar
  •    about 30 children's books
  •    about 20 adult books
  •    about 20 DVDs
  •    a flashlight with spare D-cell batteries
  •    a pair of reading glasses
  •    2 pair of sunglasses
  •    7 ball caps
  •    a couple of Glen's old shirts
  •    2 pink Halloween-type capes for little girls (Glen’s wife, Marie, brought them among other children's gifts during her visit in Pohnpei, the rest given away there)
  •    antibiotic ointment for a leg infection
  •    a partial package of rolling tobacco for use with betel nut chewing
  •    several meters of sail tape for mending their traditional sails
  •    about 8 liters of 2-stroke oil
  •    about 12 AA batteries
  •    all our resin (smallish containers) and fiberglass mat (probably about four square meters) for patching fiberglass boats
  •    a piece of sandpaper
  •    small tubing for a fuel line for an outboard motor
  •    a high quality leather rugby ball (although they do not play rugby in Micronesia)
  •    2 bags of candy handed out by the piece to dozens of kids
  •    a few cups of sugared drinks for kids who came aboard Backbeat
  •    2 cups of coffee (black) to Stan

And of all things, a girl about ten asked us for an umbrella, something not usually a part of the kit on a sailboat and which we unfortunately did not have. 

Besides all the gift goods, Glen repaired or attempted to repair, with me occasionally serving as assistant, the following items:

  •    a TV/DVD combo (old and obviously shot components on the circuit board)
  •    4 portable DVD players (one successful, others shot)
  •    a young woman’s H-P laptop (successful, after partially disassembling it)
  •    a teenage boy’s iPod (successful)
  •    3 CB walkie-talkies (two successfully, the other with corroded components)
  •    cracks on the crossbeams of a panga motorboat (successful repair using our resin and mat), and we were asked to repair another boat but had no more resin (we gave away our excess mat)
  •    3 chainsaws (2 successful, one with a bent spring that activates the pull line, the other a new fuel line that Glen scavenged from our plumbing spares)
  •    tune-up a 40 hp Yamaha outboard (half successful – no spare parts) 

We received in exchange for all this:

  •    about 50 drinking coconuts
  •    4 bunches of bananas of two different varieties, over 220 individual ones in total
  •    3 breadfruit (which look like elongated horse apples from the bois d’arc or osage orange tree and have about as much flavor as tofu)
  •    a platter of breadfruit cooked with coconut milk
  •    7 herring-like fish, about 8-12 inches long
  •    3 pretty shells of a common sort but whose name I am unfamiliar with

For the first week we would have 3 or more dugout canoes or the occasional panga drop by every day.  Once Glen fixed the laptop and a chainsaw the locals really started streaming in.  Mr. Fix-it became very popular on Puluwat, not just for his competence but for his good nature as well.  One night Glen, after two women brought out a couple of portable DVD players just after two other boats, one with a chainsaw and the other with gimpy outboard, had left, cried out, “Turn off all the lights and lock the door!”  He was really getting burnt out, but overall he enjoyed interacting with the locals and helping them – he is a big tease with everyone and, for example, would fake like he was being shocked handling the electrical appliances.  I halfway enjoyed it, finding it amusing, at least the people with sweet dispositions.  The locals all wanted to bring something in compensation, but they had so little to offer we refused most offers yet still wound up with over 200 bananas and more for two people.  We were eating at least a half dozen bananas a day.  We sliced and heated some of the larger, firmer variety and put maple syrup and cinnamon on them and found them similar to pancakes, so we begin having that every morning for breakfast.  I even threw some pieces of the larger variety into a veggie stew I made, but still a hundred or turned black on us. 

Evidently the locals were intent on repaying their debt to us (really, mostly to Glen), whether we needed another damn banana or not.  No coconut went sour, on the other hand, as Glen had run out of Coke and his second favorite drink is coconut juice and he allowed no waste there.  Of the fresh breadfruit we wasted about half.

One day Glen and I attempted to hike to the Tallest Lighthouse in Micronesia, built by the Japanese before the war on an uninhabited island in the lagoon, but gave up after about two hours when Glen broke a flip-flop (‘jandal’ in New Zealand).  We had gone totally unprepared, without water or machete, not realizing the distance and the terrain en route.  The hike was quite miserable, fighting our way through a dense jungle of ferns and vines and fallen palm fronds and tree limbs, the vegetation often so dense we could not see our feet, the ground uneven with bomb craters and crab holes and coral rock and thousands of rotten coconuts and occasional black mud pits, clouds of flying insects buzzing, the air hot and steamy with not a breath of breeze.  Fortunately there were no thorny plants – with their teeming abundance, I suppose plants on these rain-drenched atolls do not require the protection of barbs and spikes – nor were there any potentially dangerous fauna.  Besides the insects, the only animals we noted were coconut and hermit crabs, lizards, one amazingly hefty and light-colored rat (about cat size), and numerous birds.

Of all the flat atolls I have ever visited, Puluwat has one of the most attractive natural settings, with not only the usual gorgeously contrasting colors in the water reflecting different seabeds (corals of various hues, sand, and seaweed) and various depths (the lighter the shallower), but also several arms and bays rather than the normal single expanse of water.  The lagoon is mostly shallow which makes it quite colorful, with dark blue waters only in the middle, then various lovely shades radiating out.  There are five wooded islands in the lagoon but only one is inhabited.  Snorkeling there was adequate, and I was able to observe again Longnose Filefish, usually in pairs, plus several new species of interest, but the lagoon was pretty much fished out for edible fish.  Stan says that a favorite food in Puluwat is sea turtle, often the target of spearfishing, and that even the shell is eaten, but we saw none.  Sharks are not eaten and as a result were quite common, the last shark attack, according to Stan, being in 2009 when a spearfisherman carrying his catch was bitten, but recovered.  And there were at least three visible shipwrecks inside the lagoon for the junkyard curious.

One night around 2 a.m. while anchored in Puluwat, I was awakened by howling wind and went out on deck to adjust some shade cloths and then returned to the cockpit and main salon to monitor the wind.  The wind speed was a sustained 35+ knots but every so often a strong gust lasting a few seconds would buffet us, rattling this, whistling through that, the highest wind speed I noticed being 56 knots.

Another night not long after sunset we noticed a fire high up in a tree two hundred meters or so from where we were anchored.  A day or so later Stan explained that coconut crabs climb the trees to get coconuts, so people set alight the dead leaf matter in the crown and it kills and cooks the crabs, and then they fall to the ground and people collect then eat them.  Astonished at his explanation, I failed to ask how this hunting technique affects the tree.

After twelve days the wind has finally turned to the south this afternoon and we hope to leave tomorrow, Tuesday in the time zone here.  We have about 180 nm to go so if we leave soon after sunrise we can make it well before sunset the following day, averaging our normal 6 knots.

These long layovers waiting for weather will cause me to return to the States a lot later than I planned.  After all, we still have 1000 nm to Palau, and waiting for weather then averaging only 6 knots when we finally get underway, well . . . .   I still hope to celebrate Thanksgiving with my mother, but have doubts.

I’ll have one more travelogue before I return, concerning our last thousand nautical miles this year (we have done about 2600 so far since leaving NZ in May).

(October 2013)

                              4 of the 15 inhabitants of Oroluk come to visit

               Lonely anchorage at Oroluk, shot from dinghy, Backbeat on horizon

                                                  Dinghy motor, closeup

                                           Fish harvest by Glen, Oroluk

          Sunset at Chuuk lagoon from our anchorage at Weno near the Truk Stop

                                                 Truk Stop, Weno, Chuuk

                                                  Puluwat from Backbeat


                            Checking in with local men on arrival at Puluwat


                                   Inter-island traditional sailboat, Puluwat


                                    Glen repairing gear for locals, Puluwat


      Four bunches of bananas as partial payment for repairs, with chainsaw to fix


                                    Our friend, Stan, and a daughter, on Puluwat


                                           Woman preparing taro, Puluwat

© R. Kelly Wright 2014