Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Episode 24 - Palau Part 1

Lorelei’s Sailing Adventures

At the end of Episode 23 we had just had a fantastic 4 weeks in Yap in Micronesia and were just about to leave…

Sailing to Palau

We had booked in to be cleared at 9am Monday and had anchor up and were underway by 10:30am. We managed to hoist the sails straight after the anchor was up and sailed out of the harbour, through the channel and out into the blue.
The wind was NE 15 knots and directly downwind so it meant zig-zagging downwind to Palau. With it slightly more North for the first half, we cleared the bottom of Yap and gybed over and headed west for the first leg. The first night was a 50/50 mix of cloud and stars but overall a pretty non eventful night but it was choppy and rough with 2m of confused seas and we both felt off colour. We did have to gybe at 3am to avoid a collision with a container ship.

By noon on day 2 the storms had started with minor squalls and a little rain. At 2pm we did our final gybe and worked out we had a 130nm run still to do to get to the entrance of Koror Harbour. The port closes at 4pm and with mandatory $175 overtime fees for late arrivals we were paranoid about being late and hit with fees.
So we sailed pretty hard through the arvo and evening to hold the average 6.5 knots needed to get in early. That evening it was pitch black with 100% cloud cover and a lot of lightning overhead – our worst fear!
Thankfully by 3am it had started to clear up, the wind had held through the night and we arrived at the entrance at 8:45am with loads of Dolphins playing in our bow wave on a sunny day.

Land Ho! The Palaun coastline in the background

With time up our sleeve we sailed through the pass, up the channel and into the port dropping sails only 50m from the clearance wharf.
We were just astounded at the amount of dive and snorkelling vessels that passed us as we sailed in. There must have been at least 20  12m long vessels all with twin 200hp outboards and loaded with 20+ people in each ( most of whom were Asian…). Amazing!!

We had completed the 265nm straight line passage in 47 hours covering a total sailing distance of 319nm with a great average speed of 6.8 knots.
We used less than 2 litres of diesel combined to leave and arrive.

Fortunately another yacht had made it in 30 minutes earlier and all the officials were still at the wharf. We must have had to fastest check in ever with all 5 departments done in a record 45 minutes. The quarantine flag was up less than an hour!

Wooohooo – We were cleared and in Palau!!!
For us it is a lifelong dream to come to Palau to dive and for all our travels onboard Lorelei, this is the No.1 destination for us both.
20 years ago we dreamt of maybe a 7-10 day trip there one day….
Well were about to certainly exceeded that.

Exploring Palau

After checking in we proceeded around the corner to Sam’s Tours (and were greeted in a boat by Sam himself…) who showed us to an awesome mooring in the corner with a lovely outlook and surrounded by stunning little rock islands. Perfect! For $2 a day, we decided to make it our home for the next 3 weeks.

By 5pm we had joined the yacht club, had the grand tour of Sam’s Establishment, a tour of town by one of Sam’s staff in car and had gone shopping. There was so much yummy food in the supermarket. The biggest range we have seen since leaving Australia and a lot cheaper.
That night we had a BBQ and feasted on Angus steak and a great salad.

A message from Mike and Marilyn our diving friends from Yap which we spotted on the notice board during our tour of Sam’s.
We saw it M&M…!!! We were a week late but it was still there and a nice welcome for us…. Thankyou!

Our great outlook with the small rock islands in the background

Sam’s wharfs – quiet during the day but after 4pm and before 9am its packed full of dive boats and a hive of activity.
Lorelei in the background on our mooring 2nd from the right

After a great nights sleep we walked the length of town exploring the township of Koror and enjoyed the sites.
Our first impressions of Palau were great. It was certainly much bigger than we expected - in physical size, population and services.
The population is an eclectic mix of local Palauan’s, Pilipino’s, Asian’s (Japanese, Korean and Chinese are all here in numbers), US ex-pats and loads of tourists.
The main town of Koror is a busy place and all around the outskirts there are scores of resorts and accommodation from budget to 5 star with loads of diving operators and tourist activities. The place seems to be all about tourism.
Ironically we went to the tourist Info centre and they were totally useless. They had next to no brochures or maps in English and couldn’t answer one single question we asked on basic land and water based tourist activities on the main island and down at Peleliu. Hopeless!!!

Just one of the dozen+ smaller dive shops around the main township

That evening our friends Christian and Christine (C&C) off the yacht Thor returned to Koror and we caught up for dinner and planned our next few days of activities, which mainly revolved around scuba diving.

Scuba Diving in Palau

The Scuba Diving in Palau is fantastic!
Whilst it is some of the best diving in the world, the diversity and range for all levels has made Palau the world’s most popular diving destination.
It has a varied mix of amazing coral reefs, deep walls, big fish action, macro and over 50 WW2 wrecks and planes.
Most of the wrecks are Japanese as the area was occupied by them during WW2 until the US invaded in May 1944. Palau was the scene of some very fierce battles with huge loss of life, ships, planes and equipment. The fierce fighting in the area to the south at Peleliu was made well known by the TV mini-series
"War In The Pacific"
Whilst the wrecks are popular, it is “Blue Corner” the world’s best known dive spot that is Palau’s star diving attraction.
The world Famous Jelly Fish Lake comes in a close second.

With a fantastic forecast of a week of beaut weather (followed by a week of terrible weather – but more on that later…), we unpacked the scuba gear for our first dives in Palau. We woke to find very clear viz under the boat so we decided on one of the closer dive sites - The Chandelier Caves.  The limestone cave system is in a rock island cove only 50m from Lorelei’s mooring with the entrance in only 7m depth. Once inside though it goes deeper and you can explore many different chambers. Don’t be fooled by the bright photos – inside is pitch black without a decent light.
In a few of them you can surface and look around. We went with C&C and we all thought it was fantastic.

Christian, Lisa and Christine in chamber No.4.

On the surface in Chamber no.3

That afternoon we went around the corner and went to dive our first Palauan wreck – The Japanese Amatsu Maru. This massive 450m long tanker was a fuel ship used in WW2 until it was heavily bombed by the US in the Desecrate 1 air raid. It is intact and upright but is deeper than most Palaun shipwrecks and lies in over 40m depth with the deck starting at 27m. This combined with normally limited visibility makes this a challenging dive. The entire deck is covered in black coral trees and inside is very silty so deep penetration is not recommended.
We did however explore the pumphouse and the forecastle areas inside.
Overall we thought it was average and probably won’t dive it again.

Left: Note Lisa behind the black coral trees. Right: A Lifeboat Davit

In stark contrast to the Amatsu Maru, the next day we dived the Chuyo Maru and thought it was absolutely fantastic. It is a 90m long army cargo ship that sits upright and fully intact in 36m of water. There are lots of relics, areas inside to explore, loads of schooling fish, reasonable viz and colourful coral formations.
For Lisa the most exciting thing was the coral encrusted bridge, derricks and masts which were home to all sorts of critters big and small.
On the first dive she found a Saw Blade Shrimp – a first for us both.
Paul was trying a new adapter for the camera and took the unit with no camera inside or strobes to do a pressure test.
It didn’t matter, with the wreck being in a protected bay only 5 minutes run from Lorelei, we could do it any time we wanted.

The next day we went back and did it again and were set up with macro lenses, determined to find Lisa’s little shrimp (which was 4cm long…) talk about finding a needle in a haystack!
But we did find them (2 actually) and lots of other small little critters to photograph.

Lisa’s little Saw Blade Shrimp

Note the long arm from another species of shrimp coming
down from the top of the photo

With the spring high tides the next morning, we were able to transit though a normally very shallow pass and take a shortcut though to the main harbour to dive The Helmet Wreck.

Passing one of the many resorts in the area

The Helmet Wreck is surrounded in mystery as it was only found in 1990 and still has not been identified. It is full of Japanese army surplus but is not Japanese built. The engine for its time was a super modern triple expansion engine and way overpowered for the vessels size.
There was no coal in the storage area indicating she was not being used at the time although the holds are full of surplus.
One of the 3 holds is full of Japanese Army Helmets hence the nick name.

We had actually heard that bomb disposal experts were in Palau and had surveyed the wreck and were starting work the next day to clear the wreck of some of the 100’s of Depth Charge Mines that are packed into holds No.2 and 3.
We wanted to dive it once before they started the work.
Lisa holding a rifle with ammo clip still installed

The cylinders in the crate next to the bottles are artillery shells.

The remains of a light

Left: The piles of stacked Helmets give the wreck its nickname
Right: Just some of the depth charges

A pile of depth charges. Note the large cracks in the casings and stains from the substance leaking out…

A workbench and large vice in the engineering room next to the engine room

Lisa in the Engine Room

Sake bottles on the bow

Lisa found this bowl with a great emblem stamped on it

That arvo as we were talking to the manager at Sam’s, we discovered the reason for the Depth Charge removal is not for the explosion danger as we just assumed, but because some mines we leaking a toxic substance that was very bad for divers and their kidney’s. Many of the dive operators had been refusing to go anywhere near the wreck because of the dangers.
Oppps...!!!  But it was excellent and we can’t wait to do it again….

The next day was April 1st – April Fools Day.

It didn’t start so well as sadly we went over to Thor to say our final goodbyes as they were leaving to sail to Indonesia and then onto South Africa for Christmas. We were all very sad as we had become close friends and had been in contact on and off since Kosrae.
It won’t be the last time we see them. They have plans, we have plans, and in the future they might just overlap somewhere, somehow, sometime….

That morning someone must have been playing an April Fool’s joke on us and stole or moved the large Ryuko Maru shipwreck. We searched for an hour and couldn’t find it or the 90m long landing barge that was also close by.  Hmmmm – hopefully they’ll return them tomorrow…

On the way back through the pincers to our favourite back-up wreck, The Chuyo Maru, we stopped at a few sea caves to have a look. One is called the Gun Cave for obvious reasons.

As Paul jumped out of the RIB at one cave he nearly stepped on a venomous Sea Snake that scared the hell out of him.

Kayaking the Rock Islands

Kayaking though the Rock Island is also very popular in Palau and like the diving, is rated as some of the best Kayaking experiences in the world.
We did many kayaks around the area but the channels and small bays though the rock islands and definitely the highlight.
Taking some snorkelling gear to see the smaller wrecks, planes and caves in the shallow bays is also recommended.

Just one of the dozens of smaller wrecks in the Rock Islands

We saw loads of these Pitcher Plants on the overhanging rock edges

Reef Diving

After nearly a week of wrecks, wrecks and more wrecks we decided on a change and went to do our first reef dive.
It was to be the lighthouse Express Dive site in the main channel.
It can be a drift dive but we did it at 9am right on the top of the tide and did it as a static dive.
The dive book says it’s a good macro dive which for us was a severe understatement!!! It was one of the best macro dives we have done. There was loads to see and for over 90minutes we both clicked away with the cameras.

Now that’s a camouflaged fish & one of Lisa’s shots

It was that good we decided to do it again the next day, and the next….

A very small and unusual Soft Coral Crab

Eating Out

In stark contrast to Yap we have rarely eaten out so far in Palau.
In Yap the restaurants for lunch and dinner were cheap and the groceries in the supermarket limited and expensive so eating out was a viable option on a near daily basis.
Palau is completely the opposite. The 60+ restaurants in the Koror/Malakhal area are mainly catering for the tourist market and the prices reflected this. In the few times we did eat out we found it OK but not great and expensive compared to the rest of FSM and the Pacific.
The grocery stores however where huge, cheap and packed full off lots of variety &  yummy goodies that had us making things we have not been able to cook since leaving Australia and New Caledonia.
So for us the obvious choice was to enjoy the change and eat in.
We used our BBQ more in the first 10 days then we had used in the past 18 months.

One funny exception was the Little Beijing Restaurant that we went to for lunch one day. It had great reports and looked authentic but when we got closer to the front door we could hear heavy rock music to the likes of Linkin Park and Lisa’s favourite, Metallica blaring out from inside.
That settled it - we were eating there for sure!
The food was great and so were the Chinese owners and staff.
The owner’s wife even dropped us into town after lunch.

Tropical Storm Peipah

As we sailed through Micronesia towards Palau we entered Typhoon Alley, a line running from Japan down through Palau and onto The Philippines.
All the way across Lisa (who had done all the research) was explaining to Paul (who had done no research) that typhoons in the north are a lot different from cyclones on Australia’s East Coast as they can develop in Typhoon Alley 12 months of the year unlike back at home when there is a definite 5 month season only.
Paul was like “Yeah yeah whatever, we’ll be in the area in peak cruising season when the risk is at its lowest. We’ll be fine…”

Well Lisa was right and Paul was wrong (which is fairly normal) and in the first few days of April, reports started coming in about an intense tropical storm in Chuuk and heading our way.
The HF radio sked each morning had reports from the yachts still in the storm’s path. Two boats were at Woleai Atoll (Including Aussie friends Steve and Selina on Westward 2) which we know was very exposed as we were there only 6 weeks ago. They had a lively few days on board as the storm passed over.

Friday 5th April.
As it headed towards Palau it started to intensify and things got serious very quickly. It now had a name “Peipah”. The reports were on the web every 6 hours and we made contact with Alan, The Lieutenant Commander of the local Australian Navy Base who also kept is informed via email.
It was however still great weather in Palau and Saturday was to be OK too. For Paul the swell was building…

The forecast with the wind speeds for Palau highlighted in blue

Saturday morning Paul was up at 5am and breaking out the surfboards for a trip to West passage with 3 other guys.
Ron is a local man and is a boat captain for Sam. He lived in Hawaii for many years and is a big wave surfer. He owned the boat and was nice enough to invite Paul along. Also on-board was Remy, a Swiss Dive Guide and Glenn, a Kiwi working with the local government.
We loaded up Ron’s boat and headed to well-known local surf break West passage.  His boat had a 200hp motor with a crazy race propeller. The boat could barely get onto plane and at slow speed it cavitated and made all sorts of noise. Once the speed increased the prop would dig in and the boat took off across the water at 60+mph. Ron was driving with a grin from ear to ear and yelling out to us “ She’s just like a Big Red Ferrari!”

Sadly Ron’s reports of 6-8ft pumping waves was a little too early and it was only small, but at least we got wet and cased the place out for next time.

On the way home we trolled through the passage and got 5 fish in less than 10 minutes.

When Remy dropped Paul back off at Sam’s at noon it was a hive of activity and was shocked at the scene around him. All diving operations ceased, staff were cutting back trees, boarding up windows and sandbagging. The dive boats were having their sun covers removed and many boats converged in the bay Lorelei was in and started to tie up to the moorings. Many yachts had reversed back into the rocks and tied into the trees on the shoreline. Those in the middle dived on their moorings and attached extra strong lines to secure their vessels.
The forecast had changed – and for the worst!

Sandbagging the roof at Sam’s.

That afternoon we stripped the deck of anything that would fit downstairs or in the cockpit, and double roped down our kayaks, paddleboard, BBQ, etc…We stripped our RIB, bridled it up close to the back of Lorelei and filled it with water so it was too heavy to flip. We figured it was safer there then on the davits, and probably better for the davits too.
We dragged out our super heavy mooring rope (that had never been used) and Paul dived on the mooring and shackled it on.
It took us half a day but we were prepared as best as we could be but were pretty nervous with reports showing winds up to 70 knots expected.

4 x 20mm and 1 x back-up 32mm rope to secure Lorelei
That should hold us OK...

Our Kayaks double roped down, covers off the hatches and all locked down

Late that arvo it was very hot and humid with no wind and an eerie calm had settled over the bay. There was no noise from any animals or birds as they must have been in hiding.
The sunset that evening was spectacular.

That night it was not too windy but it poured with rain.

Sunday was reasonably calm during the day with only light winds and rain but it was still on track to pass right over us.
By 4pm the forecast was that at midnight it would cross Palau and about 20nm south of where we were in Koror.
The winds were due to start increasing at about 6pm.

We sat up that night like it was a New Years Eve countdown.
6pm – no wind. 8pm – still no wind. 10pm still no wind.
What was going on???

By 11pm we had a few mild gusts and the trees on the peaks were certainly moving but it wasn’t 70 knots. Not even close.
So we went to bed….

Monday  4am we got some rain but woke at daybreak wondering what all the fuss was about.
A quick look on the net revealed that it had slowed down.
That day it blew a little and poured rain all morning and we filled our 1000L water tank in just 1 hour.

Bailing out the RIB – which we had to do many times

In a crazy bizarre twist we actually had a rougher night that night than the previous one but it was still more than manageable.

On the Tuesday the weather looked reasonable so we ventured out to do some shopping.
Half way to the shops it started bucketing down with super heavy rain.
Within 30 minutes the roads were flooding, the drains just completely overflowing and people were frantically sweeping water out of doorways.
To get back to Sams we had to wade through calf to knee deep racing water in many large sections.

As we write this, Easter is only a few days away and we are excited to have Loren, our Aussie friend from Yap to come and join us for a week.
We are going to leave Koror and venture down south to the Rock Islands for some Diving, Kayaking, a Jelly Fish Lake visit and a pig out on Easter Chocolate!!!
Should be a blast - if the weather gets better…

So that’s it for Episode 24 and a much shorter blog posting than normal.
The reports of terrible internet for us here at Koror are incorrect and we have fantastic service onboard Lorelei and at a reasonable price too.

So we will endeavour to make shorter and more regular blog postings in the future.
Look out for the next Episode in just 2-3 weeks’ time.

Enjoy our newly overhauled blog site too.
Lots of new pages about Lorelei’s history, our sailing adventures onboard our catamaran Purrana from 2000-2004,  fun times on Moreton bay with friends and lots more to come particularly about Scuba Diving.

Have a safe and Happy Easter Everyone.

Paul and Lisa Hogger
Yacht Lorelei
In Palau

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