[140502, 0041 UTC, RBYC, Malakal Island, Palau, 07°20.31'N / 134°27.17'E]
In our last dispatch we described our heavy hearts sailing out of Lamotrek bound for Woleai; it seemed like we had made so many friends there. We had a slow relaxing downwind, sunny and moonlit sail to Woleai. The sails pulled and we just sat back and made sure Bud, our windvane steering, was behaving. Carina was a joy to sail and her crew content.
About 20 miles east of Ifalik atoll, in the heat of the afternoon, we listened to a conversation between an ore transport vessel and Ifalik. The vessel was carrying nickel from the Solomon Islands to Japan and was passing close to Ifalik because it reminded the home-sick crew of their island home in the Philippines. We contacted the captain of the merchant vessel on the VHF and had a brief warm chat and then he wished us godspeed to our next port. Such is the wonderful spirit of the maritime community.
Woleai was just outside of our range to sail in a day, a night and a daylight day, so on night 2 we hove-to under a lovely nearly-full moon and gentle swell. Arriving the following morning at Raur Channel we spied the government supply ship, the Caroline Voyager anchored to windward. Taking care to avoid the small punts carrying supplies and passengers, we passed the supply ship and picked our way around coral bommies into the inner anchorage. As we neared the land, the radio crackled "sailboat, sailboat this is Scopio". Scopio is the official greeter in Woleai and he advised us to anchor and then come ashore the following day. Scopio is a man of distinction and intelligence. An island boy who had been educated at maritime academies, he'd been the captain of most of the vessels serving the islands in years past, had been captain of vessels delivered from distant ports, and had trained the captains now in charge.
Matthias, aka Scopio, lived directly NE of where we were anchored. He'd only settled into his ancestral, beachfront compound of small dwellings in the last four months, and he'd set up an office of sorts under a grey plastic tarp. Here he tapped away on his Toshiba laptop. A likeable man, who had replaced the previous greeter of dubious repute, Matthias presented us with a receipt for landing charges. Another man, Romeris, took our donation to the village.
The following day the Australian Bruce Roberts ketch, Lorelei, with Paul and Lisa, joined us in the anchorage. The timing of their arrival was such that we were all able to visit the two local chiefs to introduce ourselves and to receive formal permission to visit.
The chiefs met us in the shade of a canoe shed. On these outer islands, canoe sheds line the beaches. These are structures about 30 x 50' built directly on the sand with huge tree trunk pillars and joists, steep roofs of palm and gables of grass. Inside the cool interiors one can look up overhead and see gear stowed: canoe masts and booms, sails, fish traps and line.
In Falolap (which means essentially big island in nomenclature used by out-island people) there are two chiefs both named Francisco. Clearly the chief in charge was the elder, a wizened, cadaverous, tiny blind man who was a youth during the Japanese time at Woleai and educated in schools for elite students. Though he spoke no English to us, it was clear he understood English well because of his immediate response to our comments, sometimes bypassing Matthias who was acting as interpreter. Because of his education dictated by the Japanese during the war, he also spoke fluent Japanese.
After presenting our gifts and learning of the privileges and taboos we faced, we were free to wander the island of Falolap. Through Matthias we found wee Walton, an 11 year old boy who had helped our friends on Backbeat. Walton was at first shy with us, but soon became just a fine, funny little man as we and Paul and Lisa of Lorelei engaged him. Walton was to show us the hidden WWII relics of the island during a brief tour. We had fun with Walton and he with us. When we were done, we returned to a concrete pad next to his home where his auntie Sara gave us drinking coconuts and we gave Walton a gift of rubber clogs and offered lollies to him and his family which sweetened their already sweet smiles.
Woleai is home to a regional high school and (gasp) has electricity 24/7. We were actually dismayed to have a bright halogen light shining all night from the otherwise quiet white sand beach to windward. Their dispensary (the island name for the medical clinic) was air conditioned, another surprise to us. Woleai has a long 3,000 foot landing strip, also a relic of WWII, though its current disrepair makes it useless. The islanders would like someone to offer money to repair it, as small operators servicing Micronesia refuse to risk a landing there, even for medical evacuations. This shortfall in services was painfully brought to the fore recently when a critically injured young man died aboard the supply ship Hapilmohol at Woleai while the Hapilmohol was preparing to sail to Yap. Bad timing; the supply ship had been held in port by a threatening tropical cyclone that was passing through western Micronesia at the time.
Though enjoying some modern conveniences, the residents of Woleai still dress and live traditionally, wearing only thus (for the men) and hand woven lavalavas worn around the waist (for the women) as they go about island business.
We ran out of Woleai a bit sooner than we'd planned, leaving yachts Lorelei and the newly arrived Thor still at anchor, as weather forecasters predicted a low pressure system that would spin up possibly to a typhoon, cross Micronesia and leave no wind in its wake. With only a week and a half until the annual Yap Days cultural festival, we decided to sail while we still had wind to propel us. Actually the decision was difficult and not without its risks. On Monday we were convinced we would stay at Woleai since the storm had been given an "invest" number, meaning the Joint Typhoon Warning Center was watching it. By later that evening we were committed to flee ahead of it. Philip visited Mathias ashore, gave him a Carina ball cap and shook his hand warmly thanking him for the island's hospitality. Within an hour, our sails were hoisted full and we were sailing away, close reaching at over six knots under stormy skies.
After weeks of gentle downwind sailing, the brisk winds and big beam-to seas made for an interesting but fast passage. Our first 24 hours found us 138 nm closer to Yap, a fine day of traveling for a boat with Carina's waterline length. Foolishly we got to expect we would continue to fly, so when winds diminished such that we could not maintain the speed necessary to make port by the end of business on Friday, we decided to use the "iron genoa" for a bit. But when we pressed the starter button the engine wouldn't start. Seems our chronic starter solenoid problem had gotten so bad that even battery voltages of 13+ wouldn't overcome the apparent electrical resistance in the solenoid; it simply would not open. Of course all of this was happening at a black-as-a-coal-mine midnight with squalls passing, each one dumping warm tropical torrent on us. Inexplicitly, the engine at last roared to life and we made a pact that we would motorsail all the way to Yap (about 70 nm) since it seemed like we'd run out of solenoid lives. Yap's port is up a narrow passage between coral reefs so sailing in would be problematic. At Yap, we had a starter motor waiting, or thought we had a starter motor waiting. It would turn out to be the wrong starter. Sigh.
Our approach to Yap was rough as large seas from storms in the Sea of Japan slapped us abeam. With a reefed mainsail still flying we pointed Carina up the channel and slid between the intimidating breaking waves, turning to the north and into 30 knots directly on our nose. Once inside, the water was flat and Philip stood on the bow and directed our way around coral that sometimes grew into the boundaries of the channel. As we approached, our radio projected a warm welcome in the cheerful Kiwi-accented voice of our friend Glen of the vessel Backbeat. As crew of this shipwrecked Fontaine catamaran, Glen, along with his wife Marie, have the unenviable task of bringing Backbeat back to a seaworthy state.
By "Yap" we refer to the series of islands inside a barrier reef, collectively known as Wa'ab, where about 60% of Yap State's residents live. Three of the islands are connected by bridges. Nearly every square inch of Wa'ab is privately owned, including all the reefs and waterways, so everyone, visitors or locals alike, has to ask permission to tread, fish, snorkel or seemingly breath the air of any given site. Landowners are Yapese-speakers whose language and culture is distinctive from the out-island languages and cultures and way too complex for us to understand during our short (2 month) stay. Out-islanders who come to Wa'ab, Yap's capital and largest town, seeking employment and educational advancement, have no land and are foreigners in their own state. They speak a different language than their Yapese hosts. Waa'gey is a hands-on non-profit run by an erudite, Oxford-educated, betel nut-chewing Lamotrek man named Larry that seeks to address the problems experienced by the out-island diaspora. Through his efforts, the communities are kept unified, social and emotional wounds healed, and unique out-island cultural treasures are preserved.
Wa'ab immediately impressed us as small but neat, and very friendly. Government officials, as well as everyone we met, were exceptionally warm and welcoming. It's downtown, called Colonia (with a C rather than a K as in Kolonia in Pohnpei) surrounds an inner lagoon called Chamorro Bay and stretches along a man-made peninsula with the commercial port on its north side. The roadsides are tended like gardens and there is little trash. Recycle bins for cans and plastic bottles were scattered around town. Plastic grocery bags are being phased out; it is now illegal for a merchant to give you a plastic bag and if you want one, you must pay $0.25. By later in the year, there will be no plastic grocery bags allowed and merchants distributing them will be fined. Health care here is provided nearly for free ($2 per visit) in the State Hospital, though its quality received mixed reviews, some very positive and others less so. Despite such progressive policies and low cost services, Yap State is fiscally responsible and well managed.
Yap is probably best known as the "Island of Stone Money". The most commonly known form of stone money are the disks with a large center hole, though there are also long strands of stone "beads" that are prized. The large iconic stone money disks are everywhere, and we mean EVERYwhere on Yap, lining stone pathways, roadsides, in front of homes and businesses. Mostly quarried in Palau, many are hundreds of years old and weigh tons. Inside the grey black exterior, many are crystalline. A large adult man looks small when standing next to some of the more magnificent money. Exactly what methods were used to quarry and to transport by sea and on land, remains vague, though an enterprising immigrant named O'Keefe made a fortune doing so in the 19th century until he set sail one day and was never heard from again.
The main reason we rushed to Yap was to experience the annual Yap Days festival. This free two day event has been held every year for 46 years on the weekend closest to March 1, Yap Day. The festival is by Yapese and for Yapese and is specifically targeted at maintaining the rich and unique Yapese culture as the modern world and its influence tends to dilute it. There are few of us outsiders attending though the American Embassy to the FSM was represented and the hosting township provided us with western seating (chairs). Coconut palm mats were provided for local seating. All the locals were in local attire, which as we understand is enforced in most villages. That means bare chests, magnificent grass skirts and elaborate layered loincloths.
Events varied; from a skit meant to show children how land ownership and rights are enforced and fines for violations paid in traditional money (hysterical! even though conducted solely in Yapese), to displays of traditional tattoos and clothing worn through the ages, to demonstrations of such things as food preparation, roofing, weaving, and lashing bamboo with vines to make rafts. Children competed in contests such as running while balancing bamboo poles on a finger, weaving and rope making. The most popular of the events, for locals and visitors alike, was the dancing. Every dance we saw was choreographed and orchestrated with exacting detail with participants dressed in the elaborate costumes. Some included up to about fifty participants from age two to (perhaps) seventy two. The variety of dances was so great that it is impossible to describe succinctly what exactly is Yapese dancing. Though we've posted still photos on our website, we still plan to upload our videos but are working out technical details of doing so. Stay tuned.
After Yap Days our time in Yap slipped contently by. We spent a weekend in isolation tucked up in a remote (privately owned) bay waiting for a typhoon to pass by to our south. We toured the island a number of times with Glen and Marie, exploring every little side road, men's house, stone money bank, and stone platform we could find. We hiked a bit, toured a giant clam production facility run by an interesting Belgian-Australian named Philip, trudged through the jungle on ancient stone paths, snorkeled with manta rays, and sought out sites of WWII wrecks. We even helped a bit with Backbeat's repair, sewing sails and offering moral support. "Oh boy, Glen, that really does look bad...;-) " Seriously, we enjoyed many a lunch break and gab at the slipway and we miss their good company.
What was hard for us to find in Yap, other than at Yap Days, were Yapese women and children. (In town the people we met were almost all out-islanders.) And, when we visited Yap towns on our tours, we found stone money, a men's house or three with a man or two lounging inside, and maybe a canoe shed or three. We did not see homes and we wondered, where were all the people??? At last, during what was called a "hanging up" dance (where the dance it performed once more and then retired for five years), we met a man named Joseph from Gagil village. He offered to show us the village, which really meant the men's house. When we began asking about where the homes were he took us to his own home. To reach it, we had to park the car and walk up a narrow lane, much like a garden path, to his home. This path and the homes along it, he said, continued into the bush until it reached the next township! So, the reason we saw no people is they are essentially hidden at their homes built along private jungle paths.
We stayed in Yap for two months; one factor affecting this was the weather. After the typhoon Peipah passed by, it stalled in the Philippine Sea and trailed a windless convergence zone through Micronesia. For almost two weeks, our wind files would predict <5 knots of wind from all around the compass. At last, there was a tiny window and we flew out of Yap just after Easter for an uneventful trip to Palau. Thus, after 16 glorious months in the FSM, we were once again headed for a new country and new adventures.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake