02/09/2009, Chuuk Lagoon
We took a tour of Weno, the island capital of Chuuk State today. It was an eye opener. The trip was arranged by the Truk Stop Hotel in town, and a driver came to pick us up at the Blue Lagoon at 9AM for our three hour excursion.
The van was pretty beat up. I can live with beat up, but I mean really beat up. No air conditioning, which is ok, we're sailors, but the windows didn't open much and fumes wafted through the interior regularly. Not the clean island air you hope for when exploring an out of the way place. We had lots of room though and it got us down the road.
Speaking of roads, the roads on Weno are so absolutely damaged that after a heavy few days of rain, such as we've had, the pot holes turn into lakes. There are no side walks and there are places you literally could not get through on foot without wading. The one road that runs along the west side of Weno is self regulating at speeds of 15mph or less.
After quite a long while we reached the Truk Stop Hotel. This is more of a motel really. It is the nicest place in town, the Blue Lagoon being the nicest place on the island. There is nowhere else that I know of to stay other than the live aboard dive boats (which might be the best choice if you're a diver).
After checking in at the Truk Stop we set off on our tour. There were three stops and not a lot of liner notes to go with them. We first stopped at the Japanese memorial to the honored dead from WWII. This memorial was nice but not in a great location. In fact, on Weno, there are not many nice locations.
Our next stop was ad hoc. As we were driving along the coastal (only) road to the road that goes up to the cave with the big Japanese gun in it we noticed a terrible sight. You get used to trash all over the place here in Chuuk. On the sides of the street, piled up in the bushes, there's garbage everywhere. There are also wrecks in the shallows of fishing boats, old freighters, skiffs and all other manner of craft. You'd need to be really careful in shallow water here.
There are also wrecks on land. There are perhaps as many cars sitting on rims or just rolled into the bush here as there are operating. Many of those operating should be rolled into the bush.
The thing that really blew all of us away was a sight we came upon in a little quaint bay with a community along the edge and a few little fishing skiffs out in the shallows. The fore shore of the area and the waterline and the first 10 feet of bay was totally buried in trash. Garbage of all sorts, but particularly floating plastic and other very persistent debris. It was only a progressive escalation from the other miscellaneous dumps we had run across but it was still perhaps the worst example of pollution I have personally borne witness to.
On the way up to the cave with the Japanese gun in it we had to stop at a shop to pick up the son of the land owner, whom we paid $5 a person. The fee is a little excessive to start but if you don't pick up the kid, the hoodlums up at the cave will charge you even more. Our driver wouldn't leave the van because we had bags in it and he didn't want them to get stolen. If you are getting a poor impression of Chuuk from my description, I must sadly confirm your assessment.
The gun was awesome and what it represented alone was worth the visit. The ghosts of an era long gone play about such things. The cave was hewn out of solid rock and you can only imagine the toil in the tropical heat necessary to create such a thing.
Our third and final stop was the Xavier High School. The school is interesting in itself, but it bears the historical significance of being one of the Japanese radio posts during WWII. Chuuk was Japan's primary forward naval facility during WWII and thousands of troops were stationed in the islands here. There was a sea plane base, many airstrips, repair facilities and lots of protected anchorage space. The orders to attack Pearl Harbor even came through Chuuk.
From the roof of the Japanese administrative building, come Catholic High School, one can see some wonderful vistas out over the lagoon and her little islands. The school itself is an important resource in the islands. There are not many high schools and I have met few people who went beyond 8th grade. Of the several hundred tested to enter 9th grade at Xavier, only 40-50 are admitted. The school charges $1,100 per year for live in students but this is far from enough to pay for the expenses. The balance is made up with charity.
If there's one thing I think the people of Chuuk need, it is more education and more schools. If the US stopped sending its $50 million per year to support the country I'm not sure what would happen. Perhaps we should, then all the cars, outboards and plastic imports would go away over time and people would go back to sustainable leaf huts and fishing. If not, someone really needs to get in here and do an assessment of how the cash is being spent because there is no rule of law, terrible pollution, atrocious public works and no schools to speak of. It seems with $50 million a year there should be quite a bit more infrastructure. Corruption is rumored to be rampant and I can see no other excuse for the conditions given the top level funding.
Hideko met a Japanese guy who was working at the school as a teacher. He is part of the Japanese equivalent of the Peace Corp. We have run across many of these noble souls in the Pacific. We had a great talk with him and he showed us some amazing wreck maps that kids from the school had made using scuba gear.
Our tour almost halted at the school as our van would no longer go in reverse and we were parked such that going forward would plow us into a school bus. Finally some kids helped us move the van back enough that we could forward our way out. It was for naught though because after a short stop at the telecom office to top up on internet cards, forward went out too. We had though to visit a fourth sight, the Japanese light house from WWII but the tour ended abruptly.
We flagged down a guy with the SDA in a big truck who was kind enough to give us a ride back to the Truk Stop. We had a nice lunch at the Truck Stop's Hard Wreck café and talked over our eclectic day.
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02/08/2009, Truk Lagoon
Hideko stayed on the boat today to avoid the imperfect weather and to get some things done around the boat. Eric and I were undeterred by the overcast morning and went out to meet the guys from Blue Lagoon Diving for a second day on the wrecks in the lagoon.
Our primary target for today was the wreck of the San Francisco Maru. The San Francisco Maru is a 385 foot long passenger/freighter build in 1919. She plied the west coast of the Americas until the war and then became a support ship. She was sunk in day two of operation Hailstone in Truk Lagoon. She lies in 200 feet of water and is known as the million dollar wreck, due to the vast collection of goods that lie with her.
It is a technical dive and our plan was to visit the deck only, at 160 feet, for no more than 12 minutes. We would stop at 60 feet for three minutes, 30 feet for ten minutes and 15 feet for as long as air allowed. We were diving with 100s so it was going to be a lot of hanging around in blue water for 12 minutes of bottom time. We were hopping it would be worth it.
It was awesome. The San Francisco is in great shape due to the depth she sits in. She has much less growth than the shallower wrecks. We parachuted in, dropping down as fast as we could manage while staying together as a group. When the deck is at 160 you see nothing for some time, even though the visibility was probably 70 or 80 feet. At first it is just the mooring line (whose float is a good 4 feet underwater so only local knowledge will locate it). Then the towers rising 50 feet off of the deck come into view, deeply encrusted with corals and other creatures. Next the superstructure materializes. Then you check your depth gauge and you are on the deck at 150 feet.
The first hold you come to has piles of unexploded mines and other ordinance in it. Good buoyancy control is a plus here! There are three fully intact Japanese battle tanks on deck which are wondrous to look over. Our short stay uncovered many controls and operational widgets in great shape along with aircraft engines, trucks and other relics.
Normally I would say deco dives are not worth the 45 minutes or more you spend hanging around on the way up. This dive was an exception. If you are comfortable doing decompression dives, this is one you should try.
Our second dive was the Shinkoku Maru. This 500 foot long naval tanker is almost as great as the San Francisco. Lots of stuff to see and some cool swim throughs. We ran across a big manta ray who played with us for a bit as we were swimming along the deck. The hull has lots of growth, in particular some huge anemones. A good sized black tip reef shark came to take a look at us and a school of trevally 100 strong circling one of the ships towers.
As we were surfacing we saw the reef hook anchor go flying by. Looking up I could see that a nasty squall had set in since we descended. Big waves were rolling by and rain pock marks covered the surface. We all stayed down at the safety stop as the boat drifted away. In a bit he fired up the motors and came back up to the underwater buoy and dropped the hook down. It was like being Charlie Tuna in one of those old commercials. One of the shop guys rehooked the anchor on the tower of the wreck. I winced.
The guys from the shop are safe but they are probably a few nicks shy of PADI 5 star. No VHF on the boat (or at the shop), things like that. You will get little in the way of a dive brief and they will be chewing beetle nut and smoking Dorals during the surface interval.
We all climbed aboard in the driving rain and had a really bumpy, wet and even cold, ride home. Never the less it was a fantastic day of diving, perhaps one of the best ever.
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02/07/2009, Truk Lagoon
Hideko joined At and Dia from Angelique to do some shopping in town today. Eric from Whistler and I decided to go out for our first dives on the wrecks of Truk Lagoon. The number one must dive wreck seems to be the Fujikawa Maru when you take a poll. So that was our target.
We dove with Blue Lagoon Divers. The dive shop was started by Kimiuo Aisek, the Chuukese guy who really launched the dive industry here. Kimiuo was 17 when he saw the operation Hailstone sink the majority of Japanese ships in the lagoon. He has passed on now but his son runs the dive operation. The former continental Hotel is now the Blue Lagoon Resort, also owned by the Aisek family.
The boat came around to pick us up with two guys on board. Jersey was our driver and surface support. He took care of setting up our gear and breaking it down. Tonky lead the dives, anchored the boat and did the standard islander bow conning, hand waving bit when we got close to one of the sites.
Many of the dive sites have mooring balls marking them, but the moorings are all 3-4 feet underwater. This ensures the open Yamaha fiberglass boats that whip around here in taxi capacity don't snag the lines and it also ensures that yahoo divers out to go diving without a guide (which is illegal here) can't find the sites easily.
The guys don't moor to the line though in most cases. They instead prefer to drop a grapnel anchor onto the wreck and hook up that way. Unfortunate for the wrecks, and the coral on them.
The Fujikawa is a 433 foot passenger/cargo ship. The Fujikawa has a lot going for it. It is in reasonable depth, with a bottom at 112 feet, the deck at 60 feet, a stack running all the way up to 20 feet and a rear mast near the surface. She has several intact zeros in the hold, deck guns, ammo, spare prop blades and lots of other cargo and artifacts. There are some nice swim throughs and the ship is deeply covered in growth. It is a fantastic dive.
We have picked up some literature on the lagoon from different places. Franko's Chuuk Lagoon Dive Map is a must for anyone diving here. It gives an old school map of the lagoon with pictures and descriptions of all of the ships as new, and on the other side pictures of the wrecks and dive notes. We also picked up a copy of "The Legacy of Truk Lagoon", DVD, which is very interesting and well done. Pricey though still very interesting, and by far the most detailed resource, is the 500 page, "WWII Wrecks of the Truk Lagoon".
Our second dive was on the Kensho Maru (Maru is the suffix applied to any merchant ship in the Japanese fleet). The Kensho had some nice swim throughs and was worth diving but not as spectacular as the Fujikawa.
The rides out from Weno to the wrecks can be long and the lagoon can get very choppy. The dive boat does have a bimini and it rides fairly smooth considering. We were back at the Blue Lagoon dock by 1PM, just in time for lunch. The dock has a nice set of rinse basins and a fresh water shower for the divers. It is a great setup for cruisers looking to conserve fresh water but not wanting stinky dive gear. After cleaning up, Eric and I scarfed down a Blue Lagoon Cheese Burger and a Four X ("XXXX", an Australian beer I am growing fond of). It was a perfect day in Chuuk.
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02/06/2009, Blue Lagoon Resort
If you only have a week you might want to avoid FSM. It took us four days to clear in. We went ashore at the Blue Lagoon today to look around the resort and await immigration with our final paperwork. The resort is the nicest place in Chuuk as far as we can tell. They have about 50 rooms and perhaps 5 were rented. I worry about the viability of the place.
We bought Telecom cards at the front desk (good for pay phone calls, cell top ups and Wifi) and made some calls and got caught up on the internet. When immigration arrived we finally got our passports back, stamped, and received paper copies of our cruising permits. It turns out ours had issued in December but it expired before we got here. Pohnpei took some time to sort this out and issue another permit.
Happy to be "in" the country we relaxed at the Blue Lagoon Resort for the day and enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant.
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We woke up to the sound of Yamaha 40hp two strokes zipping about. The shuttle traffic around here is truly amazing. I can not see how the folks around here pay for all of the gasoline at $4 a gallon. Perhaps it is the $50 million the US tax payers provide to the government annually. Or the other millions in aid that come through other channels. Who knows.
We waited the morning out in the port but found no sign of immigration. At and I had finally had enough. I dingied over to Angelique, who had received some unfortunate damage from the quay overnight, and we headed for the immigration office. It was noon and of course the office was closed.
When two o'clock rolled around and still no one showed up at the office we proceeded to the airport. We were looking for the head of immigration in Chuuk. He arrived at the airport from home about a half hour later. We made our situation clear.
It went something like this: "We have been in your port for three days and have not been cleared in. We filed for permits more than a month ago and received no confirmation or contact, even when requested, over any channel. We tried to bring aid to your outlying atolls (much like the US air drops at Christmas from Guam), but were denied. We are now being held up here. You can give us back our paperwork and we will contact our embassy and leave, or you can clear us in. Please decide and complete your process in the next hour."
He assured us that his office was working to get us in but that Pohnpei was taking more time to approve the paperwork than normal. We returned to the boats to watch the clock. Back at the port Mrs. Mori arrived and she still did not have our permits. She insisted that she be allowed to inspect our stores to see that we still had our aid package aboard. We obliged and then both At and I blew up. We had had enough of the rinky dink games and quite enough of the Pohnpei power play. We were ready to demand our prior clearances, refunds of fees, and to be on our way to Guam.
After a lot of apologies from immigration we were swayed to stay until tomorrow, at which point, we were promised, permits and stamps would be forthcoming. So far this country's government has proven pretty good at wasting people's time, insulting folks who spent thousands of dollars of their own money to assist people in the outer islands, creating the most complex entry program we have ever encountered and charging more money than anyone but the Bahamas. As a side note, we have been warned to anchor no where but in front of the Blue Lagoon because should we anchor anywhere else in the lagoon we are liable to get robbed at knife point unless we have a local aboard (this came from two Chuukese friends we had made at the port).
I'm venting. Sorry.
So off we go to anchor at the Blue Lagoon.
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We got up this morning and had eggs for breakfast! Might not seem special to you, but eggs are surprisingly hard to come by in the Solomons and remote islands between there and here. It had been a less than optimal evening on the cargo ship quay but a nice breakfast and easy access to the stores made up for it.
The problem with the quay is that you just can't get tied up in such a way that your boat will be at rest. It is a roadstead and there's a couple feet of tide, a couple feet of slow rolling swell and a lot of small boat wake mixing together, fore and aft, side to side. We were eager to move out into the islands.
We came for the wreck diving. As it turns out there are wrecks everywhere. So many you need to be careful navigating and anchoring. Quite a few are modern era, not WWII. For instance the Chuuk State island freighter that used to make the runs from Moen to the outer islands is now lying on its side next to the quay. I was told that it met its match in the last Typhoon they had, about five years back. It is not alone.
Eleven AM and Mrs. Mori from Immigration never showed up. The diesel guy, who is actually an American, did come by as scheduled though. It was raining so hard and often though that it took three stints to get the tanks filled. We had to keep closing everything up and running inside the boat, while the diesel guy sheltered in his truck.
Health showed up out of the blue in the afternoon. They looked at our immunization cards and our most recent physical exam records and that was that. So the total official visits was now up to five (Health, Immigration, Customs, Port, Quarantine). I was talking to an Australian who is here as a tax adviser to the government and he indicated that the government is largely funded by the USA and that something like 20% of the population in many areas work for the government. If there's one place in the world that needs less government it is here!
We sat on the quay all day waiting for immigration to bring out passports and our cruising permits. We had sent in the cruising permit applications from Gizo over a month ago. The email exchange with Pohnpei was much like consulting with the great Atun of Planet 7. You can make your requests of the oracle but little indication of your disposition will be forthcoming.
Mrs Mori from immigration showed up at 3PM, four hours late, with a story about the air plane creating a slow down in her day. There is one flight a day into Chuuk and it is the same every day. She had nothing. In fact we had to give here new copies of our application for cruising, crew list and ship particulars. It didn't seem to matter that we had already sent all of this in to the capital via email. She left and said she would try to return at 5PM with our permits and passports. No such luck.
Eric on Whistler had started his process a day before us and just got all of his stuff back today. He left the dock for the anchorage south of here off of the Continental Hotel (now the Blue Lagoon) a bit before sunset. We were all envious and hope to join him soon. After all we came here to anchor around the islands and go SCUBA diving (which you can only do with a guide), not to sit in the container port.
This has been by far the most confused circus of officialdom I have ever experienced in any country (and we've been in and out of over 30). There was no way we were staying on the quay another night. Our boat had not been damaged yet, but I wasn't going to wait for it. Our fenders and dock lines were certainly no better for the wear. We left the dock just after sunset. We were certain immigration was not coming at this point, they no showed but did not have the courtesy to tell us they would not be back until tomorrow.
We anchored off of the quay far enough to avoid most of the small boat traffic. The bay next to the quay is the shuttle harbor where all of the boats running about the islands in the lagoon converge. Things pretty much shut down after sunset though. The harbor bottom is pretty scoured and we had to try twice to get a set.
Once settled we dinghied over to Angelique. She was still on the quay, At and Dia had a nice fender board out which allowed them to tolerate the wall and its huge vertical bushings better than we could. The rain throughout the day had made the streets so muddy and flooded that you could not walk to the Truk Stop (the only restaurant in the area) without getting soaked. The dinghy was a far more civilized solution.
We all had another pleasant meal at the Truk Stop and retired to await clearance day three.
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02/03/2009, North Pacific
We slept in today. The anchorage was lovely and we had a nice relaxing breakfast with a beautiful view of the lush green islands inside the Chuuk Lagoon. We talked to Whistler on the VHF and told him that we would try to get over to the port to clear in by 14:00.
Shortly thereafter I noticed four teenage boys hanging off of our stowed dinghy. I went outside to greet them and see what they were up to. They had four coconuts they wanted to give us. I told them we were under quarantine and had plenty of coconuts, but thanks. The leader said, "I give you one". Trying to be nice I said, "ok thanks". Then he said, "now you give me something". I could see where this was going. I asked what he wanted. The four guys had a little huddle then one came back and said, "champagne". There was obviously a language barrier here but I got the drift. I gave them back their coconut and told them we were under quarantine and they had to go. I'm pretty sure they understood the go part if nothing else.
I turned to go back inside and it started raining. They didn't leave. I went back out and they said they wanted to wait for the rain. They were sort of sheltered by our swim platform so against my better judgment I said ok. Back inside the boat with the sliding door closed I could clearly see them but they could not see me. I watched as the lead punk, as I will refer to him from this point on, reached over the edge of our dinghy and began to lift our paddles. I burst back outside and yelled at him to drop the paddle and get away from my boat. That worked.
Sad to say that everyone we have talked to around here today confirms that there is a very high rate of petty theft in Chuuk. Even the guy who was putting up the money for a little league project was getting all of his gloves and balls stolen. As a tourist in a secure hotel room you have nothing to worry about, but when you have your entire home with you it is a little more troubling. Certainly restricts your interest in leaving the boat unattended. Once again we are happy to have Roq aboard. He is the most harmless animal ever to walk the earth, but island folks are generally pretty scared of him.
After setting out for the port, it was a tough slog up the lagoon around the weather side of Dublon. Fairly similar to yesterday actually. Once we turned down wind things mellowed out and we had a nice trip around Weno in protected water to the port on the west side of the island. We hailed port control an hour out and they asked us to tie up to the main quay. The quay is a big ship dock with huge rubber stand offs. They do go from the top of the quay to the water at low tide though so you can work out a horizontal fender arrangement that will do a fair job of protecting the topsides.
A Dutch freighter was just leaving for Pohnpei as we arrived. The quay is huge, and once the m/v Islander had gone, it was empty. I think they get about one ship a week but the quay looks like it belongs in the port of Long Beach. Very nice. Too open to swell and chop for yachts though and it is the only place to tie up in Chuuk that we know of.
John from the port came by to clear us in and go over the fees with us. It was $25 a night to stay on the quay (something we would like to do for as short a period as possible), $25 for the first two nights anchored out, and $10 per night thereafter. Pretty expensive as islands in the middle of no where with no real services to speak of go. Next we saw customs. A copy of the ships docs, a list of previous and next ports, and a crew list sorted him out. Then quarantine, $25 and the "I usually confiscate all of the food on board but you can keep yours just don't bring it ashore" speech. They have no incinerator so we could not take out our trash (ug). Immigration showed up at 5:30PM, to ensure overtime payment which totaled $57.50. They were the ones interested in our cruising permit, oddly. We had to print them a copy of the application we sent to Pohnpei. They took off with our passports until further notice. Hopefully we'll get the cruising permit tomorrow at 11AM when she promised to come back.
The weather has been much the same all day with squalls continuously running by. The port is pretty sheltered from the east wind though and the swell is not too bad in our berth. The locals seem to have no concept of how unpleasant it is to have someone blast by your yacht when you're up against a concrete quay. One guy came by 6 feet off for a good look, under full throttle. We'll fuel up and be out of here shortly after, immigration allowing.
In the evening all three boats headed to the Hard Wreck Cafe at the Truk Stop hotel for dinner. This is a nice place right on the water with a casual, kind of southern USA motel, atmosphere. They are just down the road from the port and have a nice dinghy (really dive boat) dock too. The food was good and so were the prices. The owner, Bill, is an American and a very friendly guy. They have a dive shop and seem to be pretty popular with the dive tourists. It was wonderful to eat in a real restaurant. I think our last "real" restaurant was Honiara.
We had a quiet walk back to the port past the two big grocery stores, a hardware store and some other shops. We are looking forward to some shopping and exploring tomorrow.
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