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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Leaving Chuuk
02/16/2009, Chuuk Lagoon

It is the day before the anniversary of operation hailstone and we are off. Like so many of the most valuable Japanese war ships those many years ago, leaving before the air strike on the 17th. I'm not sure if any kind of ceremony or Japanese visit was planned but it would have been nice to have witnessed it if it did take place. As it was, the officials and the weather, once again, dictated our movements.

With the exception of one 12 hour period we have had big wind while here at Chuuk. The lagoon has been pretty rough on the boat rides out to dive the more distant wrecks. Chuuk Lagoon is a lagoon, but it behaves more like a small sea. The distance from the port at Weno to the barrier reef in the direction we're headed is over 11 miles. The fetch and average depth of 150 feet or so makes for short, steep seas.

Watching the weather we have found February to be a big wind month, at least in 2009. The area just north of Guam sees 25 knots frequently and we have had high surf warnings almost continually. We have planned our trip to Guam as an overnight to Namonuito Atoll followed by a double or triple overnight to Guam. A week of days with seas under 3 meters and wind 20 knots or less along that track has not been forthcoming. We ultimately decided to stage up at a little island in the northwestern part of the lagoon 7 miles from Weno port today. From here we will wait for the seas to come down bellow 3 meters and then head out to Namonuito. Seas are 3.8 today/Monday, 3.3 meters tomorrow/Tuesday and 2.7 Wednesday.

With the wind at 20 +/- knots it will be a fast trip for us. Namonuito is only 110 from reef to reef and we usually make a good 9 knots in these conditions, assuming settled weather without too many squalls. If things look right I think we will try to take off tomorrow just before dawn and make for a pass in the reef just 4 miles ENE of here. We should arrive at Namonuito a couple hours before sunset and make the anchorage before sunset as well. Then we'll recheck the weather and see how the rest of the fleet is doing before deciding to leave for Guam the next day or the day after. This will put us into Guam on Saturday or Sunday.

We went into the Blue Lagoon this morning for breakfast and one last visit to the little store up the road. The eggs benedict at the Blue Lagoon are not bad and it is a nice setting overlooking the anchorage. The Odyssey live aboard dive boat was there changing divers out for the new week. There were also some US military from Guam in town to train locals on emergency procedures.

Angelique had already anchored in the port by the time we made way. We anchored behind them but after contacting port control it became clear that we were going to have to tie up to satisfy the inflexible officials (particularly immigration, they are too lazy to get out of their car much less get on a dinghy). A large Japanese cargo ship was inbound but the port captain let us tie up to the A berth. This is the best spot on the quay, as it is actually inside the fishing/small boat harbor and much more protected from the wind and swell. The small boats also tend to go slower here and you don't get waked as badly.

It was clear that the officials were not coming for an hour or two, so we dinghied over to the Truk Stop for lunch and some final internet. At and Dia on Angelique were doing some final shopping as well. When we saw Whistler sail by we radioed with the hand held and Eric informed us that he had picked up a British guy named Jeff as crew to Guam. All of the flights in this part of the world converge on Guam, so getting a ride to Guam works with almost any flight plane. Jeff was just getting into sailing so it was a perfect arrangement for all.

We cleared out with far less hassle than clearing in and only had to deal with three organizations rather than five. Immigration still required us to print them a crew list on exit (even though it was the same as the one we gave them on entrance and they had all of our passports). Port charged us $185 and that was after we talked them out of $25 for one night of stay on the quay, forced upon us. In total (in and out) we paid about $275 to officials to be here for two weeks on our own hook (or a yacht hostile quay). It is by far the most expensive country I have been to and certainly one of the least favorite. Diving the amazing collection of wrecks is the only reason I can think of to come to Chuuk, and I would recommend flying in to stay on a live aboard dive boat rather than visiting with your own yacht. Unfortunately FSM controls a vast area of ocean, for safety and comfort many yachts will want to make stops inside FSM territory when transiting the area.

The officials, other than port which was expensive but always very friendly and reasonable, demanded that we depart immediately after checking out. Rational behavior did not fit into their doctrine. We said little, paid our fees and left.

We arrived at Fanos island, seven miles away, just before sunset. We have been warned by everyone to avoid the Tol group and everything around it. The best passes on the west barrier are in this area. Upon inspection of the charts we discovered that there is also a decent pass with 30 meters of water in it four miles from Fanos. So we decided to anchor behind Fanos until we were ready to depart.

We arrived an hour before sunset and it was getting tricky to read the water. The island has a lot of coral heads on the southeast end but we found reasonable shelter and room for three boats at the north west end in 40 feet, fairly close to shore. Angelique came in just after us and Whistler arrived a bit after sunset. Soon after some guys in a fiberglass boat from the island came out to give us drinking coconuts. I was just lamenting to Hideko about our lack of drinking coconuts. It was like magic. The guys were very friendly but didn't speak much English. They were looking for cigarettes but offered the same courtesy to the other boats (Eric had some smokes for them) and then they headed back to shore.

Fanos is small but lovely. The anchorage is good in north to northeast wind. The reef around the southeast point gives you some protection from the easterly seas. The bottom is sand and coral. Too much coral to be optimal for sure. The island has a few structures on it but looks to be sparsely inhabited.

We settled in for a nice evening and looked forward to spending a beautiful day here at Fanos tomorrow.

Federated States of Micronesia
Diving the Heian
02/14/2009, Truk Lagoon

We went out diving today. I brought my video rig. Unfortunatly I didn't have my morning coffee and neither did I have my reg. Bag cleaned out, gear rinsed, everything always stowed in the same place, just no reg. Such a bummer.

The lagoon was very choppy. We had decided to dive the Rio Maru, which was a high priority for me :-(. It was a llong ride in really steep stuff, then I got to sit on the bouncing boat for an hour. At least Eric got to see the Rio. He kindly down played it.

We stopped by Swingin' on a Star during the surface interval to grab my reg. Note to self, if running a dive boat, always have a spare reg/mask/fins/bc for brain dead guests.

Due to the conditions we decided to dive the Heian again because it is close and in somewhat protected water. The vis was not great but I got enough footage to edit together a clip long enough to go with Heart's Mistral Wind. It was a fun dive and a great, if blustery day out on the water.

Federated States of Micronesia
Sunset Bar
02/13/2009, Blue Lagoon Resort

We waited for the dive boat this morning but they didn't come. It turned out that our cancel message was delivered for yesterday but the reschedule message didn't make it. So we rescheduled again. We're looking forward to getting one more dive in before we leave.

For those not in the know, Chuuk Lagoon (Truk Lagoon as it was known during WWII) has possibly the highest concentration of ship wrecks of any place in the world. It was the Japanese equivalent of Pearl Harbor during WWII. The US decided not to try to take Truk because it was heavily fortified. Instead the US enacted operation Hailstone which involved a huge carrier assault by air over two days. Several times the number of explosives dropped on Pearl were dropped here and over 220,000 tons of ship sank to the bottom over the two days. All the wrecks are Japanese and there are over 100 ships planes and other craft to explore.

One thing I'm not too happy about is the Chuukese reluctance to return the remains of the dead to Japan. The Chuukese claim the Japanese tourists are important to the economy and if the remains are allowed to return to Japan many who come to honor the dead will not return to Chuuk. This is a pretty callous attitude if you ask me.

We spent the day getting the boat ready and then met everyone over at the Sunset Bar at the Blue Lagoon Resort. We are all looking forward to visiting the Philippines. As luck would have it there were two Philippino guys at the bar. It was great talking to them about the places we were hoping to visit. They gave our route through Lette and the central islands on to Palawan and down to Borneo the thumbs up for great scenery and good safety.

They also told us about beer and food. Particularly beer. The beer is reported to be 15 US cents a can. I had a Philippino beer at the Sunset Bar as we chatted. As I drank the second one I noticed it was 6% alcohol (not by reading the can). Six percent beer for 15 cents. Hmmm, that could be dangerous.

Federated States of Micronesia
02/12/2009, Chuuk Lagoon

It was overcast this morning. Not surprising after the crazy winds last night. We anchored such that the entire circle around our anchor sounded out safe for swinging, but you still never like to have the wind blowing you directly ashore. The light gradient wind last night allowed the squalls blowing b y to do just that. We were facing west for a good part of the evening, then north, then south. The wind was light but just enough to wing us all over the place.

We were going to go out diving but wanted to have good visibility for what might be our last dives. We tried to hail the shop on 16 but I really didn't expect to reach them. Chuuk is not a VHF culture.

Surprisingly the port responded. They told us they would call the shop for us and cancel the dive until tomorrow. Then after a successful phone call they called us back on the VHF to confirm. What service from harbor control! Who said radio to telephone is dead?

We did some work on the boat and tried to catch up on the internet a bit more. We have had some mosquitoes the last few nights and Hideko went on a bug killing rampage today.

In the afternoon Eric and I went to the dock by the Blue Lagoon dive shop with the dinghy. From here you can walk to the store and buy gas. We needed to fill both of our jugs and the tank after all of the long distance driving at Kapingamarangi. The gas is $5 a gallon here but only $4 in town. For a small amount it is worth the convenience and gas savings to just pop in here.

We spent the evening on Angelique II. Dia fixed a wonderful dinner with a cruiser recipe for peanut soup that she made stealing the show, in my opinion. We played Rummiecub after dinner which was very fun. It is apparently a cruiser classic that we hadn't yet run across.

Federated States of Micronesia
02/11/2009, Blue Lagoon Resort

We spent the day on the Internet today. Still trying to get the blog updated. The service here is not super fast but not bad. The connection drops from time to time though and this makes it hard to upload photos or to download large files. Things are a little better at the resort than on the boat but not much.

We were on Eric's boat for dinner a while back and he put on April Wine, Nature of the Beast. I hadn't heard that album since high school. What a great record. I had it on vinyl, but like so much of my music from the 70s it disappeared somewhere between UCSB and Los Angeles.

It is nice to live in the modern world (even when you're in a place like Chuuk), I went onto Amazon and boom, $7.95 and a few downloads later... I now have the April Wine album. I have had to download some of the tracks several times because if you lose the connection during a download you end up with a drop out or pop in the track (this is astonishing to me because a first year CS student could write a downloader that would guarantee the blocks downloaded matched those on the server).

The problem with Amazon is that their "you might also like..." algorithm is too good. As I finished with April Wine, it asked me why I haven't replaced that Montrose album I haven't heard in so long, or what about Ted Nugent Weekend Warriors? Sammy Hagar Standing Hampton? Van Halen Fair Warning? If the download connection worked better I'd be in big trouble.

As it turned out the big trouble came when I checked my MasterCard statement. I discovered $6,000 in charges at AutoZone, Kmart, and 7/11in the US over 2 days. This is our first big credit card theft, so we'll see how Citi deals with it. We have been pretty careful with our info but after three years of buying almost everything online, I guess we were due. The funny part is that Citi shuts us off every time they see a charge outside of the US (which is where we always are) and they let these obviously fraudulent charges go rampant for two days in the US with no worries.

Guam is getting some nasty frontal conditions right now and seas are predicted to run up to 13 feet this weekend. We are looking at Monday as our departure day so we'll see how things develop.

Federated States of Micronesia
Diving with the Truk Stop crew
02/10/2009, Truk Lagoon

We dove with the Truk Stop dive shop today. Our last two dive days were with Blue Lagoon and we like to try all of the shops when we visit a place if we can. The Truk Stop dive outfit is run by a friendly New Zealander named Kelvin and our boat driver was Newie a Chuukese from Dublon. Both are very experienced divers who know all of the wrecks in the lagoon. Kelvin was most recently in the Philippines and Newie used to work on the Aggressor live aboard before they moved to Sulawesi.

Eric from Whistler was diving today and so was Hideko. We did our first dive on the Nippo and our second dive on the Heian. Both were great. I think the Heian is a wreck you could spend more than one dive on easily.

The Truk Stop guys gave us a lot more in the way of a dive briefing that the Blue Lagoon folks. I think I would also have to give them the nod for general safety and respect for the wrecks.

You don't see as many eating size fish in the lagoon as you might expect. The human population has certainly put pressure on the lagoon. Some locals fish with explosives. This is illegal but both dive shops told us that it still goes on. In fact some of the locals loot the mines in the wrecks and use them to make fishing bombs. Of course this entails handing highly unstable, 60 year old munitions. As you might expect, the odd diver fails to return from time to time.

The shallower wrecks are getting pretty corroded and picked over these days. The Cousteau boys did a survey in 1969 and hauled off a few tons of goodies (now in a warehouse in France somewhere). Many of the locals have a bell or two hanging in their shop. That said, Chuuk is still the most awesome wreck dive destination I have been to or could possible imagine.

One needs to be very careful when penetrating this vessels today. More and more structural elements are weakened over time and you hear tales of collapses much more frequently. A regime of total buoyancy control and touching nothing should be self evident but seems rarely adhered to.

There are also some nasty chemicals still lying in wait in some of the wrecks. It is highly advisable to use a gentle frog kick, rather than a flutter, to ensure the silt stays on the bottom. Some smoky looking stuff was stirred up in front of me on the Heian and I didn't think anything of it. After swimming by, the back of my leg began to burn. I'm not sure what it was and it did no damage beyond giving me a little rash but it is the kind of thing you'd like to avoid.

We had a nice day out on the water and hope to get in at least one more set of dives before we take off. The guys dropped us off at our boat and after a quick rinse we headed to the Blue Lagoon for a nice lunch/dinner.

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Weno Island Tour
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.

Federated States of Micronesia
12/12/2010 | Abby Smith
I just finished reading your article and i can honestly say that its little bit interesting. Thanks for sharing your insight.
04/20/2011 | Lydia
OUCH! Although alot of your observations are correct, I'm not so sure about the 8th grade education thing. Being married to a Chuukese man from Nomonweitos for almost 20 years now I have met MANY extremely educated/smart Chuukese. Despite their environment and poor education system. The US is aware of the corruption and has had people in Pohnpei for well over 30 years monitoring it. Seems like in that amount of time and billions later, the US could think of some way to help these poor people and stop the corruption.
04/20/2011 | Randy Abernethy
Hi Lydia, Some of the most wonderful people come from challenging environments. I'm certain your husband is such a person. I agree with your assessment of the corruption. I hope for the people of Chuuk that the money starts finding its way to education and social programs.

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