AN UN­EX­PECTED PAR­ADISE

A stay in Palau, a tiny is­land na­tion in the western Pa­cific, pro­vided some much-needed respite to a pair of weary sailors.

Cruising World - - Contents - By Heather Fran­cis

A lonely and far-flung land­fall in the North Pa­cific, Palau puts out a warm wel­come to vis­it­ing pas­sage­mak­ers.

PALAUrises, lonely and se­cluded, out of the vast North Pa­cific Ocean. Tee­ter­ing on the edge of Mi­crone­sia and Asia, be­tween Guam and the Philip­pines, it strad­dles the cul­tural di­vide of East and West. For sailors, it’s where rhumb lines con­verge — a haven for yachts sail­ing in ei­ther di­rec­tion, a safe place to wait out the storm sea­son be­fore head­ing on. For us, it was an un­ex­pected par­adise.

My part­ner, Steve, and I ar­rived out­side the reef en­trance at mid­night, eight hours af­ter we had hoped to be there and far past ei­ther of us car­ing. It had been a long pas­sage, 1,100 nau­ti­cal miles from Kavieng, Pa­pua New Guinea, and one of our slow­est to date aboard Kate, our New­port 41. Mother Na­ture and good old Nep­tune had con­spired against us the whole way. We bat­tled coun­ter­cur­rents, sailed through the be­gin­nings of a ty­phoon and had days of wind­less drift­ing, all of which saw us cel­e­brate Christ­mas un­der­way. Now, we had to wait for enough light to nav­i­gate the long, nar­row pas­sage that would fi­nally al­low us to tuck in­side the safety of the large la­goon that sur­rounds Palau.

At dawn, we shook the reef out of the sails and pointed the bow to­ward land. A pod of dol­phins es­corted us into shal­low wa­ters as bright-white tropic

birds swooped and reeled above us. Our spir­its rose as the sun crested the hori­zon, or per­haps it was just the ef­fect of the first cup of cof­fee I had drunk in al­most a month. I was tired, emo­tion­ally ex­hausted by the pas­sage and was look­ing for­ward to en­joy­ing the spoils of land — a hot shower, a cold beer and a com­fort­able bunk. Of course, first there were the for­mal­i­ties.

Af­ter nav­i­gat­ing the busy chan­nel through the reef, we tied up to the large, con­spic­u­ous yel­low pier in Koror, the main town and port of en­try, as is re­quired. While re­search­ing clear­ance pro­ce­dures for Palau, we had read sev­eral

The calm, pro­tected wa­ters of Palau’s Rock Is­lands were a pad­dle­boarder’s dream, and the in­ter­est­ing shore­line pro­vided op­por­tu­ni­ties for ex­plo­ration. Kate (right) had plenty of an­chor­ages to her­self.

com­plaints about boats be­ing charged line­han­dling fees when they tied up. Twenty bucks seemed a bit steep for a few mo­ments of work on be­half of the dock work­ers. Re­ally, $20 sounded like a bit of a scam. Then, how­ever, we ap­proached the pier.

De­signed for work­horse steel cargo ships, the dock was a for­mi­da­ble con­crete wall with the oc­ca­sional in­dus­trial rub­ber bumper and huge bol­lards. When we ar­rived at low wa­ter, there was a dense hedge of oys­ters ex­posed and a 5-foot dif­fer­ence be­tween the height of our deck and the wharf. We threw our lines to the men wait­ing on the dock. They greeted us with smiles, of­fered a re­ceipt for their ser­vices and con­tacted the of­fi­cials on our be­half. Within a few mo­ments, the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials ar­rived, took copies of our doc­u­ments, stamped our pass­ports and wel­comed us to Palau. The dock was the most dif­fi­cult part of our clear­ance pro­ce­dure, and $20 now seemed like a bar­gain.

The Royal Be­lau Yacht Club was a short mo­tor around the head­land, and as we picked up our moor­ing, the bay was busy with tour boats re­turn­ing for the day and packed full of tourists who flock to Palau for the world-class div­ing. Steve and I set­tled in, the re­lief of ar­riv­ing fi­nally wash­ing over us, and the fa­mil­iar siren call was heard loud and clear: It was time for solid land and cel­e­bra­tory re­fresh­ments. We un­packed the dinghy and headed ashore.

More of a con­cept than a phys­i­cal space, the RBYC is housed un­der the roof of the well-es­tab­lished and busy dive op­er­a­tion Sam’s Tours. The Bot­tom Time Bar and Restau­rant, the hub of Sam’s Tours/royal Be­lau Yacht Club, was a hive of ac­tiv­ity, with tourists, lo­cals and yachties all vy­ing for a seat in the open-air es­tab­lish­ment. Of­fer­ing cruis­ers af­ford­able moor­ings, a safe dinghy dock, mail ser­vice, hot show­ers, fuel, wa­ter and Wi-fi ac­cess, the RBYC is home base to many while in Palau.

We slipped into the busy­ness of civ­i­liza­tion with alarm­ing ease. It was only a short walk along the main road to town, where for the first time in more than a year, we found not one but three Amer­i­can-style su­per­mar­kets, shelves full of choices ready to over­whelm. We were amazed at the se­lec­tion, but also no­ticed how much ex­cess pack­ag­ing the Western brands use — four six-pack rings in ev­ery case of beer, card­board boxes suf­fo­cated in plas­tic wrap, meats sold on Sty­ro­foam trays. With no mu­nic­i­pal re­cy­cling plan, it all ended up in the land­fill, a heap we could see, and smell, on the way into town. Af­ter a week or so back in

civ­i­liza­tion, we were crav­ing de­serted an­chor­ages and pic­turesque sur­round­ings. Thank­fully, the Rock Is­lands, just a few miles south of town, were well stocked with both.

THEun­in­hab­ited Rock Is­lands are a string of al­most 300 oddly shaped limestone is­lands scat­tered across 18 square miles of pro­tected la­goon. The area has been con­served as a na­tional park and was named a UN­ESCO World Her­itage Site in 2012. Im­pos­ing, mono­lithic stone arches pro­trude dra­mat­i­cally from the sea as tiny islets fringed with trop­i­cal fo­liage stand frag­ile and silent. Steep cliffs, pocked with caves, weave through a maze of bays that pro­vide a seem­ingly end­less choice of shel­tered an­chor­ages. It was the per­fect place to es­cape.

How­ever, a visit to the Rock Is­lands comes at a price; the 10-day vis­i­tors per­mit costs $50 per per­son. Then there is the re­quired cruis­ing per­mit for your boat, which is cal­cu­lated us­ing the LOA. For us, it was $40. If you plan on fish­ing, each per­son must buy a $20 fish­ing per­mit. Of course, th­ese are ad­di­tional to the gen­eral clear­ance fee, visa and cruis­ing per­mit that are paid upon ar­rival. For many cruis­ers, the thought of pay­ing such charges is crazy, but I wouldn’t rec­om­mend try­ing to cir­cum­vent the sys­tem in Palau. The rangers do daily pa­trols through the outer is­lands, and al­though you might not be ap­proached or spo­ken to, you can bet that your boat, and pres­ence, has been noted.

In an­chor­ages closer to the cor­doned-off snor­kel­ing spots and dive sites, our day would be dis­turbed by the dozens of tour boats that zoomed about the area. While giv­ing the day tourists a thrill ride through the is­land chain, the tour boats kicked up a con­stant chop and had lit­tle re­spect for our boat, our dinghy or us. On a few oc­ca­sions, a tour-boat driver came dan­ger­ously close at top speed, and showed lit­tle re­morse in do­ing so. But, since there are no ac­com­mo­da­tions in the Rock Is­lands, by 5 o’clock, the tourists were safely back in Koror and our pris­tine an­chor­age was quiet once again. It was also easy to find an out-of-the-way an­chor­age and avoid the daily swarms al­to­gether. Since the is­lands are un­in­hab­ited, we came well-pre­pared for our stay, as there is no place to stock up or re­fresh essen­tials, such as beer or gaso­line.

Palau is famed for its div­ing but of­fered

just as much for the ca­sual snorkeler. Al­though there are sev­eral marked snor­kel­ing sites on the chart, I of­ten found enough to amuse and in­ter­est me right in our an­chor­age. Vi­brant coral reefs hosted a va­ri­ety of hard and soft corals, many of which I had never seen be­fore. We en­coun­tered sev­eral col­or­ful gi­ant clams and en­joyed watch­ing the feather stars and sea fans that con­gre­gated in the swift-mov­ing wa­ters in the passes. Ev­ery­where we went, we spot­ted tur­tles, mostly hawks­bills, the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion healthy and in­quis­i­tive.

The Rock Is­lands not only pro­vide com­fort­able an­chor­ages, they are also per­fect for any­one who en­joys kayak­ing or stand-up pad­dle­board­ing. With miles of pro­tected coves and water­ways, it is an ideal place for be­gin­ner pad­dlers such as my­self; you can con­cen­trate on stay­ing on the board with­out wor­ry­ing about wind, waves or on­com­ing traf­fic. For the more ad­vanced who crave a lit­tle ad­ven­ture, the limestone is­lands are full of arches and nar­row pas­sage­ways that re­veal them­selves as the tide turns.

The tall, steep-to is­lands that pro­tect the area from howl­ing winds also shade the an­chor­age from the bite of the af­ter­noon sun. This was great for sit­ting in the cock­pit, but had a no­tice­able im­pact on the out­put of our so­lar pan­els. The few hours we spent mov­ing the boat from one an­chor­age to an­other each day were a wel­come way to boost the bat­ter­ies and keep up with power de­mands.

OUR­days dis­tilled into an easy rhythm: a lit­tle boat busi­ness in the morn­ing, then out to ex­plore the is­lands by dinghy. One of the main at­trac­tions for us was the hid­den net­work of caves. Etched into the limestone cliffs, we found a col­lec­tion of crevasses, some big enough to climb into, oth­ers large enough to drive the dinghy into. Steve and I will of­ten make a fire and cook a meal ashore on a beach, but not here. Beaches in Palau are in short sup­ply, and there is a ban on open fires in all na­tional park ar­eas. So, in­stead of a hot meal on the sand we of­ten packed a pic­nic lunch to en­joy in our “cave du jour.”

Some of th­ese caves also held se­crets from the past. Palau was host to one of the blood­i­est bat­tles in the Pa­cific in World War II, and al­though we did not ven­ture to the south­ern is­land of Peleliu, where most of the ac­tion took place, we found con­stant re­minders as we ex­plored. Aban­doned anti-air­craft guns still hide in the cliffs, as do covert look­out posts, but when we dis­cov­ered “fuel-drum cave” I couldn’t help my­self, I had to get a closer look.

As I scram­bled ashore, a strange un­easi­ness washed over me. The ground was soft and sticky in places, and in the air hung a heavy, musty base­ment smell of damp earth and rot. The bright sun­light was swal­lowed by the cathe­dral-like in­te­rior. It took a few mo­ments for my eyes to ad­just, then, be­fore me in the cave were hun­dreds of fuel drums, empty and rust­ing, still in the same or­derly ar­range­ment they had been put in some 70 years be­fore. They stood, row upon row, like sol­diers wait­ing for a com­mand, frozen in time, frag­ile and bro­ken.

The space was solemn, and I was so moved by it that I felt com­pelled to pho­to­graph it. Walk­ing about the cave, I was care­ful not to dis­turb the fuel drums, not to un­set­tle the mem­o­ries. Lis­ten­ing to the rhyth­mic whirl, click on my old Le­ica cam­era, I won­dered how many hands had touched th­ese bar­rels, how many men had stood in this cave, and how many re­turned home to tell of it. Later that evening, as we sat in the cock­pit watch­ing the sun­set splash across the sky, I won­dered how many peo­ple had even heard of Palau and the great sac­ri­fice made by so many.

We toured the Rock Is­lands three times, de­spite the heavy park fees. Such was the al­lure of the quiet soli­tude that we found through­out the is­lands. Ex­cept for shar­ing an an­chor­age for a night or two with an­other boat, we spent our time alone, sur­rounded by the aus­tere beauty of the land­scape. We would have stayed longer, and en­vied those Amer­i­can sailors who could, but we had come to the end of our al­lowed visa ex­ten­sions. We read­ied the boat to sail west to the Philip­pines.

Af­ter col­lect­ing our last par­cel at the post of­fice, we made an ap­point­ment with the au­thor­i­ties for de­par­ture clear­ance. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, we went ashore, pre­pared to pay our fi­nal ser­vice charge, a $50-per-head green tax. We hoped that our rather gen­er­ous in­vest­ment in this small, some­what over­looked is­land na­tion over the past three months would be put to good use. Palau was the respite we needed af­ter such a dif­fi­cult pas­sage to get there, but it was also so much more.

Koror is the largest town in Palau and of­fers nearly any­thing a cruis­ing sailor could want, in­clud­ing easy ship­ping from the United States — which can make for a busy dinghy dock.

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