Goodbye Philippines, Hello Palau
Typhoons have appeared in the Philippines in March so we wanted to get safely out of the area as quickly as possible. Additionally, my boat has a clause where the deductible increases dramatically if you are hit with a “named storm”. And, as I mentioned in my previous post, I was not looking forward to being stuck on the boat with the daily thunder and lightning storms with the 100% humidity and 90 degree temperatures. We set off from Subic and headed to Hamilo Cove for one night, made the Verde Passage to Puerto Gallera for another night. We were headed for the San Bernardino Strait. This Strait along with one other passage in the Philippines are the only ways to get into the Philippine Sea/Pacific Ocean. The Philippines run north and south. If you are on the west side the only passages to get to the east side are through these Straits. These straits are very narrow and as you can imagine there only being these two passages in all of the Philippines the tidal currents are extremely challenging. In a 6 knot boat a 6 knot+ tidal current is a real problem. We would have to time our exit very carefully. From Puerto Gallera we headed to somewhere new. Maestre de Campo Island had a very safe anchorage and friendly and warm people. A couple of college kids who had come on vacation brought their canoe out to us to talk. They were thrilled that the island had gotten satellite TV and cell phone service 6 months ago. We really take things for granted. Most of the villages we visited in the Philippines had no electricity. We
spent the night there in a driving rain, strong wind, lightning and thunder storm that hit in the middle of the night. Terrible weather always seems to hit in the middle of the night. The rain was strong that we could not see 2 feet from the boat. Fortunately, I had scuba dived on the anchor and made sure it was properly set so we had a good nights sleep. Rainy season was starting. From this island we headed back to Romblon which we enjoyed so much last time. The one yacht club mooring was available again at the cost of $1.50 USD a night. I love how inexpensive the Philippines is! We headed to nearest bakery for our fresh loaf of Monggo bread. Monggo is a very sweet bean that they add to bread like raisins. From there we headed to Masbate Island and the town of Masbate which seemed to have a good harbor. It was a very dirty town and for the first time in the Philippines we experienced terrible water quality. It appeared that the towns sewage and garbage flowed directly into the harbor. It was a safe place to sleep and we never left the boat. From there we headed to a cove at the entrance to the San Bernardino Strait to spend the night and wait for the right tide to cross the straight. We headed out in the morning and quickly ran into a problem. Somehow I had screwed up the tide information. We were going against the tidal flow. In addition, it was a full moon which means tidal flows are extreme. The GPS showed we were going . 5 of a knot. As I applied more throttle the speed actually dropped to 0. At first I did not understand what was happening. But, I quickly realized we had been going .5 a knot backwards. The Philippine Coast guard radioed me.
I have an AIS system in the boat which is like a transponder in an airplane. It transmits my course, speed and boat dimension information. They wanted to know what I was doing sitting in the middle of the strait going nowhere. I told them I was doing nothing 🙂 and asked them the time for the tide change. It was two hours away. We decided to just sit there burning fuel for two hours with the fishing line out instead of heading the hour or so back to the anchorage. We caught a large Dorado so we did not waste our time. After a couple of hours our forward speed slowly increased until we were zipping along at 9 knots with tidal flow. Hours later we approached the exit of the strait. Now the problem was standing waves. The swells coming in from the Pacific were hitting the very strong outgoing current creating what are called standing waves. These tall steep waves just stand in place and you must crash through them. The boat handled it no problem but crashing through a wall of water I would be lying if I did not say it was scary.
Now that we had officially exited the Philippines we put ourselves on a southeasterly course for Palau. It was our first night at sea and of course we hit a major storm with rain, lightning, wind and thunder. Because we were still very close to land the seas were like a cauldron coming from every direction. Imagine 12 foot breaking sea hitting your boat from every direction. We slowed down to 3 knots and just powered through the mess. As usual the boat handled it no problem, a lot better than the crew did. Of course, these things always happen at night. I had had a big fish dinner and because it was our first night at sea
my stomach had not acclimated yet. Even after all of these years I need a day or two to adjust. Fortunately, I now had crew on board who did a great job piloting us as I forced myself from my seasick berth to check on him intermittently. He was on the flybridge in the driving rain in his bathing suit and rain coat having a great time as everything crashed around us as only a 22 year old can with not a care in the world. I remember when I was single handing this happened a couple of times and I just forced my way through it. Getting old is really tough. I have not had physical limitations before and was able to handle anything. For the rest of the passage we had good weather. We caught fish everyday. We were not sure how much we would be able to supplement our food supply with fresh fish so we provisioned accordingly. As it turned out we used none of the frozen chicken or beef I bought because we had so much fish. We did not do much motorsailing or use the sails at all. Our goal at this point was to get out of the typhoon area ASAP. There was a current, wind and swell on the nose for much of the trip. We knew this was going to happen. Going west to east across the Pacific is not fun. The prevailing wind and sea are all going east to west. My highly efficient but powerful John Deere 4 cyl engine and 5 blade prop did a great job of pushing me into the swell with very little increase in fuel consumption or decrease in speed. I still managed to average 5.5 knots burning 1.5 gallons per hour.
An atoll like Palau has passes through the reef that encircles it. The electronic charts and GPS coordinates were not correct. This happens a lot in the South Pacific
and you must rely on your eye balls. My forward scanning sonar display picked this time to die. Fortunately, the sky was clear with good sunlight. The pass was very narrow but was very clear. The pass bottom was at 100+ feet with the reef at 2 feet on both sides. Since the water was crystal clear it was easy to see where the reef was. Every so often they had stuck a pole at the edge of the reef. We winded our way for hours through the reef to Malakal Harbor. We were required to check in to the country at the commercial dock. As is required in all countries I put up our yellow quarantine flag which lets everyone know I haven’t checked in yet. Customs, Immigration, Port Control and Quarantine showed up within an hour. $400 USD later in fees we were checked in. What a rip off! I have traveled the world and never been charged that much. We headed to a small bay adjacent to the harbor which houses Sam’s Tours. This dive operation also hosts the Belau yacht club. There is a small restaurant and bar located there with overpriced not very good quality food but have cheap Red Rooster beer on tap which I really liked. Red Rooster beer is the official beer of Palau. They have moorings for rent. The moorings are mostly taken up by long term boats so there is a good chance you will end up anchoring. Palau is a one major street country so it is easy not to get lost. Our first shock was that there was not a single fast food outlet located on the island for a quick inexpensive meal. Almost everywhere to eat was priced as a tourist trap. The majority of these restaurants we never saw any customers in. We watched the locals and noticed the Rock Island Cafe was always busy. We
quickly became regulars. The place was like an American diner with very reasonable priced high quality food with great service. They have the best half pound cheeseburger, fries and coleslaw in Palau. We also discovered the local bakery with fresh baked brownies, cup cakes, pastries and bread products at very reasonable prices.
As we prepare to leave Palau here are my final thoughts. First the good part, Sam Tour’s is a very professionally run operation except for the aforementioned issues with the restaurant. EVERY employee we dealt with was polite, professional, knowledgable and went out of their way to be helpful. They are very welcoming to cruisers. Now for the negative, if I had to do it all over again I would skip Palau unless it was absolutely necessary to provision or get fuel. The fuel at Sam’s was $4.16 versus the fuel in the Philippines at $2.00 a gallon. EVERYTHING about Palau is expensive and the diving was not as good as the Philippines. As I mentioned, check in fees were $400. No one seemed to have a receipt available. In addition, they charge a $40 fee if you want to take your boat around the atoll and not just stay on the mooring at Sam’s. Additionally, they charge $50 per person for a 10 day dive permission pass. Exit fees run $50 person. Upon exiting the officials could not seem to find a record of a $50 tax payment I made upon entering that was included in the $400. I refused to pay it again and after some research they were able to find a record of it. You will shell out another $100 for the mooring rental and required yacht club membership. Most of the island’s stores’ supplies are
shipped in from the USA so expect a 50 to 100 percent mark up. They do have a very good variety and good quality. With regards to diving, we found both the amount of fish and quality of coral not comparable to the REMOTE areas of the Philippines even including Palau’s famous wall dives on the exterior of the atoll. The wreck diving in Palau was spectacular but did not make up for the rest of the diving. Diving in Palau’s lagoon except for the wrecks was bad with a lot of dead broken coral and poor visibility. Palau has a policy of not allowing private boats and their tenders to use the moorings that are installed at the dive sites. Only commercial operators are allowed to use them. Over and over again you are destroying coral when you drop your anchor. I have dove from my boat all over the world. Everywhere else I have been you are encouraged to use the moorings for this very reason. A very bad policy. Skip Palau!
We are now leaving for Pohnpei or Majuro. Actually we are not sure where we are going except that we are headed east. As I mentioned, the prevailing weather will be against us so we will just have to pick the least bad direction. It is nice to know that with my fuel tanks topped off at a full 2000 gallons I have 7000 mile range so I will have great flexibility in the direction I head. Hawaii is 4000+ miles away and the USA west coast is 6000+ nautical miles away. The counter equatorial current is a small band of current that runs against the prevailing east to west current. across the Pacific It’s location varies but in this part of the world it is usually found just north of the equator at about 5 degrees. Palau is located at about 7
degrees north so we will start by heading southeast and see what happens. The long range weather forecast looks good. I have set up my sat phone so I can post to this blog while I am underway so stay tuned…….