Following is the latest report from the second FPB 64, Sarah Sarah as they make their way towards Hawaii.
We’ve had some partially clear nights lately, and with the Moon approaching full, we could oftentimes clearly see the clouds and waves, which made night watches much more interesting. We didn’t encounter any more vessels after our last report, three days out of Pago Pago, American Samoa.
On September 21st, at 19:16 UTC (8:16 in the morning by ship’s clock), we crossed the Equator and entered the Northern Hemisphere at a longitude of 161°43.88’W. This marked Bill’s first ocean crossing of the equator, and he joined John and Brian in the ranks of “shell-backs,” being a “pollywog” no longer.
As a reminder, we were on course for Fanning Atoll. Also known as Tabuaeran Atoll, it is part of the Line Islands group of Kiribati (pronounced ‘Kiribas’). Nearly six days into the passage, however, we decided that, to avoid arriving at what could be a difficult reef passage in the middle of the night, we would either have to cut our speed in half or change course for one of the other, somewhat more distant, Line Islands. Slowing was ruled out because our vessel’s stabilisers aren’t as effective at slow speeds, resulting in a less comfortable ride. We instead changed our course eastward for Christmas Island (aka Kiritimati Island), but soon concluded that we didn’t really enjoy pounding directly into the swell from the east, and changed course again, this time westward for Palmyra Atoll.
About 30 hours later, on the 23rd, we approached the entrance to the channel at the southwest end of the atoll. This channel was cut through the coral reef by the US Navy who occupied the island during World War II. Because the various sailing guides we have on board offered very little information on this atoll, we called on the VHF radio for arrival instructions. We were told to hold our position until an escort was dispatched. About 45 minutes later (during which they called Bill’s wife to confirm our story) two people approached in a Boston Whaler skiff and asked us to follow them through the channel to an anchorage in the West Lagoon.
After we’d set anchor, our escorts – Amanda and Aaron – tied to our transom and boarded. They had us sign liability releases, and gave us handouts on visitor guidelines to this reserve maintained by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy. We also learned that, because we’d not obtained a permit in advance, we would only be permitted to remain one night. There is no charge for a permit, which allows a stay of up to seven days, but it must be arranged before arriving. They permit a small number of vessels to visit each year (no more than two at a time), though this year most of the 17 permits issued have gone unused due to cancellations or no-shows, which they attribute to the economic down-turn. So far in 2010 they have been visited by only five permitted vessels with one more anticipated in November, plus two impromptu visitors, ourselves included. They appreciated that we had hailed them before entering the channel, as the previous non-permitted vessel reportedly ignored their VHF calls, entered the channel at a speed greater than allowed for marine life safety, and then falsely claimed that they’d had an equipment failure requiring an emergency stop. Apparently unlike those visitors, we were welcomed quite warmly, despite being required to leave the next day.
As part of a major rat-erradication project they have planned for later this year, we were visited again a short time later by Amanda and Aurora to set a few rat traps on the boat. Fortunately, in our case that didn’t prove necessary, as the traps were still empty when they were collected the next day.
We had to await an invitation to go ashore, but were permitted to swim in the lagoon, which we did in the company of a 1m/3-ft. black-tip reef shark that patrolled the waters near our anchor. We received our invitation late in the afternoon, but opted to stay aboard for the remainder of the day. The next day, having completing some maintenance and other onboard tasks, after lunch we took our dinghy ashore and were greeted by Ed, of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). He took us on an interesting tour of the facilities on Cooper Island, which TNC owns and manages, including the Palmyra Yacht Club complete with mementos from former visiting yachties.
Cooper is the largest of the atoll’s ring of islands, and serves as the base for a maximum population of 25 scientists and other staff from several organisations cooperatively involved in studying, restoring and preserving the atoll. Only staff may visit the other islands, and then only after taking precautions to ensure they don’t accidentally introduce non-indigenous animals or plants (such as some ant and mold species) that presently have been contained to Cooper Island. Even domesticated animals are not allowed on the atoll, although there are two cats and one dog who were already on the island when it became a reserve and have been allowed to live out their lives there.
There is a 6000-ft. runway left over from the Navy occupation, and about every five weeks a charter flight from Hawai`i brings supplies and fresh staff, rotating other staff back. There are short-term staff who stay only a few weeks, and a smaller number who stay 3 months, or more. At the time of our visit, there were 15 people on the atoll, 18 including ourselves. A plane had come through the day before our arrival, and many of the staff we met were only one or two days into their stint, still in the “honeymoon” phase, as the more seasoned staff described it.
Our tour ended at the mess hall, where we were offered cold drinks and shown some maps, photographs and other material archiving the history of the atoll, which was greatly altered by the Navy. The original 52 islands were joined into one continous horseshoe shape, and a few man-made islands were created near the channel from the material dredged out from both the channel and the lagoon. Over the intervening years, nature has breached the island ring into several smaller islands. Despite this history, and probably largely thanks to the fact that it is now a reserve, the appearance of the atoll is idyllic: lush green with palm and other trees, white sandy beaches and turquoise water. It is also a haven to many species of birds, fish and other sea creatures, such as turtles and rays. The literature we were given indicates that three times the number of coral species are present here as in Hawai`i, and that this is the only wet atoll in the tropical Pacific that is unpopulated and undeveloped.
After concluding our tour and saying good-bye, we returned to “Sarah-Sarah” and weighed anchor to begin our next leg, which should take us to Honolulu, Oahu. For our departure we had an escort of a different sort. In addition to scores of sea birds, we were joined outside the channel by a few dolphins who rode our bow wave – a good omen, despite the fact that we were departing on a Friday.
˜Crew of the M/V “Sarah-Sarah”
2010 Sep 26 08:52 UTC