A true test of nerves for any voyaging sailor comes when islands appear where they’re not expected. Or an empty horizon stretches where dry land should lie. But among Palau’s tightly woven Rock Islands, where even the seasoned coastal navigator can be fooled, moments of disorientation are part of the fun. With clear protected waters, mild weather, and peaceful coves beyond each curve of land, the Rock Islands take the edge out of being lost.
Located about 800 miles east of the Philippines in the North Pacific, the Republic of Palau is the westernmost island group in Micronesia. The main archipelago, centered at about 7° 30′ N and 134° 30′ E, is a string of more than 350 islands stretching 125 miles north and south. Lying about 300 miles to the southwest are seven other small islands that are part of Palau, the Sonsorol Islands: Merir, Pulo Anna, Tobi, and Helen’s Reef. Just seven of Palau’s larger islands are inhabited, and the population in this former U.S. Trust Territory is about 18,000 people, most of whom live on the main island of Koror. Rated among the world’s greatest diving destinations, Palau is also famous for the Rock Islands, a voyaging paradise of more than 200 limestone islets that sprout like nearly identical mushrooms from a sapphire lagoon.
Scattered across 100 square miles of protected lagoon, most of the Rock Islands lie in deep water. The lagoon is guarded on the west by a long barrier reef and three larger islands: Koror, Urakthapel, and Babelthaup. From the air they appear as emerald sugar loafs separated by serpentine channels, but at sea level their profiles pile up until it is almost impossible to know where one island begins and another ends. Detailed DMA harbor charts of Palau’s main port Malakal Harbor and its eastern entrance Airai Channel are easy to obtain, but we discovered that accurate nautical charts of the nearby Rock Islands are hard to come by. Most voyagers rely on two topographical maps (scale 1:25,000) to direct them through the tightly clustered islets that form Palau’s most spectacular cruising ground.
Relying on the basics
Sailing aboard our Atkin ketch Tosca, we spent our first three days in the Rock Islands taking bearings on lumps of land that were about as distinct as corn rows. From these sights I was able to trace a fairly accurate first voyage through the maze. But by day four, we felt confident enough to stow the land surveys away. The GPS receiver, with its inaccurate fixes, was downright dangerous. The surveys, in such close quarters, had served as only vague guides. For the next few days we would rely on knot log, compass, sounder, and leadline to chart our own course through the tangled web. And, with any luck, we’d soon be lost in paradise.
Mariners have a long history of getting lost in Palau. Spanish explorer Gonzalo Gomes de Espinosa, who visited the region in 1522, is considered the first European navigator to describe the islands. But it was Capt. Henry Wilson of the East India Company who helped popularize Palau’s image as a paradise found. En route to China in 1783, Wilson’s ship Antelope grounded near Ulong Island. Only with the assistance of the High Chief of Koror was Wilson able to rebuild his vessel and set sail again. Then, in a decision that would bring fame for Palau in Europe, the High Chief encouraged his son Lebu to leave with the English captain. The Palauan prince went on to become educated in London, where he was praised in news accounts as that city’s “noble savage.” But Lebu’s affinity for western learning was eclipsed only by his longing for home. His death of smallpox after only five months abroad was widely mourned. Some speculated that he had actually died of a broken heart.
A perfect example of the beauty of Palau was the nameless cove we found ourselves in one day, a tranquil Eden among dozens like it lying within the protective arms of Urakthapel. The anchorage, barely big enough for Tosca to swing freely, was beautiful beyond imagination. Shaped like a rough-hewn bowl, the tiny harbor was almost completely enclosed. On all sides the limestone faces of an ancient coral reef rose 80 feet above us. Pandanus, stunted hardwoods, and carnivorous pitcher plants draped over the sides like a deep-green cloak. The sound of splashing water lightly echoed as it lapped at bare limestone. Below the surface a kaleidoscope of corals, sea squirts and sponges clung to the rim of our pool, battling for sunlight and nutrients.
Opposite the narrow entrance to the bay, a slender finger channel extended farther into the island and then opened up into another, shallower cove. As the sun painted the sky pink, I watched a black-tip shark swim casually up the channel and then in a violent burst trap a school of mullet against mangroves at the inlet’s far corner. Between the trees birds flew, tropicbirdsthey chased each other in an aerial ballet while their long tails danced in the wind.
The fine art of getting lost
In this age of digital charts and global-positioning satellites, getting lost isn’t so easy. But in 10 years of voyaging, my wife Theresa and I have found that much of the world is still rather fuzzy, even with the most up-to-date charts and electronic aids. A 32-foot gaff-rigged ketch built in 1937, Tosca had always been guided by only a sextant, taffrail log, and compass. After three years of voyaging we added her first GPS, but that didn’t solve our main problem: inaccurate charts. Because we voyage on a tight budget and our sailing plans are as steadfast as maple syrup, we occasionally find ourselves heading for places not accurately covered by our charts, or any chart for that matter.
For example, on one of our charts Helen’s Reef was reported to lie more than two miles from its plotted position. We’ll always have large-scale charts of the area and a description of the anchorage for which we’re aiming. Sometimes it’s one offered by pilot books or cruising guides; other times it’s a local fisherman’s vague promise of a sheltered harbor. Often, the latter turns out to be more reliable.
But when it comes to landfalls or meandering channels like those between the Rock Islands, we trust only two things: our senses and our sounder, and even the latter we treat like a child prone to fibbing. Land bearings are fine when your charts are reliable. Lights are useful when they work. GPS can be comforting on the open sea. But nothing beats a pair of eyes aloft and a patient approach into an unknown anchorage.
The chartless approach, however, can have some startling consequences. Recently we followed the U.S. pilot’s directions into a small village in the Moluccas where we hoped to find fuel. When we went ashore we were told the village was not the one we were looking for. I was shocked. Had I followed the pilot’s directions for one harbor into another? It turned out that the pilot referred to three distinct villages by one name. In fact, the unreliability of printed information in some parts of the world was part of the reason why we chose to sail blindly around Palau. In a few months we’d be in Southeast Asia, where geologic upheaval, wrecks and shifting sandbars make charts obsolete long before they’re printed. Palau was a perfect place to sharpen our coastal navigation skills.
One of our most important rules for seeking shelter along an unfamiliar coast didn’t apply for this voyage: never approach at night or in stormy or doubtful weather conditions. In the Rock Islands, the distances between shelter are only a few miles apart, so there is no reason to sail at night or set stride. We arrived to the lee of the next cluster of islands after an enjoyable reach and dropped our sails. I hopped into the dinghy to scout the maze. Theresa held Tosca under power in the lee. About seven miles to the south we saw signs of a large sandbank. Its reflection was clearly marked by the bright-green “bank blink” on the bottom of a cotton-candy cloud. To the west a white line of breakers extended, revealing the barrier reef that protected this lagoon. Here in the broad channel sheltered from the wind, Tosca had plenty of room to lie while I explored.
In the dinghy I carried with me the handbearing compass and a long surf-fishing rod. The rod is rigged with a weight at the end of the line and a bright-orange float attached seven feet above it. I’d first learned this trick about 12 years ago from a friend who used it for gunkholing the backwaters of the Florida Bay. Using the rod, I could roughly sound a fairly large area by making a few casts. The float could not support the weight, so if I saw it after a cast, I knew the water was less than seven feet deep. Tosca drew five and one-half feet. The system worked well along murky shorelines and muddy rivers, but really wasn’t needed here in the clear waters of the Rock Islands. Color changes from deep blue to bright green or yellow-brown gave away the shallow spots. If I had any doubts I could also check with my dinghy oar, which is exactly seven feet long. The third tool we use for surveying anchorages was a simple lead-line wound on a Cuban yo-yoa big plastic spool for handlining. I use a three-pound weight with 120 feet of 3/8 line, which I find sinks quickly enough and is easier to retrieve wet than lighter lines.
I turned the dinghy past three small islands, around two sharp bends, and into another cove, one slightly bigger than our previous anchorage. After skating past a shallow reef and noting its position at the entrance, I could see the bottom inside was sandy and deep, at least 20 feet. Just for practice I made a few casts. The yellow bobber disappeared each time. As with the other anchorage, two clearly visible reefs extended from either side of the narrow entrance. I found a convenient set of ranges: a tall pine and a conspicuous white boulder on the island opposite the anchorage. This would be our exit range if we ever needed it. About 10 minutes later I was back on board Tosca, and we steered her toward the intriguing cove.
We came in at slow idle. The sun was to the east so we favored that side of the cove, keeping the sun off over my right shoulder as I watched from the ratlines. The entry gave us a nearly full view of the cove with the sun behind us. We wouldn’t have to face the sun if we needed to turn around. From my perch I could see there was a coral head near the far shore that I’d missed from the dinghy, so we set the anchor so we’d have plenty of room to swing clear of it. Just in case, I attached a stern line to shore and dove in with a mask to check our 45-pound CQR. By the time I came up, lunch was waiting.
Turn south at the bat cave
The spot we’d found was more magical than the first, though it took a while to pinpoint it on the survey map when I pulled it out again a few days later. The problem wasn’t unusual in Palau. Members of the local yacht club have names for their chosen cubbyholes, but getting directions to them can be confusing. Over beers one night at Koror’s sailor hangout, the Marina Hotel and Restaurant, John McCready, Palau’s veteran captain of the sail charterboat Eclipse, described his favorite place to me.
“Well, when you slip through this channel right here,” he said, indicating a narrow gap on the land survey, “you’ll see three small islands lined up. You can go between one pair, but it’s a little deceptive, so it’s better just to go around all three. Then you head up to the east, and another narrow gap will open up between this big island and the little one. Now you’ll see a great cave on your rightwhich is full of bats and fun to explorebut it’s too deep to anchor there. Turn south: the anchorage is a little further up. Right in front of you, another gap will open and you’ll see a bright-green lagoon cutting into the island. You can anchor outside that in about 30 feet with a sand bottom.”
I’d hardly time to digest his instructions when he swept his fingers across another corner of the survey.
“Now there’s another place. It’s got a great cave leading into a marine lake, but you can only get in the cave at low tide ” and then McCready took me through another dozen twists past countless landmarks until his tongue grew tired and his beer turned warm. About that time he let loose a big sigh and smiled at me.
“You know, it doesn’t really matter where you go in the Rock Islands,” he said. “It’s all beautiful. I suggest you just poke around. There are a few reefs and banks to watch out for, but as long as you’ve got good light and are careful you really can’t go wrong.”
He was right. Our week spent poking around the Rock Islands with no particular plans couldn’t have been more perfect. We’d snorkeled through a sea of stingerless jellyfish, explored an ancient burial cave, and climbed to an old Japanese lookout post. But for me, the best times were the mornings spent in some nameless cove with no other attractions but the sound of the water slapping on limestone and tropicbirds swooping overhead.
It was easy to get lost in Palau.
Author’s note: Palau is home to one of the most biologically diverse reef systems in the world and the last place to be blundering around in a 12-ton sailboat. Our “blind” cruise through the Rock Islands was an extremely cautious undertaking, conducted under ideal conditions. Our pattern of thoroughly scouting approaches in the dinghy minimized any chance of error. This article is in no way meant to condone sailing without proper charts. Prudent mariner will use all available means to confirm position.
Darrell Nicholson is a delivery skipper and freelance writer. He and his wife Theresa have spent the past 10 years voyaging and living aboard their 32-foot William Atkin ketch Tosca.