Love and Death or Fear and Life?

Markus Pukonen

My route moving forward was not set yet as I had a little bit of time to spend exploring Micronesia before I was to meet my friend in Palau. I was hoping I might find some surf but I was not sure where yet. As always I was letting the weather and forecasts make much of the route planning and decision making for me. Some of the islands I wished to visit would have involved clearing back in through customs, immigration, and quarantine and paying each once again. Unfortunately the different states of Micronesia require this in each new state. I needed to clear in and out of Kosrae and would have to do the same if I were to visit any of the islands in Chuuk, Yapp, or Pohnpei. Due to my limited time I decided I would avoid the other main islands and possibly stop at some of the smaller outer atolls that do not have the officers or interest in upholding the annoying and expensive bureaucracy.

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After a few days of sailing westward I heard an unfamiliar sound on the Ocean. Pheut pheut pheut pheut pheut pheut. Seriously? I was well over a few hundred miles from the nearest airport or town of any significant size. Could it really be a helicopter or was it official, had I begun to experience full hallucinations on the Ocean? Then I spotted it! It was indeed a helicopter heading my way and I’m pretty positive I wasn’t hallucinating. I then remembered the helicopter pilots I had met in Majuro who were working as fish spotters for the Chinese Tuna boats. It flew overhead and I could see the pilot checking me out. I signalled to my radio but I don’t think he got the message. After a few circles he took off into the horizon and I never spotted him again or the boat that he would eventually land on. The boat that was likely filled with Filipino workers getting paid about $200 a month to make thousands and thousands for the helicopter pilot, the captain, and the owners of the boat.

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I sailed west for 6 days keeping a safe distance from the atolls that I could see on my charts. I decided I would aim to stop at Lekenioch Atoll. My research had revealed it to have a good safe entrance into the lagoon and a good anchorage in front of the friendly settlement. I spotted it on the horizon in the late morning and was excited that I may be able to sail directly there without needing to hove to for a night. This would be the first and only time on a passage that I would be able to do this.

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I found the entrance to the lagoon easily and sailed through a gap between two coconut lined islands. As I entered the lagoon I was surprised to see another yacht sailing towards me. We made radio contact and I discovered they were leaving after a week there. The Aussies had nothing but good things to say about the Atoll. They informed me I was arriving in good time as there was a feast happening later that day. I was a bit disappointed to not meet them in person but also happy to be the only visitor at the Atoll.

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I sailed up to the town and searched for a good place to anchor. A group of kids came out to a pier and attempted to get me to come alongside it. It certainly looked a bit too shallow and I was happy to be anchored offshore anyways. I sailed back and forth a few times looking for a good wide sandy spot without any reef around. It’s very easy to do serious damage to reef with your anchor or your chain, not to mention the reciprocal damage to your chain and/or getting your anchor stuck in the reef. I found a good spot and then sailed downwind to it with about 2 knots of speed and dropped the anchor. Most boaters will use their engine to set their anchor in the sea bottom but it can be just as effective to do it in this manor. I never dragged the anchor once while onboard Dolce. I have to thank Dave for equipping her with good hooks and sufficient chain.

After settling in and patting myself on the back for another successful passage (I didn’t actually do that, but I will right now, you should too, you deserve it, for something I’m sure.), I hopped on to one of my three surfboards and paddled to shore. I was met there by a friendly guy named Serfer. He spoke decent English and invited me to join him down the path. I was lead to an open air community hall-like space that was packed with what looked like all of the adults from the community. A ceremony was already under way and I was directed to a primary school desk and chair combo that was placed in the second row of a large rectangle of about 100 men and women sitting at similar desks. The women on one side, Men on the other.

I sat and listened as elder after elder was introduced and entered into the centre of the space to say a speech to a group of men who appeared to be the guests of honour or chiefs of some sort. Each elder would speak for about ten minutes in Chuukese. At one point some women came around and handed out candy necklaces to everyone. Then absolutely massive plates of food with plastic wrap covering them were placed in front of everyone there. A Kool Aid like drink was also passed around.

I was soon informed that this was a feast in honour of a new chief. Some of the women were dressed in what looked like more traditional flower patterned dresses but most of the men were in western clothing. A few of the elder men were wearing simple toga like dress. The new chief was wearing a simple white dress shirt and blue trousers. Towards the end of the ceremony he was presented with a small rope head band with two knots tied in it that gave the appearance of little ears.

At the end of the ceremony the most amazing smelling and beautiful looking Lei’s were placed on all of the Men’s heads, including mine. This was the first real Lei I had experienced and it was wonderful. The smells of the flowers brightened my mood instantly. I was still yet to meet anyone there except for the guy who brought me and the people sitting on either side of me. I was feeling a bit rough and unfortunately did not have a large appetite for the feast that was placed in from of me. To my surprise at the end of the ceremony most of the people took their plates and left. I was relieved I would not be forced to eat copious amounts of food while feeling slightly nauseous.

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As many guests were making there way out some younger children came to the centre and did a dance performance for the new chief. It seemed to be some sort of Latin pop dance. It was cute and the new chief enjoyed it. Not what I was expecting when they told me there would be a dance performance.

After the dance I was introduced to many more of the guests, including the new chief. They were friendly and asked a few questions but If they were seriously interested in me they did a good job of hiding their curiosity. Perhaps they could tell that I was not feeling so great.

After the feast my new friend/guide/host of Lekenioch Atoll showed me around the village. Serfer took me to his house and I met his wife and kids who were awoken from a siesta on the solid cement floor.

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We then walked along the small path that looped around the village. There was once a single truck on the island but it was no longer in use. A few bicycles still existed but it was easy to walk everywhere. Most of the houses were cement squares with aluminum roofing but some of the traditional palm thatch buildings were still scattered about. I was keen to explore and hang out more with Serfer but I was feeling rough and in need of a rest. I told him I would come back tmw and paddled my surfboard back to Dolce.

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At this time two big zit like things had formed on me, one on my lower leg and one on my butt. The skin was not broken but they already appeared to be infected. Swelling and redness was present. What was going on with my body!!!

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The next day Serfer came out and insisted that I let him scrub the bottom of my boat. I assumed he wanted something in return but he said he didn’t. I couldn’t refuse the offer. I had many things on the boat that I didn’t need anyways and was happy to gift some things to a man on an island with nothing to buy but rice, oil, sugar, and a variety of non-food edibles. I had more than enough fishing gear which I wasn’t wrong in guessing he would be stoked and appreciative to take off my hands.

After he scrubbed my boat he paddled me into shore on his little outrigger canoe and brought me to his uncle who happened to be the healer (or witch doctor as Serfer called him) on the island. When we arrived he was chilling in his small traditional thatch house reading a book about medicine in english. He took a look at my leg and prescribed me a little bottle of coconut oil and some herbs of some sort mixed in with it. I liked him. He was a calm and curious elder of about 70 yrs I would guess. He also let Serfer climb his coconut tree to provide me with a load of coconuts for the journey.

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In the area around the doctors home it was pretty clear that there had been some very recent flooding. Serfer told me that the whole island was more at risk during big tides. It was quite possible that I would be one of the last one hundred visitors to the Atoll before everyone would be forced to relocate due to rising sea levels.

We walked around the island and stumbled across a party that soon became a dance party! It was mostly a sober party except for one or two very drunk folks who had been drinking some homemade moonshine. We danced to a variety of international pop songs. They loved my moves and I’m pretty sure one of the drunk guys was hitting on me and wanted me to come back to his place. It was a bit awkward but the rest of the folk just found it funny.

I would have happily stayed longer at Lekenioch but time was running out to meet my friend in Palau and I was also becoming more and more concerned about my swollen leg. I was optimistic but a bit skeptical about the witch doctors concoction. I had the feeling oil would slow the healing process but in reality I was clueless as to what would help.

I left Lekenioch Atoll loaded with coconuts for a 1200 mile sail to Palau. It wasn’t long before I was questioning the possibility of losing a limb to infection. My leg had continued to swell and become painful as the swelling and redness reached my foot. The sore on my butt was also a concern. I was having a tingling sensation through my body when I was in the sun.

I used my satelite device to text a doctor I had met in Oregon who had offered assistance to me if I was in need at anytime during the journey. I also texted my buddy Dave who knew a thing or two about herbs and random healing techniques. The Doctor said I needed immediate hospitalization for IV antibiotics. That was not so comforting or what I needed to hear. I was a 5-12 day sail from the nearest hospital. The closest one was in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go and would mean I would miss my friend in Palau. There was also the risk that the wind would not cooperate in getting me there. There would be a good hospital in Palau but it was likely a 12 day sail away.

To put it lightly, this was a big decision for me to make. I always think it’s better to make your decisions from a place of love as opposed to fear but in this situation that could have led to death as opposed to life. The friend who I was going to meet was more than just a friend. The swelling on my leg was more than just a minor concern. There was no clear answer for me. I wasn’t yet feeling like I was in need of immediate medical attention nor was there any guarantees that if I changed my course I would reach it faster. My instinct wasn’t helping too much. I asked the universe what I should do but I couldn’t hear the answer over the rattling lines and waves smashing off the hull.

Although the thought of amputation or worse did cross my mind I didn’t let those thoughts dominate. I decided I would focus all of my remaining energy on healing. After a couple days the coconut oil concoction was no longer inspiring much confidence in it’s healing abilities. Dave suggested I make a tea from all the herbs in my galley(kitchen) to drink and also to use as a skin wash. I used garlic, thyme, oregano, ginger, turmeric, and possibly something else to make a big brew of potent tea. It tasted like it was going to help me. The brew lasted two days and then I made another one. By the end of the second brew the swelling was gone and the wounds were healing up.

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I was making good progress towards Palau. Apart from the doctor and Dave I didn’t let anyone else know about the predicament I was in. There was enough worrying and fear going around without my friends and family knowing. If I thought anyone could help I would have contacted them right away.

I did ask my brother in law for a weather forecast. He told me that I should keep up my speed to Palau as there was a big low system heading my way. He said it was going to hit me either way but If I kept up my speed I might not feel the brunt of it. I always sailed Dolce as fast as she would go so his advice on keeping up my speed was not much help to me. Dolce’s hull speed (or max speed) is about 7 knots (13km/h).

On my 8th night of the passage I woke up from a dream and heard something smack on the hull. I climbed out on deck and couldn’t see anything but a massive tanker a couple miles from me. It was the first boat I had seen since leaving Lekenioch and it looked massive on the horizon. Two miles may seem like a big distance but out in the middle of the ocean it felt too close for comfort. I made radio contact and discovered they were destined for Japan with a cargo of coal from Australia.

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The next day I noticed hundreds of birds having a feeding frenzy ahead of me. I then realized there was a massive school of tuna feeding on other small fish. It gave me hope that the hundreds of Chinese tuna fishing boats I had seen in Majuro might not be successful in wiping out all of the tuna.

Later that day I climbed out on deck and noticed a big fin off the stern of Dolce. What’s that following me!!! It was a whale that seemed a bit longer than the boat I was currently sailing and keen to check me out. I was stoked to say hello. It followed me on the surface for about a minute and then I lost sight of it. At the time it didn’t occur to me that it could potentially be aggressive with Dolce. It’s not uncommon for whales to hit boats if they feel they are trying to make moves on (or pick up/kill) their partners. The Moby Dick story is based on very true events.

The weather ended up hitting me three days earlier than forecast. The wind did anyways. 30+ knots of it. I was fully reefed on a beam reach flying towards Palau at a consistent 7 knots. The waves soon built up to 3-4 meters with about a 6-7 second period.  Thankfully the wind wasn’t quite strong enough to make them brake across Dolce or it would have been a much more uncomfortable ride. Nonetheless, I was consistently needing to make adjustments to keep Dolce and the windvane on course.

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I arrived off of Palau at night and hove to until dawn to make my final approach. The wind was the strongest off the passage as I approached what was going to be my most technical sailing of the journey. The entrance into Palau from the east is a meandering passage through shallow reefs. Some reefs and islands provided protection from the big swells but I still needed to deal with the strong winds which would become shifty as I entered the tricky reef passage that had some wind shadows from islands.

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Things always tended to happen a whole lot slower than expected on the sailboat. Dolce and I were ready to enter the reef hours before I finally arrived at the entrance buoys. Funny enough I arrived at the exact time as the only other boat in sight. It was a U.S. Coast guard boat and in my attempt to give them space I didn’t leave much room for Dolce to enter. At the last moment I made the smart choice to tack back away from the entrance and have much more sea room to enter safely. It was much more relaxing on the return to have the entrance to myself without the coast guard looming over my shoulder.

As I entered the reef passage the waters became much calmer and it was easy to see the reef on either side of the 100m wide passage. There was a sharp turn in the channel ahead which I expected would force me to tack back and forth a number of times but as I turned the direction of the wind also changed enabling me to continue for a while longer without tacking.

I then came to a fork in the road according to my charts and I chose the route that appeared to be the safest. As I did so a glass bottom tourist boat came near to me and could see that I was under sail power alone. We made eye contact and some hand signals to clarify our course intentions. It was nice to communicate with someone again.

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After about five tacks back and forth I was clear of the reef and into some mostly open water that fronted the port area. The wind again changed direction and picked up to a strong 30 knots coming straight at me. I needed to fully reef Dolce and she was still heeling over drastically at times.

I attempted a number of times to contact the harbour officials but no-one was answering my calls. The U.S. Coast guard guys responded and suggested I try a different channel but I had no success there either. After zig zagging back and forth across the harbour for a half hour I came close to where a mega yacht was tied to a high cement pier area. I noticed a worker in a high vis vest signalling me to pull in behind the Mega yacht. I needed to do a 180 in order to do that. This would be my first ever attempt at sailing Dolce (or any boat for that matter) up to a pier or dock. No pressure. It’s not like I was pulling up next to a multi-million dollar yacht with 30 knots of wind and gravel blowing against me from a solid cement pier with no rubber or padding anywhere…. Actually it was exactly like that.

As I came alongside the mega yacht it blocked all of my wind which I had expected and had already dropped the sails. I was moving very slow at this point anyways. I was able to exchange a few words with some of the crew on the yacht and they could see I would appreciate some help. One of them grabbed a spare line and ran ahead to where I would pull Dolce in to the dock. As I got close he threw me the line and I threw him one of mine. It turns out I did an excellent job of guesstimating how much speed I would need in order to float up to the dock perfectly. Dolce coasted to a stop and I was able to gently pull her towards the pier.

The moment she was secure on the pier the wind gusted strongly and blew gravel dust all over me and Dolce. Not the most welcoming way to arrive in Palau. Then the Immigration arrived with smiles and informed me that I would have to pay overtime fees on top of already exorbitant yacht clearance fees because it was lunchtime. 11am. I said I would wait until after lunch and was in no hurry. I could tell they usually wouldn’t let that slide but I think they relented after considering how cheap and desperate Dolce and I appeared. It turns out I didn’t have to wait until after their lunch and an hour later I had been cleared by each of the immigrations, customs, and quarantine officers.

I sailed off of the dock (another first) and headed out of the port towards the protected harbour where all of the other yachts were moored. Of course the wind was blowing directly out of the harbour and there was a narrow entrance with reef on either side. It would take me three attempts before I was able get a good safe line into the harbour and avoid kissing the reef. I might have been able to do it the first time but I was in no mood to risk a reef kiss. As I entered the harbour one of the marina staff came out and helped direct me towards a mooring. I nervously sailed over to it and tied up dolce with a sigh of relief. A mild understatement.

I had just completed a 1700 mile passage from Kosrae to Palau with a few days on Lekenioch Atoll midway. The deck was filthy and so was I. I cleaned her up and headed to shore with the laundry. I met a bunch of drunken sailors and shared some good banter before leaving them to start cleaning myself, the laundry, and Dolce, in anticipation of my new first mate who was to arrive the next evening.