Before we left for Yap I was a little freaked out about the idea of being hundreds of miles from land. Now that we’ve completed an almost 1000 mile long round trip it’s really not so intimidating anymore. The endless empty ocean is sometimes a little intimidating when you are out there, if you stop and think about it, but mostly it’s just beautiful. Sunrise is my favorite time of day. Sometimes I’ll sit watch the waves pass by for 2 hours. The time somehow flies by while I sit in awe of all the unique reflections of the low angle light on the ripples and waves.
It is a little weird when in the expanse of water you come across another boat. On several occasions we even had to change our course to accommodate larger ships because, despite the endlessness of the sea, we were heading straight for a point of intersection. The whole way to Yap and for the first three days on the way back, all we saw were oil tankers. No container ships, military or patrol ships, other sailboats (I didn’t expect to see others), or vessels with any purpose expect transporting massive amount of oil across the entirety of the Pacific. From radio conversations and estimated trajectories we guessing the origin or destination of many of the vessels to be Latin or South America, Taiwan, or the Philippines. I could do a whole rant on oil being the only thing that’s out there on the ocean but on day four of the trip back we finally saw a different type of vessel – a fishing vessel.
Surrounding the islands that make up FSM (Federated States of Micronesia) islands there is a Pacific marine protected area. Fishing in this area is restricted (except for FSM). The laws for fishing vessels and companies that ignore restrictions are very strict. Three FSM police boats patrol the waters for illegal fishing vessels. When they catch a vessel in FSM waters they will chase them down and bring them to the nearest island to continue with the legal process. Sometimes fisherman will skirt just inside border so if a patrol boat comes they can motor out past the border and claim innocence or ignorance for having drifted across the line. If the boats do try to escape though, the patrol boats are armed and may fire warning shots to let the vessel that they mean business.
Two confiscated boats sat in the harbor when we arrived in Yap. Illegal fishing comes with a very hefty fine, somewhere in the range of a few hundred thousand dollars. If the company wants to pay the fine in full the boat will be released at the border of the restricted fishing zone and can continue home, fishing all the way. However, if the company cannot afford the fine they can give the boat to FSM and have the value of the vessel deducted from the amount due. Fish caught by these two vessels in Yap were sold market style to Yapese people. Except for the hundreds of shark fins (the sharks are thrown back) that were also found. I’m not sure what was done with those tragic wastes. The individual fisherman do not face any legal reparations and are sent home at the cost of the company.
While were anchored in Yap another illegal fishing vessel was brought in early one morning, this one from Taiwan. The boat was rafted to the patrol boat which was tied up to the seawall. Fisherman were required stayed on the boat except when they were taken to a shower facility daily. I was planning to work with a reporter from Palauan OTV to interview some of the fisherman in Chinese about the situation but the boat got there only a few days before we left Yap and we ended up running out of time.
I imagine that three fishing boats will sit in Yap harbor soon. Hopefully the FSM government or Yap will decide to put the vessels up for auction and make some money on them while they are still in operable condition.
Our next experience with Illegal fishing was right inside the border of the FSM waters. When sailing back we set our watches ti check our surrounding out about every 25 minutes to see if there were any boats in sight. We see the ship on the horizon and it is bee lining straight for us. Luckily, we had just seen a group of birds diving for fish off our starboard side (we were fishing too and had been hoping we might snag one of the school). We knew the fisherman had also seen the birds and were heading to them, not us. We are not in Somalia or Indonesia. The risk of running into a boat that wants to board and rob you of money, food, booze (our half bottle of gin would be sorely disappointing) or the boat is very slim. Still, that far offshore it’s something that I try to be prepared for and makes me a little uneasy when boats get so close. They contacted us not the radio and asked where we were going. We answered that we were headed for Guam. They said “ok. bye bye,” and after a few more minutes headed west over the horizon. We checked the chart and we were definitely inside FSM waters. They wanted to stay as clear of us we we did them. We did send their location to a contact in Yap though. It is unlikely that the patrol boat would make it out in time to catch them, but at least they know that there are people skirting the border this far north. Some Yapese police also think there is an informant on Yap or one other other islands that will notify certain fisherman or companies when the patrol boats leave shore and in what direction they are headed.
We ran into, almost quite literally, another fishing vessel in the middle of the night that a few days later. During our every 25 minute lookout Pete saw the lights of the ship on the horizon. We watched as it got closer and then all of the sudden it was passing us quickly off our starboard bow. We were on a port tack so Pete had to tack quickly to avoid it. When you don’t know the size of what you are looking at in the dark it is hard to tell if it’s a buoy, boat, or something else in the water. Our first assumption in this case was of course it was a boat. It’s hard to tell how far away it is too. Because of the speed at which the light passed us on our right so fast we thought it was only maybe a hundred or two hundred feet away. I took out the BFL spotlight and tried to shine it on the water to see what it was. We couldn’t see anything in the water so we then assumed it was some sort of floating buoy or other lit debris in the water. Then we got on an unintelligible call on the radio. We answered ‘this is sailing vessel absolute’ and there was no reply. I repeated our identifying call, still no answer. The boat matched our speed and motored alongside us for probably 10 minutes. They were close enough we could hear their motor running over the sound of the wind and waves (which weren’t super strong that night) but still didn’t have any idea on exactly how far away they were, the appearance or size of the boat, or where they were from (except their English wasn’t great). Eventually they turned away what appeared to be away from us and this was confirmed after a few more minutes when we could tell the aft light was farther away. It was a relief to be alone again.
This whole time there are two thought processes going through my head. One is in calm, observing mode and the other is in is-this-something-we-should-worry-about(?!) mode. And they battled it over those ten minutes the fishing vessel motored alongside us. Carrying weapons is not something I think about day to day, but in the lawless open ocean is something that many cruisers feel is imperative. I’m still not sure where I stand on the matter, but I am more open minded than I ever was before after my time out, hundreds of miles from land.
Grateful for a safe and happy passage. I hope for the same for all my fellow mariners and cruiser friends in the future.