Our shakedown cruise was a success. Last Friday at midnight we met our crew for departure at 1am from Sumay Cove Marina for a straight shot to Rota. We were happy to have an enthusiastic crew along. We wanted to leave earlier in the week, but everyone has jobs to which they are responsible so we pushed it back to the weekend by request. With the change in schedule we had too many interested which was a blessing and a curse. I wished our boat was big enough to bring everyone along! We took all but one of the interested individuals out for a short cruise through and just beyond the mouth of Apra Harbor on a very windy Sunday the week before we were planning to go to Rota. Everyone handled the waves well but two couldn’t come in the end and we were left with a full crew of four.
On our way up to Rota, winds of about 15-20 kts through the night picked up in the following day. We had waves about 6-7 feet (which means that the largest waves that come by occasionally can double that) with swells from the east and north, typical for the infamous Rota channel. After the sun came up we knew we were West of Guam & Rota, pointing high, trying to make progress north. With Rota still out of sight, our crew began to question our navigational skills and their commitment to the journey. It didn’t help that at first hint of doubt our GPS chart plotter stopped recognizing our location, leaving us without our most convenient way of judging our path from a birds eyes view. We tacked in, eastward and slightly south, for a few miles and Rota came into sight, but we still had hours of sailing and several tacks before we were lined up with the channel for entry into west harbor. And it was getting late. We already missed our deadline of getting in before 4:30pm, when customs closes and would have to pay overtime fees. And now, we were racing darkness. With our second low point coming on, the clouds pushed aside and a double rainbow arched over Rota in front of us.
Pushing our 30 year-old engine for the last half mile, we made it through the channel and to the dock just as the last bit of light disappeared from the sky.
Luckily the marina was well lit and we were able to tie up, fill out customs forms, and pack up quickly before going to grab pizzas and hitting the bed hard at the Valentino’s hotel. We caught a bonita on the way up but with no way to cook it, we gave it to the custom’s officer who was happy to take it home for grilling. We actually hooked three more fish (2 mahi and 1 other fish we weren’t able to reel in close enough to see ), but lost them without a gaff or net to scoop them up. When we tried to pull them in, the line snapped and we lost the fish and our lures. Note to self: get a net or gaff.
Pete and I did most of the steering on the way up, since our mostly inexperienced crew was busy acclimating to holding on when heeling over (we expected this) or busy chumming the water.
Alex did help with steering for a while but was the biggest help with fishing. Constant responsibility to the helm for one of us meant Pete and I hadn’t slept the whole night we sailed, nor had we slept very well the night before because of the nerves and anticipation. Beating upwind in Absolute isn’t easy. She heels steep, water will occasionally pour over the rails, and on cresting waves everyone topside is guaranteed a good splash. Neither of us got more than an hour or two’s meager rest.
Still, it was a successful journey. We didn’t break anything on the way up. The engine ran well. We were experimenting with some styrofoam insulation, trying to dampen the sound of the roaring engine in the main cabin. It looks like that particular insulation won’t work next to the hot engine (it melted).
Now we had time to enjoy quiet, quaint Rota. Despite being only 1/5 the size of Guam with a population of 2,000 there is a lot to see on this little island.
We spent Saturday morning restoring the boat to a livable condition- dishes, cleaning, and storing valuables. Then it was a drive around through the marine reserve. Stopping at the Japanese cannon, the huge strangler fig or taotaomona tree (inhabited by spirits of Rota’s Chamorro ancestors), and the fishing cliffs.
It’s a few hour’s drive through the Sasanhaya Marine Reserve, but it’s full of fabulous views of ocean, jungle, and limestone cliffs. We stopped by to say hello to our friends Kurt and Christine, who live on Rota, and ran back into Songsong for a late lunch.
The people on Rota bring island hospitality and neighborliness to a new level. We arrived on a Friday evening right after dark, and the port master, Rodney, came down to make sure customs showed up and that we were taken care of. Rodney and his wife Millie waited for us to pack up & secure the boat so that they could give us a ride to Valentino’s and invite us to his daughter’s 18th birthday party the following evening. So after our drive around the island on Saturday we collected ourselves and drove up to the other village, Sinapaolo, (where most people live) to celebrate. There was red rice, fresh venison keleguen (meat ‘cooked’ in lemon), taro, sweet potatoes, and coconut crab. Short of nothing, this was an incredible way to spend the evening and Rodney and Millie were so hospitable, inviting us to be a part of their family get together. Rodney really went above and beyond to make sure we felt welcome and cared for on Rota.
After the party, we headed back to the west side where we met up with the biologists for the cat and bird projects. The cat project is a unique study of the effects of feral cats on the insular bird population. There is a feral cat problem on Rota and the cats are a threat to the bird populations, of which many species are endangered or protected. These scientists were hired to survey, trap, and shoot feral cats across the island. While there is no publishes data on their outcomes of their work yet, one scientist did share that they were finding less birds that appeared to have been predated by cats. Our night with the biologists included a bonfire, guitar playing, and experimenting with long exposure photographs with headlamps! Eventually the majority of us went back to the hotel. Jessie, Alex, and Sarah stayed longer and got a late night tour of the underground Japanese bunker system that runs beneath much of SongSong.
Sunday morning most of the gang went off for spear fishing or snorkeling while Pete and I went up to have some coffee and calamansi juice with Kurt and Christine. Kurt and Christine are from Germany and have lived in their beautiful house in Rota for 5 years. Before that they sailed a boat about the size of Absolute around the south and north Pacific and before that worked in the US and traveled around the country in an RV (just like Pete’s grandparents!). We had lots to talk about, of course, preparing for our own Pacific cruise. Christine pulled out charts stretching east to the Marshall Islands, and they told us about their favorite atolls near Yap and Chuuk. They also showed us around their home. Their house is designed like a boat, with all their power coming from solar panels and wind turbines that charge a bank of 6 volt batteries that sit in storage under the stucco-cement couch. The kitchen is set up like a galley on a boat or motor home with a small oven and three burner stove and an only slightly smaller than average 12V fridge. Passive cooling keeps air flowing through the doors and out roof-height narrow, long windows. They are connected to the municipal water system (the pipeline goes right by their house), but they also have a rainwater cistern and can switch their pipes to run off one or the other. A large south west facing window frames their backyard farm with an endless ocean in the background. Their collection of fruit trees, vegetables, local plants and trees, herbs, and medicines is impressive. Christine makes clothes and takes care of the plants. Kurt makes jewelry from shells and is also a dental technician. He makes dentures, caps, and bridges for people on the island who need them. They also make wine. They were excited to hear about our still that we made last year. It was a real pleasure to get to spend time with them. In return for their company and stories, we were able to bring up some jasmine rice and wine from Guam (some things, or perhaps, most thing are difficult to come by on Rota). They suggested great gifts to take to the atolls when we go: butane
We met up for lunch with the rest of the crew at our favorite (this will be our third meal there), The Pizzeria (there are only a few restaurants on Rota, maybe 4). Then set off for a whirlwind afternoon with Rota Alex as our guide. We drove through coconut village, a now closed hotel with individual bungalows, seaside location, and beautiful flora across the grounds. Supposedly, the owner wasn’t paying taxes and once he realized that his finances had sparked the government’s curiosity he hightailed it back to Japan. It might be for sale now. We were in consensus it would make a sweet little community (individual beachside bungalows with a central industrial community kitchen?!) if we could convince a bunch of friends to move to Rota.
Then we drove to the swimming hole. The reef is built up higher out of the water here, blocking the crashing waves, and behind it there is a perfect little pool where salt and fresh water combine that is great for swimming.
With a group of eight we had two rental cars and at this point one of them broke down. We had to take a minute to lie in the grass and relax while they came to replace it. It was nice to sit still for a minute and watch the clouds roll by! From there we drove up to the latte stone quarry. Latte stones are found throughout the Mariana’s of varying size. Though it is considered common knowledge that latte stones organized in two parallel rows were used to elevate homes made of woven floors of the ground, archaeologists and anthropologists aren’t 100% sure if that was truly for what they were used. The latte stones on Guam are between 4 and 6 feet tall. In the latte stone quarry in Rota the base and head of the stones are still in the ground, abandoned after carving and never moved to the intended locations, but if they were assembled they would stand somewhere between 12 and 20 feet tall. One hypothesized use for this ancient design was that they were placed in the water and used as a dock for outrigger canoes or a fishing platform. No one knows for sure though.
From the latte stone quarry we drove up to the Bird Sanctuary. I have visited Rota four times before this trip and have now been to the bird Sanctuary three times. It continues to be a serene, spiritual experience. On Guam we have very few seabirds and no endemic species of bird left on the island since the invasive brown tree snakes killed off their young after being introduced in the 70’s. You don’t realize it at first, but the sounds of birds in the forest is something you really miss. Hearing the birds again on Rota always seems to soothe me. Maybe it’s just nice to get away to a place where humans haven’t devastated the natural environment. The sanctuary walkway zig-zags down and across the dramatic white, limestone cliffs.
At the base of the cliffs is a mostly isolated forest that would take a day of trekking to reach. Little white dots, smaller white fluff balls, and scraggly twig nests sit in the highest branches of the tropic canopy.
The sanctuary is home to red-footed boobies, brown boobies, tropic birds, frigatebirds, kingfishers, terns, and other species. While most stay seated in the trees below, some birds will catch the wind and do circles at walkway height, checking out the visitors, which allows opportunity for closer photographs.
Mike flew up from Guam for the weekend and was planning on doing a time lapse recording at sunset so we headed back down to the beach on the west side of the island. Here’s what he ended up with from the whole weekend.
As the sun went down we were able to explore the abandoned water park that was swarming with mosquitoes but still in reasonable condition.
We decided to go to As Paris, the other restaurant in town, for dinner before showers and loading up for the return journey. Alex flew back with his wife Sarah (who flew up to hang out in Rota) and Mike, so we were minus one for the return journey. We left at 11pm on the dot and the wind and seas stayed calm throughout the night. We got about 2 hours of moonless sky and were able to see a fair amount of really bright shooting stars. While Pete and Jessie slept below, Marylou and Jan Willem stayed above deck with me. Marylou was designated to stay awake and talk to me to keep me from nodding off. We pulled in the jib once because of a menacing cloud, but it was hardly necessary. The whole night there were no storms and the wind only fluctuated between 10 and 15 knots. At around 12:30am a big bird flew around the top of our mast twice trying to find a place to land. Pete and I have had this happen before. Usually the bird wants a place to to rest but eventually gives up on trying to land on the mast or spreaders with their unpredictable large arc sways. About thirty seconds after the bird seemed to have abandoned hope of a resting place, our eyes are drawn skyward as the moonlit silhouette of the bird grew unignorably larger. We screamed as he came down toward us flapping into the cockpit. I covered my head because I was afraid he would pick that as a reasonable landing place. I assume Marylou and Jan Willem did the same because we all looked up at the same time, flabbergasted at the large red-footed booby perched on the lifeline less than 3 feet from me at the helm. He flapped (his impressive wingspan) trying to maintain balance on the rocking lifeline and wobbles a few inches aftward to the stanchion, a more sturdy perch. Once we got over the shock and the bird seemed to just want to hang out with us until he/she was more rested, we debated the ‘meaning’ of our visitor. Is this is a good omen, an escort back to Guam, a bird fed up with his gossipy, quarrelling neighbors at the bird sanctuary, or was he sick? I was convinced he must be sick but no one else affirmed my conclusions so we decided to let Fred (Pete and I both thought of this name immediately and independently) stay. We were able to snap a few photos with Fred while he unceasingly preened his feathers for the next 11 hours. In this time we learned from the biologist, Marylou, that birds do not have rectums and can’t control when they poop. So, yes, I got pooped on. But I’ve heard getting pooped on by a bird is good luck. Right?
We had steady wind and only eastern swells a few feet in height (as opposed to 6-9’ northern and eastern swells typical of the channel) for the rest of the night. Once the jib was out again and I felt pretty comfortable with the look of the skies, I told Marylou she could get some sleep too. With the excellent conditions I was, being a night person, able to push through sailing until 3:15am before exhaustion set in. This allowed Pete, who is not a night person and needs sleep before midnight, to get 3 hours of rest before taking over until sunup, so I could try to get some sleep. This was SO much better than going up wind in the conditions we had on Friday! In those conditions both of us are exhausted after an hour or two at the helm, especially at night. The sun came up and we were already west of Ritidian, the northern point of Guam. While normally the sun comes up and so does the wind, the wind died down in the morning and we poked along at 2 to 2.5 knots along the coast of Guam . As we got closer to the harbor we called the wildlife refuge to ask if boobies ever came to Guam from Rota by boat or under their own power. When we told the refuge employee our stowaway had been sitting next to us for 10 hours all you could hear was laughter on the other end of the line. She thought it was a funny situation, but unfortunately said that birds that come all the way to Guam or hang out on boats that close to people are usually sick. She advised we try to nudge him off the boat before arriving and trying to check-in with customs. I was sad to learn that Fred was sick but not surprised. When we got close to the breakwater I nudged him off with the boathook and, while I thought he would fly to the rocks, he flew downwind, out to sea.
It took customs about 2 hours after we arrived to get to the marina but that gave us time to clean the boat up a bit, wash down the sails (who had seen buckets of saltwater on the way up), and organize. Our crew was so incredible and hardworking and fun. We would’ve loved to stay longer, but our crew had to get back for their jobs. And we had to get back to put the finishing touches on Absolute, especially after she held up so well on the practice cruise. If we hadn’t left when we did we would not have had the beautiful calm seas, nor would we have met Fred, the beautiful booby with his blue beak and big red feet, escorting us home just to make sure we made it there safely. And have a bit of adventure himself.