Threading A Coral Needle


Brian and Jenny have a saying, “something breaks on a boat everyday.” A fine saying for when a light goes out or a fan doesn’t work. It is an entirely different proposition when the entire steering system goes belly up as Laysan is within 1/2 mile of the western entrance to Palau and we are threading a needle comprised of coral reef on either side. Brian fortuitously found the problem minutes before we begin the entry, and we turn Laysan back to sea using an emergency tiller attached to the rudder at the rear of the boat. Someone in the pilot house shouts out directions to the rudderman in the back, who steers to port or starboard depending on the heading. After circling offshore for over an hour, the boys diagnose the problem and determine that neither the primary auto pilot or the helm is operable. Fortunately, Laysan has a back up autopilot that we engage. Now that our/my stress level is sufficiently elevated, Laysan again makes for the western passage. The entry is about 100 yards wide (the width of a football field) with clear blue coral reefs outlining an edge we must not cross. Slender sticks “mark” the channel, however, there is always the anxiety as to which side of the sticks is the deep. And just to underline the seriousness of the enterprise, a wreck of a boat lies just off our starboard side. Jenny and I sit on the flybridge and radio down to John and Brian whenever we believe that Laysan is heading for shallow water. We try not to interrupt them except when a course adjustment is definitely in order. What we quickly find is that the navionics map, carefully drawn out, indicating all nautical hazards, and showing the exact location of Laysan, is…well…not accurate. If we were to trust the electronic navigational map, we would be literally on the rocks.

We engage in eyeball navigation with additional support from our paper charts for over anxious three hours. Once inside the reef, we parallel a beautiful emerald green island with jungle vegetation atop coral and limestone cliffs with undercut edges. Little islands look like green mushrooms with the ocean lapping around their limestone stems. With much relief, we arrive at a wharf, dock, and await a miniature army of Palauan officials. When they arrive we pay entry fees, harbor fees, immigration fees, Koror ranger fees, dock handling fees. The fact we are only here for four days makes no difference, we pay the fees. Julia’s illicit “plant”, hidden in plain view, survives the agriculture inspection and lives to grow another day.

After we have officially cleared in, we depart from the wharf (where are those linesmen we paid $85 for?) and head to Sam’s Tours aka Royal Belau Yacht Club. A welcome dinghy comes out to guide us to a mooring ball, we tie up, turn off the engine, and all breathe an enormous sigh of relief. Our log trip indicates we have come 1,097 nautical miles from Subic Bay, Philippines. Only 4668 nm to go.

November 1, 2011
UTC Time 07:30
Local Time 4:30 pm
Coordinates 7 20.36 N 134 27.09 E


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3 Responses to Threading A Coral Needle

  1. Marcia & Kurt Hanson says:

    Kathleen & John,
    Congratulations on safely completing the first leg of your journey and overcoming the clearly stressful steering failure at such a critical point.
    Best wishes on the remaining legs back home. Someday we hope to see you and Laysan in the PNW as our buddy-boat on the far less stressful Inside Passage to Alaska.

  2. Wendy Atherden says:

    I am having trouble procuring a cursor so this may be jumbled but congratulations that you all managed to navigate those reefs. Hope you feel fully rested before you start off again

  3. Laureen Blane says:

    Talk about stress! On a “razors edge” as the saying goes especially if you navigate the wrong way over the reef. So pleased that you are safe and anchoured for some (hopefully) R&R.
    Look forward to hearing about your adventures on Palau.
    Laureen and Colin

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