Thursday, June 27, 2013

Diving in North Kwajalein - Part 2

In the week or so that we were in the Roi-Namur area of Kwajalein, we managed to do 8 wreck dives. "A week of diving and you only made 8 dives!?" you say. Yes, it's quite a process to make a pair of dives.

First, there's the motor down to the dive area, and get the dive gear set up and loaded into the dinghies (about an hour and a half to two hours).

The real challenge is motoring out in the dinghies to the dive site (marked accurately, we hope, by a GPS waypoint) and getting an anchor set. For safety's sake, we always try to take more than one dinghy. All our dinghies are of a size that 4 people with dive gear would be too cramped, so we ended up 2 by 2 in sometimes 3 dinghies.

Most of the airplane wrecks are in water over 100 feet deep. We could have chosen to "live boat" the dive in pairs (where one pair stays on the surface with the dinghies and the other goes down, and then switch off). But instead, Westward II volunteered to drop their big (for a dinghy) Danforth anchor with 250 feet of heavy polypropylene line on it. So the procedure we used was this. Dave and I would take the GPS and try to sit as still as possible over the waypoint in our dinghy, and Stephen and Selena from Westward II would motor upwind in their dinghy and drop the anchor, with the idea that they'd end up right over the waypoint when they dropped back on the anchor. It mostly worked. Once the anchor was set, we would then tie (with 2 separate lines) to the back of Westward II's dinghy. When Jerry on Challenger was with us, sometimes he would set his (smaller) Danforth anchor, and then tie up as well. None of us wanted to surface and find one or more $5,000 dinghies gone, so redundancy was the name of the game.

Soggy Paws' dive anchor is an inadequate (for this kind of diving) folding claw-type anchor, that we usually hand-set in a good spot. We would drop this straight down to hang just off the bottom (so it wouldn't get snagged on anything) to use as a marker as to where the dinghies actually were.

So figure another hour to get out to the dive site, anchors set, dinghies rafted up, gear on, and in the water ready to descend.

With the water over 100 feet deep, and visibility only about 40-50 feet, we couldn't tell from the surface whether we were in the right spot. At least once we went on a dive and never saw the airplane we were supposed to be diving on. That one was a big one--it's hard to miss a C-46 cargo plane!! Visibility was not that great that day, and we were using a vector from another airplane. We turned around too soon, but Steve and Selena kept going and found it OK, with only minutes to spare on their bottom time.

But most of the time, the waypoint was accurate enough, and our navigational skills good enough, that we found what we were looking for fairly quickly. Several times we even found "extra airplanes". Basically, there are airplanes strewn all over on the bottom in that area, so it's unlikely to go down and NOT find any airplanes at all.

That said, here is what we managed to see in our 8 dives:

1. Japanese Zero - shot down in Feb 1944 during the Battle of Kwajalein
2. 4 SBD dive bombers (we actually saw 6 on this dive).
3. F4U Corsair (there were a couple of SBD's around the F4U as well)
4. B-25 twin engine bomber
5. C-46 twin engine cargo plane (we didn't find it, but Westward II did)
6. 13 SBD's (we stopped counting at about 7 or 8, but there were "planes everywhere")
7. The "Sand Island Wreck", an old wooden German freighter
8. Japanese Ship Eiko Maru #2 - sunk in Jan/Feb 1944

Plus of course, the two airplanes side-by-side in 25-35' feet, half buried in the sand, right next to where we anchored.

For the wrecks in 100+ feet of water, our bottom time is limited to about 10-15 minutes. We all have dive computers that tell us when we must start ascending to stay within the "no decompression" dive tables. Then we have to ascend slowly and stop at around 20 feet for 5 minutes to let the nitrogen slowly release from our tissues before surfacing. This is called a "safety stop". So total dive time is usually around 25 minutes.

Then--almost as hard a time as getting the anchor down, is pulling the anchor by hand in 100 feet of water. Even though we checked it just before we started our ascent, to make sure it would come free easily, at least once the anchor got stuck on something on the bottom, and we had to leave a buoy on it, and come back later to dive down and free it up.

With such deep dives, we needed to spend 2 hours on the surface to "off-gas" the nitrogen before we did another dive. Lunch time!! So by the time we finished our 2nd dive, it would be about 4:30 and time to head for the anchorage again. Some days we only got one dive in--mostly because of weather issues (wind or squalls).

When they scrapped these planes, they just pushed them off a barge into deep water, and many of them landed nose-down. The SBD's were obsolete and already superseded by the Helldiver, by the end of the war, that's why there are so many of them on the bottom here.

It was pretty cool. We took lots of pictures. We hope to share them with you some day soon! In the meantime, the two dive sites I listed in the previous post have some pictures of some of the planes.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Diving in North Kwajalein - Part 1

We have been up at the north end of Kwaj for about 10 days now. The first couple of days, the wind was blowing so hard, it was not possible to go out into the atoll and dive the wrecks.

We did manage to sneak in a dive in on the Japanese Zero the first afternoon we arrived. It is in about 60 feet, just off the entrance channel to the Roi Base area. It was close enough that we went by dinghies when the wind eased off to 15-17 knots for a few hours. We took pictures, but unfortunately, we do not have internet here, so we can't share them.

For you armchair divers and future Marshalls divers, the best place to start following along with us (and get waypoints) is at the Kwajalein Scuba Club website. They have done a really good job of listing information about all the known wrecks within Kwajalein Atoll. Sometimes they also cross link to Dave Fortin's excellent website, which has a wreck page for each known wreck. Unfortunately, Dave Fortin was based at the south end of the atoll, so his info on the Roi area wrecks is a little thin, but he does have pictures of some of them.

Even though Roi-Namur is a restricted military base, part of the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Range, we were told we could go right up into the anchorage area (200 feet from the beach on the base). When the wind is blowing out of the ENE (the normal direction), this anchorage is scenic and reasonably protected. Nice sand bottom in about 20 feet. The closer you tuck in to the generators, the more protected you are. There was already one cruising boat here, plus a Roi-based boat on a mooring, but we still managed to get 3 more 40+ boats up in the anchorage. But Opus, the first boat, definitely had the best spot. If the wind picks up, or shifts further south than about 080 degrees, you end up with a nasty chop in the anchorage.

We were anchored right off this beautiful beach lined with palm trees, but could not go ashore. However, we found that we COULD go ashore on what's known as the Yokahama Pier--the pier about quarter mile east--where the ferry and the small boats come and go from. What's more, we found that there, we could use the washing machines, shop at the little store (Tue-Thur-Sat), get water in jugs, buy ice, and sometimes buy diesel/gasoline. This is all in a gated compound at the base of the pier. It is there for the use of the Marshallese that live on "3rd Island" (proper name Ennubirr). Our anchorage spot: 09-20.17N / 167-20.35E

With the wind forecast to blow 18-20 knots for a couple of days, there was no reason to stay in the Roi-Namur base anchorage (and several reasons to leave). So our little group (Westward II, Challenger, and Soggy Paws) moved down to the island known locally as 6th Island. It's proper name is Edgigen, but since no one is sure how to pronounce it properly, everyone just calls it 6th Island.

We are not sure why this is the most popular local anchorage, other than it is 4 miles from the base and the giant radar there, well protected from ENE to ESE, is uninhabited, and has a nice sandy beach, which we CAN go ashore on. There are several islands between the base and 6th island which look also reasonably protected.

3rd Island, where the Marshalese workers live, like Ebeye, is densely populated with Marshalese. The ferry from Roi-Namur runs back and forth daily between the base and 3rd Island, bringing workers to the base. And bringing their wives/girlfriends, etc (free) to the little compound to do the laundry, shop, and hang out.

We hung out at 6th Island for a few days, waiting for the wind to die down. We dove a few of the bommies that are very close--and marked with white "isolated danger" bouys. These coral mounds typically come up from the bottom of the lagoon (90-120 feet deep) to where they are usually visible from the surface (and Google Earth). Some are as shallow as 5 feet at the top, others come up to 25 feet. The bommies close in to the eastern edge of the atoll make good foul-weather dive spots, especially on a rising tide, when the clear water outside the atoll is pouring in. However, the coral growth varies--some better than others--and the fish life is minimal. In 3 or 4 dives, we only saw one or two sharks and almost no big fish. We did see a number of turtles, however.

We did a little beachcombing on 6th Island. Dave and I walked in the shallows around the north end of the island, and found some WWII-era debris. We couldn't identify the one large metal object--maybe something from a landing craft from the assault on Kwajalein in Feb 1944, but we did find the heavy bronze end cap from a 5" shell, and some bullets and other bits of debris. Stephen on Westward II said he found similar stuff around the south end of the island. Anyone interested in a short summary of the Battle of Kwajalein should check Wikipedia.

We also had a nice evening ashore on 6th Island, having a barbecue on the beach (and burning our paper trash).

Finally the wind started easing off so we could dive the airplane wrecks that are mostly located on the inner western edge of the atoll, a few miles south of Roi-Namur. Looking at Google Earth, we spied a narrow sand ledge close to the first wrecks we wanted to dive. These turned out to be a decent anchorage in mild conditions, only 2.5 miles from Roi Namur and 3 miles from 6th Island. So for a few days, we did a daily "commute" to the dive area in our sailboats. Our anchor spot was at 09-21.088N / 167-26.409E, dropping the anchor in about 30-45 feet, in sand, on an upslope, and hanging back in about 15 feet sand, with the reef only 100 yards behind us. Challenger and Westward II anchored about 50 yards either side of us. With winds LESS than 15 knots, this is OK as a day anchorage only. If the wind gets up higher, it's quite unnerving being there, backed up to the reef. And at least one day, we waved off from anchoring there when the winds ended up a couple knots higher than the forecast. Needless to say, we all backed down hard and snorkeled our anchors before we left to go diving in the dinghies.

As we went to drop our anchor, Dave said "we can't drop here, there's a coral head". So we edge a boat-length right and dropped. When I went out to snorkel our anchor, I discovered the "coral head" was actually 2 airplanes, side-by-side facing up the sand bank in about 25-35 feet of water. These were not on any waypoint list we had, and were there first of 3 or 4 "new" airplane wrecks we discovered. These would make very good hookah-depth dives or novice diver dives--assuming the don't get covered up periodically by sand.

Only one of the airplane wrecks in the Roi area (the Zero), that we know of, are actual WWII downed planes. Most of those in the "airplane graveyard" are ones discarded by U.S. forces, after the end of the war. After capturing Kwajalein in January 1944, the U.S. set up an airfield and a maintenance facility on Roi-Namur. We could tell the 2 planes we found were discarded planes, as they had an airplane prop sitting in the cockpit, rather than out front where it belongs.

This is getting long... and it's time to go diving again (a nice sunny day)... I'm going to send this off and continue with our diving in Part 2.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Another stop in Candyland

We spent Friday night anchored off Ebeye, to socialize with Westward II. They had been stuck in Kwaj while we were in Bikini, to deal with their broken prop. The day we arrived, a new prop was winging it's way via DHL from Canada to Ebeye. Stephen was tracking the progress via the internet on an hourly basis. Turns out it went via Seoul, Korea and Hong Kong, but did arrive in Kwaj and get delivered to them at the wharf on Ebeye by the Ebeye postmaster.

On Saturday morning we pulled into Kwaj Base (about 3 miles south of Ebeye), on another sponsored visit by Rick and Sue from s/v Panacea, who are working in Kwaj. We were again greeted on the dock by the security team, complete with a very eager drug-sniffing dog. But this time we knew the drill and a friendly security guy handed us our badges and we were done.

We were dismayed to find that a few days previously, Rick had severely injured his bicep (while cleaning up Panacea after their trip back from Bikini), and was in Hawaii waiting for surgery. Sue was planning on flying to Honolulu to be with him for the surgery, on the next flight out (Tues). This meant we'd have to check out of the base before Sue left. But Geoff, one of the Panacea crew on trip to Bikini, agreed to pick up the sponsorship for our visit.

We had a busy few days at USAKA (US Army Kwajalein Atoll) pronounced "you-saka" by the residents.

- A few good meals at the Louis Zamperini Dining Hall ($7 all you can eat meals)
- A Burger King meal and a pizza meal at the Food Court
- A windy day of diving wrecks (Asakaze Maru and Prinz Eugen) using a boat hired from Ebeye
- A nice meal aboard Soggy Paws for Sue and Geoff, and exchanging photos of our Bikini trip
- A day trip to USAKA by Stephen and Selena on Westward II, to buy SCUBA gear and eat pizza
- Stocking up at the Shopette, the tiny Exchange, and the Surfway grocery store.
- Trying to catch up and get ahead on our internet banking, etc
- Checking out the mooring we plan to use when we leave Soggy Paws in Oct/Nov
- Topping off our water tanks
- Repairing the leaky closed chocks

The short term plan is for us to spend about 2 months "out island", so I needed to get caught up from our 2-3 weeks away, and then get 2 months ahead on paying bills, and managing tenants at our rental. Dave thinks I'm just doing Facebook when I'm on the internet, but he has no idea how much time it takes to stay on top of our finances and rentals (he hasn't written a check or looked at bill in 7 years). Plus of course, there's the SSCA correspondence, personal correspondence, and keeping track of where our cruising friends are.

For such a high-tech base, the internet situation is ridiculous, and is the only serious downside to being in the base area. Out at Ebeye, only 3 miles away, the Marshall Islands Telco has great wifi at not-too-bad speed. But on base, wifi is probably seen as a serious security risk. So the only wifi available is in the Food Court, and I can't pick it up on the boat. So we have to lug our laptops into the Food Court to get internet. In the off-meal hours, there are more people in the Food Court doing internet than there are eating.

Other than the Food Court, residents get their internet in their quarters by... *gasp* ...dialup!!. Yes, the antiquated dailup system has not been replaced by cable internet like the rest of the United States. It's not that the internet pipe isn't available. There is super high speed internet available on base for work-related purposes--however, there are serious restrictions on using the work network for personal use.

Because we are not residents of the base, we cannot shop at the Surfway grocery store by ourselves. I had to get Geoff to escort me through the checkout line and use his ID. But we could shop at the Shopette (a kind of convenience store/liquor store) and the tiny Exchange using our retired military ID card...this quirk is probably because the government subsidizes one store and the contractors subsidize the other store. (I believe the numbers of people on base are about 20 true U.S. Army personnel and about 2,000 contractors).

Fortunately, we had done a huge restocking in Majuro, so I only needed a few things, plus the fresh fruits and veggies. The base gets a weekly flight with fresh veggies from Hawaii, so it's pretty fresh. (In contrast, Ebeye, a few miles away, is restocked by ship from Guam every 2 weeks). At least on the base, we didn't have to schlep our groceries by hand back to the base.

Transportation on the base is interesting. There are only a few official cars. Everyone else gets around on "beach cruiser" bicycles. Almost every bike has a good sized basket on the handles or a pair over the rear wheel. For big things, people have bicycle carts (like modified dock carts). For even bigger things, you borrow a car or rent a golf cart with a small truck bed for a couple of hours. Some people have carts modified to suit their special purpose... some have dive tank racks built in, some have fishing pole holders built in, and some are made for kids or animals.

Since there is no ATM on Ebeye, Challenger and Westward II handed us their debit cards to get some cash for them. We left the base with our pockets bulging!

Dave spent some time with Geoff, working on Panacea's alternator and starter (had gotten wet with salt water and quit working on their trip back from Bikini). They didn't manage to get either one working, but got them off the engine, thoroughly doused with Corrosion X, and boxed up and sent to Hawaii to be rebuilt.

When Sue left to join Rick in Honolulu, she left us the key to their quarters, and Dave and I spent two pleasant evenings hanging there--hot showers, air conditioning, and Armed Forces Network TV!!

We finally pulled out of USAKA on Wednesday, June 10, and joined our friends on Challenger, Westward II, and Trigger, anchored off Ebeye.

Back to Kwajalein

We finally left Bikini on June 5. The wind wasn't perfect for a sail back to Kwaj, but it was as good as it was going to get. The wind had shifted towards the north another 5 degrees and dropped a few knots (065 deg at about 17 knots). We waited an extra day to let the seas go down some, but it wasn't enough. And if we waited any longer, we'd find the wind strengthening again.

We left Enyu, the southern island at Bikini, about 2pm, in company with Challenger. We had hoped to be able to make the course for Roi Namur at the NE end of Kwajalein atoll. But when we got out there and saw the huge seas, we opted for the easier course--to go west around the NW tip of Kwaj, and down "the back side". This allowed us to sail on a close reach rather than hard on the wind, and was a much more comfortable course.

The first afternoon and evening was pretty nasty. We were close-hauled in fairly high winds (18-22kts across the deck) and big seas, so the leeward deck was aslosh with water pretty much all the time. We had a double-reefed mainsail, the staysail, and a tiny bit of genoa out--trying to find a speed that didn't pound into the seas too much.

Our closed chock on the leeward side, which is sealed into the deck with caulking, sprang a leak and was draining salt water into our dish cupboard. This has always been a leaky spot for us, and we have a bowl strategically placed in that cupboard to catch drips. But this cereal bowl wasn't cutting it in these conditions. I noticed water dribbling out of the cupboard underneath the sink and investigated. The area under the sink was aslosh too. So we put a big tupperware box under the leak in the cupboard, and checked it and under the sink every 30 minutes, bailing if necessary. And of course, picture this with the boat heeled 15-20 degrees and getting tossed around in the big waves. And of course, it was while I was trying to cook dinner also... Not fun.

But, on the other hand, we were happy it wasn't happening on the other tack, as that closed chock drains into a bunch of electronics (our nav station, etc).

By dawn the next morning, the wind had moderated some, and we eased out a bit more sail. We could make 6.5 knots comfortably, and were going to round the NW tip of Kwaj before sunset. Most of the afternoon we were only seeing 15-18 knots across the deck.

Once we rounded the corner, we needed to harden up (sail closer to the wind) to stay close in sailing down the in the lee of Kwajalein. We had a fairly pleasant dinner, sailing on the level, no seas, and making our course. But through the 2nd night, the wind dropped and shifted back east, until about 4am, Dave gave up sailing and started the engine.

We motored in through South Pass about 8am, and were at anchor off the island/town of Ebeye, next to our friends on Westward II by mid-day on Friday, June 7.
Sherry & Dave
In the Marshall Islands for the summer.

At 06/14/2013 10:18 PM (utc) our position was 09°20.17'N 167°30.35'E

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Enjoying Bikini Atoll

We arrived at Bikini Atoll several hours behind our friends on Panacea, but still having had the best 24 hour run on Soggy Paws ever. Our noon-to-noon run was 160 nautical miles, or an average of 6.7 knots. The fast run was due to perfect winds--just ahead of the beam--at perfect speed--12-14 knots--and maybe a little current helping out. Also, we were trying to make sure we made it before sunset on the 2nd day, so kept our speed up more than normal.

We arrived in plenty of time to sail all the way up to Bikini Island, in the NE corner of the atoll, and anchor next to our friends on s/v Challenger (arrived a couple of days before) and Panacea (arrived a couple of hours before).

The next morning, we went in with the guys from Panacea and presented our permit for Bikini to the guy in charge. There are only about 6 people at Bikini Atoll... a couple of guys working for the U.S. Department of Energy, monitoring radiation and other projects, and a couple of guys representing the Bikini Council--making sure that visitors check in and obey the rules.

The guy in charge, Nario, a Filipino hired by the Bikini Council, took our Bikini permit, and after we talked with him for a few minutes, handed us the keys to the utility truck, so we could do a self-tour around the island. There are roads (check it out on Google Earth) all the way around the Bikini Island. Rick from Panacea drove (pics to follow, sometime), with Dave as "shotgun" and me and Blair and Geoff, crew on Panacea, hanging out on the benches in the back.

We also met the crew of s/v Trigger, a South African catamaran, who was ashore doing some repair work on a computer in the compound.

We had a great time touring around the island--stopping at viewpoints and trying to imagine what it was like when 40,000 U.S. personnel were on Bikini for Operation Crossroads.

For those who don't know... Bikini Atoll was the site for several Atomic Bomb tests, starting in 1946--less than a year after the 2 atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. The purpose of the testing was to assess what an atomic bomb could do to Navy ships, and also to flex our atomic muscles a little--for the rest of the world. For Operation Crossroads, the Navy moored about 20 ships in a tight group in Bikini Lagoon, and then (a) dropped an atomic bomb from an airplane and (b) detonated an atomic bomb under the water (in two different tests). For the tests, there were all kinds of instrumentation on the "target" ships, as well as on mooored barges nearby and also ashore on the land areas surrounding the lagoon. There were also test animals (pigs, goats, sheep) placed on the target ships to assess what might happen to personnel aboard ships.

In the end, about 10 large ships were actually sunk and remain on the bottom of Bikini Lagoon--the most famous being the Aircraft Carrier Saratoga, and the Japanese Battleship the Nagato.

In 1989, Dave, as part of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 in Hawaii, took part in a large operation headed by the U.S. National Park Service, to locate the wrecks and document their status. The idea was to give the displaced Bikinians a trade that would take them off the American dole--dive tourism. The Navy located the ships, the U.S. Park Service documented them, and (within a couple of years) a "dive hotel" was set up on Bikini Island. (picture millions of U.S. dollars expended here). If you're interested in reading about this (both the testing, and the effort to re-find the ships), find a copy of Ghost Fleet by Jim Delgado (Dave is mentioned in this book several times).

This Dive Bikini operation was moderately successful for a few years, but in 2007, "Air Marshall Islands" folded--their last plane being unflyable--leaving a group of dive tourists stranded on Bikini for over 2 weeks. Since then, the only way to dive Bikini Lagoon is via a live-aboard ($$$) dive boat. And the rules are such, that, even when we show up in a private boat in Bikini, it is prohibitively expensive to dive here. The current rules require us to bring with us 2 Marshalese "Bikini representatives", pay their salary and expenses, AND pay $100 per person per day to dive the wrecks, plus we must have a Recompression Chamber and Oxygen with us. Ridiculous requirements for a low-budget cruiser.

So we are here NOT diving the wrecks--this time. We've been working with a couple of other dive-mad cruising boats to hook up with the liveaboard dive boat, the M/V Windward, when they are here in Bikini in June and July. We are still working out the details, but it looks like it might be possible for us to make a few dives with them (we still haven't worked out the price, however). Diving these wrecks can be very challenging... they are very deep--most of them are way over the Open Water Diver limit of 60 feet, and even over the Advanced Open Water Diver limit of 120 feet. Many of the divers who spend in the neighborhood of $10,000 to come dive here on the Windward, are advanced "tech" divers, diving tri-mix gas and rebreathers. We're not doing that. (see this link:

So, what have we been doing all this time?? We have done a lot of looking around the Operation Crossroads bunkers and old structures. We've also spent some time looking around the newer structures built for the dive tourism operation (now mostly abandoned). We've been beachcombing--looking for Japanese glass balls on the beach (we found 2 baseball sized ones, and LOTS of plastic bouys). We've been lobstering (Dave and I got 11 lobster, threw back 3 females, and ended up with 8--the whole rest of the group got 4 between them)... walking in the shallow water a low tide on the windward reef with headlamps, nets and tickle sticks. We've done a lot of "bommie" diving--on the coral heads scattered around the lagoon. Jerry and Ulyana on Challenger spent quite a bit of time hanging out with the caretakers at Bikini Island, playing pool in the rec room.

Panacea only had a week's vacation, and they left yesterday to bash their way to windward back to Kwajalein. We think the weather is a bit too boisterous, and so we're going to wait here a few days for the wind to swing more NE and calm down a little.
Sherry & Dave
In the Marshall Islands for the summer.

At 06/02/2013 8:08 AM (utc) our position was 11°36.73'N 165°33.00'E