Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fun and Games at Agusta Island

I am way, way behind...wanted to hold off posting current adventures until I catch up, but I find myself getting further behind. And this adventure was too good to miss posting about.

We had a terrible night Tuesday night... On Monday we left our nice quiet beach and bird anchorage on the N coast of Batanta (00-46.74S / 130-44.86E) and were originally heading to another similar anchorage on the N coast, a little further west, just to explore. But the weather was sunny and settled-looking, with almost no wind, and Dave suggested we head for Agusta Island (south of the west end of Mansuar Island) and try to do a couple of days of diving. (We had previously tried to stop there in early July, but ended up with strong southerly unsettled weather, and had to bypass it).

The forecast was all over the place, so looking up in the sky, this seemed like a great idea. Since the resort wasn't expecting us, and the "mooring waypoint" that Peter on 2XS had given us was way offshore in deep water, we didn't see any mooring (at least none available). We motored close by the pier and saw at least one white person ashore, but nobody came out. So Dave launched the dinghy and went in to investigate. He found Marco, the owner, and a couple of guys cleaning the pool. They had just been too busy to come out on the pier to wave at us. But Marco was more than happy to move his biggest dive boat off the "big boat" mooring so we could hook up.

Fortunately, we had come as the ferocious current was starting to slack, so our first hour on the mooring was quite calm. And the wind was calm. Dave jumped in the water to take a look at the mooring and make sure it was strong enough. What he found was actually 2 mooring points with 2 uplines connected by one line between them. The one with the strongest looking was in such deep water that he couldn't snorkel to look at it, but figured that the other one was strong enough--a chain wrapped around a coral head and coming up on a fairly strong line. And in such benign conditions...

So we were happy until we noticed that the 2nd mooring ball the connecting line was going to cause a problem as we swung around--we have not one but two saildrives and props hanging down to foul on, not to mention 2 rudders. So we spent another hour messing around with the mooring situation. We finally tied both mooring balls together so they formed one mooring, and took all the extra lines hanging around and tied them up in a bundle, so there was nothing trailing that would get caught up in our undercarriage.

The next problem was that as the current slacked, the very light breeze behind us was pushing us ahead on the mooring, and the mooring line was long enough so that the bouy trailed back far enough that it and the associated bundle of lines could get fouled in our saildrives (which are pointing inward from the side of the hull, slanting down some, about halfway back along the hull). So we hooked our bridle line closer to the mooring ball itself and tied the unused line up into the bundle. All seemed well, and we went ashore and had a nice dinner with Marco. This is off-off-season and his wife Mara and admin assistant Melissa are both off-island, and there are currently no guests. So Marco was happy for company. We took in a nice bottle of wine and had a very good Neapolitan-style dinner in the restaurant.

The weather was benign overnight, with only one small sprinkle and a little extra wind that didn't last long. But neither of us slept well, perched on the edge of reef in essentially an open roadstead exposed to the south, with ripping E/W current changing direction every 6 hours.

The morning dawned with more typical conditions of this time of year. Overcast and a little wind from the west. They picked us up with the dive boat promptly at 8am. The main reason we had come to Agusta was to go dive on the WWII airplane wreck (a P47) nearby, but Marco said the conditions were not good for that dive. So we went instead and did 2 dives on the south coast of Mansuar (the big island to the north of Agusta). Each dive was in a bay protected from the WSW wind, where a village was--one village was named Yenbuba, but I never got the name of the 2nd village. It was near high tide and visiblity was fantastic. The fish life was fantastic. The soft and hard coral was fantastic. Another set of great dives. Marco offered us an afternoon dive or a night dive, but 2 dives a day is enough for us. But we did make plans for dinner.

I looked at the weather in the afternoon and told Dave that it was forecast to become more unsettled, and we should leave for a more protected anchorage. Note: there is no usable cell signal at Agusta, so we were mostly getting a spot forecast (text wind and rain forecast)--no satellite photo or anything more detailed was possible. All the weather in this area comes from 3 sources... Unsettled wx from tropical convergence zone flare-ups; Tropical weather passing north of us; Cold front remnants surging up from south of us. Most of the time the wind is less than 10 knots, but unsettled weather comes in the form of squally weather, with wind and rain. We ourselves have seen nothing over 25 knots in squalls, and they are not sustained, so it's all manageable. However, 25 knots opposing a 2-3 knot current gets pretty ugly pretty quickly.

It takes some expertise to read the spot forecasts here (a text table taken from a GRIB file for one particular lat/long). Since we have been in Raja Ampat, we have not seen any wind forecast to be over about 14 knots. The normal winds are "light and variable" -- 5 knots or less from varying directions. There is a column for rain in mm/hour. "Chance of rain" is indicated by a few tenths of mm in this column. "Strong chance of rain" is when there are rain indications in more than one of the 6 hour time slots in a day, and "Heavy Rain" is anything over about .5mm. Our forecast was showing Moderate Chance of Some Rain, plus wind to 11 knots out of the south. This doesn't seem like bad weather, but with experience, I knew that this is indicating fairly unsettled weather here, and with a southerly wind, could be bad conditions for staying at Agusta on the exposed south coast. Dave really wanted to stay another night and go dive on the airplane wreck on Weds, plus we were looking forward to another night of good food and pleasant company ashore. So he convinced me that I was being a "nervous Nellie" and we decided to stay.

Since we had complained about the mooring setup, Marco made a dive on our mooring after the current slacked in the afternoon. Apparently he hadn't taken a close look at that mooring (trusting someone else's word that it was strong). And its setup was fine for it's primary purpose--holding the biggest of his dive boats securely. When he looked at the chain around the coral head, he was aghast to find that the chain was broken. He said that chain was only 4 months old. (When Dave examined it, it looked like chrome-plated pot metal rather than good galvanized or stainless). So Marco cut the line fastened to the chain (unfortunately, we found out later when the current resumed, leaving the entire up-line still attached to our mooring). Since he was on SCUBA, he looked carefully at the second mooring, and said it was a "big anchor" and had no chain, but strong 1" line up to the mooring ball, and it was well set in the sand. So that was what we were hanging on--the one mooring, an anchor, out in deeper water.

We came back from another great dinner ashore and the current had picked back up. We noticed the long line trailing from our mooring back through the two hulls. We finally were able to fish the line out of the water and pull it up on deck, so there was no possibility of problems if we had to escape the mooring in the middle of the night. This was a lot harder work than it sounds--the current was ripping at 2-3 knots, and the line was big and had a build-up of algae and critters, including hand-cutting barnacles and shells. We ended up wet (it was raining) and stinky, but werew satisfied with the job we had done.

About midnight, we woke up with the boat pitching and the wind rising. The current was ripping 2-3 knots in a westerly direction and we had 15 knots of wind from the WSW. We checked the mooring and looked at our overall situation and decided that it would be difficult to leave under the conditions, and though we were uncomfortable, we were safe enough. One thing we did notice was that we were further out into the current than the previous night. When Marco had cut the connection to the inshore mooring, he had unwittingly set us up to hang out in faster current.

I was uncomfortable going to bed. If conditions deteriorated and we started dragging, our drag alarm wouldn't sound until maybe it was too late. (If you set the alarm close enough to wake you up immediately, it goes off falsely every time you swing). So I decided to stay up and watch things. I had the GPS on and set a waypoint "go to" for our current condition, which gave us distance away from that point in big numbers. We also had the AIS Anchor Watch feature on. I could easily see from the "snail trail" on the GPS that we were still sitting mostly where we had been the previous night.

The wind died off for a bit, and I almost went to bed, but it was still looking like heavy clouds to the west, so I decided to stay up a bit longer. A half hour later the wind and waves came up out of the west. We now had over 20 knots, opposing the 2-3 knots of current, so the waves were pretty big, and the forces on the mooring buoy enormous. I checked the GPS and noticed that we were now showing that we were 20 feet from the waypoint I had dropped. A few minutes later, that went to 50 ft. The mooring was dragging slowly. Fortunately it was dragging away from the reef, into deeper water. I went to wake Dave up. By the time Dave got assembled (headlamps and tools he needed to drop the mooring), and we talked about what we could do...(If we drop the mooring, where would we go?) the distance had increased to 75 ft. We were definitely dragging and it wasn't likely to stop. I got the engines started, and Dave got the bridle unshackled quickly--we were going to leave our expensive hook and bridle attached to the mooring because there was no way under the conditions to get it unfastened from the mooring. Then we started really moving... toward the resort pier behind us. So Dave cast off our bridle from the bow, and we prayed that we'd drift far enough away, without drifting onto the reef, so that we could engage the engines without tangling in the big ball of crappy line that was bundled up around the mooring balls. Neither one of us could see where the mooring went, but I gingerly gunned the engines to get us heading offshore, and we were free!!

My first instinct was to head for Freiwin, about 13 miles away, as the crow flies. We had been there long enough to know it would be protected enough in these conditions, and we had good tracks to get us there safely in the dark. Anchoring nearby was out, because the islands and reefs are so steep-to in this area that there was no way we could find a safe anchorage in the dark, on the other side of the island that we hadn't even seen before. So we started motoring east toward Friwen. We figured at 6 knots we'd be there in 2 hours, and still get a decent night's sleep. Not so... we forgot we would be bucking 2-3 knots of current, and adding the dog-leg around Cape Kris increased the distance.

When we checked our ETA after a half hour we found that boat speed was down to 2-3 knots and we wouldn't get to Friwen until well after daylight!! And we still needed to come back to Agusta and retrieve our mooring line and our dive gear, and pay our bill. Next idea was to "heave to", but with the extensive reefs and islands nearby and the current going at 2-3 knots, that wouldn't work either (plus, we haven't quite figured out how to heave to in our catamaran yet). Finally, we decided to sail around a bit, staying close to Agusta so we could easily get back there in the morning.

We ended up putting just enough jib out to sail with the autopilot on. Since the wind was opposite the current, we set up to sail "up current" so we wouldn't go very far. The wind had started to abate almost the minute we dropped off the mooring (of course!). With light shifty winds, I eventually got things stabilized with just enough speed so the autopilot would hold the course, and we were drifting in nearly a straight line backward towards Agusta! I sent Dave to bed to get some sleep, and had fun playing with the sails and current until dawn. By 6:30am, it was light, the current was slacking, and we were nearing the resort again. I woke Dave up to go retrieve our bridle from the mooring, and then go in to retrieve our dive gear, pay our bill, and say goodbye to Marco. I commenced sailing again as soon as Dave was away in the dinghy, staying within a mile or two of the resort.

Marco was really upset about our ordeal and apologetic about the mooring. He offered to move his dive boat and put us on his other strong mooring, and insisted that we go ahead with the plan to go diving with him again that day. But while Dave was ashore, I picked up another forecast which predicted the same squally weather would persist for the next 2 days. I was NOT going back on another lee shore mooring under those conditions, no matter what. I encouraged Dave to go ahead and do the dive on the airplane wreck. I knew how much he wanted to do it (and how much Marco wanted to show it to him). It was the primary reason we were there. I could keep sailing around for a couple of more hours while they did the dive.

I had envisioned setting the sails, letting the autopilot steer, and reading my book. But the weather conditions and the current was so changeable, that as soon as I got the boat on a safe course, something would change and we'd be heading for a reef or island again. And our actual direction wasn't apparent from looking at where the boat was headed, I needed to jump up and check the course on the computer. I didn't get much reading done, and I barely was able to fix breakfast. And it was raining--half the time I couldn't even see the nearby islands (and their attached reefs). But I did get a good bit of practice handling the boat single-handed. And Dave got to go see his airplane wreck, which he said was a fantastic dive (of course).

We eventually stayed long enough for Dave to help/oversee resetting the mooring (with Marco's guys doing the work), and for our gear to get rinsed, and to pay the bill. With me (increasingly impatient) still out sailing around. Marco tried one last time to get us to stay another night, or even just for lunch "now that the mooring is re-set". But I wasn't having any of it. We needed to get going ASAP to get back to a safe quiet anchorage on Batanta, about 3-4 hours south of us. And after 12 hours on the helm, I was getting a wee bit tired.

So we left Marco, with apologies (he's really a great guy, and we plan to go back next year with more settled weather). We decided to go back to the anchorage we had left at Birie Island, on the north coast of Batanta, arriving at 4pm. The spitting rain finally stopped just as we anchored, and we had a quiet and restful night last night.
At 7/27/2016 7:10 AM (utc) our position was 00°46.74'S 130°44.86'E (Birie Island, N coast of Batanta)

Friday, July 15, 2016

Diving the Famous Raja Ampat Dive Sites

We spent nearly a month anchored off the tiny island of Friwen (Freiwin), and this anchorage ended up being our favorite place in the Waisai area, for these reasons:

• Internet access (fairly reliable but slow 2G signal)
• Cute village nearby, but not aggressive
• Good diving nearby
• Close enough to Waisai to make a day trip for groceries
• Good holding (though deep) and good protection in most weather
• Friendly dive resort nearby
• Easy in and out, could even anchor at night

Anchored Off the Friwen Pier

We probably spent about 30 nights anchored off the north coast of Friwen in June and July. Our general anchorage spot was in 22 meters at 00-28.174 S / 131-41.564 E. We never dove the spot, but one day we had glassy conditions and we could see the bottom clearly. Nice flat sand, good holding. If we stayed far enough east, we could pick up a weak cell signal from Waisai.

The village was clean and neat and friendly. We enjoyed watching the locals fishing off the pier when the fish were running. (They asked us not to scuba dive under their pier, for fear we would scare off their fish).
The Villagers Fishing from their Pier

Just One Group of the Many Visitors from the Village

For diving, we went over and talked to the Biodiversity Eco Resort, a 5 minute dinghy ride across to the SE end of Gam. We negotiated some excellent offseason rates for diving, and made 22 dives with them. They have an excellent dive operation, and a nice small resort (max 14 guests). We went in for dinner several times by prior arrangement ($15 USD pp per dinner), and found the food always good.
The Quaint Biodiversity Resort Sign

They may not be as welcoming during high season, as they are a small operation, and if their rooms are full their boats may be full. But it is worth making contact to see if they could accommodate you for a few dives. Having some flexibility in your schedule would help. They go to all the same dive sites everyone else does, and there are no other locations that we know of that have such a protected anchorage from both northerly and southerly winds.

Of course, the diving was spectacular!
100% Live Coral!

Crocodile Fish

Rush Hour at Cape Kris

Dave Taking Pics of a Nudibranch

We not only enjoyed diving with them, but formed lasting friendships with several of the guests staying at the resort. The night before they left, we had them out on Soggy Paws for sundowners.
Having Fun During a Surface Interval

A Visit to Soggy Paws

If you want to dive the area on your own, a number of good dive spots are within dinghy distance, including Batu Lima and Friwin Bonda (in the Bird's Head Seascape book) and Fernando’s Spot, off the NE end of Friwin. With a big dinghy you could also easily do Mike’s Point (also in the book).

We did several dives out in the Straits from a cruising boat (a friend’s catamaran). We would either have a non-diver drive the boat while we were down, or do “two up, two down”. It’s impossible to do the Cape Kri, Sardines, and Blue Magic dives without a surface boat, because of the ripping currents.

Bird of Paradise Tours: Simon is still doing the Bird of Paradise tours. He, Martin, and Martin’s wife Nellie are related somehow. They all live in the small village that is due north of the Friwen anchorage.

When we were there with 4 catamarans in May, Martin’s wife Nellie (who speaks good English) came out with Simon (who does not) and told us the price was 300K IDR per person. We couldn’t budge her down from that price, even with a group of 5 people. Though we did get her to throw in breakfast at here homestay afterward. We went anyway, and it was well worth it. Nellie’s and Martin’s number is 0821 9982 4610 See our blog post on that here:

However, another time we anchored there later, Simon, not recognizing us, approached us by himself and offered the same tour (without breakfast) for 200K IDR. Simon’s direct contact numbers are: 0812 4794 1013 or 0823 9848 3683 But his English is almost non-existent. Text message in Google Translate/Bahasa Indonesian would probably be the best way to contact him.

Make sure you synchronize your clocks with Simon’s—he showed up a half an hour early on one morning—his clock was off that much. We asked Nellie when we were eating breakfast whether she could make dinner for us by pre-arrangement some night (yes) and also would consider doing laundry. We never followed up on either of those, however.