Thursday, April 26, 2007

Delightful pitstop in Lan Yu, Taiwan

Lan Yu, Taiwan (Orchid Island)

The northeast monsoon, which has not been very strong this year, was waning and we were beginning to see the transition conditions which marked the switch to the southwest monsoon and the beginning of typhoon season in Asia. We figured that typhoons would come early this year since the northwest monsoon had been weak. We were getting anxious to leave the Philippines, which we'd found to be an often frustrating place to sail, and were getting excited to explore as much of Japan as we could during what should be a short season. So we began working our way north, sailing along the coast of Luzon, continually watching the weather to determine whether to stop along the way to wait for more favorable conditions or to make the run across the notorious Bashi Channel, which significant tide rips and gales can make for boisterous sailing. With winds behind us and pretty flat water we had a pleasant sail and were relieved to make it across this channel between Taiwan and the Philippines without incident, a much easier sail than many we'd encountered along the Philippine coast. We crossed our inbound track to Hong Kong from the Pacific Ocean, one year ago to the day, which we made during last year's transition between the Northeast and Southwest Monsoon. As we neared the northern reaches of the Bashi Channel, near Taiwan, the light southwesterly wind shifted forward and the weather fax showed a low pressure system in Japan and adverse gale force winds north of our position. Friends who have sailed this route, told us of a tiny island 33 miles east of Taiwan where we might be able to stop if we needed. Once we made the decision to try stopping in Lan Yu to wait for more favorable conditions to continue to Japan, the winds built and we were flying at 7-8 knots towards that low to the north of us. To make landfall at Lan Yu during daylight, we needed to slow down the boat, which goes against all our natural inclinations, particularly as racers who like to push our boat to its capabilities. We didn't want to slow down too early and find ourselves still in the most dangerous part of the Bashi Channel in changing conditions, yet we needed to slow down early enough that we wouldn't sail past the island in the night and have to beat back. A current was carrying us north an extra 2 knots, initially with a westerly set near the south part of the Bashi Channel and then an easterly set near the northern part. After dropping the jib and reefing the main down to the 3rd reef and some poor sail trimming, we were able to slow the boat down from 7-8 knots to 2.5 - so we could arrive at 8am rather than midnight under the prevailing wind conditions. The gamble is always whether conditions will remain the same. But the wind died with the dawn (of course), so I shook out all the reefs and put the jib back up and struggled to make progress. We had insufficient wind to counter very mixed seas for a frustrating hour or so, but the wind finally returned and we resumed our progress towards Lan Yu for a morning landfall. I still couldn't see any land only 8 miles away as Garth came on watch at 8am in low cloud cover. While Garth kept vigil and I caught a little more sleep he faced some serious tide rips along the southern tip of the island. The chart wasn't kidding!

As Garth neared the island, he woke me to help navigate into this place for which we had no detailed chart nor much information. We took down the sails and motored for what we'd heard was a hidden entrance along the west side of the island. We poked our way along the rugged coastline trying not to get too close in the surge while trying to figure out where this entrance was. We came close to transiting between a rocky islet and an impressive breakwater but backed our way out as the depths decreased and the area narrowed beyond our comfort. People sitting along the breakwater declined to return our wave and we raised no reply on the radio. Fishing boats in the vicinity paid us no attention. We came around on the other side of the islet and found a wider entry into what was evidently a port. As we came in closer we saw what looked like an empty wharf, but was more like a small concrete box open to the surge. Garth immediately dubbed it "a death trap" even in the calm conditions we had and switched into reverse gear. Okay, time to stop and regroup: Our cruising friends wouldn't be speaking so favorably of what we could see, so there had to be another option. So we ventured back around the islet but went in a little closer into the beach thinking maybe an entrance was on the opposite side of the breakwater that we'd seen. We approached slowly, watching the depths closely, prepared to back out yet again if necessary. As we got uncomfortably close, we saw that there was really an opening into a protected, though small harbor with fishing boats moored alongside. The harbor housed a mixture of small open fishing boats with outboards, a couple of larger western style fishing boats and numerous but unusual squarish, flat bottomed fishing boats: rafts made out of big plastic pipes, with deck and small cabin lashed to the top with lifting propellers and rudders for beaching. We made our way in slowly, hoping someone would jesture us to an area where we could tie up. Sure enough, someone did encourage us to tie alongside a raft up of 4 flat bottomed fishing boats. A group of 3 people in orange suits then joined the one who first waved us over, and despite appearing as though they were inmates from the penitentiary were actually officers of the Taiwanese Coast Guard.

After some discussion in broken English about why we were stopping here, the officers asked for our passports and boat documentation and then passed us 3 boxes containing 36 2 liter bottles of water from the fishing boat alongside so we could top up our water. (We felt guilty generating all that plastic waste when we've found tap water to be perfectly adequate nearly everywhere we've traveled, as long as we add a teaspoon of Chlorine for every 10 gallons to kill anything that might jeopardize our digestive systems.) Then they told us to wait while some of them left with our passports and boat documentation. Before we could put the boat away, they encouraged us to come ashore to have some lunch. We were conscious of how sweaty and stinky we were, still in our filthy passagemaking clothes and salty from being doused with waves. So we quickly changed and then climbed over 4 grubby fishing boats and climbed up a 10 foot seawall, grasping at tires and lines to raise our bodies to the altitude of the wharf. They escorted us up some steps past a group of goats to a building where they apologised profusely for their limited English language abilities and inconveniencing us as they posed the standard questions that we answer every time we check into a country: Boat description particulars: Type, length, tonnage, hailing port and documentation number, departure port, date and time; Names and passport details of the crew. Then they invited us to sit down to a lunch of rice, along with platters of stewed meats or fish, vegetables, scrambled eggs and sweet cold tea. They showed us a shower in the officers barracks where we could clean up, offering us shampoo and soap. Once we'd had nice long showers, they apologetically explained that they had a few more questions. They wanted a detailed list of all of the ports since our departure from Seattle, with dates and times of arrival and departure - Yikes, for the last 6 and half years that's a lot! Finally they agreed to settle for the last 3 ports. Then they wanted a copy of the GPS track of our route. When we explained how complicated and uniformative that would be (with assistance translating from a school teacher), they agreed that a copy of our chart showing our route would be acceptable. This required returning to the boat, down the seawall and across 4 fishing boats filled with fish scales and back across and up the seawall with chart in hand, and then negotiating our huge chart with the small copy machine and pasting a series of snapshots together to complete the picture, ensuing a geography lesson. Our initial contact, Adder, called his sister, Theresa, and she spoke excellent English and so helped to clarify what they required and helped us answer their questions. And then they needed just one more thing - They asked us to return to the boat and "re-arrive" so they could get photos to document our arrival and to show evidence that they gave us water. We found it pretty amusing as we handed back the boxes of water and untied the lines and then came in and accepted water with multiple cameras recording the action. Lan Yu is not an official Taiwan port of entry, so they were embarrassed with all the information they required to request approval for our stay, though much of it is pretty standard (minus the arrival photos!). A doctor paid us a visit and asked us questions about contagious diseases and after 2 days, finally we garnered sheets of official paperwork allowing us free access to the island, though we needed to be back aboard the boat at nightfall and inform them of our whereabouts when we came and went any distance. During our restricted access period before we were officially cleared, we hardly felt like we faced any hardship since we were able to explore around the immediate area. And all the while everyone did their best to make us feel welcome and apologised for limited English skills (which we found to be reasonably adequate).

Everyone was incredibly friendly and generous with us. Adder offered us the use of a computer at his government office to access email and weather information, though we found the Chinese keyboard a challenge to use for writing emails. A quick check of online weather charts confirmed that our stop was timely to avoid the gale to the north of us and that by Friday conditions might be favorable to continue on to Japan. Adder apologised that he had to work that afternoon in his government office, but would stop by the boat at the end of the day. So we walked around the seawall and up to the lighthouse and along the road towards town to stretch our legs a little. As ever we were curious to explore the grocery store, though we had no Tawianese money and no way to get any. And then when we were tired, we climbed down the tires along the seawall and tromped across the fishing boats to return to our home - as ransacked as we'd left it when we tied up - and began putting the sail covers on, putting away our aids to navigation and tidying up, and took a short nap.

That evening, Adder and his sister Theresa took us home with them to their mother's house by car in Yeh-yu village only a few blocks away for a dinner similar to our lunch of rice and mixed and vegetable toppings. We learned that Adder was trained as an X-ray technician, though he had not yet taken the test to get his license. Theresa, a nurse with the health center, and Adder have both studied and worked in Taiwan, but encountered discrimination there. Theresa told us alot about the Aboriginal people of Lan Yu, who are more closely related to Filipinos than to Taiwanese Chinese and share a mostly common language with about 60% of the same words. The Lan Yu Aboriginal people are attractive and distinctly differently looking than the Taiwanese. They are slender with a light brown skin, glossy straight dark hair, high chiseled cheekbones and graceful, slender well proportioned noses and engaging smiles. We recalled that according to the book Guns, Germs and Steel, all Pacific cultures can be traced back to the original inhabitants of Taiwan (who preceeded the Chinese, and are probably the ancestors of Theresa and Adder). Surprisingly this diaspora even includes Indonesian, Malays and Filipinos.

Theresa shared some of the traditions of her people, who are famous for their traditional carved and painted canoes in black (soot), white (lyme) and a red ochre pigment, which they use for catching flying fish during the season between April and July. The canoes are narrow and shaped almost like a American Indian canoes with very high points on both ends. All are painted white with red bottoms, and many are often elaborately carved and painted with common geometric designs, like stripes and wave patterns, and most have an eye painted on either end. The eyes resemble a bullseye, with alternating patterns of red, black and white and intricate patterns on the rings, and we saw these eyes painted all over the town on houses and buildings as well as the canoes. Some of the more elaborate canoes have lucky rooster feathers mounted on either end that resemble elaborate head dresses. All the pieces of wood that hold the canoe together are fitted using wooden pegs forming barely visible seams. These canoes are rowed instead of paddled, so beefy oar locks are fitted to the gunnels and wrapped in three strand line. Occasionally canoes would be fitted with a steering oarlock on one end. Seeing the canoes lined up on the beach made for a picturesque view and we took many photos of them and the detailed decorations. We were careful to keep a respectful distance to avoid bringing bad luck to the fisherman, based on what Theresa had told us. The men hold a special ceremony with particular dances and costumes to honor the opening of flying fish season and consider it bad luck for women to venture out in or near the canoes. Hats made of silver shaped like a deep bowl with eye cutouts are used for these ceremonies. After catching, they then dry the flying fish to preserve them for eating throughout the year and we saw many racks of drying fish as we ventured around the island. The culture has a tradition of reserving fish which are appropriate only for men and distinguishing that from fish which is deemed only acceptable for the more tender dispositions of women (the child bearers) and children. The men traditionally wear merely a covering over their genitals, their butt cheeks open to the breeze. Sometimes they also wear black and white threads woven into a grey striped open vest. We did actually see men dressed this way, though only a couple of older ones. The women wear a similar style woven asymetrical sleeveless shirt along with a skirt. Theresa showed us their mother's weaving loom. She pointed out many other local traditions with the help of a picture book and a calendar, many of which we later saw as we explored the island. A hat of vegetable fiber with a low peak and wide brim is common for working in the fields. Traditional housing is built into the ground originally with a roof of foliage or grass thatch, though aid from the Taiwanese government now makes these dwellings rare. We saw a number of these traditional houses and even saw tiny boat houses of similar design for protecting the canoes from frequent strong winds, though usually the roof was made of more modern black material. This island has become a vacation spot for Taiwanese so we spotted model canoes, in a park and in simple souvenir stores or stalls. As we walked around the village, Theresa bought me a traditional style bracelet with black, white and red beads accented with modern white buttons. At the end of our evening with Therea and Adder, she dropped us back at the seawall before returning with her 2 year old boy to her home in her husband's village a few miles away, and Adder kindly held a flashlight while we climbed down the tires along the seawall and tromped across the fishing boats. Theresa and Adder apologised that they had to work and would be unable to entertain us during the day, but we found ways to amuse ourselves.

We walked along the rugged coastline shrouded in mist which made us think of Scotland, though the heat and humidity and foliage reminded us that it wasn't and when the sun came out the island was more like the rugged windward coast of Hawaii. Two days after our arrival, we saw the intense winds and waves that the weather chart predicted and noticed most of the fishing boat fleet was not out. The tide rips at the point were notable from a great distance. This island encounters over 20 typhoons a year and we saw many impressive fortress style breakwaters built around the island to withstand the onslaught. Adder offered use of his moped so we could explore the island. Mopeds are common and we were amused to see a dog standing/riding on the back of one on a number of occasions. We really enjoyed driving around the island on the moped and seeing more of the beautiful rugged scenery of the island. Once the stormy weather had passed through, we had sunny skies, which reflected the blue water and volcanic rocks and was quite picturesque. Goats were everywhere, munching along the road or climbing the volcanic rocks along the shoreline and they paid little attention to us. While exploring, we saw countless terraced taro plantations and a number of natural and manmade caves.

We were impressed at the friendliness and generosity of everyone we encountered. A smile and a wave was standard, and often people stopped us to welcome us and ask where we were from. Everyone seemed curious about the boat who saw it. (Quite a contrast to the Philippines, where we were mostly either ignored or solicited.) On our second morning we moved the boat to a better spot. The low flat fishing boats we had been tied alongside ventured our more frequently and we awoke the first morning to find one boat missing in the group we were now precariously tied to. A friend suggested we tie alongside some larger fishing boats that move less frequently and we were glad to move. A group of Taiwanese tourists came to see the boat, bearing gifts of snacks and we enjoyed spending our second morning with them and sharing our story. Everyone in Lan Yu seemed intent to make sure we didn't go hungry or eat into our provisions while we were visiting. For each lunch or dinner we were invited to join the coast guards officers. They shared fruit with us and invited us to join them for movies. We awoke to find pastries sitting in the cockpit another morning and were handed pastries the day after. Joe, who owns a small resort hotel and several boats invited us to an elaborate feast at his hotel, despite having a large crew of guests arriving the following day. He showed us the beautiful wild orchids that grew in his garden and for which the island is named.

The afternoon before we left a fellow came by to talk with us. He owned the fishing boat we were tied to and indicated he was going out later that day. When we returned to our boat that afternoon we found his boat was gone and we were tied precariously alongside the next boat. That night at 3am he returned, jarring us awake by slamming into the side of the boat. We didn't notice any obvious damage though the sound indicated we should do a careful inspection. For the next hour or so, we had a group of fisherman tromping across the cockpit above our heads with fishing equipment and nets, making it difficult to return to sleep. In the morning, fish scales were everywhere. We told everyone we were leaving that morning for Ishigaki, Japan and the weather still looked favorable. So just before our scheduled departure time, Adder came by to say goodbye, showing concern for our safety and water and provision levels. The Coast Guard officials returned our passports and boat papers and brought 3 more cases of water! Their kind hospitality was overwhelming. They asked to take photos with us and posed with the gift we'd given them (a 9 DVD movie set which we knew they'd like, since they watch lots of movies in the barracks). Then they sheepishly asked Garth's permission to each take a photo with me saying "Is okay we take picture with your wife? We like picture with pretty girl". They wished us well and waved us off, asking us to let them know we had arrived in Ishigaki safely so they wouldn't worry.

We were quite impressed with how welcoming and generous we found everyone here in Lan Yu as well as the natural beauty of the island, making for a very nice rest along our route to Japan. Ah Yoi (Thank you!) to the people of Lan Yu. These are the priceless encounters that so enrich our cruising experiences and make us enjoy this lifestyle. Just a short 2-3 days on to Ishigaki-Jima, the most southern port of entry for Japan.


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