Helen Reef – a convenient stopover between Borneo and PNG

Joop Jansen and Hanneke Kroon of SV Vaarwel visited the remote Helen Reef in February 2011 on passage from Borneo to Papua New Guinea.

Published 12 years ago, updated 4 years ago

Helen Reef as seen on Google Maps.

Helen Reef in Palau:
Latest cruising news – February 2011

Coming from the island of Borneo (Malaysia) and sailing ESE to Papua New Guinea, Helen Reef makes a good halfway stopover.

The four caretakers at Helen Reef informed us that yachts are welcome and not required to have cleared for Palau, before stopping at Helen Reef. We did not pay any fees, there were no clearance procedures, we never showed a passport or other official paperwork. Only 4 people live on the island and their work is for the national park service.

(Ed: Note however that the official regulations for Palau state that all visiting yachts must first clear at Malakal before visiting the outer islands. See Palau Clearance for more information.)

Helen Reef is a marine park and provides a breeding ground for green turtles and thousands of seabirds on Helen Island. The island itself is very small and very low lying. Rising sea levels are threatening the island’s existence, unfortunately.

C-map shows Helen Reef in great detail, but not in the correct location. The entrance to the pass is found at 2°52.48’N and 131°43.13’E and from that point, the detailed chart shows all the significant reefs and the passes between them.

We called Helen Reef with the VHF, but did not get an answer until we were inside the pass. With good light, entering the pass is straight forward. The caretakers have only a handheld VHF, so they received our messages, but their unit had limited transmission power. They came in their runabout to the pass, even though it was already the end of the afternoon.

Once inside we dropped anchor in 15 meters, sand and coral with poor holding.

They came again next morning and guided us through the lagoon to an anchorage near Helen Island (2°58.02’N, 131°47.71’E), good holding in sand, 15 meters.

We spent two weeks at Helen Reef. Snorkeling, spear fishing, watching birds and turtles, having meals and long conversations with the caretakers, walking around the island, it was all good fun.

Helen island has suffered extensive erosion in recent years, due to mismanagement (the caretakers are hard at work trying to make amends for that) and rising sea levels. The size of the island has been reduced to a quarter(!) of the original size, but the good news is that the reduction seems to have stopped and the island is stabilizing. Saying that: we were there at a spring tide with 20-25 knots wind from the SW producing moderate size waves, that every now and then washed over the island near the caretakers house. That same evening quite a few bird nests were swamped as well and the eggs ruined.

There are plans to raise and enlarge Helen island by spouting sand on, to give the breeding birds and turtles more room (the island is phenomenally overcrowded), but nobody has found the money yet to implement this plan. So to anybody with a lot of dough and a liking for big turtles and small birds: here is your chance to do a lot of good and associate your name forever with Helen reef and Helen island.

We left with a light northwesterly wind. Our next destination was Ninigo Atoll in Papua New Guinea, 800 miles southeast.

Joop Jansen and Hanneke Kroon
SV Vaarwel

Further Reading:

  • Read more about Vaarwel’s travels here.
  • See Noonsite’s Helen Reef information here. 

Related to following destinations: , , ,

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