"Arctracer" Letters

Tuvalu, Oct 2003

Can you picture a country whose total land area is about the same as Norwich, divided among nine atolls spread well apart? Where a "hill" is difficult to imagine because no land in the entire country is higher than 15 feet? A country whose total population is smaller than that of Hanover, NH where we were born? Only 10,000 people but with a seat in the UN General Assembly where their vote counts just as much as that of the USA? A country without dirt enough to grow its own vegetables? This is Tuvalu.

Some facts about Tuvalu - has a total land area of 26 sq. km with Funafuti having 2.5 sq. km; gained independence from Great Britain in 1978; used to be called the Ellice Islands; is an independent nation of about 12,000 people on 9 inhabited islands; became the 189th member of the United Nations in 1999 - second smallest nation to join the UN (Seychelles is the smallest); more than half of the population live here in Funafuti; a borehole 340 meters deep was drilled to test Darwin's theory of atoll formation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but failed to reach Funafuti's volcanic base; Polynesians colonized Tuvalu about 2,000 years ago; local language is similar to Samoan with some words the same; uses the Australian dollar (in October 2003, $1 US = $1.29 Aus); gets/got income from British government with independence and it was invested with only the interest being used, licensing fees to exploit their 900,000 square km of available fishing grounds, and selling their Internet .tv to a company in the U.S. (with some of this money they paved their narrow road); Funafuti has a population density of 425/sq.km. as opposed to New Zealand's of 12/sq. km and the UKs of 225/sq.km; the Tuvaluans are concerned about rises in sea levels from the greenhouse effect. Their islands are only about 2 meters above sea level and may disappear beneath the sea. They are looking at places to move to - New Zealand, Australia and Fiji may be possibilities.

WWII - Tuvalu was involved in the war during 1943. In 1943 there were up to 174 warships in this harbor. The locals celebrate 23 April because of a bombing raid by the Japanese on that date in 1943. Many people were in the church that was destroyed, but an American got over 300 people to leave before that happened. Only one local person was killed on that day and only one other was killed during the occupation. They used the airstrip here to attack Tarawa (our next port) and other islands in the Kiribati Islands (used to be the Gilbert Islands).

We think we have seen the island now. We each rented small motor bikes for a little over three hours and rode the entire length of the road. We saw some really slum-looking places built on stilts around stagnant water, a rusting hulk of a ship near shore, a lot of trash at the north end of the island, the place where the borehole to test Darwin's theory was, and the airport runway - a loud siren is the signal to the islanders that a plane is going to land. The airstrip, built on prime land by the U.S. during WWII goes down the middle of the widest part of town and apparently was put on the most fertile land on the island. It is used for recreational activities and parades when the very infrequent planes aren't using it. We saw their desalination plant that was donated by the Japanese. The three-story government building under construction will be the largest structure in the country, and is being donated by China.

We have been unable to buy any produce except carrots, onions, and potatoes imported from New Zealand. They import a few apples, but they don't look too healthy. We've been able to buy bread that we like here. The bank will exchange U.S. and New Zealand money, but they don't deal with plastic cards so there is no ATM machine. The convergence zone has been over us a few times, so we've been able to keep our water tanks full and do our laundry regularly. We even have clean cushion and pillow covers! It has been quite hot here, with temperatures often hitting 90 degrees and very high humidity. The sun passed directly overhead on October 15th as it moves south towards the Tropic of Capricorn. We have shade cloths covering most of the boat, and are grateful for all our opening hatches which let in some pleasant breezes.

October 21st is a holiday each year to celebrate their survival from Cyclone Bebe in 1972. It devastated the island. We've read in our SSCA (Seven Seas Cruising Association) booklets that some previous cruisers watched a marvelous traditional dance competition for three hours in 2001. We're hoping they have some dancing while we're here too.

We've been replacing our lifelines, changing water filters, hand-drawing charts of outer islands in Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, reading sailing magazines and National Geographics, going to smaller islands with nice coral and very colorful fish to snorkel, sympathizing with the people on two boats here in the harbor who ate some largish local grouper and got ciguatura poisoning, socializing with a family on a boat from Seattle, and occasionally seeing an anthropologist from Oregon who is studying the local culture and plans to write a book about it. We have not taken much time to get to know the locals. The island is much more of a small "city" than most of the islands we've been to so it isn't as conducive to meeting locals. The people we've met have been polite and friendly, but don't prolong conversations.

(view Tuvalu photos)

We're starting to think about heading the 700+ miles to Tarawa in Kiribati (about 1 degree north of the equator). There are a couple of outer islands we want to visit there after we check in. Present thinking is to not hurry to the Marshalls which are about 8 degrees north of the equator. There is the remote possibility that they could be hit by a cyclone through the month of November in the northern hemisphere. A couple of boats left here October 13th and will arrive in Tarawa on the 21st. Usually there isn't much wind around the equator so it is a relatively slow passage. Also, the convergence zone hangs out between here and there so there is the occasional squall with rain to contend with. It should be slow but pleasant sailing.

We've decided not to go the Solomon Islands this season, but wait until after the South Pacific Cyclone season. On a weather report today we learned that there is a tropical depression forming south-west of us - the direction of the Solomons. Some weather gurus have said that the water temperatures are warmer than usual this year and that when the convergence zone gets over that warm water that early cyclones could form. We want to avoid all cyclones, so will wait to see the Solomons.