"Arctracer" Letters

Abaiang and Butaritari, Kiribati, Jan 2004

We were in Abaiang Atoll between Christmas and New Years when we wrote to you last. The last couple days of 2003 the wind came more from the north, making our anchorage at the south end uncomfortable, so on Dec 30 we moved to a more protected spot on the east side at the atoll's largest village, Koinawa. We walked around the town, and it is just a larger version of other Kiribati villages. They had many breadfruit trees and some good babai pits, and seem to get more rain than the atolls further south. Koinawa has a big cement Catholic church, which is a landmark visible from most parts of the lagoon, but most of its houses are traditional thatch with open sides.

After a very quiet celebration of New Year's Eve, we motored further north the next morning to anchor in the lee of Tebunginako. A small point jutting from the east gave us a little shelter from the unusual northerly winds which were blowing. It rained hard, and we filled up our tanks. It was good to have ample water again after seven weeks without rain. Koubwere paddled out in his canoe the next day to invite us ashore. Neither he nor his wife Miriana spoke much English, but they were very nice people and we enjoyed several days with them. Their village has many big babai pits, and some seemed to be communal or family plots which several people work. They also looked like excellent mosquito breeding places, so although there is no malaria here we hope everybody ashore uses a good net at night. Miriana created some delicious food over her fire of coconut husks, and we enjoyed land crabs, fish, breadfruit (several ways), rice, papayas, pumpkins, and bananas. Yes, they are able to grow a few bananas here, while it is very difficult to grow them further south. The small stalk they gave us was a real treasure. Nina cooked too, and they especially liked her bread with her fresh papaya jelly. We often drank fresh toddy with them, either hot as "tea" or cold, and they supplied us with many coconuts to drink. We snorkeled and searched the sands one day with them looking for shellfish, a difficult job in this place where so many people get shellfish so often. We got enough for a delicious meal, but the natives knew what to look for and found many more than us.

Cyclone Heta roared between Tonga and Samoa on January 6 with sustained winds up to 140 knots and gusts to 170, making us very glad to be out of the South Pacific Cyclone area. We were more than 1500 miles away, but the cyclone twisted our winds around to the north and brought us rain. Our friends on "Green Nomad" and "Piet Heyn" anchored in the south end of Abaiang had a couple of very uncomfortable days, and finally followed us to anchor in more sheltered water near the east side. On the 8th the wind was back to the east and we all moved back to the south end. The other two boats spent a total of seven weeks there in pleasant interaction with a couple of local families. We were only there for a couple weeks, but could understand why they stayed so long with such nice people. We found some other nice people in the area, and exchanged gifts with some of them too.

(view Abaiang photos)

A big event on January 11 was the birth of Jennifer and Agu's son Antonio at 5:14am, weighing 8lb. 15oz. We called their house a few days later and all was well except it was very cold in Weare. While we would like to see the baby, we are also glad we do not have to deal with temperatures of -29F! We hope you are all keeping warm.

We left Abaiang Atoll on January 11 and arrived at Butaritari Atoll early January 12. It was a fairly easy trip. The first few hours were absolutely windless, and we were forced to motor. Right off the northern corner of Abaiang we trolled through an enormous flock of Brown Noddies and caught a Yellowfin Tuna four feet long. It was too large to cut normal steaks, but we managed to fit several bags of meat into the freezer and had plenty left to give to our friends on the other two boats which made the same passage at the same time. There was a nice breeze for the second half of the trip, so we had a good sail.

We checked in with the police at the main town, showing him our passports and permission letter from Kiribati Immigration. We saw some relics of WWII, especially the remains of a Japanese seaplane still at the edge of the lagoon. The Japanese occupied this atoll, killed about half the inhabitants and committed other atrocities before the Americans arrived on November 20, 1943 and took over after a fierce battle. We met one woman who was in her twenties then, but she spoke no English so we didn't hear her story.

Butaritari is very much like Abemama, Nonouti and Abaiang, with some differences. Slightly farther north it gets more rain, so bananas are a major crop which they even export to Tarawa. The lagoon is a major source of food, and in Butaritari most of the canoes are still sailed instead of driven by outboard motors. The ratio of sailing canoes to population seems higher here than anywhere else we have been. It is wonderful to watch them zipping past on their way to and from fishing. These are traditional outriggers made of boards lashed together (not dugouts). They always keep the main hull downwind by moving the sail and steering paddle to opposite ends on every tack. This sounds complicated, but they make these maneuvers look easy. There is one large canoe called a "baurua" which is about 40 feet long. It was these big canoes which used to fish outside the lagoon and make voyages to other islands in the old days, but now those jobs are done by big motorboats.

We have spent most of our time in Butaritari either at Natata Island or near Kuma Village, both at the far eastern end of the lagoon with best protection from easterly trade winds. Natata is uninhabited, and we stayed there a few days while Nina got over a little flu bug. We walked around the island, but the ocean side is very rough coral and not very interesting. We snorkeled around some nice coral heads inside the lagoon and found some beautiful small fish of various sorts. Most of the larger reef fish are probably caught in nets or with hand lines. The locals took us to a well-kept grave and encouraged us to leave traditional gifts of tobacco and matches. We did, and were assured that would insure our safety and good fortune while in the vicinity.

Kuma Village has only a couple hundred people, and over thirty canoes. They have plenty of coconuts, babai, breadfruit, papayas, bananas, and fish, but little else. They can raise cash by making copra, selling bananas, or fishing for the Chinese ships which have come to Butaritari for at least the last couple months. The locals are paid $2.50 per kilogram for live grouper, which are kept alive in huge tanks until the ships arrive in China. This is wonderful for the locals, and the village elders have spread this windfall by allowing each man to do this work for only one week. If this is a profitable business for the Chinese, it is too bad that it cannot be done by Kiribati ships. Neither the government nor individuals here seem to have enough capital, so much of the profit escapes them.

The other cruisers got deeply involved with a sort of "commune" of wonderful people associated with a Protestant church, and attended dinners ashore almost every night starting at 7:30. They really enjoyed this experience, though felt somewhat overwhelmed after a couple of weeks of constant involvement. We don't like being ashore so much at night, so found some other friendly people in Kuma. Tekenteiti Benson had a great-grandfather from Texas. He lives in the midst of an extended family with his mother Touatamoa and grandmother Paukin (in her eighties). While he speaks pretty good English, most of his family does not. They do not meet many "Europeans or I'Matang" (as they call us) and are basically shy people. One man refused to meet us because he was terrified of white people. We gradually got to meet most of the family, and exchanged many presents. They gave many drinking nuts, bananas, papayas, a big pumpkin and two fans. We gave clothes, bracelets made by Jerry, banana bread made by Nina, some other bits, and several photographs. The photos were most appreciated because they have almost none. Some of them probably live their whole life without having their picture taken once. We produced prints of poor quality because our printers need new cartridges, but these were still very much appreciated.

On the first afternoon we rowed ashore near Kuma Village, we left our dinghy away from all houses and took a long walk. We met Tekenteiti on our way back, and he walked us back to our dinghy. We were amazed to find our dinghy anchor and its rope missing. We were disappointed, but understand how tempting such things must be to people who generally use rocks as anchors. The news got around the village, but the anchor did not reappear. After a week, when we were again relaxing near Natata Island, Tekenteiti and a 12-year old boy sailed over to return the anchor which the boy had found hidden under some leaves near the place where it disappeared. We gave the boy some composition books, pencils, a pen, a ruler and some colored pencils to help him when he starts secondary school next term at the big village ten miles away.

(view Butaritari photos)

We are getting ready now for our passage to Majuro in the Marshall Islands. The winds have been strong for the past couple days, and there have been many squalls with rain and gusts up to 30 knots. We have simply waited, resting and doing little boat projects. It isn't necessary to rush away from this nice place into an uncomfortable set of waves, and we will probably wait until the winds calm down a little, hopefully in just a few days.