"Arctracer" Letters

Ailuk Atoll, Feb-Mar 2004

(This is NOT one of our usual letters. This is a report we made to people in the Marshall Islands who wanted to understand the interactions between cruisers and islanders, and how to improve tourism.)

This is a report of the visit made by "Arctracer" to Ailuk Atoll 28 February through 20 March 2004, a total of three weeks. "Arctracer" is a sailing catamaran 43 feet long crewed by Jerry and Nina from Norwich, Vermont, USA. We retired in 1993 and started cruising in 1994 in the northeastern United States. We spent three years in the Caribbean, then six years in the South Pacific including three trips to New Zealand and eighteen months in Australia. This is our first trip to the North Pacific. We spent November through January in Kiribati, visiting Tarawa, Abemama, Nonouti, Abaiang, and Butaritari Atolls, and arrived in Majuro on 4 February 2004. Although each visit to an island is unique, our experiences at Ailuk are fairly typical for us.

Summary: We had interactions with Marshall Islanders on 19 of our 22 days in Ailuk Atoll. We had approximately 37 islanders aboard our yacht, some of them many times, and the visits were often more than an hour long. We served many snacks, including popcorn, sweet breads, and coffee. We served dinners on three occasions to a total of eleven islanders. We acquired five large and ten small baskets, two necklaces, a wall decoration, a spare oar, two bunches of bananas, two coconut crabs, nine lobsters, five reef fish, five pumpkins, three papayas, a liter of jekmai, several cowrie shells and many drinking nuts. We gave the islanders food totaling about 55 pounds of rice, 10 pounds of sugar, 2 pounds of milk powder, 3 small jars of instant coffee, a pound of ground coffee, 40 packets of ramen-type noodles, tinned chicken, tinned tuna and peanut butter. If we had known that the islanders were so short of rice and other food we would have purchased more for them in Majuro. We also gave a variety of items including stretch cord for spear guns, sunglasses, newspapers, t-shirts and other clothes, fish hooks, a mask & snorkel, fins, an old pot, a bagful of toys, toilet tissue, playing cards, fingernail polish, nail polish remover, notebooks, pens, pencils, pictures, "Turks Head" bracelets, cigarettes, and cash. We loaned our underwater light so islanders could get lobsters for us and for themselves. We took many photos of islanders, and let them see themselves immediately with our digital camera. We also took many photos of their beautiful sailing canoes. Our normal practice is to print some photos and give them to islanders, but we did not have the necessary inks when we were in Ailuk. We intend to send some prints to Ailuk via another yacht. Our visit to Ailuk was wonderful. We recommend it to other yachts, and we hope to return someday.

Day-by-day details:

28 February: "Arctracer" anchored near Ailuk Village at 1:15, and we went ashore to walk through the village. We were invited to visit missionary Like and his wife Kesia, and enjoyed their drinking nuts and conversation. We learned the importance of pandanus in their diet, and saw their berga (grater). We watched as she made macondrule (balls of grated pandanus rolled in grated coconut and baked) and we had our first taste of it. We gave them some back issues of the Marshall Islands Journal, and five pounds of rice. We returned to visit them on three other occasions, but never found them at home again. We met the owner of "Iloba," at 23 feet the largest canoe on the island, and he expressed interest in visiting our boat but never did. We met Emai Alfred the village clerk, gave him some newspapers, showed our permission paper, paid our $25 fee and were given a receipt.

29 February: We were visited by two canoes, and invited the five men aboard. We bought a stalk of bananas, and gave William rice, coffee, sugar, milk and cigarettes for a promise of lobsters, drinking nuts and pumpkins. We loaned our underwater light so he could get the lobsters. We were offered a beautiful big helmet shell, but refused it.

1 March: The anniversary of "Bravo" bomb on Bikini was a holiday. The wind was lighter, so it was easy for canoes to visit our boat. The first canoe arrived at 8:00, and traded drinking nuts for cigarettes. Then Emai came with Bruce Abhor, who gave us five lobsters in exchange for rice, sugar, noodles and coffee. We traded rice, sugar and a deck of playing cards to Emai for a small basket. Another canoe came with two stalks of bananas, but we didn't buy because we already had one. Then Patrick and a friend came and stayed a long time. He promised to carve a spare oar for our dinghy, in exchange for noodles, rice, coffee, sugar, milk and cigarettes. He also traded one large and two small baskets for tinned chicken, tuna, noodles, sugar and some cash. William returned with drinking nuts, pumpkins, two lobsters and a "bug", and a stalk of bananas to make up for the shortage of lobsters. Two women paddled out after lunch - Dije, originally from Utirik, and her sixteen year old neighbor Karen. We traded a bag of food, nail polish, and some other items for one large and two small baskets. Jerry gave each of the women a "Turks Head" bracelet he made. They brought two large glass balls to trade, but we did not want them. We very much enjoyed their visit. John and Phurst traded drinking nuts and papaya for sunglasses and a t-shirt. Caston traded a large basket for an old mask and snorkel, small flippers, notebooks and pencils. Two little kids paddled out on a surfboard just to get photographed.

2 March: A canoe came out at 8:00, too early for us, but came back later with Rolly Alonz, Rino Candle and Rolly's son Junior. They traded one large and four small baskets for cash plus cigarettes. We also gave Junior a packet of noodles and some popcorn, and gave away our big lobster pot after mentioning that it had a small hole in the bottom. We rowed ashore and walked around the village. Nina gave popcorn to many little kids. We met Karen's father Balanda Lontak who owns canoe "Kejatdikdik," and offered to take us for a ride if the wind died down. Unfortunately the wind was strong for our entire visit and we never did get a chance to ride on a canoe. We tried boiled pandanus at Youmi Mae's house, and bought a small basket from her. We met her father Nimitz, and his wife's father Timaj who is over eighty. We left an old footstool at Like and Kesia's house, and walked around the island. At dinnertime a small canoe arrived with boys Mile and Bert, who ate lobster newburg, curried green bananas, rice and baked pumpkin with us. One canoe came with a basket at 7:45, but we told them it was too late and to come back tomorrow. Two more guys came at 11:00 p.m. and called until we went out, but we told them to go away too.

3 March: Two canoes came about 8:00, too early for us, so we told them to come back later. We went ashore and gave some fishhooks to Emai and sugar to Kesia as we had promised. Emai came out and dived to retrieve a plate one of the boys dropped overboard last night. We gave him coffee, toys, notebooks and a t- shirt. At 8:15 p.m. Patrick brought the oar he made. He wanted to share some drink he brought to us, but we declined.

4 March: Three canoes of boys, ages 9-15, visited for most of the afternoon. They fished off our boat, practiced looking through our binoculars, ate peanut butter on bread, and took away a bag full of little kid toys to distribute ashore. They gave us some uncooked pandanus to taste.

5 March: Dije arrived with her cousin Jelken at 8:00, bringing "cats eye" necklaces for each of us. They stayed all morning, drinking coffee and adding to our list of Marshallese words.

6 March: Eleven boys arrived about 1:00 and stayed for three hours, eating tortillas, popcorn, and date-nut bread. Dije, her husband Carles Riber and four others arrived later with two just-speared reef fish, a chicken, and some shellfish (jukke). We added rice, pumpkin and bread, and served dinner for eight on board. They left at sunset, and Emai and his son Richard arrived at 8:00 for coffee and bread.

7 March: We moved north about ten miles to anchor off Ajirikku, an islet without a village, and had a quiet day without any visitors.

8 March: Jelken, his wife Grana, and Dije's daughter Willma arrived ashore for several days of making copra. They have no canoe with them, but Jelkan swam out to visit and we gave him a piece of stretch cord for his fishing spear. Patrick came by canoe to trade drinking nuts for cigarettes. We rowed ashore, and were given a coconut crab which we took home and ate for supper. After supper we returned to shore and went with the locals on a crab hunt, but didn't get any. We suggested that they conserve their remaining crabs and give lobsters to yachts. We gave them some warm clothes.

9 March: Jelkan brought out a beautiful fish he had speared. He borrowed Jerry's flippers to do some more fishing for his family. In the evening we rowed Jelken, Grana and Willma to the boat for a dinner of lasagna, baked pumpkin with brown sugar, and date-nut bread. We gave them nail polish, some pictures and playing cards.

10 March: Jelken brought many drinking nuts out on a "boat" made from three fishing floats. We went beach combing around adjacent islets, and found a good length of polypropylene rope which we gave to Jelkan.

11 March: Jelkan brought another coconut crab to our boat. Jerry made "Turks Head" bracelets for Willma and Grana, and showed Jelken how to make one for his baby daughter. Patrick and a friend came in a canoe, and brought a liter of jekmai (boiled palm sap syrup) in exchange for noodles, doughnuts and cigarettes. (We use jekmai in our coffee, and got some in Kiribati too.) We went ashore in the afternoon to visit Jelkan, Grana & Willma and gave them the bracelets.

12 March: We started planning a birthday party for Jordan on "Queen Jane." He arranged for some lobsters from David of Enejelar Islet and we arranged for Jelken to get some more. The party involved all four yachts in Ailuk, including "Dancer" and "Rainbow Chaser." We reanchored near Enijabro Island, practically at the north end of the atoll.

13 March: We snorkeled off the boat, and when we got back aboard were joined by Emai's son Richard and Roland Mai who were spearfishing. They visited for a couple of hours, and had some popcorn.

14 March: Richard, Roland, Dial Press, and Jonah swam over from Kapen Island to visit. They brought a large lobster, a small glass ball, and a pandanus frigate bird mobile. We gave them stretch cord for a spear, some long-sleeved clothes and sugar. David swam over from Enijabro to join us all. We rowed to Kapen to meet Jonah's wife Joanne (Richard's sister), their children Jana, Jonathan and Nadaen, David's wife and her sister. We walked around the island with Richard, then sailed back to reanchor off Ajirikku. Jelken swam out to borrow our fins and underwater light, and we gave him a glove to help hold lobsters. We also gave him paper so he could write a letter to his mother in Ailinglaplap which we planned to carry to her.

15 March: Jelken arrived soon after 7:00 with the sad story that he caught four big lobsters but they all escaped. He said his wife had a bad headache, and we gave him some Panadol. We raised anchor at 11:30 and moved back to Enijabro near the other yachts. We played petanque on the beach and had a great birthday party aboard "Queen Jane."

16 and 17 March: We did things with the other cruisers and did not see any locals.

18 March: We reanchored near Enijabro and rowed ashore to visit the small village. We met the schoolteacher Phil, his wife Susie, and some of his 20 students. Nina is a teacher too, and always enjoys visits to schools. We were accompanied by some friendly girls as we walked around. We met Shakehands who was making wall hangings. Nina gave out lots of popcorn, and received some nice cowrie shells in return. Nina rowed back to shore later to trade a bag full of stuff for a nice 15" wall decoration.

19 March: The husband of Shakehands, John, came aboard to visit in the middle of a fishing expedition in his small canoe. He offered some more cowrie shells, but we had enough already. We gave him some used engine oil, some lime seeds, and a cigarette. We snorkeled near the boat, then sailed back to Ailuk Village.

20 March: Emai came at 7:30 with drinking nuts. We served him coffee, then rowed to his house. He was our guide in a walk around town. We bought two large baskets. We gave Emai rice, pictures of animals (for his children), etc. and tried (unsuccessfully) to fix his broken regulator for solar panels. We left for Majuro about noon.

Since returning to Majuro we have received permission to visit Ailinglaplap, but the fee has been raised from $25 to $150. We interpret this very high fee as an indication that yachts are not wanted, so have changed our plans and will not stop there on our way to Kosrae. We attempted to send Jelken's letter to his mother by the U. S. Postal Service, but they do not deliver mail there. Air Marshall Islands told us they would not handle the letter, but said if we went to the airport we might persuade a passenger to carry it. We are giving it to a yacht which received a $25 permit and plans to go there, so we hope the mother eventually gets her son's message. We believe the government of the Marshall Islands should improve the mail system.