"Arctracer" Letters

Easter in the Marshall Islands, Apr 2004

We're at Majuro Atoll again. We were in Ailuk Atoll when we last wrote, trading rice, sugar, coffee, etc. for the local handwoven baskets, fish, coconut crabs, lobsters, drinking nuts, papayas, pumpkins, bananas, jekmai (syrup made from the sap of palm trees) and a spare oar. We stayed there until March 20, a three week visit. We were often near the other three cruising boats in the atoll at that time, and had a few gatherings with them. We snorkeled a few times, seeing a beautiful batfish and a white-tipped shark. We also continued our relations with the natives, walking around their islands, taking pictures and trading.

We were offered several glass balls, and finally accepted one small one. These hollow spheres were used as floats on fishing nets until plastic floats became cheaper. Many were apparently produced in Japan for their extensive fishery. The oldest were hand-blown and have floated around for many years. The islanders occasionally find one washed up on their beaches, and some tourists pay substantial amounts for them.

The most prized delicacy in the islands is probably the Coconut Crab. These are big land crabs, start reproducing at age 12, and at thirty years old they may weigh five pounds and be a yard in leg span. They do sometimes eat coconut meat (opening nuts only with great difficulty), but are omnivorous. Boiled, they taste much like lobster. Unfortunately, their excellent taste and slow reproduction is causing them to disappear from one island after another. Island restaurants fly them in and charge high prices to serve them. We have found them on only a few islands, far from population centers. On Ailuk we traded for a couple, and joined the locals on a nocturnal hunt to see their technique. The islet where we hunted is small and has no permanent population. One family owns it, and goes there just to harvest coconuts and pandanus fruit. Baits for crabs (halved coconuts) were placed in several spots around the island before dark, and we sneaked up to each spot in turn several hours later. We switched on our lights and rushed in, but saw no coconut crabs. The owner insisted that there were "plenty," but we told him to conserve them. We don't want these to join the long list of extinct species. We won't tell other boats that we got any, and encourage the locals to sell lobsters (clawless here, but still tasty) to the yachts instead of the old crabs. We had lobsters a couple times in Ailuk. One day we requested lobsters, but the fisherman came back with the sad story that he had caught four big ones which untied their bag and escaped. We have seen crabs and lobsters untie strings, so this was very believable.

We met the family on the big ketch "Queen Jane" in Ailuk, and were reminded again that it is a small world. Jordan is originally from Brooklyn, but Kate is from Boston and has a sister living in White River Junction! If you run into Tita Reiche, Bruce Riddle or their kids Galen and Torin you can tell them their relatives are having a great time in mid-Pacific, and Jonah (7) is improving at frisbee on the beach.

(view Ailuk photos)

There are many sailing canoes at Ailuk, about 30 for the 200 people. They are very beautiful, and we never tired of watching them. The islands of the atoll are mostly on the eastern edge, forming an almost continuous north-south string fifteen miles long. The trade winds blow very steadily between NE and SE, so are always blowing on the side of the sailboats as they travel from the village at the south end to and from the other islands. The reefs and the islands stop all the big waves, so the canoes sail in protected waters near the islands inside the lagoon. Calm seas with trade winds on the beam are perfect conditions for sailing. The canoes are made locally from thin plywood, and are up to 23 feet long with very narrow hulls and a single outrigger which is always on the upwind side. They are decked over but very low in the water, so the crew has a wet ride sitting on top. The sails are sewn from plastic tarpulins which were given by FEMA (Federal Emergency Response Administration) after some big storm (probably intended as temporary roofing.) The boomed lateen rigs are almost identical to those we saw in Kiribati. The bottom corner of the sail (and the sticks tied along its top and bottom edges) is lashed to the front end of the canoe. A mast in mid-canoe and a shroud running to the end of the outrigger hold the rig up. To change directions requires the foot of the sail to be carried from one end of the canoe past the mast to the other end, while the steering paddle is carried just as far in the other direction. It seems like a ridiculously long and difficult job to tack these canoes, but the islanders do it fairly quickly when they have to. It is usually not necessary for them to change directions since it is a simple reach both leaving and returning to their village.

These are very practical machines, costing much less to build and operate than boats with outboard motors. Some of the Ailuk canoes were in poor condition, with sun-damaged sails, frayed ropes and peeling paint on old wood, but they still did their jobs well. We saw one canoe towed home with a fist-sized hole in its hull caused by a large shark which rammed the boat. They said this had never happened inside the lagoon before, but sometimes happens when they fish outside the reef. A 20 foot long canoe routinely sails at over 10 knots, faster than most yachts, and the islanders have a lot of fun on their way to and from work, often seeming to race one another. Sometimes the outrigger flies above the water in a gust, raising the adrenalin level too, and we often heard "Yahoo!" and similar shouts as they zoomed past with ear-to-ear grins. Perhaps commuters elsewhere can learn something from them.

(view Ailuk Canoes photos)

Ailuk was very nice, but we left there on the 20th and returned to Majuro. The first half of the trip was lumpy so we sailed slowly, but the second half was smoother and faster. We did not land a single fish on this trip, though we had four mahi-mahi strikes, so it was our least productive passage in quite a while. All the mahi-mahi jumped way out of the water until they were released. Majuro was rainy, and our water tanks were overflowing again after just one day. We restocked, did a few boat repairs and got into a very active social life with the other cruisers. One cruiser works on the Marshall Islands Journal and asked to see our Ailuk photos. While none have appeared in the paper yet, our photo of a small canoe on a beach was chosen to be the front cover of this year's Majuro telephone book.

There have been several security problems in Majuro this season. One inflatable dinghy and motor disappeared. A couple boats were broken into and had items stolen. One was "Green Nomad," our friends from Brazil, who lost binoculars, a mask, snorkel and fins when someone used their spare anchor to pry open their hatch and ransack the interior. We're considering getting a motion detector for our cockpit, which would sound an alarm if anyone came aboard in the night. The locals see all of us as "rich," which we are, compared to most of the locals, but we don't want to see our stuff disappear.

March 27 was the seventh annual "Coconut Cup Regatta," which involves sailing canoes as well as yachts. We did not race "Arctracer" but crewed again on "Navi-Gator" from Florida. There were seventeen people aboard this ketch, including locals who had never been on a yacht before. We had no chance of winning, but had fun. Afterwards there was a huge party, and awards were presented to every boat which raced. The winning canoes got $600 each and went home pretty happy. Each yacht got a collection of gift certificates and small prizes. Trophies were made from coconuts, and we bought commemorative t-shirts. A youth group performed a traditional stick-dance, quite unusual to see since it is performed only with permission of island chiefs. Parties happened every evening for a week. We came back to our dinghy one evening and it was missing! It had been moved and badly retied by the locals to permit a large boat to come up to the dock. Fortunately it had not drifted far, and one of our friends quickly retrieved it with his fast inflatable. The constant social whirl wore out everybody, and we were glad when the pace slowed.

We visited the American Ambassador one day. Greta Morris is a career Foreign Service officer, and happened to be Ambassador to Indonesia at the time of the Bali bombing. It was nice to meet an Ambassador who got her position due to competence and years of experience, in contrast to those who get such jobs due to campaign contributions. We toured a "farm" which raises giant clam babies, corals, and tropical fish for aquariums. We visited "Waan Aelon in Majol" which is training young men to build canoes. They built a fifty foot canoe a few years ago which was so fast that no other canoes would race against it, though they took it to the Cook Islands and New Zealand. They have a thirty foot canoe nearly completed, several smaller fiberglass canoes in process, and are getting grants to expand their work. A dive boat operator and a marine scientist from the College of the Marshall Islands gave a very interesting slide show with beautiful underwater photos and much information about the geology and ecology of the atolls. We still have much to learn!

All the yachts were invited to an anniversary party on April 3 on Roguron Island, at the far northwest corner of Majuro lagoon. Four yachts, including "Arctracer" made the 22 mile trip. We spent three nights there. We walked all around two islands looking for shells, and collected some nice ones which were new to us. Nina put in many hours cleaning, sorting, categorizing and naming our shells. We had a family on another catamaran over for lasagna one night, and showed their two 11-year old girls how to play cribbage and up-and-down the river. At last report the girls were regularly beating their parents at cribbage, and improving at arithmetic too.

We're still waiting for a boat part to arrive in the mail. Meanwhile we're taking care of some business and getting ready to leave for points further west. We had planned to stop at Ailinglaplap Atoll on our way to Kosrae. On February 16 we submitted our request to visit Ailinglaplap, but said we would go to Ailuk and return first. Our permission was not approved until April 2, and then we learned that the Ailinglaplap council had just raised their fee to $150 per boat. We think that this indicates that they do not really want yachts to visit, so we will skip that atoll entirely. We have to travel fast and far to cross FSM (Federated States of Micronesia) and be in Palau by mid-July for the Pacific Arts Festival.

A guy we met in Ailuk gave us a letter to carry to his mother in Ailinglaplap. We tried to mail it to her after we decided not to go there. The U.S.Postal Service which handles mail in Majuro does not handle mail for Ailinglaplap, and advised us to take the letter to Air Marshall Islands. There are three flights per week from Majuro to Ailinglaplap, but AMI does not have any mail delivery service. They told us to take the letter to the airport and give it to some passenger about to board a flight. This is very inconvenient for us, so we'll try passing the letter to a yacht going to Ailinglaplap. Can you imagine the problems caused by the lack of mail services to any island except the capital? People in the outer Marshall Islands cannot send or receive any family or business messages, and are effectively cut off from the outside world except for a few short-wave radios and the videotapes in their stores. The kids know more about hip-hop stars than about happenings on other islands. A few back issues of the Majuro newspaper were gratefully received in Ailuk, and will probably be passed around.

We'll spend Easter weekend snorkeling, tossing eggs and eating barbecued Yellowfin Tuna on the beach with other cruisers. We don't miss chocolate rabbits or squishy yellow chick candies, but do miss seeing our families.