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Majuro & Ailuk Atolls, Marshall Islands, Feb-Mar 2004

In Majuro at 7:30 every morning the cruisers had a VHF radio net for weather information and organizing social events. Every Tuesday morning they took a count of how many cruisers would be going to "Taco Night" at one of the local restaurants. The restaurant put tables together for us, and served big $3 burritos, enchiladas, nachos and plenty of beer. We met many of the other cruisers at these weekly gatherings, but didn't socialize very much otherwise as everyone was busy. Each boat was getting ready to head to other atolls in the Marshall Islands, or on to Kosrae or Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. The cruisers seemed to talk mostly about mail deliveries of their boat parts, and where they were heading next.

One big social event while we were in the big town was a yacht race with nearly a dozen cruising boats participating. One of the other two catamarans here raced for their first time, but the 60' long, 40' wide trimaran we visited didn't race. The owners spent 8 years building their huge trimaran themselves in California, and it is certainly the fastest boat here. It is comfortable sailing at 15 knots and probably could do well over 20 knots if pushed! We aren't comfortable racing our own boat (did that once with the schooner in New Zealand and it was rather stressful watching out for other boats), but we did go on the yacht "Navi-gator" which ended up winning the race on handicap. They invited others on board for the race too - a young New Zealand teacher, a young teacher from CA, a person working in the education department from Australia, and a doctor and his wife (a nurse) from Nepal who are working here for 2 years. There was a get-together after the race at the Outrigger Hotel with free snacks, presentations of awards, and a generally noisy good time.

During our three weeks in Majuro we had lots of rain so were able to wash bedding and cushion covers as well as clothes. We were able to keep our tanks full of water too. It had been a long time since we'd had so much rain, so it was very welcome. We haven't had much rain here farther north, but do have enough water in our tanks for a month if we're conservative.

There are 3 major towns that make up the "city" in Majuro and it is mostly along one 5-mile stretch of the road which runs along the string of narrow islands of the atoll. At 30 miles long, this is the longest road in the Marshall Islands. There are many taxis that charge 50 cents per person per ride - whether you have lots of groceries or not, and no matter how far you ride. One day we visited the Alele Museum where we saw some old art and tools, learned a lot of Marshallese vocabulary, some about the country, and a lot about their outrigger sailing canoes. The library is just across the hall from the museum so we spent time there reading what little information they had about the outer atolls that we thought we might want to visit.

We were lucky to find an English cruiser who fixed our alternators for us. He checked the diodes and the brushes and replaced a stator in one of them. He also installed fancy new voltage regulators for each alternator, which should improve charging efficiency. Now we again were able to use both of our engines for charging our batteries. We'd only been able to use our starboard engine for charging since our electrical fire at Nonouti Atoll in Kiribati.

Before leaving Majuro for outer atolls we had to go to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to fill out a form for each atoll we wanted to visit. The people who work there contact the mayors of the atolls and get permission for each boat individually. The permission form states the cost of a yacht visit. Most of the atolls charge $25 but a few charge $50 or $100 and one charges $150. We decided that the atoll of Arno doesn't want yachts since they charge the most. We were thinking about going there because it is very close to Majuro and we could have sailed through its "Dodo Passage." We learned from experienced cruisers eating tacos that the people of Ailuk are very friendly and that the snorkeling is okay, that there are many sailing canoes, and the diving isn't great. That sounded good to us since we love meeting the locals and don't dive. We anticipated about 3 days to get permits to visit 5 atolls, but it took well over a week. Since it was taking so long, we spent the weekend of February 21st (our monthly anniversary) with 6 other cruising boats out at Anemwanot - an island of Majuro Atoll which is about 5 miles from the town. We walked around the whole island in a couple of hours, had a wonderful time snorkeling around the many coral heads, collected many purple sea urchin spines (for possible jewelry??), and saw a sunken "Sea Star Pacific" plane - sunk to provide growth for coral. On Sunday one of the women organized a picnic on the beach. We contributed yellowfin tuna while others made pasta dishes and salads. At the picnic we met a couple from PA who are working for 2 years at the US Embassy here, and Jerry played petanque (like bocce ball) on the beach. The day ended with both of us getting cuts on the bottom of our feet needing antibiotic cream and bandages. This beach close to town often has beer parties and has lots of broken glass so we should have known better than to go barefooted, but....

(view Majuro photos)

In Majuro we met a Dartmouth professor who lives in Thetford and is in charge of about 20 Dartmouth students teaching here for 1 year. We received our mail forwarded from Norwich and Weare, our camera battery and CD of digital photos of Asia before leaving, and will hopefully have the rest of our mail waiting for us when we return about the end of March. We filed our income taxes; saw the third Lord of the Rings Movie "Return of the King" - a deal at $3; filled our fuel tanks; stocked up on food (with a 10% senior discount card); bought a Marshallese music CD; bought cloth (to make skirts and shorts for kids); got back issues of The Marshall Islands Journal (a weekly newspaper), 50# of rice, 12# of sugar, 4 jars of instant coffee, 60 packets of ramen noodles and a gallon of kerosene to use for trade with the islanders. That rice is now all gone, and only a little sugar and a few packets of noodles are left. The last supply ship arrived in Ailuk in December and the store here is out of all of the above. The islanders absolutely love rice and we wish we had known that there was none on the island as we could have brought more and given some to more families.

Finally on the 25th of February we got all our permissions. We dropped our mooring, went to Anemwanot for the night, cleaned the weeds off the bottom of the boat and made final preparations for the sail north. After a 3 week stay we finally escaped the Marshall Island capitol on the 26th of February and had a rough sail (25-30 knot winds) 236 miles north to Ailuk. We started sailing at 8 knots, but it was very uncomfortable in the lumpy seas, so we reduced sail, slowed down to 4-5 knots and felt much better. We caught a 3' wahoo, but weren't up to eating it so froze it and ate ramen noodles for two nights. Bouncing over waves , we broke a nice ceramic platter that we'd commissioned and rented a car in New Zealand to obtain. Books came off shelves, bread dough fell, our mask from Vanuatu fell off the wall and we had to keep all windows and hatches closed to keep salt spray out. We got chilly during our watches for the first time in ages, and Jerry even put on a t-shirt one night. We saw the big dipper and the north star while on the boat for the first time since 1998; heard about Cyclone Ivy near Vanuatu; hit a couple of square waves; saw some shooting stars during the night and rainbows during the early morning and late afternoons and saw lots of flying fish.

At 1:15 on the 28th of February we had our anchor down near Ailuk village. One boat from Houston, TX was already anchored nearby. We went ashore for a little over 2 hours. We didn't find Emai (the fee-taker) at home, but walked down the one short, sand street used only for walking and for bicycles. There are no thatched roofs, and the houses are all American-style, though many are not much better than shacks. One family invited us to sit and talk. Kesia (mother of 5 and grandmother of 6) was making "macondrule" which we never had before. She gave us each a bowl of squeezed pandanus - made from the big pandanus fruits. To us it looked like squash or pumpkin and tasted similar with a hint of apple - very good stuff. Then she formed the rest of it into small balls, rolled them in grated coconut, and wrapped them in pandanus leaves to steam for their Sunday dinner. We had taken a 5# bag of rice and some Marshall Island Journal newspapers ashore and since they were the only ones to invite us into their yard we gave them the goodies. Kesia's husband, Like, showed us his "Marshallese microwave" - a box 5' high of welded iron that they can smoke fish in (to sell in Majuro), bake bread, etc. This family started teaching us some Marshallese words and now we have 2 typewritten pages to refer to when we are with those who don't speak English. We learned that there was no rice, sugar, or coffee on the island at this time, so they REALLY appreciated the rice. On our way back to the dinghy we met Mojohn (whom the villagers call "the old man"). He has the largest outrigger canoe on the island and has sailed it the 200+ miles to Majuro in the non-windy season of June - August. He took another couple from a cruising boat sailing with him and we're hoping to get to sail in one of the many canoes here at Ailuk Atoll too. When we got back to the dinghy Emai, the island clerk, was there to receive our $25 fee.

There are houses on 4 of Ailuk Atoll's islands with the majority of the 500 people living in the village on Ailuk Island. The many uninhabited islands all have owners who sail out for food, firewood and copra. The price the islanders get for a bag of copra here seems to be a little less than they get in Kiribati. Here they get $12 US a bag, while in Kiribati they got $20 Australian (maybe $15 US, but we aren't sure of the present exchange rate). It's a lot of hard work for a little cash.

On the 29th Jerry found time to install more of the new things we received in the mail - a new light to replace a broken one and a new fan to replace a rusted one. He also unstuck some of our cabinet door locks, which we had locked on our rough trip and then couldn't unlock - the salty atmosphere at work again. Our SSB radio started having problems this day, and is still not working. We want this fixed before we go to sea again. We really like to be able to hear weather reports, produced for this area by a station in Hawaii. We had 5 male visitors for about an hour and a half in the evening. We ended up buying a large bunch of bananas and trading for lobsters, pumpkins, drinking coconuts ("ni"), and more bananas. They really liked listening to our newly acquired Marshallese CD which has been very popular with all our other visitors too.

Monday, March 1st was a public holiday so the children had no school. It was the 50th anniversary of the BRAVO atomic bomb on Bikini Atoll - UCK!! Many people here are still filing claims because of various forms of cancer caused by this test, and two or three atolls are still uninhabitable because of it. We had 17 visitors wanting to trade for the beautiful covered baskets made on the island and for drinking nuts and fruit. We ended up trading away most of our rice, sugar, coffee, and noodles and buying a couple of things. We also gave some of our many writing notebooks and pencils away & some Turks Head bracelets that Jerry made, along with other things we had on the boat and didn't want any more. The younger children got to choose a toy from a bagful that our friend Sue gave us in Tauranga, New Zealand. In return for the above we got 8 lobsters, drinking nuts, papayas, and baskets. Near the end of the day we had our first 2 female visitors when Dije and her 16 year old neighbor Karen paddled a canoe to our boat. They were delightful, and we have since met their families and spent more time with them. One night Dije brought a chicken she had killed and dressed along with some cockles ("jukke"). Nina made some rice and baked some pumpkin and bread to go with the meal. We ended up having 8 people at the table for dinner. We learned that they don't use forks here, but do use spoons rather than eating with their fingers like the people did on many of the islands we've visited in the South Pacific. Nina doesn't care if she ever has as many lobsters at one time again. She took meat out of bodies and claws for 4 hours after all the guests left the boat. We had 3 meals of lobster, including lobster newburg which turned out extremely well.

March 2nd found us in trading mode again, but we had only 9 visitors. We did find time to venture ashore to talk with some of those we'd met already and to meet some new friends. The small children enjoyed eating the popped corn we took ashore. Jerry took many photos and showed those photographed what they looked like on his digital camera. Most had huge smiles and thanked him. We chomped on stringy boiled pandanus fruit at one house and Jerry was dealing with string caught in his teeth the rest of our time ashore. We took a walk around the island, visiting the sandy airstrip and beachcombing. We saw women making handicrafts, and passed deep pits for taro like those we saw in Kiribati. After returning to the boat a canoe with two young boys came by asking to borrow a bailer as they had tipped over in the waves created by the 25-30 knot winds. Mile was very cold so we gave him a dry T-shirt and we gave them both some "American" food. When Mile's friend went to put his baked pumpkin skin overboard he dropped our plate to the bottom of the sea too. It was 25' deep and Jerry's limit is about 15'.

The number of visitors eased up on March 3rd. Two canoes came by about 8 am and Jerry asked them to return later since we were barely awake. They were youngish visitors and had been to the boat before. After getting our eyes opened we took some fish hooks to Emai and some sugar to Kesia. Emai, who is Mile's father, dived and easily retrieved our plate. We gave him a T- shirt and he drank coffee with us. (All the adults here REALLY like coffee - unlike some other island nations we've visited). He told us about an island 30 miles away that they sail to around Christmas and Easter to get turtles. Apparently there are many turtles there and they are easy to get. Shortly after Emai left we decided to head north, away from the village so that we could swim, snorkel, write and read. However, that was not meant to be on this day. While pulling up our anchor, we had a short-circuit of some kind and had to use one of our fire extinguishers to put out 2 electrical fires. Thank goodness for fire extinguishers! Another scary time, and a reminder of our experience in Nonouti. After the fires were out we took wall boards off. While Nina sanded burn marks and put on more varnish Jerry started deciphering the problem and got out more new wire to replace that which was ruined in the fire. After dark Patrick delivered a new oar that he (or someone) made for us. We no longer had a spare oar and couldn't buy one in Majuro. Patrick was interested in drinking toddy with Jerry, but it was rather late and we'd had a trying day so Patrick returned home after a short visit.

Nine boys, ages 9 - 15, visited us on the 4th of March. Six of the nine sailed two canoes in 25-30 knot winds and did very well with their sailing. We had seen many canoes returning from outer islands with copra and pandanus. At least 3 returned with ripped sails because of the strong winds. When they went out in the morning the wind had died down and they had good sailing conditions. This was our second day of no trading. The boys enjoyed using our handlines and unthawed bait to fish, and they took turns using our binoculars. They also enjoyed peanut butter on bread. (Maybe we're back to Americanization these days north of the equator - i.e., peanut butter is favored over vegemite.) Junior (one of our favorites) gave us some ripe pandanus fruit that hadn't been cooked, so we had another 1st experience. It was good, but a little too stringy for us to want to eat very much of it very often. This was the day that we gave away the last of the bag of toys we had. Nina did most of the entertaining this day while Jerry continued to fix wiring.

Dije (pronounced DC - the "j" in Marshallese is a bit like our "s" - the woman who killed a chicken for us and chickens are killed only for special occasions on the islands) and her cousin Joe were our only visitors on Friday the 5th. She had gone to her outer island for a couple of days and made us each a necklace. She came from the island of Utirik further north and married a man here. They have 3 children ages 10 - 14. While beautiful baskets are the main handicrafts made in Ailuk, beautiful bleached coconut leaf string and shell necklaces are the pride of Utirik. Nina talked with them for 3 hours, but after about an hour Jerry felt he needed to get back to replacing wires from the fire. Joe told us that his outer island is Ajirikku and that there are many large crabs there. He invited us to join him, his wife and 7- month old son there when the wind calmed down and he'd go with us to find a couple of crabs.

Saturday the 6th of March, Jerry had enough wiring replaced to test our starboard engine, but at 1:00 we were invaded by 11 nice young boys who stayed for three hours. They got entertainment and food as on previous occasions. Today Nina had made a datenut bread to share and they really liked that. This was also the day that Dije brought the chicken and her husband and his 2 friends gave us two fish they had speared. Emai visited later, and asked if we were millionaires! He offered us a beautiful branch of black coral, but we refused because it is an endangered species which is not allowed in many countries.

Today, the 7th we motored into the wind for 10 miles to escape the visitors and have time to write some letters. It is still windy, generally 25 knots of strong trade winds, but the present anchorage at Ajirikku Island is more protected from the waves than the anchorage near the village. We love all the people, but it is good to have some time to ourselves too. We are looking forward to staying here a few days to finish some of our many boat projects and wait for Joe and his family to arrive with their sailing outrigger.

(view Ailuk photos)

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