"Arctracer" Letters

Funafuti, Tuvalu to Tarawa, Kiribati, Oct-Nov 2003

We have completed our slow passage from Funafuti, Tuvalu to Tarawa, Kiribati. It took us ten days to do the 780 miles, which is really slow going for our boat. This was not unexpected, however, since the winds are generally light in this area, calms are common, and storms almost unknown. We started on October 23 with three other cruising boats. The wind was not bad for the first day, but stopped after we had gone 68 miles. The sea stayed glassy calm for all of the next day. The other boats started motoring, but we simply read and relaxed. The wind finally started making small ripples, and we started sailing slowly, but for much of the trip we traveled slower than most people walk, and our speedometer often read 0. We got some bursts of speed when big thunderheads came near with localized winds, and even caught a small striped tuna, but relaxing was the main theme of this passage. The big event was crossing the equator. We entered the northern hemisphere at 9:09 pm on October 31, Halloween. This is the first time our catamaran has been north of the line which we crossed southbound in 1998 on our schooner approaching the Galapagos. We had champagne to celebrate. We finally anchored at Tarawa on Sunday, November 2. The other boats which we started with had arrived several days before us, seen Tarawa, and were gone already.

So now we are in another country which most people know nothing about. It is a fairly new country, formed in 1979 from British colonies known previously as the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands, Banaba and some of the Line Islands. There are 33 islands altogether, situated approximately 4 degrees on either side of the equator and stretching from 157W to 173E, a distance of about 2400 miles. The ocean area covered is nearly one and one-half million square miles but the land area is only 312 square miles. Three time zones are included, but all are on the same side of the International Date Line, which makes its greatest zig-zag here. The people in eastern Kiribati are the world's first to see the light of a new day, with their clocks set to GMT + 14. In 1990 there were only 70,000 people in the whole country. Almost all the land consists of low coral atolls where people live a traditional life focused mainly on coconuts and fish. Like so many other places, however, people are drawn to the big city, so Tarawa has about one-third of the population now. With an average of 4.5 children born to each Kiribati woman, population pressure is a serious problem in Tarawa.

The language is Micronesian rather than Polynesian, and has some novel features for us. The name of the country is pronounced "Kiri-bahs" because "ti" at the end of a word signals pronunciation "s". The atoll Nonouti is pronounced "No-noose", which we assume is good news. English is the official language, but we have seen that even in Tarawa not everyone understands it. We are trying to learn "mauri" (hello), "ko rabwa" (thank you - silent "w"), "tia boo" (goodbye - say "sa po"), and "tikiraoi" (it is very good - say "see-gee-ree").

Officials here usually go out to an arriving boat to inspect it and process paperwork, but when they saw our dinghy they decided our papers could be done on shore and they did not need to visit our boat. It was good exercise to row back and forth a few times in the hot sun to get the paperwork completed. Australian dollars are used here, and when I immediately brought out two Australian $50 bills to pay our visa charges ($40 each) they were surprised, and could not generate any change. We had to take a bus ride to the neighboring town that afternoon to pay the fee at the Immigration office. When we got there we waited for 20 minutes while the same official I saw in the morning waited on three local people, and then he told us to go to the building next door to pay and get a receipt. When we returned with the receipt he stamped our passports. We asked for two months visa which he said was fine, but then he wrote the expiration date "12/3/03" (month first is the usual way here). When we said we really wanted two months, he said okay but was puzzled about how to fix what he had already done. We suggested changing to "12/31/03", an easy fix which made us all happy. Nina usually lets Jerry handle all the officials, and this experience convinced her she was doing the right thing.

Tarawa seems to us much like Funafuti - very crowded and poor - but with even more people. They do have a working system of busses - private vans which will pick up and drop off people anywhere along the main road for 70 cents per ride. Most of the vans are well-worn, they often travel full (perhaps 23 people in a normal size van), and the volume of the music is controlled by the (usually deaf?) driver, but they provide a reasonable way of getting around the atoll. There are stores which provide basics, but they depend on container ships for fresh foods, so supplies are variable at best. Right now there are two container ships here, which is very unusual. A ship usually arrives only about once each month. We have been trying (unsuccessfully) to buy bananas, which are also imported because the soil of Tarawa is poor. The people seem very polite, but we have heard of crime and social problems typical of poor, overcrowded places with few job opportunities. Some cruisers call this an awful place, but except for heat, dust, graffiti and trash we have not seen anything bad. On the other hand, there are few attractions here, and we will soon move to other atolls to see more traditional island life.

World War II left a lasting impression here. The Japanese seized control in early 1942 and fortified Betio (say "Bay-sho"). After Guadalcanal, the U.S. Marines rode landing craft right through our present anchorage to attack the beaches on November 20, 1943, and a terrible battle raged for 72 hours before the Japanese forces were eliminated. The allies then used the airfield here to bomb Japanese installations in the Marshall Islands, (north where we will go next). There are still rusting tanks, ships, big guns, and concrete bunkers scattered about. We have seen some, but are not so keen on reliving the battle that we want to take the all-day tour which is offered. They are planning some sort of memorial service on the 60th anniversary.

Yesterday was election day in the US, but of much greater significance here it was Melbourne Cup Day. This is the biggest day in Australia, when everybody stops work early, parties, and watches the horse race. The Australian High Commission invited all of us on yachts, plus nearly all of the other European types on Tarawa, to their party. It was interesting to talk with Foreign Service people, consultants and contractors of various nationalities, expatriots now residing here, Peace Corps workers, and other cruisers. There was betting of course, a fancy hat contest, and plenty of conversation. After the horse race they watched the World Cup Rugby game between Australia and Ireland. Jerry was unable to root loudly for underdog Ireland in those surroundings. They closed down as soon as the game was over, so it was not a very late night out, but fun.

The weather here is pretty hot, since we are just one degree north of the equator. It doesn't rain often here, but we caught a good squall just after arriving and have full water tanks. Officially it is Fall, but this really is the land of endless Summer.