Kiribati & Marshall Islands

First Exposure to Micronesia

We made a 700 nm passage from Funafuti, Tuvalu to Tarawa, Kiribati, which took us four nights and the better part of five days, starting off with good fresh winds in the low 20s but finishing up with so little we had to motor.  The only real excitement occurred one day at exactly one p.m. as I was at the nav station filling in the hourly log, and I heard a sudden loud thump and leaped back up into the cockpit to ascertain what had happened.  I quickly noticed astern something in the water, so decided to investigate and we dropped the mainsail and furled the genoa and motored back.  As is our normal practice as we make passages, we troll fishing lines, I using a hand line and Glen using a rod and reel, and I got my line under control and didn’t consider Glen’s and as we returned and circled the object we had hit  a FAD (fish accumulation device) that had about ten cantaloupe-size floats tied together to form a log, netting, and an electronic location device – Glen’s line got hung up on the FAD.  He mentioned that on the line was his favourite lure, so, feeling responsible for allowing his line to foul, I rashly decided to don my snorkel gear and retrieve his lure. 

At the time we were in water that was about 4400 meters (14,435 ft.) deep, and I plunged in the water about 30 meters away from the FAD and swam about ten meters when I saw a shark, and thinking that this is not a reef shark but a pelagic one and recalling that one of the most aggressive sharks, notorious for chomping on survivors of sunken ships in WWII, is the oceanic white-tip shark, I instantly turned tail and swam as fast as possible towards Backbeat.

I often jest with the guys about my Olympic swimmer physique, but Glen said that on this occasion I truly would have merited a gold medal.  I literally flew aboard without using the swim ladder, just kicking with my fins and pivoting on my arms, and Glen said three sharks were almost within striking distance.  He said they looked identical at about five feet long and were all gray, so likely not oceanic white-tips.  In retrospect I imagine they were more curious than aggressive.

The odds of hitting something as small as that FAD in the immensity of the Pacific where we pass days, even weeks without seeing other vessels, are astronomical, I would think.  It depends, of course, on the relative FAD density in the area and because of all the tuna clippers and longliners we later saw, evidently that area was heavily dotted with FADs, as we saw another one a hundred meters or so away from the boat a few days later.

Within a day or so of that incident we crossed the equator and each of us jumped in (always with someone aboard) right where our GPS gave the latitude as 0’00”.00 N, but still a bit skittish from the earlier fright, after I dove in I immediately returned to the swim ladder and climbed out.  It was Glen’s first crossing and he was quite jovial and animated.

Tarawa is not a pleasant place.  Its great problem is that it is heavily overpopulated with 53,000 people on a just a sliver of a coral island, making for a population density of 5,200 people per square kilometer, which it higher than London’s.  Worse, they have a high birth rate and the population is expected to double in the next 17 years.  Indeed the streets of Tarawa are bustling with young people, mostly junior- and high-school-age kids, apparently having come from outer islands for their education.  Everywhere one goes one is confronted with crowds of young people in school uniforms, and it appeared to us that educating them is the largest single segment of the economy.  In the extensive lagoon there were a couple of tuna clippers, but also many wrecked boats, almost a ship graveyard, and there appeared to be no coconut plantations or other apparent source of industry and so other than foreign aid (Kiribati like Tuvalu uses the Australian dollar and is dependent on the Aussies and several Asian countries) I see no practical way for the country to maintain itself.  The nicest buildings and the best maintained grounds were those of the foreign embassies:  the Australian, the Taiwanese, and Chinese.  Evidently the Chinese and Taiwanese have been bidding for Kiribati’s fishing rights and support in international forums, and because the Taiwanese are in the ascendancy at the moment, the Chinese ambassador has vacated their extensive property and only caretakers remain.

The president of Kiribati is Dr. Song, of Chinese ancestry.  His opponent in the last election was his brother.

Tarawa is so crowded the infrastructure is inadequate and, among other adaptations, many people use the lagoon as their toilet, quite evident in some spots from the stench.  There was quite a battle on Tarawa in WWII in which 4500 Japanese and 1600 Americans were killed over a three-day period, and when we went to look at a Japanese bunker and artillery piece overlooking a beach we stayed about thirty seconds because of the reeking air and foul ground.  Just riding back and forth from our anchorage to shore in our dinghy I covered my mouth for fear that if I ingested spray I might well develop an STD or hepatitis or leprosy.

The potable water supply in Tarawa is a major problem as sea levels rise and people pollute what little land there is, and there is also a crisis of where to bury the dead (throughout the Pacific islands dead were often buried at home in the front yard).  Some of the squatter dwellings are quite primitive, made entirely of local fibrous products like coconut palm logs holding up a thatched roof with elevated limbs serving as an airy slatted floor, the ceiling only of kneeling height around the edges, somewhat higher in the middle, the space not 10 X 20 ft.  Some separate sleeping huts are even smaller, appearing about 4 X 8 ft., while outdoor cooking edifices are similar to the larger dwellings without the elevated floors.  There were no outhouses evident as all these buildings had no walls, just thatched or tin roofs, and it was not clear where all these people deposited their sewage.

We rented a car and drove from one end of the island to the other.  Some of the island is fairly attractive with vegetation and there appeared to be less trash than on Funafuti.  At one place we stopped for lunch and across the road there appeared to be a market with about three traditional buildings with high-pitched roofs that at the edge were only about four feet high, but we noticed lots of people within, squatting and lying about.  We asked the waitress about it and she said it was the hospital overflow facility – open-air but covered, patients lying on the ground cared for by family, laundry strung up to dry everywhere (we had thought they were wares for sale).  There appeared to be hundreds of people.

The people of Tarawa were not very friendly on the street, but seemed nice enough when confronted and asked for directions and that sort of thing.  All appeared to speak basic English, and seemed to have a gentle nature.  One thing fairly unique about the people of Tarawa and all the Pacific islanders we have seen over the years is that there appears to be no great disparity of wealth, everyone within a rung or two or everyone else, no Mercedes or exclusive gated communities, or even fine neighborhoods, rather a few homes were nice, what in America would be lower middle-class, and everything else of a lesser standard.  They don’t seem as materialistic, but I am not certain about that.

With few exceptions all young men everywhere we have been so far in all the countries, whether the cities or the outer atolls, have adopted the hip-hop look with funky hair, baseball caps, NBA shirts, pierced ears, tattoos, goatees, and hand gestures with fingers spread, often pointed down.  Like American youngsters, they all want to be ‘cool’ more than anything.  In Tuvalu some older men and many officials still wore the wrap-around cloths like sarongs or lava-lavas instead of trousers, but no young people that we noticed dressed traditionally.  Kiribati and the Marshall Islands are Micronesian and not Polynesian and apparently no men wear such wrap-arounds any longer. 

Women, on the hand, seemed to dress more traditionally, although jeans and t-shirts are common on girls.  In the Marshall Islands almost every adult woman wears a mu-mu (sp? and not sure of the term) which is a shapeless one-piece short-sleeved dress calf-high, all printed to my eye in tacky patterns and unattractive colors.  Everyone everywhere in the Pacific wears flip-flops (‘jandals’ in NZ, ‘Chinese work boots’ Aussies call them).

Because of the pollution, the lack of things to do (especially since we were afraid to get in the water), the fact that the Kiribati government refuses to allow us cruisers to visit outer atolls without having to sail all the way back to Tarawa to clear out, and because John was eager to move on to Majuro where he returned to the US, we stayed only three nights in Kiribati, cleared out with Customs and Immigration, and sailed another 350 nm north to Majuro in the Marshall Islands, which is much more cruiser friendly.

Looking back on Tarawa as we were sailing away from her, we saw a natural phenoma we had read about but never experienced:  greenish clouds.  I have read over the years several books about traditional navigation, and one of the ways one can detect an atoll and likely land (note:  not all atolls show above water) is to see a green tint on the underside of clouds, which is a reflection of the turquoise water of a shallow lagoon.

I also saw the most vivid falling star I have ever seen one early morning while on watch, a yellowish-orange flame-like streak suddenly right in front of us, moving east to west, angled downward, and I halfway expected to see a splash in the water and hear the hiss of steam.  We see a good number of falling stars in the many hours we spend looking at the night skies while on watch, but this one set a new standard for me, although later one night Glen and I were both in the cockpit dealing with an oncoming squall when I noticed a flash and saw that Glen’s face was illuminated.  He said, “Did you see that?”, and I replied that yes, I noticed the lightning in my peripheral vision and he said that it wasn’t lightning but a falling star, or could it have been a flare?

Rainbows are quite common as there has been frequent localized and brief rain which, added to the unimpeded views on the open ocean and good sun angles allowed by our due-north course all the way from New Zealand to the Marshalls, provide ideal conditions for their production, including double rainbows.  The rainbows occasionally seem to terminate in water not a hundred yards away, the terminus quite clear, almost so near you could grab it.

We also regularly see frolicking dolphins that like to ride our bow waves, and quite often we are able to admire seabirds such as shearwaters and boobies as they glide just over the surface of the sea hunting fish, especially flying fish, which themselves soar amazing distances.  But there are many hours when we see nothing but wave and cloud and blue sky, and look forlornly at our trailing fishing lines, and our minds wander to visions of restaurants, ice cream, female companionship, family, friends, the internet . . . .

Approaching Majuro at night we detected her light loom about 50 nm away.  The Marshall Islands are independent (they refer to their country officially as RMI, the Republic of . . .) but have a close compact with the US and use the US dollar as their currency and receive a good deal of American aid, not least because of missile testing on Kwajalein, the largest atoll in the world, and previous nuclear weapons testing on Bikini.  It is even immediately apparent on the streets of Majuro that, in American fashion, their schoolkids don’t wear uniforms and the main sport is baseball (Glen was crestfallen when, after explaining that he was from New Zealand, he asked a fairly well-educated Marshallese whether the fellow liked the All Blacks, and the man had not only never heard of them but he had never even heard of rugby, which is the main sport in Kiribati and Tuvalu not far to the south).  As a result of their American connection infrastructure in the RMI is the best we have seen, with good roads (Tarawa, by the way, had some of the worst I have ever suffered on anywhere in the world) with many private vehicles and lots of cheap taxis ($.75 per ride), good shopping, and fiber optic communications with by far the fastest connections at internet cafes we have used  and apparently powerful street lighting and enough generating capacity to flood the sky with light.

Once we entered the main pass into Majuro lagoon (often the entire atoll and lagoon is named after the largest inhabited island on the barrier reef) and proceeded the ten miles or so to the main anchorage we saw about twenty big tuna clippers, longliners, freighters, including container vessels, and the USS Phoenix, a supply sort of ship of the US Navy.  And once anchored and cleared in and the sun set, we could see from the glare through our ports on Backbeat that the light loom over Majuro was to a large extent due to the massive lighting on the ships, especially the fishing boats that illuminate their decks for night fishing and mostly run them at anchor, too.  Commercial shipping was about five times as great in Majuro as in Tarawa, as was the number of yachts (about 20).

One reason yachts favour the Marshall Islands is because one can clear out here and still go visit the outer atolls, something impossible in either Kiribati or Tuvalu.  I am not sure why commercial ships prefer it, but it is likely something to do with the much better infrastructure made possible by US assistance.  But we also heard that there are three bordellos in Majuro (consider how little they must charge a Chinese sailor who earns $50 a month).  And Majuro was filled with sailors, mostly Chinese or Filipino, whom we ran into everywhere and who passed by our boat at anchor a hundred times a day, being ferried in and out to their ships by incredibly loud one-cylinder diesel craft with dry-exhaust out one side.

John left us in Majuro and flew directly to Honolulu (about four and half hours) then onward.  A very good man, John was not at the top of his game due to various injuries and could not be as active as he wanted in handling the sailing gear and rigging nor could he participate in snorkelling and exploring as much as he would have liked.  After he left, Glen and I went for a sail on a traditional Marshallese sailing canoe with outrigger, which to us sailors was quite interesting, then filled the jerry cans and went grocery shopping and cleared out.  A yachtie acquaintance knowledgeable of our plans came by the night before our departure and asked if we would take along a native Marshallese to our first stop, Aur atoll, and we readily agreed.

The Marhallese man told us to call him James Bond and serves not as a secret agent but as the medical practitioner at Tabal, which is one of two populated islands at Aur.  We found out that a medical practitioner receives eight months of training, and delivers babies and dispenses medicine, among other things.   James Bond is 45 and the day after arrival he brought his wife, four of his seven children and his sole grandchild, a baby boy, out to visit us on Backbeat  actually we had to go get them:  they live on an atoll and do not have a boat!  The children, including a four-year-old girl, seemed listless, and the baby coughed a bit and James Bond informed us that they had the flu.  We provided them with our entire just-purchased supply of grapes and a can of Coke each and when they finished the cans they tossed them overboard.  I asked James Bond if that was allowed and he said yes, only in Majuro is it not allowed to throw cans into the lagoon.

James Bond speaks a passable English (it took me a day to figure out that when he said ‘blondie’ he meant to pronounce ‘plenty’:  for example, 'blondie coconuts’, ‘blondie babies’), but his family were capable of just a couple of words like ‘bye-bye!’  No one else on Tabal seemed to speak much English other than James brother, a teacher at the primary school (65 pupils – high school is on another atoll).

The Marshallese are not friendly and would not greet us unless greeted first, rarely smile, never laugh as far as we could tell, and have what seemed to us a surly attitude, but it is likely a cultural difference that is more properly described differently and which I am ignorant of.  Perhaps they feel intimidated by westerners, maybe are resentful towrds Americans, or perhaps they are repressed by the strong community demands of their culture, or maybe they are fatalistic since neither they nor their islands have much of a future with the rise in sea levels – I just know they all appeared neither happy nor content.

Sunday we went in on our dinghy to attend the Protestant Church at Tabal (there is also an Assembly of God), and when we were hauling the dinghy up the beach past the high-tide line, we noticed a woman about my age fifty yards or so away as she walked from the village down to the beach, enter the lagoon, turn to face the shore, then start lifting her mu-mu as she squatted in the water, eyeing us to see if we were eyeing her.  I have never looked so intently away from anything in my life.

The Protestant Church was attended by about a dozen women, a half-dozen men, a dozen children, and three dogs who slept through it all, one just in front and a bit to the right of the pulpit.  The preacher was about my age, I would guess, but quite decrepit, barely able to walk in a shuffling sort of movement and with a voice barely whisper-loud, and spoke maybe a dozen words of English when we visited with him prior to the service.  The singing was led by a big woman with a shrill voice who stood from her seat on a bench, the men barely audible.  

We have noticed several common practices among the churches in Polynesian Tuvalu and Micronesian Kiribati and Marshall Islands.  People are called to church by the ringing of a ‘bell’, all of which we have seen are used acetylene bottles with an end cut off hung from a stand and struck with a carpenter’s hammer.  In church men invariably sit on the left, women to the right.  In Tuvalu we left our sandals at the entrance, a common practice everywhere in Asia and Pacific when entering homes and temples, but not in the Marshalls.  Singing begins with one voice, a woman’s so far, and then others follow her pitch, more or less.  Services last about 45 minutes and there is one Sunday morning and one in the evening.  No one is allowed to do any work Sunday, James Bond explaining that in the Marshall Islands the women even cook on Saturday in preparation for the day of rest, which was not true in Nukufetau, an outer atoll in Tuvalu that we visited and where we had a massive freshly-cooked spread at Sunday lunch with the preacher.

On a bush walk – a walk through the jungle – with James Bond on Tabal at Aur atoll, we saw a bottle hung from a tree and he explained that people tear bits of old bibles and put them into the bottles and hang them throughout the bush to ward off evil spirits.  He also told us that in May for three nights a strange orange glow was in the sky from the direction of Kwajalein, location of the American test facility, and many islanders thought it portended the end of the world.  Later we heard from a yachtie who worked there that they were conducting ‘atmospheric research’ with the largest radar in the world, 250 megawatts strong, I think he said.

After a couple of days we tired of snorkelling the same reefs and set sail for the next atoll, Maloelap, around 35 nm to the north, anchorage to anchorage, where we anchored next to a sunken Japanese freighter whose two non-sail masts projected out of the water thirty feet or more vaguely resembling minarets, although one at a precarious angle.  We enjoyed very much snorkelling around, over and in the ship and saw there some of the biggest fish we have seen so far – I had no idea that the usual hand-sized angelfish came in a supersize of about two and half feet, and we also saw grouper and snapper four feet or longer.  Maloelap was a major base for the Japanese but the US, after knocking out their air cover, never attacked amphibiously and by-passed it, although bombing it from the air regularly, cutting off their supplies and leaving them to starve.  The amount of wreckage there was unbelievable:  fortifications of all sorts including artillery pieces still pointing out to sea, pill boxes, hangars, fuel tanks, bomb shelters, other concrete buildings, acres of asphalt paving and some concrete, short rail lines and equipment, generators, machine equipment like lathes, hundreds of bomb craters, a dozen or more wrecked aircraft, most with bullet holes and propellers still intact, and a good deal of unexploded ordnance.  Walking on a beach one day we found an eight-inch long shell, corroded but still live, and what appeared to be a mine (we have photos, below, and will research someday).  In the hangars were tens of what appeared to our untrained eyes as bombs for aircraft.  Along the shore we found spent artillery casings and a handful of small arms ammunition which looked from a distance like .22 shells but on closer examination were only the projectiles and without casings.

In the sunken freighter in what appeared to be the galley, Glen found and retrieved an unbroken bottle with Japanese script embossed in the glass, but the label was unreadable.  The next day we returned it.  I found on shore a corroded and bent medallion that had been riveted to something, probably equipment, from ‘Mori & Co.’ in both English and Japanese.

From what we gather from the few people we spoke with about the war, the Marshallese seem to still harbour a grudge against the Japanese.  One said the Japanese killed his grandfather for eating food without permission and that the Japanese killed about fifty people of the three hundred in his village.  Another said that the Japanese intended on exterminating the Marshallese if they won the war and resettle all these atolls with Japanese.  There is a Japanese memorial on Maloelap and we were told that up until a few years ago Japanese tourists would regularly fly in and bring food and alcoholic drinks and have some sort of ceremony where old people cried.

Our guide there, a young man named Lang, ultimately invited us to his house so we might fix his walkie-talkie.  Like all houses in the village his had tidy, recently raked grounds, was built of cinder block and a corrugated roof, with a couple of ramshackle outbuildings for cooking, a chicken coop, a hog pen, etc., built of local and scavenged materials.  He told us he and his wife share the house with his brother and his wife.  It was one room, about 15 ft. X 25 ft. and was totally bare of furniture except for one cheap white plastic chair.  There were not even any mats to sleep on save one locally made of pandanus leaves.

After a couple of days at Maloelap, where the snorkelling was the best so far on our trip, the corals plentiful and mostly healthy, along with sponges, gorgonians, anemones, large Christmas-tree seaworms, and abundant other sea life, we moved on to the next atoll, Wotje, about 70 nm away on an overnight passage in light, easy winds and almost a full moon.

Wotje was also the scene of a big Japanese base and there are lots of relics, including a sunken freighter that never covers and is interesting to snorkel on.  In my mind, all the relics came to be so much junk, just rusted metal and slabs of concrete, and offer little of interest after seeing the initial couple of pieces.  There is so much of it!  We dove on the wreck, found good snorkelling nowhere else at Wotje and decided to leave, having had enough of the atolls and the Marshallese. 

This is a sailing voyage first and foremost, after all, and while we enjoy short excursions and snorkelling and seeing interesting highlights of island culture, our main focus is not beaches, fish or people, but making miles, completing a journey.  We plan to make it to the Philippines before calling this sailing season to a close, and we still have over 2500 nm to go, and that thought in the back of our minds foments a sense of bored familiarity more readily than if we weren’t living by a schedule and our focus was instead on learning more about the islands and their people.

I am writing sitting at the helm, sailing under marvelous steady conditions wing-on-wing (headsail out to one side, mainsail out to the other) more than 24 hours now with no big change in the forecast, looking, alas, at my inactive trolling line, but only one meter waves, forty percent cloud cover, eighteen knots of wind directly over the stern, pleasant temperatures, enjoying the passage immensely overall, yet eager to reach Kosrae (500 NM from Wotje) in the Federated States of Micronesia and its mountains and rivers and restaurants and, of course, internet access.

(July 2013)

                  Japanese fortifications on trash-strewn Tarawa beach, Kiribati                                                                   

     Maloelap, Marshall Islands, Kelly between sunken Japanese ship & Backbeat

               Live but rusted shell (anti-aircraft?) on beach, Marshall Islands

                                           Mine?  Marshall Islands beach

                                  Zero with bullet holes, Marshall Islands

                        Glen on beach with fortifications, Marshall Islands

                             Kelly with Protestant preacher, Marshall Islands

                               Exuberant Kiwi at sunset in Marshall Islands

© R. Kelly Wright 2014