Ailuk and Likiep
The mayor’s boat
Soaking wet we take turns sitting in the cockpit. It is pitch-black, the moon is nowhere to be seen because of the heavy clouds and we have closed off the saloon entrance, because the wind is coming from behind us and blows the rain straight into the cockpit. Squall after squall washes over us. We are on our way to Ailuk, one of the atolls of the Marshall Islands. Yesterday we finally left Majuro behind after we had postponed this trip to other islands twice.
The second night is even worse than the first: the rain just won’t stop, but we are making good progress. We sail with the foresail boomed out on the spinnaker pole, and our Bouvaan can easily handle the course.
Fortunately, the sun is shining on the morning we enter the lagoon of Ailuk; we need this to avoid the coral bombs. We sail within the atoll for three hours in beautiful weather and slowly but surely the waves are becoming smaller as we approach the island of Ailuk (the main island of the Ailuk atoll). We find a sandy spot among the coral where we drop our anchor, and then it’s finally calm.
The next morning we have just sat down for breakfast when a man rows up to our boat and asks if he can come on board. He turns out to be the acting mayor of Ailuk and we throw him a line so he can tie up his canoe. We offer him a cup of coffee and a biscuit. We are surprised and dumbfounded to see him take four biscuits from our biscuit tin. Is it part of their culture to take this many biscuits or is he just plain rude? Later we learn that it is part of the local culture: get what you can while you can when it comes to food. We offer him the official entry form, pay 50 dollars, and while we are chatting in the cockpit we suddenly see his canoe float away. He doesn’t bat an eyelid and doesn’t do anything. There’s hardly any wind and it is easy to catch up with the canoe, so Hans puts on his swimming trunks and dives after it. Climbing into the canoe appears not to be that easy without making it keel over, so Hans swims back to Happy holding the canoe line in his hand. Hans doesn’t even get so much as a thank you when he is back on board. We try to teach the mayor a good knot, but that doesn’t really catch on either.
Masters of sailing
Ailuk is famous for the many sailing canoes which are used here. No throbbing outboard motors, but traditional small sailing boats which are often used for daily trips between the islands. The canoes have two hulls: a big one which contains the mast and the rudder, and a smaller one for balance. In between the two hulls is a platform which is used to transport goods or passengers. To be able to change tack, the mast has to be moved from the forward deck to the back, and the rudder from the back to the forward deck. In other words: the forward deck and the back change places. The small boats are mainly used to transport copra. First, people collect coconuts, which are cracked open, after which the flesh is removed and dried in the sun. The dried flesh is put in bags and transported by the canoes. Once every few months a ship picks up the bags of copra and transports them to Majuro. In Majuro, the coconut oil is squeezed out of the copra.
Copra is the most important source of income. In addition, the women of the atoll make beautiful handmade articles. These are swapped for other goods or money.
We are invited to sail on a sailing canoe and are surprised at the speed. With only ten knots of wind they skim over the water at a speed of at least eight knots. Normally, they just sail from one island to the next, so they don’t need to change tack. On our scenic trip we have to turn around halfway, so we get to experience how the boat is “converted” to sail back in the direction we came from. First they slow it down by tacking, after which the sail is reefed up. While the mast and the rudder are being moved, we are floating on the crystal clear water for a couple of moments, but soon the sail is hoisted completely again and we sail back at full speed. That was a very special experience for us.
After two weeks at Ailuk, on a beautiful day we sail to the island of Enejelar on the other side of the atoll. This is the only other place where people live: all the other islands around the 15 km long lagoon are uninhabited. There are only five families living here and we meet the teachers of a small school. With our laptop we show a slideshow of our trip, and the film Ice Age is a highlight for the children, especially because they hardly have electricity here. The small houses in which the people live only have one solar panel which can feed one small light for the evenings.
We swap all sorts of goods, such as flour, rice, sugar, instant coffee and soap, for beautiful handicraft. They only speak a little bit of English and it is sometimes difficult to communicate with them. In addition, several letters, such as F and V, do not exist in the Marshallese alphabet, so they say “handicrapt” instead of “handicraft”.
Our boat is anchored close to a coral reef, it was the only place with a reasonable piece of sand in which the anchor chain has enough room to turn with the wind. It’s a full moon and there’s a king tide, which means the water is extra high and extra low. One morning we see the coral sticking out from the water, which looks beautiful but also a little threatening, because the wind is now coming from the wrong direction. We need to move Happy and we find another location with plenty of space. Just to be sure we also drop a rear anchor. While we are doing this, the temperature of the motor is rising too high. Now what?? We drain the cooling water and discover that several of the tubes in the heat exchanger are leaking. We fill up the leaking tubes with epoxy, but it doesn’t help, the gauge keeps indicating a disturbingly high temperature.
We decide not to continue on to Likiep, as we initially intended, but to stay here for a bit longer and to go straight back to Majuro, so we don’t have to use the motor that much.
Return to Majuro and tsunami
On the last day of our trip back to Majuro, we calculate whether we will be able to enter the pass of the Majuro atoll before dark. We should be able to if we sail optimally, but that does mean we will have to roll up and unroll the headsail at every squall. We leave the mainsail reefed with one reef. It is hard work, the wind is very irregular and there’s a squall every half hour. We have blisters on our hands, but at around five we reach the pass, and it is still light. To be able to enter this pass, we have to sail straight into the wind, so we need the motor. With difficulty we manage to make progress against the strong wind, while a big fishing boat is approaching from the other direction. The motor temperature is rising again, how long will we be able to keep this up? We crawl along at less than two knots. At last the fishing boat has passed and we stop the motor. The pass is only just wide enough to tack. We can see light blue spots which mark dangerously shallow coral bombs and we constantly have to change tack. And then there’s a message on the VHF about a tsunami. Not now, we are far too busy!
Once we have entered the lagoon, the waves become smaller and tacking becomes easier. It is getting dark now and we mark the shoals we have seen in the GPS. Two hours later we arrive at the moorings of the island of Anemanot and we have to try and pick up a mooring ball in the dark. But how do you find it when it’s pitch-dark? We’d rather not start the motor and decide to use just the headsail when we approach the moorings. We discuss the manoeuvre several times and Dory steers the boat while Hans stands on the foredeck with a torch and gives instructions. We manage to pick up the mooring ball the first time without using the motor. It’s a miracle: it’s half past nine and we are safely moored to a ball. Now let’s find out about this tsunami. It is expected at half past eleven, we want to wait for it, but are exhausted after a day of sailing, so we go to bed. The next morning we hear that atolls aren’t really at risk during a tsunami, because they rise sharply out of the sea; it’s only coasts with a gradually rising seabed which get really high waves. Good thing we didn’t wait up for it.
Packages and another delayed departure
Majuro has an American zip code and the US Postal Service dispatches everything that is sent to the US as a domestic delivery. Packages usually arrive within seven to ten days. A good opportunity to replace our old GPS and to order a new VHF with built-in AIS. Our old autopilot needs to be replaced as well, so we order that too. We also ordered a couple of small things. Margriet, Hans’ sister, has sent a package from the Netherlands. Unfortunately, this took three months to arrive, so we were really happy to finally receive it. New strings for the guitar, a credit card and Mepal cups which we ordered from a Dutch website. Unfortunately, the cups were a huge disappointment: apparently, they are unable to deliver the traditional quality, because you can hear the plastic break when you pour hot water in the new cups for a nice cup of tea.
Apart from a number of packages which are not that important we have received everything and we decide to leave. Other sailors are prepared to forward the other packages to us. We check out at Customs and Immigration, buy the last fresh vegetables and sail to Anemanot to spend another night there and to make the last preparations. We hear an odd sound in the motor. What is going on now?? To our alarm, we find that the water pump is rattling, which means that, again, we cannot depart. When Hans climbs into the mast the next day to detach the blades of the wind gauge, he discovers a broken wire in the stay. To make matters worse, the hard drive on our laptop crashes, which means we’ve lost all our original pictures of Ailuk.
There we are again, back in Majuro, with a broken motor, a faulty stay and a computer that isn’t working. We have received a one-month extension from Customs and Immigration, we have ordered a new water pump and parts for the stay, so now we’ll just have to wait for them to arrive. A nice fellow sailor gives us a new hard drive, so we can write this story on our laptop. Now we will have to finish all the fresh vegetables. Box of eggs, anyone?
(Translated from dutch to english by Percy Balemans)