A difficult arrival
After a stay of more than two months in Fiji, it is high time to move on and to point Happy Monster's bow towards Tuvalu. This small country consists of just nine atolls and is popular among scientists because the atolls only rise a couple of metres above sea level.
The first days of the trip are uneventful, but then we encounter the squalls. Sailing is uncomfortable as a result of short but heavy rain showers accompanied by strong wind. When we finally reach the entrance of the Funafuti atoll, Tuvalu's main island, we have to wait for the right moment to enter the narrow entrance. We sail back and forth for a while and then, after an extremely heavy rain shower, we risk it. Sailing against wind force six, with the engine running and the mainsail hoisted, we enter the narrows. The tide is nearing ebb, so we have to sail against the current as well, and we struggle to get inside, sometimes going no faster than one knot. Because of the head wind, Happy sometimes thumps so heavily that the bow almost disappears under water and the stern is lifted so high that the propeller only displaces air. It sounds as if we could lose the propeller any minute. Fortunately the further we enter the lagoon, the more the countercurrent subsides and after about an hour we can start to slow down. Motorsailing against the wind, which is still very strong, at the end of the day we finally reach the spot where we can drop our anchor.
How great it is to have a water maker on board. Before we go on shore to complete all the paperwork for customs and immigration and to walk to the village, we take a long shower. We have plenty of water: we replenished our supply on our way here.
We walk past a small cemetery and notice a huge rusty wreck amid the graves. It turns out to be the wreck of an old tank from the Second World War. The island is very narrow at this point: on the left side of the road we see the ocean's beautiful surf dashing against the coral. To our right the azure water quietly ripples in the lagoon. What strikes us are the large number of mopeds. Everybody seems to move around using imported Chinese motor scooters, small motor bikes and the odd car. There are large holes filled with water and a lot of waste, sometimes spanned by small rickety bridges which give access to the houses behind them. The airport is directly behind the village centre and the landing strip is where people get together, especially in the afternoons. We have a meal in an Indian restaurant, after which we walk back to our boat.
During the Second World War the Americans fought against the Japanese from Tuvalu. That is why they built an airport on Funafuti. During this period, most residents were moved to another island of the atoll. A lot of soil was needed to build the landing strip, which is why huge holes were dug in various places on the island, which soon filled up with brackish water. After the war, the residents returned and now the island is overpopulated. There are still remains of bunkers and of course the airport is still there. Everywhere you look there are houses, the holes are filled with household waste and there is not enough soil or money to fill up the holes.
Tuvalu has two important sources of income. The first one is the top-level internet domain name "dot tv", which has been sold to a large American company for $45 million. This money has been put in a fund and still provides income. The second source of income are the people who were educated at Tuvalu's nautical college. These sailors send their salaries to their families and thus contribute to Tuvalu's gross national product. When we tell people we are from the Netherlands, they often mention Rotterdam because they have been there, and of course they talk about our results at the World Cup in South Africa.
Catherine, Charles and John
On Funafuti we get to know some really remarkable people, such as Catherine. She is American and we think she's about 70 years old. After having sailed around the Pacific in their trimaran for over 20 years, she and her husband arrived at Funafuti a little over a year ago. Here she set up a typing course at a primary school using old computers. Her husband suddenly passed away and now she is planning to return to the United States at the end of the school year. She gifted their boat to the nautical college.
In a small restaurant with a view of the landing strip we meet Charles, a Dutchman who owns a house here. He arrived here two years ago on his 46-foot two-master, when he heard that his father was seriously ill. He flew back to the Netherlands and stayed away for a year. On his return, he found his boat on a reef, heavily damaged. After a couple of emergency repairs he could anchor the boat again, but unfortunately it sank a couple of weeks later. It is heartbreaking to see the two masts slanting out of the water.
We meet John, a very nice Australian. He works for Alpha Pacific, a kind of employment agency for sailors. The company is part of a large international shipping company and John helps students of the nautical college find a job on the shipping company's ships. He has a fast internet connection at his office and John kindly lets us connect our laptop to read our email and update our website.
We are in the cockpit, enjoying some cold water and peanuts, when we hear several enthusiastic cries from the shore. It's like the sounds you hear at a swimming pool. When there are no tropical showers or clouds, the sun is so hot it's hardly bearable. So in the course of the afternoon everybody gets into the water of the lagoon to cool down. The school offers the children the opportunity to do this as well: around half past one the children pour out of the classrooms and soon after the boys and girls are in the water. Whole families spend the afternoon in the water, fully clothed, to cool down. By the time the sun starts to go down, the young people move towards the landing strip. It contains several improvised football and volleyball fields and young and old enjoy themselves until the sun finally disappears behind the horizon.
A day at sea
Again we have to put up with white beaches, swaying palm trees, an azure sea and a sweltering sun. This morning we careered to the other side of the lagoon in a small aluminium boat with a 115-hp engine to visit the national park and now we are walking around on a beautiful island which we could never have reached with Happy, because the waters around this gorgeous piece of scenery are too shallow. It is fascinating to see how the surf is eating away parts of one side of the island, while new sand silts up on the other side. The island is basically moving.
Our next stop is halfway between two little islands where the water is so shallow that the boat's skipper, a very friendly Tuvaluan, casts a small anchor. Together with the other tourists with whom we share the costs of the trip we snorkel among the coral and a huge diversity of colourful tropical fish.
The last stop of the day is a slightly bigger island where all the residents of Funafuti where moved to during the Second World War. We are offered a traditional local meal with smoked fish, tarot with coconut milk and sickly sweet tea. The one thing that strikes us on this island are the areas where young mangroves have been planted to prevent the land from crumbling away. The thin stalks look vulnerable despite the fact that they were planted several years ago.
Sea level and foreign aid
Tuvalu is very popular among environmental scientists. The atolls only rise several metres above sea level and with the current theories about rising sea levels many scientists believe the country could vanish within the next couple of years. Which is why New Zealand has offered to adopt the residents of this small archipelago, all ten thousand of them, in case this actually happens. Once a year, in February or March, the difference between high and low tide is at its biggest and this is also when large numbers of scientists visit the country. We asked a couple of residents whether the landing strip would flood during extreme tides when they were young. All the people we asked this question confirmed this. They think things aren't that bad, but they think all the attention the country is getting is good news. This year the tide wasn't that extreme by the way, the landing strip didn't flood and many scientists went home disappointed.
With so many people living on such a small area, help from other countries is essential. People from Taiwan have built a nursery and teach the local people to grow their own vegetables on the scarce pieces of land that are still available. This project has resulted in delicious vegetables and for our trip to Kiribati we buy fresh papaya, pak-choi, black-eyed peas and pumpkin. We meet two Australian ENT specialists who, along with a nurse and an anaesthetist, carry out free operations in the hospital for a week. Unfortunately, they didn't have an audiometer, so Dory was unable to do hearing tests for them.
After almost three weeks, it is time for us to leave again. With the right wind we smoothly sail out of the lagoon, on our way to the next country: Kiribati (pronounced as Kiribas).
(Translated from dutch to english by Percy Balemans)