Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Happy New Year with other families in Tarawa ... then on to the Marshall Islands!

Greetings and Happy New Year!!

I hope you have been enjoying all the photos Max has patiently uploaded. Kiribati has 3G internet service, but our coverage and connection have sometimes been hit and miss. We set sail on Thursday afternoon for Majuro, Marshall Islands, and arrived on Sunday, so it seems about time to write and give you the narrative version of our second visit to Tarawa :)

We arrived back from Butaritari on the Friday before New Year's Eve. The passage was an uneventful motorboat trip on flat seas with mostly no wind, but the anchoring marked a milestone: Johnathan and Max anchored by themselves! It was mid-morning when we entered the lagoon. I was sleeping off-watch when Johnathan brought Benjamin to me, and told me that we would be at the anchorage in about 15 minutes; this usually means that I have that much time to be on deck, equipped with shoes, gloves, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, and paired Bluetooth headsets, ready to anchor. I settled Benjamin to sleep as quickly as I could, and came up on deck -- just as Max was shutting down the engine at the Parliament anchorage ! Max had put the anchor on the bottom and Johnathan had done his usual job of setting the anchor-watch button, then they switched places and Max reversed the engine while Johnathan eased out the chain with the deck-mounted electric switch. I was pretty surprised and pretty proud to find myself out of work!

Our ultimate destination was a point a few miles further up the lagoon that we had scouted on the satellite imagery as being off the Tabon Te Kee Kee resort, but we waited until we had the afternoon sun behind us to move. As with many anchorages in Kiribati, the lagoon was very flat and shallow nearby, with 750m of bare reef at low tide. This meant anchoring quite a distance out, and being prepared to accommodate our schedule to the tides. The water was high enough when we arrived that Max and I could go ashore to check out how and where we would leave the dinghy, and to confirm that they sold cold drinks with a sunset view: they did :)

Loaded down with dry bags as if we were moving ashore for a week, we met our friends the following afternoon. It was such fun to reconnect with the mum and kids who did the U-turn to meet us when we were first in Tarawa, and to meet her husband, a friend of theirs, and another Australian family with two kids. Forming spur-of-the-moment friendships with like-minded souls like these is definitely one of the highlights of cruising for me.

After getting to know one another over a potluck of snacks and drinks (and sharing many funny stories of provisioning these treats in Kiribati and other exotic locations) we enjoyed a simple, but tasty, meal of local foods put on by the resort: two kinds of fish, chicken legs, taro, squash, rice, and a plate of cucumbers and tomatoes. With three buias (thatched huts) ashore and two on stilts out over the water, Tabon Te Kee Kee was a lovely spot at which to spend New Year's Eve. We were the only guests that evening, so we felt very spoiled to have a private resort to ourselves!! Since we left to go cruising, we have celebrated NYE in Mexico (twice), Canada, New Zealand, and now Kiribati. Once again, the combination of friends, family, food, and room for kids to run and play proved magic in creating an enjoyable and memorable evening.

Since the forecast was benign, and the rising mid-tide was not until 3am, we decided to treat ourselves to a rare overnight ashore in one of the buias. I decided that it was just as well that our friends had the over-water ones, as I didn't want Benjamin to fall overboard through any crack between the floor and the wall! Our buia consisted of a thatched roof and half-walls with a three-foot-high wooden platform taking up most of the space. On the platform, the staff had placed several mattresses side by side and enclosed them with mosquito netting. It was quite lovely, and it marked the first night that we left Fluenta unattended at anchor since we moved aboard in 2012.

A side benefit of being in Fiji for Diwali earlier this year was that we were able to stock up on fireworks before we left. With the bare flats because of the low tide in the late evening, Max was able to go well away from the tinder-dry buias to put on our show. We had some small sparklers and some larger proper fireworks that went of high in the sky with an enormous sound. When it was finished, we could hear exclamations from other spectators across the bay :) Other than our fireworks, our group was pretty quiet and low-key, but our neighbours across the small channel partied well into the wee hours !

The following morning, we were treated to real coffee by our well-prepared friends. They brought their own pot from home, and made up the coffee in the resort kitchen. Yum! A lazy morning and a tasty brunch (including pancakes topped with a special coconut syrup distilled from coconut sap in the same way as we make Maple Syrup in Canada) were followed by just the right amount of exertion: they had brought enough bikes for the kids (and one prize-worthy Dad) to do a little trek along the dirt road up the island. The rest of us formed a walking party and sauntered along a little later. Victoria elected to enjoy the peace and quiet at the resort, while Johnathan rode a bike that looked bigger than he was. I enjoyed walking through traditional villages (very similar to ones we might see on the outer islands) after the congestion and paved roads of South Tarawa.

With the afternoon high tide came time to say good bye. We headed back to Fluenta in our now-floating dinghy, while our fiends took an open I-Kiribati boat across the channel to South Tarawa, where they had parked their cars, and then drove down the one paved road to their homes.

By the time our weather window for the Marshall Islands materialized, we ended up staying in Tarawa a total of another week and a half, dividing our time between socializing with our friends (our house, their house) and taking in some of the cultural and historic sights.

We invited both families to come to Fluenta for swimming and dinner, but when they very politely declined our offer of swimming in the (as it turned out very polluted) Tarawa lagoon, we didn't even bother to put the spinnaker pole up ! We stuck with dinner, Lego, card games, and movies, sharing a trevally that their NYE friend had kindly dropped off at Fluenta following their sport-fishing expedition the previous day. In addition to fish and rice, we had home made bread (for once, not made aboard Fluenta!) and a salad with lettuce, home-made croutons, and hard-boiled eggs: since we hadn't seen fresh eggs since Fiji this was a particular delicacy! The supposedly fresh refrigerated eggs that I bought before Christmas were the worst eggs I had ever sampled. Each family had a boy and a girl, so by the end of the evening, we had the boys watching action movies in the saloon while the girls elected to enjoy the Sound of Music in the aft cabin. Even the dads and the moms drifted into separate conversations in the cockpit.

We got a bit of a surprise the first time we went ashore after our return to the Parliament anchorage: in the week we had been away, the rules had changed, and yachties could no longer use their dock! We pleaded our case and got a one-day exception, but we chose to move once more before our next shore excursion. We anchored off the 'Chatterbox' Cafe, which was owned by the same family as the Tabon Te Kee Kee, and through whom we arranged our WWII Relics tour. They are hoping to make some improvements to encourage more cruisers to visit; a welcome change would be the potential installation of a dingy dock, because even though this anchorage is one of the few with a channel through the reef to the shore, the dinghy still ends up drying out for several hours each tide, and it was challenging to secure it to the available hard points for an entire day ashore. We sure missed simplicity and security of the all-tide access at the Parliament dock!!

We ended up with what was effectively a private WWII tour in an air conditioned van, that included a stop to visit Sister Margaret, a Catholic nun who had been in Kiribati for over 50 years. To put the rest of our day into perspective, the WWII relics were barely ten years old when she arrived in 1955! Her office had been entrusted with holding the Declaration of Occupation, posted by the Japanese when they arrived in 1941, as well as a copy of the Notice of Surrender from 1943.

Sister Margaret also gave us an overview of the Catholic mission to Kiribati, which began in the early 1890's. One of the three founding priests was alive in Kiribati there when she arrived as a young nun. The nuns and priests operated schools on most of the islands in the Gilbert group. As I listened to her speak, I couldn't help but wonder if there had been similar damaging stories between the churches and the I-Kiribati as there had been at the church-run residential schools in Canada; however, she made no mention of such a history, and told a very positive story of caring people leaving their home countries as young adults and spending the rest of their lives reaching out to minister to and educate the I-Kiribati. Sister Margaret was well into her 80's, and one nun lived here until the age of 99 years and eight months! A key difference between the church-run schools in Kiribati and Canada was that there seemed to be less of a focus on 'educating' the culture out of the students: the schools were located in the villages, and almost all the children went home to their own families at night. They did not seem to have the model of forced evacuation to a foreign residential experience that we had in Canada. I noticed during the Christmas service at Butaritari that there was still a strong I-Kiribati flavour to the processions, singing, and dancing, even after over 100 years of missionary influence.

The rest of the morning was a little less emotionally murky. Our tour guide (who, unlike many I-Kiribati we met, spoke perfect English after spending 18 months in Oklahoma as a young Mormon missionary) took us to a variety of WWII sites. Johnathan, Victoria, and Max examined the mechanisms of the large ocean-facing cannons, where the Japanese had assumed the US Navy would line up in their sights. Instead, they approached from the lagoon side, where the Japanese did not have the same level of defences. We visited the various beaches where marines had had to walk significant distance under Japanese machine-gun and cannon fire because the tide was too low for their landing craft to deliver them to shore. We walked and drove past numerous Japanese bunkers, most of which are now being used as basements or latrines. As dutiful tourists, we asked about taking pictures, and our guide assured us that the villagers liked having their pictures taken as they went about their daily lives, living with a normal wood and thatch buia upstairs and a WWII bunker downstairs. We felt a bit self-conscious, but we snapped images for posterity anyway. It was sobering to stand in front of the two-story Japanese headquarters, very near the spot where their Commander was killed as they attempted to evacuate their HQ. The I-Kiribati seem to have made their emotional peace with the Japanese, and there was a photo of this man's daughter and grand daughter visiting Tarawa in Sister Margaret's office. The Japanese have since built the causeway which joins the main city of Betio with the next island in the chain. One of our last stops was to see the monument erected in memory of the almost 3500 US Marines and Navy personnel who were killed or wounded in the three days of fighting. The message to the I-Kiribati on the same monument to "Enjoy your Independence and Guard it Well", in memory of the gallantry of those who fought and died, are words that all communities are wise to remember.

Everywhere we went, whether in our tour van or by ourselves, we were quickly surrounded by children who were unbearably curious to see the I-Matang. We had an especially funny time the one morning we went ashore for diesel (unfortunately, I didn't bring the camera). We pulled up on the beach, and Max took the Jerry cans across the road to the fuel station, while I stayed with the dinghy. Almost immediately, I had six little boys (in various states of dress/undress ... clothing seems to be very optional for children when swimming in the lagoon) come running over to look at the dinghy. I was pretty sure they had never seen anything like it. They kept touching the tubes and laughing. One of the older boys (probably about Johnathan's age) seemed to be trying to figure how how it all worked so he could explain it to the others: he pointed out the various filling points, handles, etc and explained each of them. As usual, they were shooed away when the men from the station came with our Jerry cans, telling them off for 'bothering' us. What the grownups rarely realize is that we love these smiling no-language interactions with their children!

We spent a couple of enjoyable hours in the little museum and cultural centre in Bikenibeu; however, I was wishing that a few more of their signs were written in English as well as I-Kiribati! On the other hand, it was nice to visit a Center that was more focused on meeting the needs of its local visitors than of English-speaking tourists. Ironically, my favourite part of the visit was when I found a commemorative book which showed photos of relics and artifacts collected by Captain Davis of the HMS Royalist when he claimed the Gilbert group for Queen Victoria in 1892: it felt like a virtual tour of the museum as I looked at the photos, as they were of items similar to the ones in the room, but all the descriptions were also in English :)

We had only met the Australian Navy family on New Year's Eve, but in a true measure of friendship, they invited us to bring our laundry and our shower gear when the three families reunited at their house for lunch and swimming in their pool on Saturday - they had electricity, air conditioning, and plenty of fresh water. Six loads later, I could hardly find words to express my gratitude as I inhaled the scent of clean sheets and towels, that hadn't seen the inside of a washing machine since Fiji, after they were dried in the breeze on their wide airy deck! To top off the gesture of friendship, they made hamburgers for everyone, even though we all knew how hard it was to get red meat replenished in Kiribati. Their son was celebrating his birthday, so we had a lovely afternoon of food, games, and socializing. For our other friends, it was the day before their flight back to Australia and 'regular life' in Tasmania. This short period for our three families of overlapping in Kiribati, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, strikes me as a microcosm of the cruising friendships are formed quickly and enjoyed intensely, making the most of the available time that we have together.

We spent our last few days in Tarawa back at the Tabon Te Kee Kee anchorage, enjoying the peacefulness of the area, the chance to do some long-awaited yoga, making water (hoping that since we were near an opening in the reef, the water on the incoming/high tide would be cleaner than elsewhere in the lagoon), and enjoying ongoing visits with the owner, who was always considering new ideas to help cruisers enjoy Kiribati.

The highlight of this short period was our visit to the nearby giant clam farm. All we knew was that we should walk about ten minutes along a path by the water from where we left our dingy and we would get to a place that raised clams, with an excited ex-pat owner (and former boat builder), who, if he was home, would tell us something about them, and it would be worth the visit. What we received was an in-depth description of the life cycle of the giant clams, a description of the four kinds which are indigenous to Kiribati, and a detailed tour from tank to tank so we could see the changes in the clams from the time they were too small to see until they were big enough to go to the outer island villages (for six months' care and custody in the lagoon waters), until they were finally big enough to export. We learned about the CITES treaty which states that only farmed exotic species may be sold (ie no wild clams can be sold) and we learned that the biggest giant clams are probably 200 years old. Most of the pigs we saw in the villages were drinking out of giant half-clam shells that would have been this age!

Once we had learned about the clams and seen the sea cucumbers that they also farm for export, we went to the other side of the facility to learn about boat building. They use a fast-growing Fijian hardwood (similar to kauri from NZ with which we were already familiar) for the struts and then several layers of marine plywood and epoxy for the walls. Both big kids were fascinated by the clam tour and very interested in the boats (Benjamin was asleep, which was just as well given the tools and machinery we were stepping around). Victoria spent some time examining the way that the forms were made so that she could potentially copy the technique one day. It was unfortunate that we were leaving the anchorage the next day, as they were just starting to form the shape of a motor-catamaran, which would have been taking shape on each visit if we had been able to come back again. The owner employs a number of women who have graduated from the local technical college, so it was interesting to see them in very non-traditional I-Kiribati roles! In another small-world connection, the same little shelled creatures that Victoria helped to collect in 2014 in Penrhyn (for use in necklaces and jewelry) are used (alive) by the clam farm to clean the clam boards in the tanks. Since the 2008 financial crash they have been diversifying into other wood-construction projects, and are currently building 'kit schools' for the I-Kiribati government, as well as boats for their own (delivery) purposes. I loved introducing Johnathan and Victoria to someone who has experienced adversity and found creative ways to carry on: after the collapse of the pleasure boating market in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, they branched out and started doing other projects that would use the skills of their staff; he also works part of each month on a Fisheries project in Somalia. Throughout these hard years, they have continued to employ all their staff !

For once, we actually left on the day that we told our weather forecaster (Bob McDavitt) that we were going to! We have often decided at the last minute that another 24 hours would make a big difference to our preparedness, the weather, our health, or some other factor, and we have delayed a day, but this time, we left as planned, on Thursday 12 January [leaving on Friday 13th seemed to pushing our luck].

Our weather on the 72-hour passage was a little bit of everything. We started with fantastic winds of 12-15 kts, flying along like a proper cutter on a close reach with our genoa and our staysail, reaching boat speeds of 8+ kts, especially in the relatively calm waters in the lee of Tarawa and Abiang atolls. That night, we enjoyed the brilliance of the full moon with hardly a cloud in the sky (and no squalls, yeah!) By the second day, the winds had dropped and shifted, so we just kept the boat moving at 3-4 kts, trending more and more off-track to the east, but at least still under sail. Sometime in the middle of the night, with a boat speed dropping below 2 kts, Max finally started the engine, and we motored well into the next day. There followed a mixed-up day of light winds, turbulent skies, and rainy squalls (as we sailed along, I mentally described the sky to myself as something a sculptural artist might have created with grey and black clay - it twirled and tumbled in every direction up and across the sky - gone was the brightness offered by the full moon the night before). The squalls built in intensity as the night wore on, and we saw short bursts of winds into the 20's, but thankfully we didn't see the dramatic lightning of previous passages. We always reef the main at night, but throughout the evening/midnight watches, we found ourselves constantly changing the genoa, furling for squalls and then bringing out the full sail just to make progress in the lulls.

The forecast had been for steady strong winds that would let us sail the entire way, but the mathematical models have trouble with the irregularity of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ - our old friend from the 2014 crossing to the Marquesas), and so we had what we have since found out to be a typical maddening passage with many hours of motoring :) As if to make up for the middle of the trip, the last day was quite lovely: the sun came out, the wind was a strong enough to sail, and we did a circuit of the atoll, under sail until the approach to the pass (which is on the north edge about 13 nm from the town). We even caught a mahi mahi that Victoria filleted on the back deck as we wallowed deep downwind in a following sea. At this point, we got the Marshall Islands welcome of a squall with pelting rain and winds again into the 20's. Thank goodness for our rain enclosure! We simply furled the main a few minutes early, closed the clear rain panels, headed away from the lagoon, and waited it out. Before long, the sunshine was back, I was on the bow chatting to Max over my headset, and we transited the pass (despite a strong current) without issue.

I began this letter with the milestone of Johnathan helping to anchor the boat; I will finish it with the milestone of Victoria taking her own watch :) She announced that she wanted the dawn watch, and she proactively made sure she was in bed early each evening so she could greet us with a cheery "Hi Mom" or "Hi Dad" when we woke her at her chosen time of 4am. At first we thought she would just keep us company in the long pre-dawn hours, but we soon realized that she was capable (and alert) enough to watch for wind shifts, traffic, squalls, and other issues on her own. We stayed in the cockpit with her, but it was lovely to sleep on the bench, comfortable in the knowledge that she would shake us when she needed to. I am sure that Johnathan will not be far behind in requesting his own watch (perhaps during daylight or during the evening when our night owl is most awake), as even now, we are quite comfortable informally leaving either of them 'watching for traffic' while we go downstairs for a few minutes. Transitioning from a 1-in-2 watch rotation to 1-in-3 or even 1-in-4 will make our longer passages much more enjoyable (and sustainable)! Benjamin is a great help, but it will be a while before he is standing watches on his own :)

Majuro is the gathering ground for the cruisers who have 'gone North' from the Islands for cyclone season, as well as many who stayed once they got here. As we arrived, with sunset approaching on Sunday evening, it felt strange but good to look around and see a multitude of yachts gently secured to their moorings, after so many months in only our own company or sharing anchorages with a small handful of boats. We were warmly welcomed by SV SEAL, who host an informative website on Majuro and the Marshall Islands, and who were kind enough to come in their dinghy to show us to our mooring, even helping us to secure the bow lines (much easier to do from a dinghy than by hanging by the waist from the lifelines with a boat hook!)

Majuro will be home for a few days while we sort out some logistics and arrange our permits to visit the outer islands, then we will head further north for the rest of the season. Theoretically, this means that we are heading out of the rain and squalls of the ITCZ and into the sunshine :)

Much love to all,

At 2016-12-26 9:19 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 07°06.15'N 171°22.41'E
At 2016-12-26 9:28 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 07°06.15'N 171°22.41'E

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