Friday, 3 March 2017
Warm Welcome at Ailuk - A Feast
Before I get on with telling you about the warm welcome we received at Ailuk, our overnight passage from Aur to Ailuk deserves another mention. After leaving Aur shortly after first light, the forecast was for steady sailing winds that would bring us to Ailuk mid-morning the next day; however, during the night the winds dropped to the point that we were just barely sailing along. We had a decision to make: were we a motor boat, on a schedule, or were we a sailboat which would get there when we got there, recognizing that we might end up spending a second night at sea hove-to in order to enter the pass during the daylight? Many times when these conditions have occurred we have had to choose the motorboat option: we have to start our engine in order to make a schedule or to avoid bad weather that is tracking towards us. In this case, it just felt *wrong* to me to be anything but a sailboat: we had beautiful conditions, the stars were out in their millions, the sea was calm, the
re was no heavy weather coming our way, and we were not *really* on a schedule (much as it is always nicer to be safely at anchor than hove-to outside a pass). We kept sailing, and it was glorious, not just because of the sailing conditions, but also because we had (for once) made a statement to no one in particular (other than ourselves) that we were, indeed, a sailboat, travelling at the whim of the weather, and we would arrive whenever the winds and currents allowed. Max even caught and filleted a mahimahi on his own when he took over the wee-hours watch :)
As it turned out, the winds picked up back to their forecasted strength by morning, and we easily arrived at the pass into Ailuk with daylight to spare. The pass faces North-West; the swell, which normally runs from the North-East, was also approaching from this direction (some disturbance off Japan was supposedly affecting us here). This made the pass both beautiful and exciting: the waves were crashing onto the reef, and we could see the rocky surfaces through the clear turquoise waters with each surge. The last few nautical mile of water approaching the pass alternated between seeming to be unusually smooth (but boiling underneath) and choppy with a mix of waves. It wasn't quite as exciting an entrance as our approach to Mazatlan Harbour over three years ago, where we actually had to time our entrance to coincide with a lull in the sets of waves, but it was certainly memorable! Normally, when the swell follows the trade winds, the pass would be relatively benign. This pass
entry was one of those times when I was reminded of our vulnerability as we passed close to the heaving water rolling onto the reef barely 100m away on either side of us. People often ask us whether we feel worried while cruising with our kids off the beaten path; usually, I compare our life at sea with a life at home driving in traffic every day, and answer that people are always vulnerable, but we are simply more attuned of it and further from assistance, but as we entered the reef, I was well-aware that if we miscalculated any aspect of our approach, we would be a long way from assistance!! I breathed a long sigh of relief when we had successfully navigated our way through the pass, past the intermediary reefs, and into the lagoon. As ever, Max was at the helm and I was on the bow, and we used our Bluetooth headsets to communicate, avoiding shouting or miscommunications. Max had carefully plotted our route using satellite imagery before we left Aur, so it all unfolded ex
actly as we had foreseen.
As if to highlight the beauty of this lagoon, as we were in the middle of the pass, a pod of dolphins came by to play in our bow wave. They seemed to be on their way to take care of important business, as they came close enough to interact with the boat (and let me count them - I lost count at nine, and estimated there to be about a dozen), and then carried on with their day. As we crossed the lagoon, we also spotted a turtle swimming by. It was nice to see some creatures after hardly seeing any on passage.
There are two villages on the atoll, and we headed South East to the larger of them to clear in and pay our anchoring fees. We decided to delay our first trip ashore until the following day in order to glue a leaky area on our dinghy (water has been coming in between the inflatable tubes and the hard bottom), so Max used some of our super-strong adhesive to glue a section of the bottom panel where we could see that the original seal (to the painted aluminum) had let go (For Those Who Care - we used 3M 5200, [something like 700 psi shear vice 300 psi for the more usual 4200 or Stikaflex 291. Max] which we have had onboard 'just in case' for several years. It is purported to be strong enough that, if it is used for any kind of deck fittings, it will damage the fibreglass before releasing its grip. Also For Those Who Care - we were facing a known problem with painted aluminum dinghies: the paint layer separates away from the aluminum layer because of surface corrosion, and the
glued joint then pulls the painted layer away from the main surface, resulting in a leak). The A/Mayor actually came to us that afternoon, to collect our permit, so all we had to do the next day was to go ashore and pay the $50 fee. He came alongside in one of the few open fibreglass boats that we have seen here; most people still use the traditional sailing canoes to get around.
The next day, as we were bouncing around in a relatively active anchorage, given the miles of fetch across the lagoon (and with increasing winds in the forecast), we heard a VHF call for the 'blue yacht, blue yacht'. We were invited to attend a 50th birthday feast that very evening! Of course we said yes :) Anias and Emily are famous among the cruising community because they often participate in the HF "Yokwe" net (every morning at 0745 ... I have to admit that we don't generally join as we are happy doing our own thing and HF reception can be frustrating). Anias goes by the callsign Pumpkin, and he is also the Pastor in the Assembly of God church. We were invited to come ashore anytime after 6pm; the evening was our first introduction to "Marshallese Time" as we were the first ones there when we arrived at 7pm! (I think I am going to like this place, and feel right at home...) We were greeted with Frangipani garlands and invited to sit at a special table: even though it was
Anias's birthday, we were the ones being treated like special guests! All the power in the house came from a bank of batteries charged via a roof-full of solar panels; I am not sure what their battery capacity was, but it was enough to power a massive sound system, which was pumping out music. We were each brought a drinking coconut as we were waiting for the evening to begin, so we had no need of the several water bottles that we had carried. Anias stayed close to us throughout the evening, even eating with his daughter at a small table beside us. He explained the proceedings and chatted in English, and was a delightful host.
Especially on a first visit to a village, it is nice to have a few things in our bag of tricks to break the ice for the kids. Of course, the best ice-breaker of all is travelling with a three-year-old, especially when your hosts also have a youngster :) In this case, Anias and Emily, who have quite a number of grown children, had a 13-year-old daughter at home, as well as a grand-daughter a bit younger than Benjamin. She was delighted to see him, and even more so when I pulled Benjamin's 'bubble sword' out of our bag! Noticing Benjamin's bare feet slowing him down in the crushed coral yard (his shoes still being in the on-passage bucket on our back deck), Emily sent a child running for a pair he could borrow, and that was all it took for Benjamin to engage fully and chase the huge bubbles. Before long, I had handed both Benjamin and the sword to Johnathan, who soon took on a bit of a Pied Piper persona, and found himself surrounded by all the local kids jumping for bubbles. I
just had to encourage them away from the house at one point when a swirling gust of wind started blowing the bubbles over the buffet of food the ladies were laying out! After cooking for two days, I was pretty sure our host's welcome would run thin if the feast tasted like soap!!
And - what a feast it was! We were served two kinds of chicken (boiled whole and roasted in parts), pork (BBQ), breaded and fried fish, two kinds of pumpkin (some cooked in a white sauce and some cooked in coconut milk), rice, delicious raw-tuna salad (similar to cocoda in Fiji, but with a different name here), and a sausage/vegetable stew. For dessert, there was a coconut/milk concoction that was served in a mug with a spoon, doughnuts, and huge cinnamon buns (think of your local shop, add a slight smokey flavour, and you will have a sense of what we enjoyed). We tried to delicately take pieces of the whole Marshallese chicken, but it turned out that we needed to be a little more forceful: Emily brought us a knife and showed us how to cut it entirely in half and then in quarters :) At the table of men beside us, each of them was given his own woven bowl heaped with food (including a chicken each!) At our table, all our food was laid out for the five of us in a combination of
plastic bowls, metal bowls, and woven pandanus plates; we enjoyed it Marshallese style, with our fingers. It didn't take long to get used to eating with no forks and no individual plates :) Once all the people seated at tables had been served individual portions, a long line of children stretched out beside us where they were served at the nearby buffet table. Following the meal, a bucket of water and a bar of soap were passed around; we used a scoop to remove clean water from the bucket and pour it over our hands.
After the food came the music and candies. The huge sound system was switched on again, everyone stood up to sing a Marshallese rendition of "Happy Birthday", and a few of the ladies started dancing through the crowd of about 30 people tossing candies, lollipops, and even huge tubs of potato chips for children and adults alike to catch. The glint of joy in Emily's eye was delightful to see; she loved making all the children shriek and laugh :) Noticing that I was sitting with a sleeping Benjamin on my lap, one old lady carefully placed a pile of candies beside me. When he saw some of the local children eyeing them, Johnathan took his own turn to toss sweets and generate smiles :) Once the crowd calmed down to enjoy its candy, the MC handed the microphone around. Most of the adults took the opportunity to wish Anias well on his birthday. Even Max was invited to speak towards the end. We were quite impressed at the Marshallese ability to offer a lengthy speech without notes (me
n and women alike: this appears to be a traditional, but egalitarian culture). Emily, who had already offered a long prayer before dinner, spoke for at least 20 minutes to wrap things up, and then the guest of honour himself closed the evening.
During a lull in the proceedings before the speeches started, Emily and I had the opportunity to chat a bit; it was lovely to talk to her and she asked about our approaches to breastfeeding, wondering how long I expected to continue to nurse Benjamin. Not knowing much about the local culture, I hedged a bit, simply saying that each child was different, and I would see how it would go. She seemed to approve of this answer, and told me that in the villages, it was normal to nurse for 1-5 years, although people nurse their babies for less time in built up areas like Majuro. She also seemed to approve of Victoria's crochet project that she was working on all evening. A short while later, she returned from the house with a beautifully woven Marshallese basket. These are prized handicrafts that are usually traded for a set price, and we were really surprised and touched to receive one. Perhaps she gives one to all the yachties, but I had the feeling that this was a bit unusual, and
that she had felt a positive connection with us. The basket is round, about six inches in diameter and four inches tall, with a fitted lid with a shell embroidered into the center of it. This is a gift that we will always treasure. At the end of the evening, we made plans to return to Ailuk village after our trip to the north end of the lagoon so that Emily could teach about the baskets, and make us some to order.
I mentioned our RHIB, and I mentioned the feast, but I didn't mention our mode of transport for the evening: we elected to leave the still-tacky 5200 curing on the dinghy (turns out that the '48-hour tacky' also applies in the tropics, where despite what the instructions say, so many other adhesives cure before we can even finish applying them). To get to the party, Max used his stand-up paddle board, and the kids and I rowed ashore in Trickle :) Trickle is generally a sailing dinghy, but she worked beautifully in her alter-ego role as a rowing dinghy. I think the villagers were surprised when I rowed us ashore, especially with Benjamin on my lap for some of it. Johnathan earned his dinner rowing us back with a 20 kt crosswind (and in the pitch dark) while I carried the sleeping Benjamin in the carrier. It was especially entertaining, because not only did we have four people and a dry bag in the tiny dinghy, we also had various woven baskets, bowls and bags: we had been sent
home from the feast with all the remaining food from our table (including the whole chicken), as well as a bag of coconuts! A warm welcome is an understatement for Ailuk, and we are more than grateful that we finally got a weather window to come here!
The following day, we motored up the lagoon to the tiny village of about eight households at Enejelar Island, where we would have better shelter from the forecast winds ... and that is a story for another day :)
Love to everyone,
At 2017-02-26 1:14 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 1026.68'N 16957.23'E