Sunday, 9 April 2017

FLUENTA - Ailuk and Maloelap - Six weeks of feasting and kiting (Part 1 of 4 )

[Note this has been split into four posts]

Greetings,

It is now almost exactly three weeks to the moment that I first sat down to write this update (knowing that it will take a few days to finish and eventually send it). It was Sunday afternoon, the boat was quiet, the kids were listening to the Von Trapp Children singing songs from "The Sound of Music" on DVD, and just before I settled to the chart table, Max called me over with the words that changed everything: "you better take a look at this". He had just downloaded our email, and found the sad news that my witty, talented, kind, musical, beloved Uncle Gordon had been killed by a taxi, while he was helping an older lady cross the road, the previous evening in Vienna. Needless to say, our world as we knew it stopped, changed, and has only now begun to turn somewhat normally again. It was shocking that in one moment, everything could change - especially since *we* are the ones that are supposed to be living on the edge of danger sailing across the high seas, and my extended family is supposed to be safe and sound, going about their daily business at home. Grief became an overwhelming companion, and as we got used to the idea it almost seemed like there were two trains of thought in my head - the daily 'everything is normal' thoughts and an underlying and constant sense of loss and sadness. Our new Iridium GO! earned its keep, as I was able to phone my parents and my aunt immediately - a generation of cruisers ago, I wouldn't even have received the news until our return to Majuro. Times like this remind me how connected we are, regardless of distance on the one hand, just how far from home we are, as we sit at anchor in a nearly-empty Pacific Atoll, on the other. My family (local and extended) is slowly returning to its day-to-day routines, but with a renewed sense of the preciousness and fragility of life and the necessity, as my Aunt wrote to me in the immediate aftermath, to 'appreciate every moment'.

As all of this was going on, I felt blessed to be in a beautiful location. Ailuk Atoll is one of the prettiest we have seen anywhere, with clear turquoise waters, brilliant white sands, and friendly people. After leaving the main village, we spent several weeks anchored off the much-smaller Enejelar Village, about 15 nm to the north, near the farthest extent of the atoll. For most of this time, we were the only boat in the anchorage, although there were several days along the way when it seemed to morph overnight into a metropolis: three boats showed up at the same time, to stay a couple of days, and two others came later, also for only a few days; we are bracing for culture shock as we prepare to head south to Majuro and beyond, where hundreds of boats cruise every year.

On second thought, while we were the only cruisers, we were not the only sailboat: it is just that most of them were local :) This is one of only a handful of atolls within the Marshall Islands where the traditional sailing canoes are still used for daily activities. Here, we regularly saw the boats heading out to collect coconuts or pandanus, to go spearfishing, or to zip back and forth between the villages (we were told it took about an hour to get to Ailuk from Enejelar, a distance of about 15 nm). We even enjoyed the magnificent sight of a fleet of 14 sailboats racing by us to celebrate the arrival of a 70-person mission group from another Atoll. The canoes have a very practical design: there is one long narrow hull, with some room under the deck for cargo that is accessed by square lift-away hatch covers, wooden boards that connect this hull to the mini balancing hull, which provides seating for anywhere from one to ten or more people, and a triangular sail that can be fastened to either end, enabling the boat to 'tack' by reversing its rig (along with the rudder, which was held to the stern with a pin setup). Everyone from small children to grandmothers rode the canoes, which were generally sailed by two men with one on the helm and the other controlling the main sheet; when they arrived into the shallows, the boys were told to jump off and swim to shore to lighten the load as they came in over the last of the shoaling reefs :)

The village at Enejelar was quick to welcome us. The day after our arrival, their head teacher, Bruder, and two other men (the President of the PTA and the husband of one of the teachers) came by the boat to share some of their fishing catch with us, and to invite us to participate in Education Week 2017 the following week. They asked us if we liked clams, and, thinking of the bite-sized ones at home, we agreed that we did. Imagine our surprise when they handed us the brilliant turquoise-edged meat of a giant reef clam (Tribeca), which took two hands to contain, and half-filled a large Ziplock bag! Having been offered this gift, there was nothing to do but accept it, and hope that they meant it when they said that they still had plenty for their families that evening.

I asked the men how to cook the clam, and they told me to boil it. Upon consulting my Cruisers' Fishing Guide, I found that there were instructions on preparing almost every other aquatic species; however, given that the Tribeca is endangered in most of the world, the only advice was to not harvest it, and to eat it only in survival situations! Given the size of the Atoll and the number of people living there (maybe 250), these giant clams are apparently not endangered in Ailuk, and the local people eat them infrequently, as a treat. We were honoured by the gift, and I decided to prepare it in two different ways. I cut all the meat into chunks, finding that it was generally of two types: the brightly-coloured fluted meat from around the edge of the clam shell basically formed a long rope, and the huge muscle (similar to a scallop, but over 2" wide by 3" tall) was a large white disk. I ended up with two pasta bowls of meat. Thinking that it might be tough, I soaked half of it in lemon juice and the other half in coconut milk, then I cooked the first half in coconut, tomatoes, ginger, and garlic, and fried the other with curried flour in oil. I was right to suspect that the meat would be tough, and ended up wondering if I should have followed the advice given for the conch and beaten it with a mallet before any kind of cooking. We still managed to enjoy it (over two meals), but we were glad that no one had dentures!

Ailuk had come recommended to us for two reasons: fellow cruisers had raved about the friendly people, and kiters had loved the atoll for its kiting areas. We were eager to get started, and it turned out that we were in luck. Most of the days that we spent in Enejelar, the wind blew in the range of 15-20 kts, and on the few days that it didn't, we were glad of the chance to rest!!

We started as bare-bones beginners, with a few lessons under our belts, and a vague sense of the next steps that we each needed to take. Paying Victoria and Johnathan by the hour to watch Benjamin, we dedicated as many hours as we could to our new sport. One of the recommended launch areas was very close to the anchorage, so we would go ashore (often with local children running to help) and set up one kite or the other; after launching the kite, the other person would head immediately for the dinghy. Kiting is a highly technical sport, which means when people are skilled at it, the forces are manageable and everything looks fluid and easy. When people are less-skilled, a lot of effort is expended for each small success. We certainly fell into this latter category, and burned a lot of gasoline keeping the dinghy very close to the kiter, since we were forever getting separated from the board, and needing to have it retrieved and delivered. I hadn't even used the board before we arrived (having limited myself to upwind and downwind body-dragging), but Max convinced me to start trying to get on my feet. We would launch the kite from the beach, then zig-zag our way downwind across the turquoise shallows towards the dark-blue deeps. At this point, the dinghy would pick us up, and we would fly the kite for the white-knuckle ride back upwind. After several of these cycles, we would catch the kite in the dinghy, deflate and roll it while the kiter rolled the 20m of lines around the control bar (without tangling lines or kite on the outboard or the sharp points on the dinghy) and head back to the beach to switch places. Eventually, kiters learn to start and finish in the same place on the beach, dry their kite in the wind, and pack it away neatly in the bag, but this remained an elusive goal until towards the end of our stay; we got the second person kiting faster by packing the gear wet and drying it later at the boat. Max loved the speed of the sport from the beginning, while even once I learned to get onto my feet, I often sat back into the water as soon as I got going because it was all happening "too fast".

Thankfully, even though we were alone in the atoll, our friends Livia and Carol, who had cruised the South Pacific on SV ESTRELLITA, and had been sponsored kiters, were available to us via email (that Iridium GO! again...) so we were able to describe our experiences and receive their expert analysis and assistance. Then, in a delightful example of 'when the student is ready, the teacher will come' another very experienced kiter (Bart from SV TRANQUILLO) joined us in the anchorage for a few days, and passed along some precise tips, as well as some training videos. Before long, we were noticeably improving with each outing, and were really feeling like we knew the next steps to develop.

By the time we left Enejelar for Ailuk village and then Maloelap, we were both consistently on our feet, with Max making ground upwind, and me beginning to feel like I might get the hang of this sport, and perhaps even enjoy it one day! Livia and Carol continued to give us more and more refined advice, and the hours that we spent on the water began to build the all-important muscle memory so that some of the skills that had been tricky only a couple of weeks previously began to feel natural and easy. The dinghy driver was able to focus more on their role as paparazzi and less on being the rescue driver jetting all over the atoll, and even the kiter was able to look around and appreciate the beauty of our "playground", with its crystal clear water, white sand border, deep blue sky, fringing palm trees, and every once in a while, little reef sharks playing in the shallows.

As the more advanced student, Max was soon able to take his eyes off the kite and actually look where he was going. His attention was drawn to the creatures under the water, and in fact, he spotted a sting ray swimming as he zoomed by one day. I, on the other hand, generally kept my gaze fixed firmly on my kite, and enjoyed watching the birds. Especially after my Uncle Gordon, who had loved flying, passed on, I began to notice the curiosity of individual white birds, highlighted in sharp definition against the blue sky, coming to check out my kite as if to say, "What kind of bird is *this*??" or "Wow! You can really fly with this thing!!" Especially when our training videos reminded us that we should learn kite control and the rules of the road so that we could kite in crowded locations without endangering ourselves or others, we were grateful to have this extraordinary location all to ourselves!

[the remaining three parts to follow in later posts]
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At 2017-03-23 10:30 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 07°06.45'N 171°22.08'E

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