HAWKEYE HAPPENINGS, May, 2009
It has been a long time since we last sent a newsletter and we apologize for our lack of writing. The last newsletter was from Savusavu, Fiji, so we’ll continue from there.
Cyclone season starts on Nov 1 in the South Pacific, and we planned to avoid the season by sailing north to Majuro, Republic of Marshall Islands. We were anxious to get underway as it was now well past that date. We had been waiting to hear if the troubled country of Fiji, which was taken over by a military coup (the fourth coup in twenty years) in Dec, 06, would change its’ ruling once again and allow boats to stay for a longer period of time. The word was that they were going to extend the time to 18 months but that didn’t happen while we were there and we did not want to have to leave during the height of the cyclone season. It was time to go. Linda worked on provisioning for an extended trip and John worked on those the never-ending boat projects. HAWKEYE and crew prepared for going to sea with the strong possibility of rough weather as we would be not only be going through the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), just south of the equator, but also the Inter Tropical Conversion Zone (ITCZ) on the north side of the equator. Both these zones are known for unsettled squally weather and are the result of NE and SE trade winds meeting in the vicinity of the equator.
We left the mooring in Savusavu at 1:15 a.m. on November 12. Good weather was predicted and it was a beautiful sunrise and morning. A welcome current gave us a boost through the Somosomo Straits that afternoon as we sailed north to clear the island of Viti Levu. We were doing great until we ran into head winds and things got really black when we looked behind us; we were being “chased“ by sinister black skies containing great lightning flashes, squalls and heavy rain. Our concern was to get past all of the reefs and islands of Fiji and into open ocean waters. We finally accomplished this at 6 a.m. the following morning.
The log book reads lumpy, rolling seas, with the sails reefed down as the boat was going too fast for comfort. This was followed by beautiful sailing under a full moon, just about perfect! After 109 hours and 596 miles, we entered the lagoon at Funafuti, Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands), anchored and got some much needed rest. The next morning we anchored off the wharf; it turned out that HAWKEYE was the only cruising boat in the whole of Tuvalu! It took us two days to finally get checked in. Part of this procedure was a visit to Quarantine, a small office located somewhere down the road from the wharf. John was directed to the open doors of a large warehouse where, it was thought, would be someone who could direct him. There, he discovered three shiny red wheelbarrows, each containing a corpulent employee, all fast asleep. He awoke one of them, who prodded a hefty woman into some semblance of consciousness; she pointed out a small office further down the road. Mission accomplished, John returned to the wharf, noting that the three red wheel-barrows were now arranged in a semi-circle, with the occupants playing cards.
We spent 11 days in Funafuti with a lot of time spent at the weather station looking at weather reports and getting to know the people there. This is NOT a tourist center!! There are no souvenirs to be had. We couldn’t even buy a sizable flag (it is maritime etiquette to fly the flag of the country being visited from beneath the starboard spreader).
At the one and only hotel we had a meal and watched the employees dance to their native music. The food was pretty basic and was the first time we had pandanas fruit. This is very nutritious but doesn’t have much flavor. We managed to get some bananas after asking around at several homes (no charge). One home was a bakery where the lady made bread by hand all morning long. They use coconut oil to grease the pans so the bread has a different flavor. Their monetary system is the Australian $; being pre-warned, we had obtained some before leaving Fiji. Food was expensive as everything is shipped in. A cabbage was $10AU (about $7.50 US). We were pretty well stocked up but got a few fresh things.
Most people in Funafuti get around by motor scooter and we rented one from the hotel for $10 AU per 24 hr period. We were able to cover the atoll from one end to the other in about 45 minutes of sightseeing but rented it for 2 days anyway. There are very few automobiles on the atoll. The US built an airstrip there during WWII and the airstrip is used for walking, riding scooters and bikes, playing games, and meeting to gossip. The airport is a very tiny building and the fire department sounds a siren whenever a plane is about to land or leave, which isn’t very often-maybe once a week. This tiny country covers less than 10 square miles of land but has a population of approximately 15,000 people of which about ½ live in Funafuti.
If you were not a believer in the effects of global warming, a trip to Tuvalu would convince you. We saw pictures in the weather station, which is right by the airstrip, of the time when they had a combination of high tides and strong winds. The water covered the air strip and up to the door of the weather station! It is predicted that in 50 years, Tuvalu will no longer be above water. Upon finishing their education, children are encouraged to go to other countries to settle as all will have to leave soon. We enjoyed our stay but were anxious to get underway as we still had a lot of ocean to cover to get us safely to the north of the cyclone area.
November 26 we departed Funafuti with the intention of going straight to Majuro, Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI). We decided to employ a professional weather service as we were approaching the convergence zones and there could be nasty weather ahead with very little warning. The weather was pretty good and we were making good time on a great course for Majuro, allowing for the westerly-setting Equatorial Current. On Dec 1 at 6:30 a.m. we received an email from Commander, our weather service, recommending we divert to Tarawa, Kiribati (pronounced Kiribass, formerly the Gilbert Islands) to avoid heavy convection i.e., bad weather, en-route to Majuro (friends heading to Majuro from Vanuatu decided to press on and ran into the nasty weather predicted, causing damage to their rig). We were quite happy to divert since we had heard good reports of Tarawa from other cruisers and it was a good excuse to visit. We now had to slow way down, to avoid arriving at the pass into Tarawa at night. This proved to be quite difficult since we had a west-setting current of 2 knots pushing us along. So, reefed way down, we sailed south, tracked south-west, and arrived at Tarawa, Kiribati on Dec 2 mid-day. We had sailed 815 miles from Tuvalu to Kiribati.
We spent a week in Tarawa seeing as much of the area as we could. The WW II tour was very interesting and very sad. During the 3-day U.S. invasion of the Japanese-held island of Tarawa in 1942, 8,000 died. Of the 5,000 Japanese defenders, only 17 survived. To this day, the beaches and reefs are home to countless rusting relics of guns, planes and ships – including live shells, bombs and bullets.
On a lighter note, the following paragraph taken from “THE SEX LIVES OF CANNIBALS, Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific”, by J. Maarten Troost, gives a great description of Kiribati:
“To picture Kiribati, imagine that the continental U.S. were to conveniently disappear leaving only Baltimore and a vast swath of very Blue Ocean in its place. Now chop up Baltimore into thirty-three pieces, place a neighborhood where Maine used to be, another where California once was, and so on until you have thirty-three pieces of Baltimore dispersed in such a way so as to ensure that 32/33 of Baltimorians will never attend an Orioles game again. Now take away electricity, runny water, toilets, television, restaurants, buildings, and airplanes (except for two very old prop planes, tended by people who have no word for “maintenance”). Replace with thatch. Flatten all land into a uniform two feet above sea level. Toy with islands by melting polar ice caps. Add palm trees. Sprinkle with Hepatitis A, B, and C. Stir in Dengue fever and intestinal parasites. Take away doctors. Isolate and bake at a constant temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The result is the Republic of Kiribati.”
As is the case with most travel books, this description, although amusing, was highly colored and exaggerated. We greatly enjoyed our visit to Tarawa.
We departed Tarawa on December 9. Although we had cleared out of Kiribati, we had received permission to visit the tiny atoll of Butaritari on our way north. We arrived December 10 and were warmly welcomed by the local villagers. We explored the island on rented scooters with our friends from the yacht RUBICON, Matt and Elizabeth. Later, we were invited to a celebration feast welcoming the local athletes back home from the annual games in Tarawa. It was a wonderful experience to get the flavor of the outer atoll life which is quite different for Tarawa.
With a good weather window forecast, we finally set sail for Majuro on Dec 16. Once again, we went too fast and ended up hove-to in the lee of Arno Atoll for a few hours so as to arrive at the pass into Majuro lagoon in daylight. We arrived Dec 19, just in time for the Xmas parties. Our total sail from Savusavu to Majuro was approximately 1800 miles but a much harder trip than our 2,800 across the South Pacific.
Although the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) is now an independent country, it maintains close ties with the USA. It was a pleasant surprise to find the green-back was the local currency; even better, Majuro boasts a US style supermarket, with many US brands available. RMI even has its own US zip-code (96960) with sometimes fast, cheap priority mail courtesy of the USPS.
Thanks to the local ex-pats, the Mieco Beach Yacht Club, and local businesses, Majuro is actually host to a series of yacht races during the winter and spring months! Generous prizes are offered by local businesses, with first prize being a 55 gallon drum of diesel fuel. Interestingly, you don’t have to win the race to get a prize. Every boat finishing the race gets to draw a ticket out of a hat; that way, even the last boat to finish has the chance of winning the first prize. With over twenty visiting yachts, the first race was held on the first Sunday of December, with 10 boats on the starting line. The fleet included everything from a local Marshallese outrigger sailing canoe, a trimaran and monohulls up to 60’. It sure makes handicapping a challenge!
Unfortunately, Hawkeye was still bashing her way north to Majuro and so missed the first race in December. Subsequent races included steering our triple-reefed “houses” around anchored ships and buoys in squally conditions with winds up to 30 knots. After taking 5th place in the second race, due to a broken halyard block at the masthead, which prevented us from raising or lowering our mainsail, HAWKEYE won the next 3 races in a row. As is so often the case, we were “rewarded” by John being elected vice-commodore of the yacht club and director of racing for next season. Sometimes, it pays to keep a low profile!
April 14th is the anniversary of the liberation of Aur Atoll in the Marshalls from the Japanese back in 1945. The mayor of Aur had previously invited visiting yachts in Majuro to join the islanders for a big celebration, and eight yachts departed Majuro lagoon for the overnight trip north to Aur. As usual, it is strongly recommended to arrive at the pass through the reef during daylight hours, preferably with the sun fairly high and behind you. That way, it is much easier to see the coral reefs each side of the narrow pass. With some trepidation, recalling that our friends Matt & Judy aboard the Cabo Rico 38 ELSEWHERE lost their boat on this same reef last summer, we were relieved to have entered the lagoon safely.
The party was a great success, with the visiting yachties treated as honored guests. Games included - what else? - Baseball, and lots of races for the boys and girls. The cruisers lost the tug-of-war to the local team; never underestimate the pulling power of the local ladies! The feast provided by the ladies was delicious and more than ample. Some of the cruising ladies, including Linda, worked with the many children and women teaching them beading. We went through lots of beads and they didn’t want to quit. We were rewarded with several of their home made crafts made from pandanas. A fun and bonding experience we will not soon forget. On a sad note, it was noticed that there are lots of scars on those little arms and legs from staph infections and several people were observed with vision problems due to untreated conjunctivitis. The people have access to medical supplies but don’t seem to want to be treated by the local “World Teach” teachers. Head lice are prevalent but as there is no dirt just coral and they spend a lot of time swimming in the lagoon, they are quite clean. The coral dust causes lung problems so it is common to hear a lot of coughing.
After a few days enjoying the hospitality of the people of Aur, boats started returning to Majuro or on to other countries. HAWKEYE and the Hylas 49 CREOLA (Bill & Linda aboard) headed north to the next atoll in the island chain, Maloelap. Again, this atoll was the scene of ferocious fighting between the entrenched Japanese and the US forces. At one island anchorage, Ollot, we anchored near the submerged wrecks of two Japanese ships and discovered the remains of several Japanese Zero fighter planes. Unfortunately, the weather changed late in the day, with the wind switching to the south-west instead of the normal NE direction of the trade winds. As we swung on our anchor, the chain wrapped around a coral head (“bommie”) and around the stern of one of the ships! Luckily, our friends from CREOLA and Linda still had their tanks on after a scuba dive and were able to clear our chain. We promptly raised anchor and beat a hasty retreat to a safer anchorage.
We are now back in Majuro, enjoying the Wi-Fi internet access from the boat, the restaurants and shopping ashore. We are planning our annual trip to the USA to visit family and friends and will be gone July through mid September. Please send your news; if you would prefer not to receive our newsletter, just let us know. You won’t hurt our feelings!
Best wishes to you all for a great summer.
John & Linda.