Don’t believe the Mili hype

IMG_0725.jpgAfter we arrived in the Marshall Islands, we were warned against visiting Mili Atoll: the locals aren’t friendly and the Mayor might kick you out. There was all manner of scuttlebutt among the longtime cruisers, who swirl like driftwood around Majuro’s mooring field. Boats had been told to leave, cases of mistaken identity, bribes gone wrong. Mili’s reputation was so bad and the coconut telegraph so fiercely effective, it had been a few years since anyone we spoke to had actually been there.

But, we heard there were sweet waves for surfing, so we decided to risk it. We were urged to make sure all our paperwork was perfect, and still be prepared to get turned away. When I picked up our permit from the Office of Government Affairs, there was a note with it requesting that we call the Mayor, Joel Jitian, before we left. “He’s wondering how big your boat is, if you have room to transport things?” The woman at the office told me. We’d heard that the government supply ship was overdue for its quarterly run and many atolls were out of food. Bring rice, bring flour, were the messages coming from Maloelap, Aur and Ailuk on the morning radio net.

IMG_0093.jpgSo I rang up the mayor, who was in Majuro, and thanked him for granting us permission to visit Mili and offered to transport anything he needed. He was very friendly and said he’d be arriving in Mili the same day, via another boat, so it wasn’t necessary for us to transport anything. When we got inside the lagoon, we could find him on the island of Nallu, or contact him on the Ham radio channel they monitor. Or, if he was out in the boat, he’d just swing by and say hello.

Even though it was a clear night when we sailed out of Majuro, with a fat moon three days past full, we arrived at Mili the next morning in the midst of a thunderous squall, with rain dumping down and a northeast wind gusting in the 30-knot range. Nallu is on the western side of the atoll, offering absolutely no protection from the wind or the 4-foot choppy fetch that had accumulated across the 21 miles of lagoon. We got the anchor down, but it was also an extreme low tide, exposing a wide reef between us and the landing beach. “I don’t even think we can get over that reef in the dinghy, it’s so shallow,” I said.

“I don’t want to leave the boat here either,” said Brian. “It’s not safe.”

I tried to hail Nallu on the ham radio, and raised a man on Namu – an island about 225 miles west – instead. He spoke good English and through the magic of pre-Internet long range radio technology managed to make contact with the Mayor’s brother, who told us to go anchor off Jabonwod and he’d come find us there in a couple of days. Jabonwod was near the surf break we’d heard about, exactly where we’d wanted to anchor in the first place. Already, the people of Mili were doing their best to accommodate us.

We found a great spot tucked behind the reef off Jabonwod, elegantly dropping the anchor in a sandy patch, 20 feet down, and then drifting back over the coral bombies. We waved to some guys spearfishing on the reef and could see a couple of small houses ashore, plus a couple of kids standing on the beach, arms raised, yelling excitedly. We couldn’t wait to get ashore and say hello.

IMG_0683.jpgBut the outboard wouldn’t start. Brian spent three frustrating days, trying to fix it, before throwing in the towel. Then the Mayor’s brother arrived. Another sailboat, “Eos II” out of Australia, had by now anchored next to us and ushered us ashore to meet the mayor. He was friendly and patient, took a look at our paperwork and pocketed the $50 fee without any trouble. Though he lives in Nallu, his home island is Jabenwod, and he was here delivering supplies to his two nephews and their wives and kids who live on the island for a couple of months at a time, harvesting copra for export, then take a couple weeks off in the big city of Nallu. Their home wasn’t very flash, but it was very tidy, as were the grounds surrounding it, where coral gravel had been laid in the yard. No trash at all, neat little fences constructed around their papayas and banana trees, a couple of piglets roaming the beach and a pile of kids swinging in the hammock. They gave us green coconuts to drink and plates of rice mixed with coconut apple, which is the sprout inside a mature coconut, like a soft, foamy baseball with the consistency and taste of cotton candy. We gave them a bag of clothes and bed sheets, spares from our boat that I’d set aside to give away at the first opportunity.

IMG_6117.jpgNone of them spoke great English, but we managed to get along with our few questions. We asked how many boats come anchor here every year and they told us none, that we were the first boats to ever anchor off Jabenwod. (I have seen a waypoint for the island in an online cruising compendium, but that boat may have anchored there when the families were in Nallu, or perhaps they never went ashore, or maybe the Jabenwodians didn’t understand our question or we didn’t understand their answer…)

img_6103We visited again the next day, bringing a hammock we’ve carried for years on the boat and never used. They gave us another pile of green coconuts. This went on for days – we would come ashore to visit or take a walk, always with something in hand (a blanket, a tarp, canned food from our stores. Our v-berth is basically full of stuff we want to get rid of.) One day, Brian fixed their solar panel set-up, which was wired incorrectly and not fully charging their batteries. In return, they gave us their company, songs accompanied by ukulele, and fresh food – half a dozen coconut crabs, a whole chicken, pandanus, and green coconuts – many, many, many green coconuts.

Nobody kicked us out. Nobody told us to leave. And we had a beautiful time. img_0793

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