After 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.
“When the apocalypse happens, this place won’t even feel it,” Brian observed. We were wandering the equatorially-scorched, dusty streets of Tarawa, the capital island of Kiribati, a place we’d been told to “get in and get out as fast as you can.” No two cruisers are alike and we often love places that other sailors hate, but this was surreal: an atoll mere inches above sea level where the population is bursting over its sandy seams as the land literally disappears from underneath them, where the shoreline is shored up with trash and the public beach is the public toilet, where people are still living on and digging up the remains of thousands of missing Japanese soldiers and US Marines from WWII.
I don’t even have any photos of the place.
“You’ve got three species of feces here: dog, pig, and human,” a fellow American schooled us on our first night in town. We were sitting in the bar of the nicest hotel, pounding cold ones to wash away the strange flavors of a beef curry that hadn’t tasted quite like any cow I’d ever eaten. Continue reading “Three Species of Feces”→
The kids are always the first to spot what’s coming. They have safety in numbers, proceeding in a pack out of the palm shadows to the edge of the beach to eventually wave abundantly at us I-Matang in our funny hats riding ashore in a rubber boat with wheels.
Mao was the eldest, tall and teethy, with a dramatic swath of black hair. She didn’t know what we wanted, but we didn’t know what we wanted either. We rowed ashore because it’s what you do when you anchor off a village; this one just happened to be far off the well-sailed paths and they seemed baffled by our sudden appearance. We were at the very northern tip of Abaiang, an atoll just 30 miles from Tarawa, the main island of western Kiribati.
A version of this story originally appeared in the magazine Capital #31, May 2016. Click the magazine image below to read the PDF.
In Funafuti, in front of most homes there are large, long, cement boxes, sometimes neatly tiled, sometimes painted bright reds and greens and blues and pinks, sometimes festooned with garlands of plastic hibiscus, sometimes accompanied by carved crosses. Graves. All are big enough to house a human, the last remains of past family members, kept close to their future generations.
“It ties you to the land,” one man told us when we witnessed the same tradition on Bora Bora, and makes it very hard to sell. Or leave.
What if the land is the first to leave? To be on an atoll in Tuvalu is to be in the midst of the climate changing, an island disappearing.
I like hiking. I went to four years of college in a National Park. I’ve done some time on mountains and I always like an opportunity to stretch my legs beyond our 41 feet of boat deck.
Sailing into view of Waya Island made me feel nostalgic for that moment we spotted Nuku Hiva spiking out of the sea back in 2010. We were in Fiji now, but once again I felt that we were arriving in a land new and strange to us. Brian’s sister, Betsy, was aboard for three weeks, cruising with us from Savusavu through the Yasawas. Her Rough Guide to Fiji cheerfully recommended taking a hike up the mountain overlooking Waya’s main village of Yalobi. They actually called it a “walking trail” and suggested getting a guide from the village was the polite thing to do, not a necessity.
During my first offshore cruising adventure, I remember standing in a Bahamian pay phone surrounded by Coke cans and conch shells and thinking an international calling card was truly, technologically magnificent.
Different century, different boat, but the same frustration when something goes wrong. It feels like you’ve been robbed. Your freedom has disappeared because the engine damper plate has failed. All of our well-laid plans, our weather checking and provisioning and endless myriad preparations that occur before we set sail are wasted as we figure out what the hell to do now.
Click on the magazine cover image below to read a PDF of the story.
We’re about 800 miles north of New Zealand, six days into our sail to Tonga with more wind, wilder waves, and more violent squalls than the forecasters predicted.
We want to sleep in a bunk that isn’t pitching wildly. We want to eat a hot meal that isn’t flying off the plate or out of our stomachs. We want to stop, but we’re still 250 miles from our ultimate destination. Standing on the bow of our 41-foot sailboat, I’m desperately seeking North Minerva Reef but all I can see is sea. The only suggestion of land is a slight interruption in the eternal seascape, where the whitewashing waves seem to break in a different pattern.
There was a time not long ago when sailors like us would have actively avoided this place. North Minerva Reef isn’t really land. Imagine the rim of a cereal bowl barely submerged in a sink full of water. If we were birds, we could soar above and see the thin circle of coral reef, the barely visible remains of a collapsed volcano, like the letter C penciled onto paper then erased. Its cousin, South Minerva, 15 miles away, looks like an erased figure 8. At low tide, about three feet of coral and rock are exposed; at high tide, there’s nothing but water, though the rim of the reef is just high enough to hold back the full force of the waves, like a bodyguard braced against the melee. If we can get inside the lagoon, we’ll be able to drop our anchor in 50 feet of calm water and take a much-needed break.