December 26, 2012

Aur Atoll

We spent a week in Majuro catching up on internet and restocking Downtime with what we could find in the supermarkets in town. To Daria's dismay the produce selection was as poor of quality as we had seen in a long time. The "fresh" produce looked pretty rough after it's 3 week trip across the sea but we found out that if you went to the market every day you could eventually find what you were looking for. Also during the week we spent there I went out on a dive with a few other cruisers out to the pass with Cary a local dive charter captain and fellow sailor. The dive was 12 miles from town in the main pass and the pass had an amazing amount of fish life in it along with several large sharks!

We spent one morning at the ministry of internal affairs to received permission to visit the outer atolls and saw the rest of this small town.

On our way out of the lagoon the next day we stopped for a snorkel just before the pass and found much of the coral to be flourishing and lots of fish too see. Half way through the snorkel Daria became frantic and told me one of here caps fell of her tooth as she was swimming back to Downtime. I thought this can't be good and how would we find a cap in all that white sand? She got back to the boat and was carefully going through her snorkel looking for the cap with out any luck. We were considering our options and while I was putting away the gear I shook the sand out her dive booties and could you believe it that her cap fell out and landed on the deck! (the cap floating in the ocean current and fell directly into one of her boots!) Whew!! What a relief! We had a emergency dental repair kit aboard and an hour later her tooth looked like new! And they say there are no miracles?

We set sail at 9:00 pm for the 80 mile trip to Aur Atoll. The winds were fresh and blowing 20 to 25 knots and we just set only the jib sail for the overnight passage. We thought the seas would calm down when we were a few miles from land but they never did? If anything they got bumpier! It felt like we were back in the North Atlantic with waves smacking us from all directions? There must be some strange currents around here causing all this wave action?

At daybreak I set the fishing lines as we approached the atoll hoping to catch a fish to give the village when we arrived. The wind had lightened but the waves were still crashing on the reef we would have to cross. Our charts showed several passes to the north and we hoped the skies would clear so we could clearly see the pass as we went through. Daria went forward to watch for bombas (rocks) as we slowly went through the reef going through a pass just over 100 feet wide and 35 feet deep with jagged coral reef on either side with waves crashing.

Having safely cleared the pass and made our way across the lagoon and anchored in front of Tubal Island. We were greeted on the radio by James Bond 007! James is the local medical practiciononer and as it turns out would become our good friend and connection to the village for the week. The village only had 150 people so every one naturally knew everyone. James greeted us when we came ashore with a big bunch of bananas, giant cooking bananas, and drinking coconuts.

We had been hearing that the islanders could be a little standoffish and rude to visitors but our experience has been totally the opposite and we were warmly welcomed by everyone we met.

Meeting James and his family was the link to making the whole week an amazing adventure. As we sat down and shared stories with a fresh coconut in our hands James began telling us a little about the island and what was going on that week. First of all it was Gospel Week and the 7th of December was Liberation day from Japan and the day they celebrated the arrival of the first Missionary. Sunday would be a huge celebration, one of which where a sister island Aur would come over and they would all celebrate together a the arrival of the first missionary bringing the gospel.

In one our conversations with James he told us that his wife owned Mummet Island the small island we could see 9 miles across the lagoon. Unfortunately they have not been able to get out to the island for almost two years since his father in law had passed away. Daria asked if they had coconut crabs on the island and when he explained there were probably more crabs than we could catch in a week the decision was made to take he and his family to the island the next day.

I went ashore early the following morning to give the family a ride out to Downtime in SD with all their gear that they would need to spend the night camping on the island. We had James, his wife ,two daughters, two sons and nephew aboard Downtime as we set sail for the island. While sailing I changed to some baits James recommended and soon after we landed a few nice Rainbow Runners while crossing the lagoon!

James's wife is an expert weaver and she gave us small woven hearts, dolphins ,and fish to put on our small Christmas tree. She also made a beautiful basket and other woven decorations for us while we were there. Special gifts that we will treasure, a small token for us taking her and the family to her island. Thank you so much for all the gifts!
With the winds still blowing out of the NE we found we would have to anchor in the lee on the SW outer side of the island outside the reef with the open ocean behind us. We found a place along the outer reef with a small shelf and 40 feet of water to drop the hook on and luckily it wrapped around a big rock and held fast. We let out another 150 feet of chain and backed down over the outer edge of the reef and were now sitting in 200 feet of water! Wow what a drop off along this reef! This definitely would be one of those night I would be sleeping with one eye open and have the anchor alarm on hoping the winds did not shift from the west!

We left Downtime anchored on the reef and lowered SD to bring the Family ashore in a bumpy sea. Safely across the reef and onshore James assessed the remains of the shelter that had been last used 2 years ago. The shelter had the tattered remains of a blue tarp and a few pieces of rusted tin for a roof another small structure nearby covered the copra (coconut) drying oven. In the past they came out for a month or two at a time and harvested copra while living primitively on the island that covers roughly 25 acres.

The older boys went out to set traps for the coconut crabs which involves splitting a copra (when coconuts are dry they call them copra) and wedging them between a few low branches just above the ground outside the holes where the crabs live, wedging them tightly so the crab does not carry away the bait. Later they go back with bright light and sneak up and blind them with the light and grab them being careful not to loose a finger in the process.

Back at the shelter the women were cooking fresh fish (rainbow runner and travelly) and rice for dinner, along with the fish and rice they served baked breadfruit and cooked bananas. The fire was made from coconut husks and when they cook fish over a fire they use the coconut shell for fuel which burns hotter and cleaner. They cleverly serve the meal in a woven palm leaf which takes them all of 20 seconds each to make. (The first true "GREEN" paper plate)

By morning they had caught two sacks full of two different types of crab, one a small land crab about the size of your hand and the other the famous coconut crab we had been hearing about that grows to over a foot round and can pinch your fingers off with their huge claws that they use to open coconuts.
 In the morning, when Daria and I arrived back on the island, there was a fresh batch of steamed crab laid out on palm leaves and we sat down for a crab breakfast. James showed us how to crack open the crab by cleverly cracking them between two coconuts, using a full one as a hammer. To me eating crab is a like slowly starving to death since it requires much more work to open and eat them than the energy you are consuming, but Daria loves the little critters and can eat them for hours.

Later we walked around the island which was a sanctuary and nesting ground for many sea bids and green sea turtles. Daria and I were walking back to the shelter and we saw James and the older boys digging in the sand under some tress near the shore line. To our dismay we saw that they were digging up a turtle nest! This kicked Daria's "save the turtles" action in gear and she began giving them the save the turtles speech. The sea turtle is in danger of being over harvested in all these atolls and is endangered to the point of soon becoming extinct if things do not change. All the islanders know this but nobody is following the ban on eating them! Daria told them she refused to let turtle eggs on Downtime and I agreed with her. It was just a awkward moment being on another persons island in their country trying to enforce what is right. Reluctantly the men put the eggs back in the nest and re-buried them, hopefully several of the 80 plus eggs that were buried would hatch and a few turtles will survive to live and return and lay eggs of their own on these shores one day?

Later that morning with everyone back aboard Downtime we set sail for the return trip to Tubal Island. We re-set the fishing lines and were sailing along the reef towards the pass and found ourselves sailing directly into a flock of feeding birds and landed a nice 35 pound yellow fin tuna. This one fish would surely make up for the protein loss of the turtle eggs and we gladly gave the fish to the family. Later while gong through the pass we landed another fish, a nice barracuda to add to the bounty we had been given by the sea.

During the passage Daria cooked banana bread and fish for all crowd, girls really liked it and was asking new recipes, but simple sweets and chips disappearing fast too!

Back at the village the work of processing the crabs began and Daria spent hours picking meat out of the steamed crab legs. She worked her hands raw in the process but did use a ball peen hammer instead of coconuts to break open the tough shells. In the process of getting one of the larger crabs into the pot one grabbed onto her finger but she luckily was able to shake it loose before it took off her finger! One night she cooked delicious pasta for me with crabs, cream and fennel from her sister recipe.

Over the next several days we would bring fish ashore for the family that we had stored in our fridge on Downtime since they do not have any way to keep it cool on shore. Just try to imagine living without a refrigerator or ice!

On Thursday James asked if would like them to catch us some lobsters? Well, after my last lobster experience in Kiribati I was a little leery about going lobster fishing but I said sure lets go. I would just need to bring masks, snorkel's and flashlight batteries. The two boys that caught the crabs on the island would be doing the catching and we would hold the bag for what they caught. I said I was not going in over my waist this time since I almost drowned last time! They promised this would be much safer than my last experience and rarely did they go in water over 4 feet deep to catch lobster. We would have to wait for low tide which was at 2 am. I met them on the beach in SD and we drove 3 miles down the lagoon on a calm moonlit night to a deserted island known to have what we were looking for, lobsters! The moon was in its last quarter providing plenty of light to see on this clear starry night and we anchored SD of the lee shore and walked to the island with high hopes. I had one thing to do before I went out and that was to call my Dad on his 70th birthday. It will be a call I will not soon forget, standing on a moonlit beach talking on the satellite phone to my Dad 8000 miles away. After the call I flip flopped my way out to the shallow reef where the boys were wading in the water with their dive lights searching for lobster. They had caught two by the time I arrived and within an hour we had 10 in the bag! This was definitely going much better than my last time out! The boys waded across the reef that connected the two islands while James and I made our way back to SD taking a shortcut across the island. It was darker in the jungle and soon our faces were covered in spider webs and our legs were being scratched by the underbrush and we made out way across the island. We made it back to where we left SD to find that she had drug her anchor and was now sitting on the reef in about a foot of water! Dang! I did it again, stranded myself! James said he would be right back and brought some fishing floats that he had seen washed up on shore. We put them under SD and rolled the dink into deeper water. Whew! Good idea James! The boys had made their way to the next island walking across the reef and catching a few more "bugs" along the way. It was not a great lobster night according to James but we had enough for a few nice meals! Thanks James and the boys!

There was a big celebration this weekend to celebrate Gospel Day, the day the missionary brought the Gospel to the islands back in the 1800's The whole village had been practicing their dancing and singing and we had be hearing it aboard Downtime all week. We were told church started at 10 and finally somewhere around 11 the bell rang (a old oxygen cylinder with the bottom cut out being struck with a claw hammer). The celebration started with the pastor giving praise and then different age groups doing a crazy dance to a beat played on a electric keyboard being led by a guy blowing a athletic starter whistle. After this was a donation in which I put one of two bills I had in my pocket. The guy holding the basket asked if I wanted change? I said that's alright, the church can keep it. Then there was another dance with younger kids and another offering…..and so it went…I should have got change and a few smaller bills to put in all of the 8 different dance offerings.

Four hours later the service was finally stopped for a break and we were welcomed to stay for lunch as honored guests, which you guessed it would require another offering (people usually give 50 cents) . We were invited to sit at the Mayors table and enjoyed a lunch of steamed coconut crab, whole lobsters, pork, baked bananas, rice, and breadfruit. Our beverage choice was Mountain Dew, Pepsi of green coconuts, we drank coconuts! Naturally sitting next to the Mayor we had all you can eat lobster and left the table unable to eat another bite.

The kids on the island would swarm around us and we so friendly, asking questions like where you from? And what's your name? Can we come see the boat? The bags full of candy would disappear and smiles were shared.

We met the World Teach volunteer Julia from New York earlier in the week and today another volunteer, Chuck also from NY was up from the southern village of Aur for the celebration. They were part of a team of almost 30 teachers who volunteer to teach English on the islands for a year to gain experience after graduation. They are paid a whopping $100 a month but have host families that give them food and lodging while they are here. We invited them both aboard Downtime later that afternoon for an "American style" meal and cranked up the Air Cond for them and grilled a few steaks which they both enjoyed. It had been 4 month since they started teaching here and we were the first Americans they had seen since. We loaned Julia the sat phone to call her family as our Christmas present and she was able to talk to her family for the first time in months back in the states.

Monday was another holiday and school was out and I met the kids on the beach with SD and a surfboard. The kids had no idea what I had in mind and it took a little coaxing to get the first kid on the board but soon they were all lined up want to try and surf behind SD. Thirty something kids tried and 6 were able to stand up which was amazing since this was everyone's first time! We all had so much fun watching the crashes and the success of those that were able to hang ten!
 The kids here are so courteous and respectful to their elders and if one achieves something the whole group celebrates! We had the first kid riding the board and the whole group was clapping and giving him praise on shore. It is like they all want everyone to enjoy success and share the glory and are so un selfish. We spent two days dink surfing and then had a big party with 20 kids drinking pop and eating Oreo's on Downtime! This is one Island I will never forget!

The next day we headed south to Aur Island in hopes of doing some kite surfing along the reef there. Again we were greeted with coconuts and bananas and were able to give three rainbow runners in trade that we caught along our way. This is the Island the Chuck taught at and we went to the school to say hello to he and his kids. The village was a little bigger than the one on Tubal and was very clean and well kept. Without James it was just not quite the same though and we did not feel as welcome here.

Daria enjoyed snorkeling and feeding the huge silver groupers from the back of the boat. It reminded us Tuamuto's in French Polynesia.

I waited two days for the wind increase to kite surfing strength and finally on the third day the winds filled in and I was kite surfing for hours, which is not always the smartest thing to do if it has been two months since the last time you did it! I was pretty sore the next day!

On Saturday we had Chuck out for another dinner, one he had been craving since he been on the island.., Pizza and beer! Just after dinner I got a call from James which was strange because I knew his radio did not reach all the way from Tubal? It turned out he was Aur and that his uncle had passed away that day and they needed some tools to cut wood for the coffin! I said I had a tape measure and saw and soon we were ripping 2x4's on the back of Downtime! The funeral was to be Sunday at 10 am and when we arrived just before he told us they had to burry him that morning because of the terrible smell. So we missed the ceremony…..
One more day of kite surfing on Monday and the weather started changing for the worse….We were trying to return to Majuro for Christmas and it looked like the winds would be blowing our way for just a few more days so the next morning we set sail at 4 pm with dark skies and squalls on the horizon.

The winds had been NE for days and only decided to change out of the SE the day we set sail! We would be close reached with bumpy seas all the way back to Majuro. I gave fishing a shot going through the pass and landed a nice yellow fin tuna and put the poles away for the rest of the trip.

The sun set and the fun began with one squall after another slammed into us every hour just like clockwork. The winds would be blowing 15 knots and then all of a sudden jump to 30 plus along with a driving rain. They only lasted 10 to 15 minutes or so but it finally came to a point where I left the jib triple reefed and started the engine to keep us heading in the right direction and got some sleep.

Morning came with the pass into Majuro a few miles off. We cleared the pass and spent the next two hours motoring into 20 knots winds towards the anchorage.

Our friend Bob on Braveheart had arrived from Fiji several days before and we looked forward to spending the holidays in Majuro…not really but this is where we find ourselves….

In out next adventure we will be heading to several more atolls to the north including Bikini the island where they tested The H bomb!

Until then Peace! And get out there and live your dreams YOLO! (you only live once)

Pete and Daria

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