February 1, 2013

Rongelap and Ailinginae Atolls #Marshalls

Rongelap lies 11 degrees North and 167 degrees East and would be a 160 mile sail from Likiep on a NW course.  We said our farewells to Joe and our other friends on the island and set sail after spending a amazing week on Likiep Atoll.

We decided to exit on the west side of the atoll and sailed 13 miles across the lagoon and crossed the reef over a shallow 20 foot deep pass and set our course for Rongelap Atoll.
The winds were blowing out of the east at 15-20 knots and we set our freshly patched jib and crossed our fingers that it would stay together. The patch did its job and the sail pulled us through the night and by morning we had Rongelap in site.  The weather on the other hand was not a cooperative and had been storming all through the night with 30 knot squalls and rain showers.

The squalls continued through the early hours of the morning and by 11 am we had covered 160 miles and had the North Pass in site although it did not line up on our charts worth the darn!  I was correcting the offset which by my guess we was off 3-4 hundred feet!  About that time a serious squall hit with 30-35 knot winds and a driving rain along with it taking viability down to a few hundred feet! Daria  punched the menu button to set the offset and the screen went blank and the plotter powered off and would not restart!  Then at the same time one of the poles gets hit and had a big reef shark on the line! So here we are with a fish on, no navigation, being blown at 6 knots through a poorly charted pass by a 35 knot winds soaking wet in the rain!  Daria grabbed the Motorola Zoom with our spare charts and drove the boat while I dealt with getting rid of the shark.  We some how missed all the bombas as we motored a few miles up the atoll to a small island and set the anchor.  And wouldn't you know it as soon as the hook was down and set the skies cleared and the sun popped out just like any other day.... Needless to say I thought this was a great time to pop open a beer and shortly after a few more!  These islands still show the effects of the bomb from over 60 years ago  and have very few coconut trees and are mostly are covered in radioactive mangroves!  No two headed birds or fish seen yet, but we are still looking…..
We anchored in the lee of Labaredj Island and spent the next few days beach combing the windward shores. All but the main island of this atoll is inhabited and we had not seen another boat in almost a week. Walking along the beach  we encountered tons of trash mostly from fishing boats in the form of old nets, ropes and fishing floats of all color and sizes.   We also came across hundreds of flip flops that wash ashore along with plastic water bottles, glass whiskey bottles and even fluorescent light tubes!  The list of man made trash is long and it sad to realize plastic is only been around 50 or so years and will last for centuries!  In the back of my mind I wonder what will this place look like in another 50 years?

Further down the beach was a shipwreck, a big fish transport that broke in half when it hit the reef.  The back half with the engines must be at the bottom of the sea and the upside down front half  had a huge hole ripped in the bottom exposing the refrigerated holds that once carried tons of fish to far away ports.  Just another reminder how cruel the sea can be when you make a mistake…..

The next day we sailed a few miles south to Eniaetok Island and anchored for the night.  On our sail down we hooked a fish, the exact same kind that got us both sick with ciguatera back in the Marquesas!  Needless to say we will not be eating that one!

At the south end of the atoll is the main island of Rongelap and we anchored next to a small resort with 6 bungalows on the beach.  The resort was just a year old and sat empty….most like due to the same fate as Joe’s place on Likiep…no air service!

Rongelap was devastated when the winds changed direction during the bomb test and the radiation killed everything growing on them.  Most of the people living on them were exposed and died also and hundreds lost their land and homes for the last 60 years.  Just recently have these islands been declared safe to return to but little of the island paradise is left, only stunted brush and coco nut trees with fruit that is still unsafe to harvest

Like many of the places we have been to we really do not know the clearance procedure until it is over with… An hour after anchoring a boat came pulling up with three guys in it and one of the guys, Edmond had a police tee shirt on and asked to come aboard and to see our documents.  I said sure and went to get the papers and all three jumped on board and began checking out the boat.. mostly just curious to see a boat like Downtime and kept repeating nice boat, nice boat….I handed them the clearance form and they looked at the top of the form for the island name and were good with that.  Apparently no one told them to collect the $50 fee….Oh well!

The next day was Sunday and after lunch we went ashore to meet the locals, all 50 of them!  We approached the newly constructed  concrete wharf that most like cost more than the whole island and tied up SD.

We walked ashore into what looked like a ghost town! No less than 50 new homes with shiny tin roofs and gleaming white block walls stood all around us with only 3 people in site sitting under a big fruitless mango tree next to the generator station.  In the middle of the area were other living structures, converted containers where I would imagine the workers who built all these new homes were living.  They all had a wall unit pumping cold air into the small trailer like structures and were sitting the hottest part of the day out in refrigerated comfort.  As we walked around wondering who was going to live in all these houses we saw a 30 foot wide freshly paved road heading south into the jungle towards the beach.  As we walked down the middle of the road we had no fear of traffic because there were only 4 cars that we counted in the entire settlement.  The road continued on along the shore and then turned right to a newly built airport terminal that was surrounded with thousands of square feet of asphalt paving.  Was I missing something?  There are all of 50 people on the island and they have to pave a road to and from the airport that is 500 yards away from town center?   Will the homes be given to people that were relocated  60 years ago?  Will the country buy a new plane so the airport will be of any use?  Who knows??

The generators chugged on 24 hours a day consuming more diesel per person per day than the average person would use in a year if he had to buy it….You have to wonder where it will all end… People will move back out here after having lost all their skills as islanders from the hustle and bustle of Majuro and then what?  Learn how to fish?  How to farm radioactive soil?  I just don’t know…. It sadly reminded me of what we did to the Indians back in the states….

The upside of the anchorage was that it was right next to a ¾ mile long reef and the wind was blowing perfectly to break out a kite!  I spent the rest of the day enjoying the breeze and enjoying my 9th kite session of the new year!

In the morning we set sail for Ailinginae Atoll just 25 miles to the west, a small uninhabited is atoll that would be tricky to anchor at.  We had the lines trolling out the back as we cleared the pass and got a hit as the depth dropped off into oblivion.   On pole got a hit with something huge on it!  I reeled in the other poles and set to fighting whatever was on the end of the third line.  The fight did not last long,  The brand new bait I rigged ripped the connection eye out of the bait and now some fish is swimming around with a $20 black and red slant nose hard bait in his mouth for the next few months!   Oh well….cant catch them all.I rigged a another green  mahi colored slant nose that had been on Downtime for the last 4 years without getting a single bite just for fun.  We drove the boat a few hundred feet off the reef as we approached the island and just as we crossed over a small hump on the SW reef two poles hooked up!  One small Mahi and one Rainbow Runner on a yellow and white squid and purple/pink squid.   We had 8 more miles of reef to troll before the pass and the green slant nose was still batting a lifetime average of zero….This would soon change though….

The next fish to hit was a three foot Barracuda on the green slant nose bait which I let go with the extra long set of needle nose pliers.  We are still scared of ciguatera poisoning in reef fish and let them all go…..  Less than an hour later greenie (not so green anymore) gets hit again!  I could tell right away that this fish was a monster by the way the line was singing off the reel!  We quickly rolled up the sail and turned away from the reef and the fight was on!

We had the fish gaffed after 30 minutes and to our amazement had landed a 80 pound Yellow Fin Tuna!   It had been a long time since we had seen a fish of this size on Downtime and who would of thunk greenie would have pulled out a fish this big after 4 years of laying low?

We were just a mile or so from the pass and had blood dripping off the back of Downtime as we entered the channel that we would anchor in.  Daria kept telling me to look at all big fish in the water and when I did I said: “ silly them ain’t fish them are sharks!” We set the anchor and I began cleaning the fish and we had no less than 20 sharks waiting behind the boat, something we had not seen since the Tuamutos.
After the fish was cleaned the fun began! I had a bucket full of fish parts and we started feeding the sharks!  This was scary at times since the back steps on Downtime go right to water level and we thought a shark was going to swim up on the step at any moment and take a bite out of our ankles!  We took some great pictures and will remember this spot forever.

We had a 2 day sail ahead of us and done what any sailor would do in his last day at anchor…broke out the beer and wine and celebrated life!

We spent just two short months in the Marshals but will remember all our new friends for a lifetime.  James Bond and his family on Tubal, Joe on likiep and many others that we so welcoming and made our stay so enjoyable.  The people here have a tough life living on small isolated islands in an ever changing world where the price of a gallon of gas directly affects the amount of fish they will be able to catch and the transportation cost of their only marketable crop, copra.

In our next adventure we sail back towards the equator and the island of Kosrae in Micronesia!

Until then, Peace!

Pete and Daria