April 15, 2013

Woleai atoll

We set sail around 3pm for the short 120 mile sail west to Woleai Atoll from Olimarao island.  The forecasted  were showing winds to ease to 15 knots out of the east so we set the screecher sail and expected a slow 20 hour passage.  Instead of easing the winds did the opposite and increased to over 25 knots!  With a breeze like this Downtime was really moving and surfing down the swells at over 11 knots at times! Needless to say we were going way to fast to fish and just sat back and enjoyed the smooth downwind ride.

Around 10 pm with the winds still blowing strong we decided to change sail and slow the boat down so we would not pass up our destination during the early morning hours.  Furling this huge sail can be quite a challenge in high winds like we were experiencing and I was not looking forward to going on deck and wrestling with it while the boat going 10 knots and sliding down waves in the dark.  We were lucky tonight and everything rolled up like it was supposed to and the dreaded job was done in 15 minutes and Downtime was now cruising along at a comfortable 7 knots.  Having cover nearly 80 miles in the first 8 hours of the trip we had just 40 to go and were due to arrive a 7 am at the south pass into the atoll.

As we approached the island we were hailed on the radio 4 miles out by a watchful eye on shore who asked us our vessel name and intention.  This was a first in a long time that we had been spotted so far out and we were impressed that they were watching their waters so closely.   After entering the lagoon we were handed over to a guy name Tommy who would be our go to guy for the week and he gave us directions into the anchorage.  After we got settled we were contacted by him again and he welcomed us ashore to meet the chief.  We lowered SD and went ashore after breakfast and were greeted with a beautiful lei and a warm handshake.  There are several villages on Woleai and Chief Francis lives on the south end of the island.  We met in a circle under a men’s canoe house with the 78 year old blind Chief and few other village leaders.  Everyone we meet gets the condensed version of our travels and most are amazed by all the places we have been.   We gave the Chief a zip lock full of tuna filets and a hat and he welcomed us to stay on the island as long as we like.

After all the formalities were done we set off to do our favorite thing on a new island, find the kids and hand out gifts and candy.  Soon after we arrived at the elementary school our bags were empty and we were surrounded by smiling faces.  Most the kids spoke English and it was fun to throw a Frisbee and blow bubbles with them. The elementary school has about 120 kids and  there is also a separate high school with another 200 students from here and also a few surrounding islands like Likiep and Elato.  The dress code is loin cloth for the boys and lava lava for the girls and everyone is topless including the teachers.

Five 8th grade girls from the elementary school showed us the way to the high school, down a path that took us through the jungle and across the island.  I was thinking as I walked among them that if I was 15 again and walking through the jungle with 5 top less girls that I would be the luckiest man alive…..

We met with the principle’s at both schools and gave some supplies to the grade school and accepted an offer do a presentation of our travels to the high school.   I have to say that it looks like they are doing a good job teaching and they have enough resources to do their jobs.  The kids are very well mannered and are attentive in class.

We made it to church on  Sunday and caught the end of the service.  It is kind of hard to get motivated to get to church and sit there for hours listening to a language you do not understand….. So we just show up late and meet with the people afterwards.

The night before I had asked permission from the chief to be able to teach some of the boys how to wake board and he said it would be fine after church to go have some fun.  I met the kids on the beach at 10 and the fun began in the rain.  I had 40  5th and 6th grader boys ready to go!  I started the first load of 5 kids on  the wakeboard.  The second kid who tried got up after 2 tried and went a few hundred feet!  I thought great now I have a teacher who can help me explain to the other kids…..WRONG!!  I was only able to get 1 out 15 kids up so I switched to the much easier surfboard, where they could just lay on it and be pulled across the water behind SD.  I kept encouraging them to try and stand and only one brave soul hung ten for a few hundred feet before he wiped out.  I tried telling them all that  it is OK to let go of the rope when they crashed, but most held on for dear life and became human torpedoes!

There were big things going on at the high school with the arrival of 24 new computers filled with tons of information.  John Bush a computer tech from Hawaii and longtime island volunteer was just finishing up the installation.  The mainframe was state of the art and will supply limited information to these students who most of have never operated  a computer.   They are still a long way from having internet but that is not all that bad considering what a waste of time it can be…..instead the mainframe is loaded with all the national geographic issues, the latest world book encyclopedia’s and lots of other useful information that can broaden these kids view of the world.

A few days later we returned and John set up a projector and Daria and I showed the high school kids where we were from.  Daria had lots of great picture from St. Petersburg and I dug up a few of the cows back in Kansas.  Next we showed them a few places like Maccu Pichu, the Mayan ruins in Belize and then shots from the Panama Canal and  New Zealand.  I think they had the most fun with shots we took on their own  islands since they rarely see pictures of themselves let alone projected life size on the wall.  It was good times sharing with all these kids and we were loudly applauded after each presentation.

The winds had been calm for a few days so we  contacted Tommy to see if he could find us a dive guide.  We were in luck, Morgan had recently returned from Yap and is a professional dive guide with over 2000 dives in his log.  We set it up for Monday after we had our presentations at the school and hoped for sunshine.  The weather cooperated and we did two good dives along the pass.  We spotted lots of things with the help of Morgan who could find a needle in a haystack!  We saw several moray eels,  octopus, starfish, a flounder that I thought was sand until it moved, nudibranch, sea stars and even a few pieces of discarded artillery from WW2.   It was strange to see a 5 inch shell laying on the ocean floor knowing it was most likely fired at some unlucky ship so many years ago.

Wolbai Atoll has 8 islands surrounding a beautiful lagoon.  Inside the shallow lagoon  are two small island that might have been candidates for the Corona Beer commercial with a few swaying palm and white sand beaches.  The main island is Woleai which was occupied by over 7000 Japanese troops during the war.  Chief Francis remembers the war vividly and told me that when the troops were here there was not a tree left on the island and you could see from one end to the other.  Like many other islands in the pacific it has a runway built on and has many concrete bunkers doting the landscape.  All the locals were evacuated to Yap during the war and he told me he went to school there until one day when bombs fell on the island and blew up the schools and that was it for school for a while.  Very few locals were killed during the war itself and the only casualties were from people playing with hand grenades they found afterwards.  The Japanese were not as fortunate….he told me only 3000 of the 7000 walked on the ship after the war the rest remain buried on the island.

 Every afternoon the men gather around at 5 to drink tuba (palm wine) and discuss what went on that day and they all seem to want the new visitors at their villages circle for the night. There are 5 circles on main island.  I have learned on thing and that is to bring your own cup and drink slowly!

The men were sitting around one night and discussing fishing and turtle hunting, neither of which they were having much success at lately.  It seems turtles are harder to find and there are not many large fish left on the reef.  I had seen the boat come in and there were 7 or 8 guys with spear guns and maybe 50- 4-6 inch long fish on the ground that they were dividing…not much meat for all that work…..Things used to much much better….

Being a farmer I asked the question of what they were doing to sustain their resources?  Their answer was that they closed certain parts of the reef to fishing certain times of the year.  I asked them to explain how they thought this was helping when obviously a few months was not really helping the catch size…..I took the floor and presented the idea of closing certain parts of the reef for years not months so that fish could mature and actually become old enough to reproduce.  Then they would spread to other parts of the reef and replenish it.  The idea was well received and they said it made sense….but implementing it will be a whole other mater in itself….The next idea I had was how they could harvest more and larger turtles….The practice now is to catch and kill everything you see no matter what size or time of the year it is.  It is even fair game to track the females onto the shore and kill them when they are nesting and laying eggs!  Sadly the eggs are a bonus and they dig them up and eat them too!  What chance does a turtle have when only 2 or 3 eggs will develop into a mature turtle undisturbed in the wild….now with hunting [practices like these it is ZERO!` A turtle lays 70 to 80 eggs and most baby turtles are picked off on their way to the ocean or are eaten by sharks or fish before they are 3 months old.
I suggested to the chief that it would be in everyone’s best interest to stop digging up the nests and taking the eggs and to also stop  killing the females during nesting season.  Another idea was instead of eating the eggs they should gather them and move them to one of their uninhabited islands and protect them.  They also need to build a pen to keep them safe for the first 6 months of their life and feed them.  When they are big enough to survive turn them loose and in 2-3 years these same turtles will return weighing hundreds of pounds.  Only then after a female lays its eggs can they harvest them for meat having created a sustainable farming program.  Again the idea made sense to them…but time will tell if future generations will even know what a turtle looks like……

It seemed every time we went ashore we were given fresh flowers by some one… Wednesday was Raymond’s birthday one of the teachers at the high school and he invited us ashore for a small party. Daria made some chocolate cupcakes and I put together some fishing gear for a present.  Both were very much appreciated and soon  Daria was covered in flowers again.  There was no shortage of tuba either….but I was still in pain from the night before when I almost drowned in the stuff at another party!  We made a short night of it and went back to Downtime early.

The next day we met Tommy and he took us around to see the war ruins.  We saw a few planes in the jungle and some old equipment rusting away.  Most the building were bombed to smithereens and only foundations remained .  Walking through the jungle we saw many craters where bombs had dropped which now were taro gardens where the plants like to grow in standing water.

Our week here was quickly coming to an end and we told Tommy we planed to leave on Saturday.  Next thing we knew a going away party was being planned at the main village.  There was one other boat leaving on Friday so, Thursday night it was.

The culture here is much different than back in the states and only the men showed up to the party!  The women obviously spent many hours preparing the food and flowers but the men served it to us.  The younger guys had been out fishing all morning and our meals had one small fried fish and boiled taro in coconut sauce and had enough food for two people!

The tuba flowed freely and the guys from the other boat brought a few cases of beer so there was plenty to drink. We brought some yellow fin tuna which the men sliced and ate raw, a favorite of theirs.
It seemed that everyone that showed up brought flowers and soon we had 2 or 3 lei’s and 4 or 5 head bands stacked up on our heads.  I had never seen so many flowers!
The next night we asked John to bring down the projector so we could do a slide show at the church for the village.  There had to be 70 or 80 people sitting around as Daria and I showed them pictures of our travels.  We were glad we could share our world with them since they were so generous with sharing theirs.
Our last night on the island Raymond invited us over again and had another bunch of fresh flowers for us to wear.  Wow what an amazing experience!  The generosity and love these people showed us will be treasured for a life time!

In our next adventure we will be stopping Ulithie Atoll the 4th  LARGEST atoll in the world!

Until then, Peace!
Pete and Daria