Saturday, 5 January 2013

Northern Atolls Christmas

Anchorage at Tabal Island, Aur Atoll
The Plan
We made a decision early on to take all available opportunities to explore, aboard "Break Free", our new tropical locality to the full. The Christmas break was our first decent chance for visiting the Outer Atolls. We had from December 21st until the 5th of January. Ants after a suggestion from "De la Mer" had been pondering over the charts and planned a visit to Aur Atoll 60 nautical miles to the north of Majuro and then, if time, onto Maloelap Atoll to the North of Aur.

De la Mer
The Company
The WAM program associate director and husband, Kiwis Kathy and Kevin kept us company and sailed with us aboard their 42ft Steel ketch "De la Mer".
First Stop
We left Majuro on the 23rd, at around six in the evening, for an overnighter. Unluckily it was blowing from the direction we wanted to go so unlike most gentlemen we had a bit of a bouncy upwind sail. We arrived in the mid morning of the 24th (nicely timed for bommie spotting) at the south entrance to Aur Atoll and spent the day sailing across the lagoon to the island of Tabal in the North West corner, where we had been told most of the population (about 300) of Aur had decamped for the Christmas festivities.

Tabal Beach
After rowing ashore we were taken to meet the Mayor in his little grass hut. He was asleep on a pandanus grass mat platform in the open plan hut with his wife in the small outer “kitchen bit” of the hut. We showed him our visitors permit, paid our $25 and were told we were welcome. The local Iroj (the chief of Tabal island) told us the "beat" celebrations would be in the church Christmas day morning and again we were welcome. Back in Majuro, around the churches, over the few weeks leading up to Christmas we had seen (and heard!) lots of people practising dancing and singing. This "beat" is done in rows sort of like line dancing with a leader with a whistle at the front. Each Church "chapter" puts on a performance on Christmas day and a collection is taken for each group. It actually seems to be fairly competitive with each group having distinctive dress or uniforms and trying to out dance the previous mob.

A Marshallese Christmas day
First thing "De la Mer" joined us for prsent swapping followed by fresh fruit and pancakes.
We attended the local Tabal "beat". Quite a different Christmas experience....a mixture of modern US, traditional Marshallese with a almost tribal feel. Every section of the local community was represented from young to old. We were invited to the community feast...and seated at the big table with all the local dignitaries!!! the food was served on amazing woven pandanus plates and was very traditional Marshallese fare....Pork, beef, preserved breadfruit, coconut milk, pandanus meat, tapioca starch and green drinking coconuts....I can't say yum but there was enough to feed an army for a week! We only stayed from 11am until 7pm so missed a few hours of the celebrations!
Aur boys sitting on bags of copra (coconut meat)

Making the plates for dinner

Looks easy....not

Christmas lunch at the mayoral table

The lovely older generation at Tabal

The "beat" around the Walls of Jericho (that is what they said)

The orange "beat" team from Aur Aur village, Aur Atoll

The yellow team of Tabal village

Next stop
After a fond farewell from Tabal we sailed to Bigen...a beautiful anchorage and deserted island. The underwater visibility was at least fifty metres.

Maloelap Atoll
From Bigen we sailed north to Maloelap. On the way we caught Tuna, Wahoo and in the lagoon we nabbed a Rainbow Runner (our first). 

Wahoo! and a bunch of bananas
We anchored at Taroa a village full of Japanese World War II relics....this is where the five islands of Maloelap had all decamped for Christmas. 
De la Mer going ashore at Taroa, Maloelap Atoll
We had an amazing snorkel over a Japanese munitions shipwreck in the anchorage. About 100 metres long in 15 metres of water and almost intact except for a bombed bow.

Repelling invaders!

Break Free through a rusty wreck

A typically shy Marshallese boy at the new school in Taroa

In ground cooking (in a truck brake drum)
Ashore were the remains of fuel tanks, admin buildings, plane wrecks, air raid sheltersand numerous craters from bombs dropped on the WW2 airfield and even a 6 inch cannon on the beach!
1940's Air Raid shelter/ 2012 house

Japanese fighter plane

The boys with their toys!

Old Japanese Admin building
On island the Christmas sports festival of baseball and volleyball was in full swing. The 5 groups of Maleolap were on the closed airstrip involved in a serious competition. It was closed because the lawn mower could not keep up with the grass despite a valiant attempt.
 A great visit for us.
Mowing the runway so the planes can land!

Aerodrome  baseball

Airik Island
Our next stop at Airik was strange because except for cats, dogs, pigs and 2 women the population was at Taroa. As we walked around a boat load of Airikians returned from Christmas celebrations and it all came to life again.
Residents of Airik

18 more young residents with MUM
Back to Tabal
A great downwind sail saw the fish larder replenished with 6 fish landed between the 2 yachts.
A live turtle going from Taroa to Majuro by boat! Sad? or just a difference of cultures?

A bunch of so called "300" variety bananas we were given

Making donuts for a feast
Tabal's New Years Eve was a bit unusual....we're still not sure if they celebrate the New Year arriving or not...Ants & Kevin ventured ashore but other than after midnight local Policemen, and other small groups
singing songs at peoples front doors for presents (like thanksgiving) not much was happening. The outer Atolls are dry....a no alcohol policy so maybe that has something to do with it??
Flat out enjoying island life

A couple of "cheeky" boys from Tabal in their new wellies!!!
The homeward leg
We called into the southern village of Aur Aur but with the wind and sea conditions ended up anchoring off a nearby island with the anchor at 11m and the boat in 20m...not ideal. Winds a brisk 25 plus. The sail home was a brisk broad reach downwind. The open seas had worked up a bit of a roll with a 3 metre swell. At one stage we had three or four large waves stand up abeam of the cockpit and dump a large dose of the Pacific on us and the back of the boat....its humorous after the event!!! It took eleven hours to do the 80 nms. To the skippers delight the fish count went up by two Mahi Mahi, one a huge 139cm!

All in all a great trip.