Majuro Atoll

Our sunrise approach to the Marshall Islands happened just as planned. When I got up for my 5:00 am watch I could see Majuro Atoll and it’s neighbor Arno Atoll on the radar, and as the sun rose I rolled out the jib and we sailed between them. This is a huge lagoon and the pass is in the middle, about 2 hours from where the town is on the east side. As we motored in one of the yachties helped us get settled on a buoy where we’ve been ever since. It began raining off and on about 24 hours before we arrived and has continued pretty steadily since then. We kept hearing from the other cruisers here that the rain was unusual, but it didn’t seem to want to stop. Finally we learned that the rainy season doesn’t officially end until December, so we feel a little better about the constant drizzle. Almost feels like home, except the heat that goes with it.

Yesterday it did clear up long enough for it to get seriously hot. We put up the sun awning and pulled down the jib. The outer layer of sunbrella along the foot of the jib had come loose on this last passage and obviously needed some stitching. With the jib down it was apparent that all the thread that had been exposed full time to UV was rotten. The fabric right at the top near the head was also disintegrating and needed repairs. We moved the jib down into the salon to avoid the heat of the sun and I re-stitched the entire length of the foot and repaired the leech of the sail, along with the corner patches. Along the luff where it hoists into the slot in the roller furling I repaired some wear spots and reinforced the head. I soon learned that wrestling around 40 pounds of sailcloth inside an 85 degree boat will make you work up a big sweat in a big hurry.

After dinner we pulled down the big awning, which was a very wise choice because at about 4:30 this morning the wind started howling as the skies opened up and poured. Unfortunately neither of us was in the mood to go outside at that hour to open the deck fills and let the water fill the tanks, so it was all lost over the side and into the lagoon instead. This morning on the local cruiser’s net we heard that the weather is going to be basically clouds and rain and crappy all week. Hopefully we’ll have a calm period to get this sail out of the salon and back up into the furling before I leave on Wednesday.

It didn’t take long after we arrived to see most of what is in town. The atoll has one main road, and in most places is only two or three blocks wide between the lagoon and the ocean. Taxis drive up and down the road all day and you just stand alongside and hold out fingers to indicate how many of you need a ride. Nobody asks you where you’re going because there’s only one direction to go (hopefully you were standing on the correct side of the road), and you just tell the driver where to stop. It used to be $1.00 to go anywhere on the atoll, but according to an article in the local paper, some Chinese drivers have started a price war and now it’s $.50 to anywhere. Given that we expected to pay a dollar, if the driver is a Marshallese we still pay a dollar.

The yachties that have been here for years tell us that the beauty and appeal of the Marshall Islands lies in the outer atolls. There are two parallel chains of atolls about 150 miles apart with a northwest to southeast span of 800 miles. The 34 atolls consist of 1,150 tiny islands, with a total combined land area of only 70 square miles. That’s like slicing out a piece of the west coast from the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula to Bakersfield, then across to Las Vegas and back up to Central Washington State, with only the land mass of the I-5 corridor between Seattle and Tacoma. Notable atolls here include Kwajalein where the US has a large military installation, as well as Bikini and Eniwetok where the US did their nuclear testing after WWII. The two nuke test sites have yet to be cleared for repopulation and remain uninhabited, although visits are allowed as the diving on the sunken warships – including the aircraft carrier Saratoga – is reportedly quite spectacular (don’t know if they glow underwater or not). There are also some anchorages here within the Majuro atoll about 4 miles away that we’re told are nice remote getaways. We won’t have time to explore those before I head home but plan to after the holidays are over.

We received several emails from friends when we were on our way in here wanting to hear what our first impression was. Honestly, our expectations were low and we weren’t surprised. Wintering in Majuro is probably a lot like wintering in Pago Pago, except that internet access here is absurdly expensive. The harbor is dirty and noisy and filled with Asian fishing boats who come in to offload their catch onto enormous processors anchored in the lagoon. Their work boats ferry passengers and freight between the dock and the fleet all day long, creating noise and wakes in what would otherwise be a very quiet little harbor. The Marshallese at first glance don’t seem very happy. The density of population on this atoll is far higher than anywhere we’ve seen since Papeete, and there seems to be little for the locals to do. Hopefully as time goes on we’ll learn more about the Marshallese and find out we’re wrong about that. There was an article in this week’s paper about the inmates breaking out of the local jail again (apparently they just keep breaking the walls down) and after assaulting someone it took two days for the police to show up and take a report. Not very encouraging news if you’re a local.

The yachties and expat communities here are certainly friendly enough. There are frequent social events and even a virtual yacht club with races and get-togethers throughout the season. This morning everyone is gathered around the dock helping step a mast on a trimaran that someone is rebuilding. I’m at home finishing the jib repairs, opening and closing the overhead hatches another thousand times as the rain starts and stops, and getting ready for a late Wednesday flight home.

Majuro is here.

Back Home Again

My trip to Seattle was certainly full of highs and lows. Since this is supposed to be a sailing blog, I’ll save details for another forum. Here on Yohelah we’re happy to have our little family all back together again. Today we’ll move out to an island called Enemanet here in the Majuro atoll for some quiet time away from town. Apparently it’s a nice little anchorage with some buoys where the locals go to swim and picnic.

We definitely need some time in swimmable water to clean the bottom of our boat. We haven’t cleaned the bottom since Bora Bora, and the growth is about 3″ long all over the bottom. Good news is that it’s soft and comes off easily. We also need some opportunity to swim and get exercise. The atoll here is not a pleasant place to walk, and there are absolutely no hills to climb, so swimming it is.

The weather has dried up a bit and the rain is more intermittent than the constant downpour Rob experienced while I was off the boat. The northeast tradewinds have settled in and the seas outside the lagoon are pretty big, but in here we have no swell and a nice breeze to keep us cool.

We’re trying to decide what to do with the rest of our season. The atolls in the Marshalls are worth a visit and we likely could spend quite a bit of time exploring within the country. Tempting to both of us, though, is the fact that west of here are the Federated States of Micronesia, with some of the best diving in the Pacific. Chuuk and Palau are within a couple thousand miles west. Chuuk is where the allied forces found the Japanese fleet hiding at the end of WWII and there are 60 wrecks on the bottom of the lagoon. Palau is just a spectacular diving destination, which our book describes as having coral reefs among the most diverse and beautiful in the world. Hmmmm, makes you think about it.

The problem is, we both have a hard time thinking about sailing 2,000 miles in the wrong direction. But it doesn’t add 2,000 miles to the trip home because we have to go north from here anyway. Home is dead to weather for us, so we have to sail north until we get out of the northeast trades and into the westerlies (above about 35 degrees north). Starting from Palau would mean we would have to sail north to Japan and hope to find the westerlies before we hit land! What we would get, though, is into the Kuro Shio current which runs north in the western Pacific during the spring and summer months. It’s like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, with warm water chugging along giving you a sometimes boisterous ride, but a free 2 or 3 knots added to your trip.

What to do next is a tough call. Right now we’re going to go out to Enemanet to relax and ponder.


Navigationally Challenged?

Rob always jokes that it’s his job to keep the boat running and my job to figure out where to take it. That works really well for me. When we left the Northwest I convinced him that Alaska was truly on the way to Mexico from Seattle. It was a nice trip. Now we’re in the Marshall Islands (7N 172E) and I’ve convinced him that Hong Kong (22N 114E), which is 3,500 miles northwest of here, is indeed on the way home for us. On the way to Hong Kong we’ll stop in Micronesia, Palau, and the Philippines. North of Hong Kong is Taiwan and Japan, where we’ll stop on our way back to Alaska. We’ll close our Pacific loop at Sitka, where we hope to make landfall in late June.

As far as Majuro goes, I’ll keep it on the “if you’ve got nothing good to say, say nothing at all” list. The other cruisers here tell us we really should get out to some of the other Marshall Island atolls, but we’re done here and ready to start on our trip home. The saddest part for us is that Tim got a job at Kwajalein, and Masquerade is on the way here. We last spent time in the same anchorage in Mexico, but actually saw very little of them after parting ways in Vancouver Island in August of ’06. That’s the thing about cruising – plans change for everyone at the most incredible rate. But Tim has got a great gig lined up at Kwaj. We’re really sad we won’t be here when they arrive, but our timing is based on weather, which dictates that we leave as soon as possible.

As we head west we’ll pass through the Federated States of Micronesia, where we’ll get a 30 day visa. We’ll visit Kosrae, Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap in those 30 days. If we’re lucky we’ll get to dive in Chuuk and see the Japanese wrecks on the bottom of the atoll. There have been some challenges lately with the government letting yachties dive in the lagoon, so we’ll see what we get when we get there. Hopefully we’ll get 30 days in Palau and get to do some diving and exploring there. Then it’s on to the Philippines, where we may or may not linger. Likely we’ll just coast hop up the west coast and cross over into Hong Kong. There we’ll stay until the change of seasons. What we think we know is that the northeast trades die down as the southwest monsoon season sets in. We want to sneak out between the two and travel north into Japan. So we’ll leave Hong Kong in late April or early May, to get up into Japan. There we’ll watch the weather locally for typhoons, while keeping an eye on the North Pacific for the storms to settle down for our passage across.

It’s about the same distance across the North Pacific from Japan to Sitka as it was across the South Pacific from the Galapagos to the Marquesas. This passage will be nothing like the other, though. The cold water and cold weather make such a huge difference. It’s definitely a tougher time staying warm at night, and just zaps your energy. But knowing we’ve done that distance before makes it infinitely doable for us.

We’re working on the to-do list now, which is actually pretty short. Our plan is to leave here Sunday or Monday and stay out at Enemonet for a few days finishing up some varnishing. There is a vet clinic this coming weekend in Majuro, with vets flying in from the States to neuter some of the hundreds of animals roaming around the atoll. Our hope is that we find a kitten during the clinic who wants to join us and keep Maya company for the next 9,000 miles as we travel home. Hopefully we find another perfect boat cat who doesn’t get sick on passage and helps entertain Maya.

Today on Yohelah we’re checking things off the list and getting ready to start our last big adventure on this Pacific loop.


Maya The Magnificent

The full statement is “Maya the magnificent cockroach hunter”! We came home late on Wednesday and I climbed into our bunk in the forward cabin. Maya came up there with me, which she rarely does (she’s slept with us for only 3 hours in 18 months). At the foot of the bed are 4 piles of books on a shelf in front of the anchor locker doors. Suddenly she goes to the left stack of book and starts furiously digging, ripping down the entire pile of books onto the bed. About that time I started getting alarmed, this definitely not being typical Maya behavior, and I hollered to Rob that perhaps he should come with a flashlight and paper towels. I left the cabin and he went up into the bunk and suddenly I hear fierce pounding against the wall. Apparently Maya had sniffed out about a 3″ cockroach, which Rob completely pulverized. We were absolutely amazed that she could smell a cockroach hidden in a pile of books, and even more astounded that she pulled down the pile of books for us to get it. She definitely earned a little treat of soft Friskies every day for the rest of her life!

As far as finding her a playmate, that didn’t work. The folks at the vet clinic didn’t have time to work it out for us. The woman on the boat behind us found a tiny stray Siamese kitten the day before yesterday, but the vets were already gone and we couldn’t get a health certificate, so we couldn’t take it. Likely we would have landed in Micronesia or Palau and been told to leave if they had found him without papers, even though I doubt there’s any vet between here and the Philippines. But we’re hopeful we can find a mate in Cebu City where we check in to the Philippines.

We started working on the final list of things to do on Wednesday, when Rob took our propane tank for a refill. He got to the office of the Marhsalls Energy Corporation to pay for it, and found out the island was out of propane. Later that day he also discovered that the main pump on our watermaker was having intermittent but frequent problems that he couldn’t sort out, and decided he needed to install a new pump configuration. That left me today to do the paperwork runaround to get us checked out.

First visit is to the Port Captain’s office at the other end of the atoll to get a Port Clearance document and pay our exit fees. The Captain was in a meeting, so they typed up the doc, gave me a copy and sent me off to Immigration and Customs for our other clearance papers. Into another taxi and back into town to Customs, where I got that clearance. Another taxi took me to Immigration for the stamp in our passport. Then into a fourth taxi back to the Port office where the Captain had signed off on my document. A fifth taxi took me to the grocery store for one last stop, since the island had also run out of eggs and cabbage earlier in the week. The sixth taxi brought me back to the boat.

But Rob was still busy with pumps so I decided to run out to get the propane filled. Into another taxi, all the way past the Port Captain’s office to the propane place I go. The man behind the gates kindly informed me that at 1:00 they were still at lunch, and to return at 2:00. Alrightee then, taxi number 8 takes me back to the boat, waiting for taxi trip 9 to go back and fetch my hopefully filled tank. When I arrived at 2:30 the tank wasn’t full and when I finally got their attention I was told that since we paid on Wednesday, the price had increased and I needed to go back into town and pay another $10.50 before they would fill my tank. Given that it was now 2:30, I did not have $10 on me, and I was running out of time and patience, I did the only thing I could think of – I played the girl card. I pleaded with him to please fill the tank at least part way and explained that I had my clearance papers and had to leave today (not exactly true, but part of my plea). Evidently the tear-filled blue eyes worked, because he called the office, got permission, filled my tank and sent me on my way to taxi number 10 of the day.

We need to be on our way by Sunday so we arrive in Kosrae before next weekend to get checked in. The wind is blowing nicely right now, but the seas outside the atoll are a huge mess from a monster storm that started on the western side of the North Pacific about a week ago (and should be slamming into the west coast of the US about now). We’ll have a pretty bouncy ride, but the seas are continued to be high through the week, and we’re really pushing the window to have enough time to get to see Hong Kong. We found out earlier this week when I talked to Cindy on the HF radio that they’re sailing straight to Kwajalein, so we wouldn’t get to see them even if we had waited. Right now they’re taking more of the stinky weather, reporting 35 to 45 knots of wind and 12 to 20 foot seas with very short period wavelengths. I’m hoping that tomorrow night we’ll be out at Enemonet so I can hear Cindy and get to talk with her. Our ride won’t be nearly as bad as theirs, but will still be “boisterous”.

As far as stops along the way, we’ve burned up a bit of extra time trying to get out of here, and will have to be speedy in the Micronesian islands. We also learned that unemployment, drugs and alcohol are huge problems in Chuuk, and we will not be stopping there. I really wanted to see some of the wrecks there, but it’s definitely an unsafe stop for us right now, so we’ll pass. But the diving in Palau will more than make up for missing Chuuk.

Today on Yohelah we’re just about done checking things off the list.