Dinghies and Sailing Canoes in Puluwat

Tue 3 Feb 2004 11:10
3rd Feb 2004. From the uninhabited paradise of Olimarao Atoll.

Dear All,

Puluwat was perfect. The place really did have it all. Wonderful large
sailing canoes, used every day to go out fishing; traditional navigators
still using the stars and feel of the sea to make long voyages to Guam and
Saipan without chart or compass (as written about by David Lewis in his
books); a pre war Japanese lighthouse, towering above the trees with a
magnificent view of the islands and reef of the atoll; masses of Japanese
debris from the war, huge trucks, bulldozers, tanks and cranes left to rust
away in the bush during their hasty retreat from the advancing Americans; an
exceptionally secure and safe anchorage in the vivid turquoise waters of the
shallow lagoon with a narrow and intricate entrance; and the perfect place
to finally build our new dinghy.

We stayed there quite a long time, in fact Katharine arrived in her late 20s
and left well into her 30s!

When we arrived we were immediately boarded by Mariano Bonito and his family
laden with coconuts and an enthusiastic welcome. We were swept ashore and
soon spotted the perfect place to build the dinghy. A disused boat house,
complete with slipway, right by an old Japanese quay and less than 100
yards from Kokiri at anchor. Next door to us, a plot of land was being
cleared of coconut palms for the building of a new traditional canoe house,
and the work was being overseen by the most respected man on the island, the
oldest and clearly greatest of the surviving navigators, Rapwi. He is now
quite an old man and when we were introduced to him he immediately asked us
if we had any medicine to cure a really hideously weeping and infected
abscess in his armpit. We were able to give him a course of antibiotics and
dressed it for him everyday until it was cleared up which gave us the most
perfect opportunity to really get to know him. He was the most lovely and
interesting man.

On Saturday the 10th Jan we had a day off the dinghy building as it was
Katharine's birthday and we took Kokiri to join the sailing canoes outside
the lagoon for some fishing. Mariano, two of his sons, Jacob and Jodie, and
Rapwi came with us for an extremely boisterous sail up and down the reef
with four fishing lines trailing behind. We had a tremendous time, catching
a big Wahoo and three Bonitos, and sailing right up to and past the sailing
canoes. They made the most magnificent sight sailing at about 6-7 knots with
seven or so men aboard perched on the outrigger and lee platforms as the
beautifully crafted boats surged over the waves. The Puluwatans still use
these same canoes to go many hundreds of miles between the Micronesian
islands with no navigational instruments. They are magnificent to see,
about 30 feet long with a large outrigger to windward and platform hanging
over the water to leeward. They are rigged with a mast and single sail
which has both a boom and a yard. We think lanteen rigged. In order to
tack the boat is shunted as they don't go through the wind, but rig and
rudder are end for ended and the boat sets off in the other direction,
always keeping the outrigger to windward. We often watched them beating up
the lagoon past Kokiri on their way home with their cargo of tuna and Wahoo.
They are made out of two breadfruit trees. The keel and underwater section
is hewn from one and planks cut from the other are stitched on as topsides
with coconut fibre and caulked with the sticky sap of the breadfruit tree.
They take about a year to build and there are 8 of them in sailing condition
in Puluwat. Although the design and construction has not changed for as
long as anyone knows, Mariano did not say no to some of our epoxy and glass
fibre to patch an annoying leak on his canoe. Our reward for mending it was
a Bonito for supper and Katharine got to sail with them up the lagoon the
following day. A very exciting, exhilarating and fantastic feeling!

The dinghy took shape gradually over seven days or so. We were using the
stitch and glue method and we had an endless stream of little helpers. It
seemed while we were there there was no school to speak of so we tutored our
small army in the art of sanding, while they provided us with a constant
supply of coconuts to quench our thirst. On about day eight we took the
boat out for sea trials and set off for snorkelling and a picnic. It was so
cool to be buzzing around in our tiny (exactly 2m long) but exceptional
little boat. It sits well high in the water. (We even took Mariano's a
fairly hefty daughter with us for a trip to test out the water line with
more weight!) She rows beautifully as well as burning along under power! We
are pretty pleased it must be said and she is now finished except for a
little more sanding, painting and the centre thwart, but we ran out of
sanding paper, acetone and paint brushed so we had to call it a day! The
useless Zodiac is now safely packed in its bag on deck. The floor and
transom finally became all but completely separated from the tubes and it
was like being afloat on a glorified car tyre inner tube!

We finally managed a walk to the lighthouse and marvelled at the politics
that placed a well equipped secondary school at the far end of an
uninhabited island, two miles from the village. Its building is now
abandoned along with all its hundreds of excellent school books which have
been merrily trampled into the wet floor. It was really quite shocking to
see after meeting so many schools desperate for any teaching material at
all. The Puluwatans and the Chuukese have the worst command of English of
any of the people we have met, and the sight did not say a lot for the US
aid program that has been in place in Micronesia over the last 50 years.
But the bush was magnificent as was the beautifully built lighthouse, and we
spent hours looking over the rusting remains of the Japanese at war, now
engulfed by the banyan trees which looked as if they had been poured over
the skeletal remains of the machinery.

Just before we left we asked Rapwi to name our boat. The plan had been to
call it Twofella (the word for two in Pidgin,) but there was a
misunderstanding in the language barrier and he actually renamed the boat
Main Koran, apparently the name of the first canoe to arrive in Puluwat.
With the name he gave us a traditional paddle that he had been making for us
during our stay and a colourful Lava Lava as a parting gift. It would be
wrong to write about Puluwat without a mention for their Lava Lavas and
loincloths. The men wear only the loincloths and tie it as a thong around
their waists, packaging their gonads neatly but leaving their usually fat
and unattractive buttocks for all to see. The women are covered down to the
ankles but bear breasts were de rigueur.

So we left having had the most amazing and wonderful time. We are now in
Olimarao which is an uninhabited atoll 40 miles NW of Lamotrek. We had a
fab and fast sail getting here the highlight of which was an encounter with
three Bryde's Whales which followed and swam around, under and about the
boat for more than an hour. As a friendly (we hope) parting gesture the
young, small one (at least 30 ft) nudged his body against our forefoot
lifting the bow a good few inches out of the water. It was a real treat and
both of us were transfixed.

So goodbye from paradise which we have all to ourselves. Olimarao is
perfect. It has everything, excepting flies and people!

All our love as ever

Katharine and Peter