As we scooted across the lagoon on the canoe, a small island studded with palms got closer by the minute. Soon it was time to tack, that is to reverse direction and have the wind on the opposite side of the boat. The procedure was unlike anything I had experienced sailing at home in British Columbia. The typical Micronesian lateen rig holds the sail between two lightweight booms that converge down at the bow. But bow and stern are identical, and the outrigger float always remains on the windward side. Instead of maintaining the boat's speed and swinging the canoe quickly across the wind to come about, as in a conventional sailboat, the skipper dumped the wind from his sail, bringing us to a halt. Instantly, the kid up forward grabbed the low junction point where the booms met and passed it back to the other teenager, who re-attached it. The former stern was now the bow. The skipper sheeted in the sail, and we took off on the opposite tack, back to the beach and boat shed.
An Outsider Revives a Dying Craft
There I met Dennis Alessio, a burly American who offered me a refreshing guzzle of jakamai, fermented from sap that is tapped from the bud at the top of a coconut palm, much as maple syrup is collected. Alessio had been instrumental in kick-starting the renewal of canoe-making. "I helped build a large sailing ship in Seattle, destined for outer-islands clinic work," he told me. He also helped deliver it. An old man on Jaluit atoll had given his traditional canoe to Chicago's Field Museum for permanent display but wanted a replacement. Alessio, a skilled wooden-boat craftsman, agreed to stay on and build it, met and married a local woman, fathered four children, and had lived on Majuro ever since.
Alessio teamed up with Alson Kelen, whose family was from Bikini atoll and who had gone to college in Oregon. With Kelen as translator, they began documenting the canoe-building techniques on the various atolls. "I had no woodworking skills before that," said Kelen, a heavyset man with intense eyes, "so I'm also a student." He negotiates with property-owning families to acquire breadfruit trees for the canoes. For the hull they have to be large and straight. For the wooden boom pieces that project out and hold the outrigger, trees are traditionally planted where the wind will give them a particular curvature.
Eventually, families and teams on most islands were building and sailing canoes again. Then, the Hawaii-based Outrigger hotel chain decided to sponsor the annual races, a men-only affair. With solid corporate and government funding, the Majuro program also began building longer Hawaiian-style racing canoes that are paddled, not sailed, by teams of six young women. The sport is popular throughout the western Pacific.
Jerry Ross, the American owner of a scuba and snorkel outing boat, told me about a hermit-like local man on one nearby islet. He lives on coconuts and an intensively cultivated garden. Holding his breath, he free-dives to 50 feet at night with a flashlight, to spear large reef fish and harvest lobsters. When he needs a bag of rice, kerosene for his lamps, or batteries for the flashlight, he barters by hanging a mesh bag of live lobsters out on his mooring float. Ross takes them home and drops off the supplies on his next trip out.
At the evening reception prior to the races, I had chatted with a government official, Nidel Lorak. As we watched the canoes parade past with their torches, he told me that some islanders use similar torches to catch flying fish at night along the outer reef. The bony but tasty critters are attracted like moths to a flame. "The men have a net on a long pole, and snap the fish right out of the air," he said. I expressed amazement at the dexterity and sharpness of eye required. "Yes. It's not easy. Only the experts can do it."
Like the canoe-building and -sailing, it was another bit of local knowledge and skill that is still being passed down the generations. There may be tuna ships with helicopters anchored in the lagoon and a daily jet landing at the airstrip, but I went home heartened that at least some of the traditions and culture of Oceania live on in these remote islands.
Tom Koppel is a veteran Canadian author, journalist and travel writer who has contributed travel features to numerous newspapers and magazines for over 25 years, including the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Globe & Mail, National Post, Islands Magazine, and Sydney Morning Herald. He has also published four popular non-fiction books on history and science, mainly with a maritime connection. His next book is Mystery Islands: Discovering the Ancient Pacific.
All photos by the author except where indicated.
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