Our Visit to Tabal, Aur Atoll
18 October 2020
So where do I start? I loved it! From the moment we got through the south pass, I just fell in love with Aur. As David mentioned our passage from Majuro to Aur was bumpy with a confused sea. And our entrance into the pass was a pucker event for sure. The narrowest pass we've been in to date. But once you get inside the lagoon, you see pristine reefs, white sandy beaches, tiny islets, clear water and no trash. But the best part is that you feel good. A friend described the name of the Auau channel off Lahaina, Hi as meaning "a warm embrace" and you feel this for sure. Aur lagoon is the only other place I have felt this immediately and I came to find out later that in Marshallese Aur means "the gate" - as in the welcoming place to begin your visit to the ratak (sunrise) chain of islands.
We dropped anchor off Tabal island and never moved. We presented ourselves to the Acting Mayor and Iroji (chief), paid our fees and provided small gifts so as to not cause concern among the locals with COVID-19.
Tabal is a small island with one dirt road, a small spit of an runway, free ranging chickens, pigs and solar power to most houses. We were immediately surrounded by curious, happy children who were happy to carry items, help launch the dinghy and just talk story.
We were given permission to move anywhere within the atoll, beachcomb, fish, partake of as many drinking coconuts as we could carry and were encouraged to visit other islands and islets (this is a big change from Marjuro as we are allowed to explore very little).
We were planning on exploring a bit more but on the third day our plans changed a bit. David and I had been at the Iroji's house most of the afternoon as David was trying to fix the washing machine (because that's what you do) when David started to notice pain in his foot. Upon close examination aboard Lucile, I noticed an open, festering wound between his toes. Within a day two of David's toes turned dark red and he developed a high fever and swollen lymph nodes. Not good as there is no medical treatment on Aur, boat traffic is nil and the plane from Majuro may or may not arrive. I put David on antibiotics right away, confined David to the boat and hoped my diagnosis of a staph infection was the correct one. Obviously, the antibiotics worked, but it was a rough couple of days as we waited for the fever and swelling to go down. After that, it was trying to keep David's foot dry so that the open would would close. So no snorkeling or shore trips for David. He would drop me ashore and I would explore on my own. At low tide I was able to walk around the island of Tabal and neighboring islets. Beachcombing and bird watching was fantastic. After my walks I would often end up at the Iroji's house or another local's house for fresh coconut water, coconut biscuits and warm conversation.
And these people have very little, but are so open to sharing. From the art of Marshallese handicraft (some of the finest in the world), WWII stories, local mythology and politics, I found myself baking more so that I would have something to offer them when I came to talk story.
During our visit, Tabal was scheduled to have a VIP visit from a couple of Marshallese senators. These senators would arrive by boat, stay for a welcoming ceremony and then depart for their final destination in Kwaj. We were super excited to be invited to participate in the ceremony as it is rare occurrence. So the first week this was supposed to happen, it got cancelled because the boat broke down. The second week we thought it might happen, but really no one was certain. But you have to prepare regardless. Got to catch fish, cook the pig, prepare the breadfruit and in this case cook the turtle. Eating turtle is only allowed on special occasions with the Iroji's blessing and I was curious. I was lucky enough to hang out with the women and the kids as the imu was getting hot so that they could cook the turtle. You could feel the excitement in the air and its an all day event.
On the day of the VIP visit David was finally recovered enough to attend the celebration. David and I showed up at the appointed time and thought we would just be part of the crowd. Happy to watch. But no, we were considered secondary VIPs. No sitting at the front table with the senators, but off to the side as the kids sat on the floor and the adults hung out in back when they weren't performing. The locals sang and did a little line dancing for the VIPs as food stations were lined up off to the side. Every kind of local delicacy was present - fresh fish, lobster, coconut crab, giant clam ceviche, roasted pig, fermented breadfruit, pandanus, fresh whole chicken and turtle.
Everything was going good until it was time for the VIPs to get in the food line and taste the delicacies. We thought for sure the locals would pile in behind us and fill up their coconut leaf plates, especially when we saw one VIP in front of us take a whole chicken and a lobster and a turtle leg. But no. The locals continue to sing and dance while everyone who is not performing watches you eat. And here is the problem. I picked the coconut crab since David picked the lobster. I have never had coconut crab and I really wanted to try it. And you need to eat what you select. So I am sitting with a dripping coconut leaf plate on my lap trying to open this crab without a napkin or a knife. And all the kids are watching. David loans me a knife that won't stay open and I am desperately trying to show that I am into this crab while juices are dripping down my arm and down the front of my dress and I am cutting my fingers with this knife. I don't know how the VIP with the chicken and lobster managed to eat them both while I struggled with the crab, but he did. All I can say is that it tasted delicious, along with the pig and the giant clam ceviche. Had I known that the locals eat after the celebration is over, I might have chosen differently but what can you do. In the end we really enjoyed the celebration. The singing and dancing are def. nothing I have seen before but I had such a good time I got up to dance with the Iroji when he came round to collect me.
Once the celebration was over and the VIPs back on the boat, the women come in and start filling the plates for the families. I took the opportunity at this point to ask about the turtle because I didn't know what part of the turtle to eat and hadn't selected anything earlier. The turtle meat and internal organs had been displayed earlier in a large plastic box but I didn't want to accidentally pick the intestine and bypassed the turtle. So now I was shown a couple of options- turtle meat, liquid fat and something called wee wee. Wee wee, when mixed with cooked blood is delicious, I was told, but it's green like bile. So as I am standing over the turtle shell looking at fat, wee wee and blood, I realized I would have to use my fingers and opted for the turtle meat. It's delicious. Like chicken. Loved it. So glad we were able to participate in the celebration. Just loved it.
We would have stayed Aur much longer had our permit been valid, but time ran out and the day after the celebration we had to depart. Our departure out the south pass was just as puckering as our entrance as this time the tide was high and you couldn't see the waves breaking on the reef. We all know David is a great boat handler, but he got us through the pass when I would have turned around and waited for a tide change or chosen the west pass. The first attempt at getting through the pass, I just couldn't see the channel even with the water color changes and the eddies. We were almost through the first time when we had 15ft underneath the hull. We need 9ft. We probably could have made it, but you don't know for sure and there is no one to save your ass here. So David turned around and lined up again. This time a little more to the west. And then I saw our exit. Holy crap batman. 25ft of water under the hull, but not much room on either side. Getting boats in and out of Lahaina harbor certainly paid off here. Once we were free and clear of the pass we had put on some music, set the jib sail up for our return to Majuro and watched the sunset as Aur disappeared behind us. Although we never raised the main sail due to light winds, it was one of our nicer sails due to calmish seas. Just a lovely departure to a wonderful visit.
Is It October Already????
17 October 2020 | Majuro, Marshall islands
David Himle | Same same: some clouds, some wind, mid-80s
My how time flies when you're ... just hanging out.
Well, not just hanging out. Boats have a way of always requiring attention and upkeep. So we're up to the usual in that regard. I've recently replaced oil and water seals in the diesel engine raw water pump, and replaced the valves and seals in the watermaker pump. Kirsten has recently patched and repaired the main sail. She is hoping we can get another year's service out of it before we have to replace it. I am, too. That would be $5,000 or so. On the other hand, it has been in service for more than 15,000 sea miles, so it's had a pretty full life. Another $2,000 in the foreseeable future to replace the house batteries, but hoping to get a few more months out of them before I fork out that cash.
The biggest news here is our recent trip to Aur, an atoll about 70 miles north of Majuro. Permits are required to visit any of the atolls outside of Majuro, and the Interior Ministry, which issues permits, decreed in April that no more permits would be issued, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. On the other hand, locals are free to travel to the outer atolls by sea or by air, without restriction. On the other other hand, yachts here have been disappearing for weeks at a time, which observation led us to discover that permits could be issued on the authorization of the atoll's mayor. Several mayors were allowing permits to their atolls for yachts to make 'deliveries'. Since many of the atolls do not have regular service, by boat or plane, yachts were volunteering to haul food, building materials, etc., to help out.
Aur is near by, an overnight passage, so we figured it would be a good shakedown cruise, not having moved Lucile outside of this Lagoon since we got here. From what we'd heard from other yachties, the mayor seemed amenable and the people reported to be friendly, so we thought we'd give it try.
We visited the Interior Ministry to request a permit, and were shown a copy of the April memo announcing that no permits were to issued until further notice. We advised that we knew of other yachts visiting other atolls with the mayor's authorization, and volunteered to make a delivery to Aur.
After several non-productive visits, and being unable to directly contact the mayor of Aur (there is no cell tower for that atoll), we were beginning to despair of getting a permit. But on one lucky visit, the person in the office was very friendly, very encouraging, and very helpful. She happened to have seen the Aur mayor, who was currently in Majuro, and would talk to him on our behalf. She did, he approved the permit, and she provided us the necessary paperwork. The mayor advised that there was no need for any deliver, just come.
So, we got the boat ready for sea, including topping off fuel and water, and, wouldn't you know it? The watermaker crapped out. Since this has been our sole source of fresh water, and knowing there were no supplies of water available on Aur, we elected to delay our departure until we sorted out the water situation.
I did some troubleshooting, and after consulting with my vendor and the factory, ordered a valve service kit. As often happens, the kit was not in stock with the vendor, and would have to be ordered from the factory. That would entail one to two weeks for delivery from the factory to the vendor, and another two weeks for delivery from the vendor to Lucile.
So, we designed and built a rain catcher. Rather, I designed, and Kirsten built. We went to Ace Hardware, bought a tarp, and she cut and sewed a trapezoidal rain catcher to attach to the forestay, along the jib sheets, and to the foreward shrouds. I put a fitting in it, attached a hose, and ran it to the deck fill port. It worked okay, but had some issues.
So, we designed and built a new and improved rain catcher. We went to Ace Hardware, bought a heavy duty tarp, and she cut and sewed the modified design. As often happens with design, there were complications in implementation, so the as-built was different than the design. After getting over feeling bad as a designer, I rigged the new tarp in the same location, and was able to feel good as a field installer. It catches rain marvelously, holds up better in the winds that invariably accompany the arrival of the rains, and spills less off the edges, so able to route more water to the fresh water tank than to the deck, where it would have ended up anyway, without a rain catcher.
We decided we were happy with it, and willing to venture away from the water store.
We waited a couple of days for our weather window, and then departed a couple hours before sunset on the chosen day. We strapped our new dinghy to the foredeck, and towed our old dinghy behind. Strapping the new dinghy to the foredeck was one of the 'proof of concept' tests that sea trials are for. The new dinghy is a few inches longer than the old dinghy, and while my tape measurements provided assurance that it would fit, my experience with tape measurements suggested that my measurements had about a 50-50 chance of being reassuring. We lucked out, and the dinghy fit.
We made it to Aur after a very pleasant passage. Well, pleasant or not so pleasant, depending on who was making the assessment. We had picked a weather window that the weather officer had predicted would give us light to moderate wind in a mostly favorable direction, after a period of light enough winds that the seas outside the lagoon wouldn't be up too much. What we experienced coming here, and what we since learned has been universally experience by other boaters, is that the between the atolls you get lumpy, confused seas. The window did turn out to be favorable, in the captain's assessment, but not as comfortable as the weather officer predicted and hope for. Such is life.
We had a beautiful transit out the lagoon, a beautiful sunset, and then a beautiful squall that dumped lots of water on us, and obliterated visibility to the point that the channel markers were difficult to see further than 1/4 to 1/2 a mile, which is about how far apart they are.
Here's how it is with a lagoon. There is a ring of coral reef all the way around the lagoon. The reef is shallow enough that waves break on the reef, at least at low tide. There are, usually, several small islands or islets on parts of the reef. There is a channel, and occasionally two or three, through the reef. Originally, the channels have formed where fresh water flowed off the original island and inhibited coral growth. Often, the channels have been widened and dredged. Always, the channels are fairly narrow, and hardly ever straight. Always the reef await immediately outside the channel.
Since I'm writing this, you may surmise that we successfully navigated through the channel and out to safe water. You would be correct.
Safe, but not flat. Not uncomfortable for some, not comfortable for others.
Safe for Lucile, but not safe, alas, for the old dinghy, which now rests in 5,000-6,000 feet of water a mile or so outside of the Majuro lagoon.
This was a calculated risk, and the outcome was not unanticipated. We had hoped there might be a market for a used inflatable, but there were three factors that rendered the old dinghy unsaleable. 1) The Marshallese do not consider inflatables to be boats. 2) All the foreign boaters currently own, maintain, and use perfectly serviceable dinghies. 3) Our dinghy was, arguably, not serviceable (which is why I quit trying to patch it, I couldn't keep up with the deterioration of the fabric). We contemplated donating it to the local landfill, but a trip to the local landfill dissuaded us from this option. (Think about it: what do you do with trash on a small island?) One way or another, the dinghy was ending up in the drink; the choice was between shallow water or deep. Such are the choices one must make.
Having made the choice, and living with the consequences, we trimmed our sails for the prevailing wind, and hunkered down to stay as comfortable as possible. Winds were 5-10 knots, but seas much livelier than you would normally experience with such light winds, and confused, so that no matter which direction you sailed, you would both pitch and roll.
We sailed in and out of squalls throughout the night, with much time moseying along at a mere 2.5-3 knots during the lulls between squalls. As the false dawn hinted of the coming daybreak, we decided to douse sails and motor the final 10 miles or so.
First, you want to start your engine. It helps to maneuver dead into the wind to douse sail, plus, you never know when the engine might not start, or, start, but not have raw water flow.
Such as this particular morning. I started the engine, but the exhaust sounded funny. Sounded dry. Visual check confirmed: no raw water coming out the exhaust. I stopped the engine. I've been here before, many time on several boats. Hell, I've been here before, many times on this boat. Based on my many times' experience, I've developed a technique which, many times past, has solved the no raw water problem. I opened the engine compartment, turned on the light, disconnected the hoses from the raw water pump, and blew through them. Re-connected hoses, re-started engine: no joy. Commenced disconnecting hoses at strategic locations to determine if I had a good flow path. Hmm, all good. And yes, at some point, I did check the strainer. It was fine. Finally, there was only one thing left to check: the raw water pump impeller.
Before I developed my special technique for recovering from no raw water flow, which I developed after checking the raw water impeller many times only to find it in good shape, I would check the raw water impeller first. In this case, I should have checked the impeller first. As it happens, it was the peccant part in this case.
This is how replacing the raw water impeller turned into a two hour job, when it would normally take a half hour, including the time it takes to gather tools, the spare impeller, and also put tools away.
Emerging from the engine compartment, and the engine spewing healthy quantities of raw water, along with some less-than-healthy diesel exhaust, from the exhaust pipe, I discovered Aur in view, and set my course for where the south passage was reported to be.
The prevailing wisdom regarding navigating a lagoon is that one makes the approach during daylight, with minimal cloud cover, and with the sun as near overhead as possible. Charts are not necessarily accurate to the dimensions that are critical for not running aground, and you have to visually assess water depth. Particularly on the less-developed atolls (such as Aur), where the channel is not marked, and has not been dredged.
Our conditions that morning: completely overcast, with intermittent showers (and accompanying winds), early morning, with the sun not far above the horizon (not that you could see the sun). At least it was daylight.
Fortunately, it was also low tide. From a couple mile out, I saw a line of surf miles wide, including across where I expected my pass to be. From a mile out, with binoculars, I thought I saw a small gap with no surf. From a half mile out, I was pretty sure I saw a no-surf zone, but I couldn't really evaluate the water color to determine where the pass went through the reef. My chart prep had indicated a strategy of going a little west of the pass entrance, so I stuck with that strategy, and as I crossed where I thought I should find the pass, about a quarter mile off, I saw the dark blue cut through the green-brown reef, crossed my fingers, and, sure enough. In.
And another five or six or seven miles to the north end of the lagoon and our destination.
Which we made, happily, and more about which will come in the next episode.
19 July 2020 | Majuro, Marshall islands
Well, it's now July and time for a quick update.
We spent the spring working on small projects that could be stowed easily should we have to depart wiki-wiki.
The Marshall Islands is still COVID-19 free as the borders remain closed. And it looks like they will remain
that way for some time. For the moment yachts are allowed to stay. In the meantime, the country is preparing
for the arrival of COVID-19. Sneeze guards up everywhere, hand washing stations on the street, masks in crowded
businesses, temperature checks at the hospital and no large gatherings. There is a large Marshallese population
living in Arkansas. Most work in poultry processing plants, live in crowded housing and now have the virus.
The population is being hit hard and everyone here knows someone affected. We know it's no joke. No one really
minds the quarantine. Our biggest quarantine irk is that quarantine measures delay arrival of all products so
you have to be quick and replace items as soon as they are consumed. You can't ignore your empty propane tank
and think that the tank farm will always have a supply - cause they won't. And when the island is out of propane
everyone has to wait. Half of all produce sitting in the containers rot on the dock during quarantine so you
have to be quick to get to the store and stockpile what you can. We feel lucky. It could be so much worse.
We finally received our new dinghy and it is soooo nice not to have to inflate everyday and worry about leakage
or sinkage. Now we can do some atoll exploring. The first snorkel trip was a great success. A tropical
I have done a lot of sewing recently and I am not a seamstress. That is to say, sewing is not one of my
superpowers. Repairs or using a pattern, no problem. Large projects where the vision must get translated to a
workable product are different. I can do it, but it takes a lot of brainpower. The technical side of
construction can never be ignored, especially when errors are costly. And they always are on a boat in the
middle of nowhere - so I go slow. To begin with, the old sailcover was really threadbare and held together in
some spots by gorilla tape. It wasn't going to make it another winter so I made a new one. Try sewing 20ft of
thick fabric together on a table the size of a small bathroom. In fact, my whole sewing work area is probably
smaller than your bathroom. But it worked and it looks great. So after that success I decided to make dinghy
chaps to protect the new dinghy from UV and exposed rebar at the dinghy dock. OMG, constructing the new sail
cover was pretty easy compared to the complex shape of a inflatable boat. And to make it more challenging,
instead of ordering fabric and notions, I took apart a large sunshade that came with the boat. We had been
carrying it around for years and I couldn't find a way to use it since we have solar panels on the deck. So I
took it apart and reused all of the materials to make the chaps. Sunbrella fabric, D-rings, webbing and line all
got re-purposed and, you know, it looks pretty good. I even made removable pockets. I sort of impressed myself
considering my workspace and lack of sewing superpower. Making dinghy chaps requires an ungodly number of
fittings and there is only so much I could do with the dinghy hanging off the side of Lucile. Often we had to
take the dinghy to the beach so that I could pin and tuck. Take it back, make one change and off again for
another fitting. But it's done. There are tons of blogs out there detailing the complexity and frustration of
making dinghy chaps so I won't repeat it, but I concur - they are the most complicated thing I have ever made.
Way more complicated than making new interior cushions. I have just enough fabric left to make a fuel container
covering, but I just can't look at the sewing machine right now. I tried, but no. I pulled out the machine,
threaded the needle and just sat there. I need a break. More snorkeling.
The only other item of note is my trip to the dentist. For those of you who don't know, I hate the dentist.
Nothing ever good comes out of it. I just don't have great teeth and cringe every time a dentist tells me how I
should be able to clean my teeth better. So I try to be really proactive... But, it had been years since my last
cleaning and I had one spot of plaque I wanted checked. Nothing major, but I had put the visit off for a year.
Considering my success at sewing I thought better to deal with it now before COVID-19 arrives. So off I go to
the hospital cause there is only one dentist office in the islands and it's at the hospital. After a two hour
wait in which the dental technicians much be found (they never came back from lunch), I pop into the dentist
chair and open wide. No gum probing, no x-rays, no invasive cleaning like you get in the US. Nope. According
to the dental tech my teeth looked great! Only needed one spot of plaque removed no problem. OMG, I almost
jumped out of the chair when they used the dental tool on me. Then the receptionist/dentist comes in and tells me
not to worry about the plaque cause it's in a spot that would require drilling and we don't want to start
drilling. Since I not in any pain, I shouldn't worry about it. So I don't. I paid my $20 and left for the day
excited to have completed that task. Part of me left elated since my teeth are in great shape compared to what
they usually see. Almost. I definitely see more snorkeling in my future.
26 April 2020
David Himle | Overcast, intermittent showers, wind E 10-15
Well, we're still here, lying safe and sound on our mooring at Majuro.
We have been scanning the news headlines and reading the articles that catch our eye. Probably not surprising, but most of what we read is about the pandemic: what it is, what do about it, the state of the economy, the state of the food supply and distribution, the state of the media (what is real?). We read news about the U.S., about Oceania, and, shoots, the whole damn world.
We also keep our VHF radio on, monitoring the local "yachties" frequency, channel 71. We certainly monitor Marshall Islands news via the local paper (a weekly), via the Radio New Zealand web site (several times per week), the official web pages and Facebook pages of the Marshall Islands Disaster Preparedness Office and the Department of Health. And we check out the web site of the local embassy from time to time. The coconut wireless is probably the primary source of news in the atoll, and this is mostly what is passed along on VHF 71, but it is essential to monitor the "official" sources as well, as rumor behaves here much as it behaves anywhere, under any circumstances.
We also spend our time fiddling with boat projects (a never-ending list), shopping to stay provisioned, and keeping entertained. We continue to mine the library, and are reaching deeper into the stacks to find new material. Recent discoveries that I have found absolutely fascinating: The Aneid, by Virgil; and the collected works of Jack London. Truly fascinating, and truly apropos of our times.
We also spend time wondering how all our friends are doing. Given the limitations of communication here, we don't hear much from many. I will let you in on a little secret, though: it is possible to text our Google phone. I discovered this accidentally, while dealing with a compromised credit card, but I'll pass it along in case you have a hankering to give us a quick idea of what you're up to these days.
We are aware that everyone we know in Hawai'i is out of work, as we would be if we were still there. We've been "out of work" since we left Lahaina, plus we've been socially distant, 99% of our time on board, so we know how it works for us. But we're curious how it works for you. How do you cope?
Things here stay relatively normal, as there are no cases of Covid-19 in the Marshalls. But the police and Immigration have stepped up patrolling the anchorage, and have taken names and number of everyone aboard. Permits are no longer being issued to visit other atolls in the Marshalls, and, slowly but surely, all the cruisers are showing up here at Majuro. The primary concern here is that RMI (Republic of the Marshall Islands) will kick yachties out. Currently, yachts are not permitted entry. Once yacht showed up last month, sailed onto a mooring because his engine was out of service, and was ordered to leave. After he explained his predicament, he was advised that they would tow him out the pass. When the pilot boat was dispatched to tow him, and when the master learned the situation, he refused to make the tow. The authorities relented, allowing him time to repair his engine and re-provision. Provisioning was accomplished by a friendly boat already here, schlepping to the grocery store, making the purchase, and then making delivery to the dinghy streamed out behind the receiving boat. That boat remained four days (one day longer than the authorities originally allowed), and then got underway under their own power. They were headed to the Phillipines: the boat was registered elsewhere, but the wife was a Philippine national, so that's where they placed their bet.
The big question for everybody here is: where do we go if we get kicked out? There are boats here from Canada, Germany, New Zealand, and the United States. Only U.S. citizens are not required to have a visa, and much of the discussion amongst the yachties is centered on kicking out 'foreign' boats vs. US boats.
We, too, wonder where we would go if we got kicked out. Many countries, the US included, seem to be relaxing some of the restrictions, but, as of the day before yesterday, the only options we can see are Japan, Guam (US) or the USA. If USA, we ponder Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, and California.
Too much is up in the air to make plans, per se. In the meantime, we re-provision and re-fuel on an as-used basis, and work on projects that can easily be put to bed in working order within 24 hours. And we take it a day at a time.
Good news: the new dinghy is in service. That saves us inflating pontoons every time we put it in the water and every time we prepare to leave the dock. The old dinghy is lying on the foredeck, awaiting it's future consignment to the deep. (The hypalon fabric has deteriorated to the point that you'd have to re-surface the whole thing. Not do-able. On top of that, there is not local market for inflatable dinghies, even good ones: the Marshallese hold these so-called boats in the highest contempt. (On the other hand, we just heard on 71 that a dinghy was stolen from the beach by one of the grocery stores while the crew was doing their shopping.)) Perhaps I will tell the story of importing a dinghy another time. As you may surmise, it was ... complicated.
Corona Virus and travel update
13 March 2020 | Majuro, Marshall Islands
It's a quiet, rainy Saturday here and time for a update.
It's nice to have quiet today. It's dry this time of year and lots of construction projects to finish. For awhile we heard construction blasting noises every afternoon around 4pm. The blasting noise didn't bother us so much as the siren that proceeded it. This siren is a warning to everyone that blasting will occur in
10 minutes - get out. However, the siren sounds a lot like the sirens you hear in Hawaii during emergencies such as tsunamis, earthquakes and tropical storms/hurricanes. After living through one earthquake, three
tsunamis and many tropical storm/hurricane warnings, the sound of a siren tends to stir a Pavlovian stress response in David and I. I'll be cooking dinner and hear the blast sirens going off and wonder what just
happened. The weather may be sunny with 15 feet of water underneath the hull and I will still wonder if we need to pull the mooring lines and haul ass. Only after the blasting occurs do David and I relax fully. But the construction has finished and we think the blasting is over for awhile.
We are close to finishing this round of boat projects and looking forward to some sailing and travel time. I have finished sanding and varnishing 90% of the boat interior and have only a bit of the cabin sole and table
to remaining. That will have to wait until next winter as I need a break from sandpaper. David has replaced all hatches and one port light, the anchor windlass works, the alternator replaced and 90% of our leaks
plugged. We are good to leave the mooring and sail a little. I was thinking Tonga, Pohpei and Kosrae. Something besides an atoll.
But we're not going anywhere for awhile. Last Sunday the Marshall Islands closed it's borders for two weeks to all air travel. All cruise ships and yachts(that's us) have been restricted from entering the Marshall
Island for the indefinite future due to the Corona Virus. Container ship deliveries have been rerouted and delayed. Normally I would say, oh we'll just wait until things subside and plan on traveling around May. But, no. We don't see these travel restrictions being eased in the
Marshall Islands anytime soon.
Some background: A large percentage of the local population has diabetes (70%) and pre-existing health issues. Some of this is due to radiation, but a large percentage is due to diet and lack of exercise. The only hospital is in Majuro and it is small. It so small that the dentist is located at the hospital. Major surgeries, dialysis and cancer treatment patients get flown to Hawaii.
There is not a system in place to handle another epidemic here. We have had a Dengue Fever outbreak in Majuro since August with travel to the outer atolls restricted. The Dengue Fever outbreak got better until
December when we had an explosion of new cases. Newspapers reported that the hospital was like a war zone with Dengue Fever patients being placed in hallways due to the lack of beds. Then came the
Measles epidemic in Samoa and the South Pacific. Travel restrictions were put into place in January to prevent the measles from entering. If you couldn't prove you had the Measles vaccination you couldn't get in our out of the Marshall Islands. Due to costs and supply, you couldn't just get a Measles vaccination to protect yourself. You had to show need. If
you needed to travel you could get your vaccination at the hospital if you brought in your plane ticket.
While the Measles epidemic appears to have subsided, these restrictions are still in place for the Marshall Islands.
Now with the Corona Virus pandemic, there is just no way the Marshall Islands is going to ease up travel restrictions any time soon. At least not during our travel weather window. So we will stay in the Marshall Islands and travel to the outer atolls if we can get our permits approved. We feel pretty lucky actually as we are on a very strong mooring, have no visa limits on our stay in country, have access to hardware stores, Amazon, USPS and are in a good location for cyclone season. We know of yachts that have been turned away from entry in American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga and others that are stuck in places such as Tarawa, Kiribati. Most South Pacific island nations are in the same position as the Marshall Islands. They don't have the ability to handle a large epidemic and have restricted entry.
Also, we have our replacement dingy on it's way as our current dingy will no longer hold air for long periods of time. Our dingy is our car and we really need it for trips to shore. The container ship with our dingy was scheduled to arrive at the end of March but now who knows.... So basically the universe is giving us plenty of signs to stay put for the indefinite future.
I am somewhat concerned about food delivery as 99% of the food is imported and delivery was somewhat "flexible" before the new entry restrictions went into place. Container ships usually stop in China, South Korea, Fiji and Guam before stopping here and often get delayed due to weather. Already we have heard of containers being left in Fiji as container ships get rerouted or delayed due to various country restrictions that pop up daily. We haven't had a run on toilet paper and hand sanitizer yet, but we have run out flour, sugar, milk and tomato paste. I had just cleaned out the dry goods locker and started restocking item in preparation for a 30 day voyage so I have some backup, but still....I like to be prepared. David thinks I am a little paranoid about my focus on the food situation, but I am ok with that. Just because I am paranoid doesn't mean I'm wrong. :)
This Is Not a Drill
28 January 2020 | Majuro, Marshall Islands
Once upon a time, I was a hotshot Electrical Operator on a nuclear submarine. I stood watches in the Maneuvering Room, which was the control station in the Engine Room. I was in charge of the Ship's Service Turbine Generators, the AC-DC Motor Generators, and the Main Battery. I controlled the ship's electrical plant, and all the connections that could be made to make and send electrical power throughout the sub.
I recall being asked, in a job interview, what was the worst fuck-up I'd ever made. I replied, without hesitation, the time during engineering drills, when I tripped off the wrong SSTG. The drill supervisor announced that the steam supply to the port SSTG was shut off, and I should have opened the output breaker to the port SSTG and shifted all loads to the starboard SSTG. But for some reason, I opened the starboard SSTG output breaker. All the lights went out, and the MGs shifted from AC-driven to DC-driven, and the lights went back on. I had to bring the starboard SSTG back on line, shift the MGs back to DC-driven, so they could resume keeping the battery charged, bring the port SSTG back on line, parallel it to the AC bus, and balance the ship's electrical loads between port and starboard SSTGs.
The whole evolution took less than a minute, and while I was totally humiliated by my fuck up, I was actually praised by the drill supervisor for my prompt restoration of the ship's normal electrical lineup. One of the consequences of my fuck-up was that I became the duty Electrical Operator for General Quarters.
This meant that when the alarm sounded, I was either relieved from my Aux Electrician Aft duties, or woken up from my off-watch down time in my bunk, or otherwise ended up relieving the EO for the duration of the drill or emergency.
Sometimes the drills were "Battle Stations Missile". When the gong sounded and the announcement was made, they sometimes announced "This is a drill". Sometimes the drill originated from headquarters, and sometimes they would announce "This is a drill", and sometimes they would announce "This is not a drill". The pucker factor was amped up, when they announced "This is not a drill".
We knew, from previous experience, that drills could be originated from Pearl Harbor, or wherever, and it wouldn't be made known to us that it was a drill until after the missiles were spun up and ready to launch. And we always hoped and prayed that it was yet another drill.
But we also knew, from previous experience, that "This is not a drill" really meant that we were no-shit taking on water, or no-shit at risk of imminent collision, or no-shit there was fire. We could hear the yelling, hear the water spraying, hear the screws overhead, or smell the smoke, so we were trained that "This is not a drill" means "This is no-shit, the real thing".
Everyone on board would report to their assigned watch stations, and the ship would go through the evolution of preparing the ship's ballistic missiles for launch. The Steam Plant Operator had his station on the inboard panel of Maneuvering, the Reactor Operator on the center panel, and the Electrical Operator on the outboard panel. The Engineering Officer of the Watch sat on a stool behind the three operators. During Battle Stations Missile, the Engineering Officer joined the EOOW and three Operators in Maneuvering. He wore a .45 pistol on a belt. His job was to shoot anyone who thought they might sabotage a launch.
I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was just a kid, but I remember how afraid my parents and my teachers were. I remember 'duck and cover' drills, and we would all scramble underneath our school desks. I remember glancing out the windows that looked over the Pacific Ocean as I ducked, knowing that we were located between San Diego Harbor to the south and Camp Pendleton to the north, and wondering if my desk would really save me.
This was the era of Mutually Assured Destruction, which really was a mad way to run the world. But this was the world I grew up in.
It wasn't unusual during normal underway ops for roaming watchstanders to gather at the hatches between compartments to shoot the shit. You'd have Missile Technicians and Fire Control Technicians from the Weapons Department gabbing with Machinists Mates and Electricians Mates and Electronics Technicians from the Engineering Department at the door between the Missile Compartment and Auxiliary Machinery Room 1. We spent a lot of time talking about what we'd do during our upcoming off crew at Pearl Harbor. We'd talk about taking leave to visit family on the mainland, or cruising for sex, or going scuba diving, or drinking a lot, or smoking dope a lot, or having sex a lot.
We also talked about what we'd do in an actual missile launch. Some of us were quite clear that we'd participate in launching nuclear missiles. Some of were conflicted. Some of us were quite clear that we would do whatever it took to delay or prevent a launch. There were often highly technical discussions among numerous ratings of the latter class as to how this could be accomplished. There was a lot that the Missile Techs and the Fire Control Techs could do, of course, but they also had the Weapons Officer standing by Missile Control with his .45 strapped on. There was a lot that could be done in the Engine Room to shut down the reactor and take the propulsion system and ship's electrical systems off line. We all knew what we could do, and also knew that we would pay with our lives.
Like I said, the pucker factor was high when we were at Battle Stations Missile, the Department Heads at their stations with their sidearms, and not knowing if "This is not a drill" meant that it was a drill, and we just didn't know it yet, or no-shit, it wasn't a drill, and we were either going to launch nuclear missiles against our assigned targets, in concert with other submarines launching SLBMs, silos launching ICBMs, and B-52s dropping their bombs and assuring global destruction. It was always a huge relief when Battle Stations Missile "This is not a drill" was amended to "This is a drill, secure from Battle Stations Missile".
Fast forward to January, 2018. Quoting from WikiPedia (I've omitted references to footnotes):
Escalating tensions between North Korea and the United States, including threats by both countries that they could use nuclear weapons against one another, prompted a heightened state of readiness in Hawaii. North Korea had conducted several intercontinental ballistic missile tests over the past year, most recently in November 2017, enhancing its strike capabilities. It is possible that North Korea may have the capability to deliver nuclear missiles to Hawaii. Hawaii is located roughly 4,600 miles (7,400 km) from North Korea, and a missile launched from North Korea would leave perhaps 12 to 15 minutes of warning time.
I'd been following the news, so I was aware of this. I was in a heightened state, fully prepared for an amped up pucker factor.
On January 13, the 'amp it up' button got pushed: a Hawaii state worker pushed a button that sent out the following text message to phones throughout the state:
BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
This was one of those events that anybody who was there remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing. I was in my 5th grade classroom at Amber Drive Elementary School when Kennedy was assassinated. I was in the bulllpen with my fellow engineers at Shoreham Nuclear Power Station when the Challenger exploded.
I was at the helm of a Pacific Whale Foundation boat, driving a whale watch trip, when my phone chirped its incoming text message alert. We were a few miles out of Lahaina Harbor, in the Au Au Channel between Maui and Lanai. I picked my phone up and read the message. I amped up to full pucker factor. I looked behind me and could see passengers picking up their phones and coming to terms with the same message I had just read.
What do you do? I could be a mistake. It could be a drill to be announced later. It could be no shit, this is not a drill. I could either return to port, or I could head to sea. Maui has a Star Wars installation at the summit of Haleakala and a few 'secret' defense installations on the south shore of Maui. It could be a target. Or it might not. If if were, there was no place safe, but distance from Ground Zero would help. Oahu would definitely be a target. I turned the boat to a heading that would take us to the southwestern shore of Lanai, my thinking being that would provide us an island between us and Oahu. I got on the PA and advised passengers to remain inside the main cabin, and instructed crew to close the windows and doors.
I also monitored the radio. The Coast Guard said they didn't know what was happening, and advised mariners to take prudent precautions. There was a lot of chatter among other boats, but nobody knew if it was real, and nobody knew what to do. I learned later that several of them watched to see what I would do, and followed me toward Lanai.
I tried calling my wife, but no answer; turns out she was surging. I tried calling off crew on shore, but got no answers. I ended up texting Kirsten that no matter what, I wanted her to know I was thinking of her and loved her. And then I sat in my captain's chair and drove toward Lanai.
Unlike sitting at the Electric Plant Control Panel in Maneuvering, there was nothing I could do to influence events. I reflected on my life, and how as a younger man I was determined to live it with no regrets. As things turned out, I have many regrets, but overall feel I did the best I could, and was happy and satisfied with how I turned out. I hoped it wasn't my last day, but felt I could leave this life content if it were. I drove on and waited it out.
Thirty eight minutes later, the Coast Guard announced that the alarm was a false alarm, and we were in the all clear. I turned back to Lahaina, and spent the rest of the day driving 'normal' whale watches.
Glad I'm still here. Glad I'm not anywhere near a nuclear target.