Isle of Sails
12 February 2014 | Ailuk Atoll
The 200 mile journey from Majuro to Ailuk took us about 30 hours and was topped off with a nice mahi mahi just before entering the south pass. As we beat our way to the main village on the far side of the lagoon, there were several Marshallese sailing outrigger canoes in site and zipping with great speed before us. Ailuk is known as the isle of sails and for good reason. This atoll is still home to some of the lasts master canoe builders left in the Marshalls. We'd ogled over a few of the model canoes in Majuro, but now were seeing the real thing. And man, can they sail! Each canoe has a main hull which is the buoyancy for the boat and also carries the mast, boom and sail. Rather than having the mast base centered in the hull, it instead sits in a hollowed out piece of wood at one end.....or the other. There is an outrigger made from a solid log and held in place by a number of wooden struts. In addition to providing stability for the boat, it also helps to hold the lateen rig up with lines that stay the mast. The boat is always sailed with the outrigger to windward which begs the question - how do you turn around and go the other way? Well, here in the Marshall's, the trade winds blow daily and pretty strong. These boats are used to transport cargo down the atoll and back. They also were used long ago to sail between atolls among the Marshall's and beyond. With the mast locked into the bow, you sail down the atoll (at great speed) and when you are ready to come back, you simply move the mast from one end to the other- thereby still keeping the outrigger to windward. These canoes exhibit some of the most advanced naval architect features and were likely the first to use the asymmetrical hull design which was later copied and mass produced by the company that made Hobie Cats. The main hull design is essentially flat on the outside of the hull, but the other side, the one that faces the outrigger, is quite curved. This essentially allows the hull to "fly" to windward by creating lift exactly like a birds wing. The Marshallese discovered this long before the Wright brothers at Kittyhawk. Though the sails are now made from plastic tarps, they were once woven from coconut and pandanus and the Marshallese were expert navigators - sailing between all the atolls of the Marshall's, sometimes hundreds of miles from land. They invented stick charts which not only depict the location of atolls, but locate them by how the prevailing swell reflects around them. They could basically "see" land long before it was visible to the naked eye. The art of navigation was closely held by designated Marshallese navigators and kept secret from all who were not privy to the tradition. Laurence and I hope to take a ride in the next week or so on one of these wet and wild Hobie Cats from the past, so stay tuned.