Ulithi Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)

Sweet kids of MogMog
MogMog Island, Ulithi Atoll

“It’s turned into a tropical storm, but all the weather forecasts show it going well north of us.”  Famous.  Last.  Words.  

On our way from Yap to Guam, we opted to stopover in the Ulithi Atoll, just to regroup and rest.  It wasn’t a planned stop, but we all needed a welcomed break from the seas.  Of course, because it wasn’t planned, we hadn’t told anyone in Ulithi we were coming.  When we dropped the anchor just off the beach of MogMog Island, we immediately got a call on our VHF radio with a polite voice asking why we were there, how many people were onboard, and what our intentions were.  We assured them we meant no harm and were simply stopping to give our family a rest.  Then we all piled in the dinghy with a small gift in hand for the chief (an LED flashlight) to say hello to our new neighborhood.

Chief Stanley offers a warm welcome
Chief Stanley greeted us on shore and promptly instructed us on proper etiquette regarding the Men’s Meeting House - women and children were forbidden from entering unless given special permission.  As he walked us around their beautiful village, he noted other taboo paths and places where only men could go.  The Women’s Meeting House held similar restrictions.  This was the place where the women of the village would stay during their menstruation period.  I was instantly reminded of a book I’d read years ago, The Red Tent, which gives an account of the strong bonds and significance of such a place.  Gradually, we would come to learn more of the cultural and religious tradition that drives much of life in MogMog.  We’d find ways to offer our time and our talents, and we’d be reminded of the comfort that belonging to a community can bring.

Girl playing a local game wearing her grass skirt

Mark got busy fixing fiberglass boats that had been sitting dormant for years.  He had just a bit of epoxy left aboard, and luckily it wasn’t out of date yet.  In the mornings, while the kids and I did boat school, he diligently packed his waterproof backpack with all items he’d need.  All the men would be waiting for him, anxious to have their boats back up in working condition so that they could fish to feed their families.  This initial time spent with the men of MogMog allowed Mark to gather more information about the community and sparked ideas about how we could further contribute.

Fiberglassing 101

The kids of the village were especially excited to see the boat, so Mark brought them out by the dinghy-full to show them our floating home and let them jump off the deck!  Each child was so polite and well-behaved (unlike some other villages we had visited where children climbed aboard without permission and we’d felt like our home was being invaded!).  Some were scared and uncertain, holding tightly to the railing, while others didn’t miss a beat!  Splash!  Splash!  One after another they’d show off their jumping and diving skills, each kid trying to one-up the one before.

MIchael giving a farewell dive
Later, Chief Stanley introduced me to a teacher named Tess.  She was busy going from home to home, conducting surveys for a university in California to monitor the natural resources above and below the waters of Ulithi Atoll.  The survey results would be used to determine continued research and would create a record to track environmental patterns.  Tess had just returned from attending the funeral events on a neighboring island.  In fact, many people had come back from the funeral the day that we arrived, after staying with the bereaved family for the traditional four days.  Some, closest to the family, would stay nine days to help with the feast preparation and clean up.  Due to the time required to fulfill cultural expectations, Tess was further delayed in her surveying, and now she was rushing to get ten surveys completed and sent in by the deadline.  

Flossing 101
Graciously, Tess sat with me for a few minutes to talk about school on the island.  All five of the teachers in the elementary school were from MogMog originally, which is not always the case.  Interestingly, teaching is the only paid position on the island, albeit minimally.  Later that week, the kids and I would come visit her classroom, talk about our travels, and do an impromptu lesson for her Health and Wellness class about making and maintaining connections with people.  Spontaneously, I retold the story of The Invisible String, a book I used to read to the kids when Mark was traveling for work to remind them that we were still connected to him.  Tess told me that she had struggled to explain to the kids what a ‘true friend’ was because all of the kids were related to each other in some way or another - siblings, cousins, half-siblings - everyone was family.  Sure, they could be friends, too, but none were solely friends.  This explains why L.J., a boy Michael had been playing with, asked  if Michael would be his ‘true friend’ the day before.  Now it all made sense.  Suddenly, Michael had a whole classroom full of ‘true friends’ and all the kids could claim their first true unrelated friend.   

Teaching the kids a new game
Sharing recipes from my Boat Galley cookbook
Conducting a "store" of our extra provisions - proceeds donated to their Christmas Dinner Groceries!
Before departing, the village organized a very special goodbye for us.  We were piled high with fragrant flower leis as the children serenaded us with song.  Then a prominent leader stood and spoke of their sincere gratitude for our participation in their community.  The women had been slaving all day over the fire to cook enough food to feed an army!  Each of us received a woven basket each containing two fish, one huge coconut crab, steamed rice, and taro cooked in at least 4 different ways!  It was enough food to last our entire journey!  Then, two young girls handed a folded 'lap-lap' to Elizabeth and I.  They had been secretly woven during the week we spent there especially for us.  We tied them around our waists, suddenly feeling like part of the family.  

Bon Voyage Feast gifted to us from the village - coconut crabs, fish, and taro galore!!
We'd seen them weaving these colorful fabrics earlier in our visit
The handmade 'Lap-lap' was a parting gift for Elizabeth and I.
We had to learn the very specific way to tie it in order to maintain the village's modesty standards.

Whether or Not We Weather the Weather... 

(Sorry, there are no photos to commemorate this sequence of events.  Photos weren't at the top of our priority list.  Hope you can visualize what transpired.)

Two of the children in the school had especially relevant names as we continued to keep a close eye on the encroaching weather - Typhoon and Tsunami - reminding us that this atoll lies in the path of the typhoon belt.  In fact, that low weather system that we’d been watching had changed its course.  Instead of going north, like most of these systems do, it opted to turn south... right towards us.  By the time it turned, it was building in magnitude.  Now we were in the path of a tropical storm.  We decided to stay put rather than risk getting hit by the worst of it while at sea, but that turned out to be the wrong decision.

Mark and Elizabeth set a second anchor off our bow at a 45 degree angle to our main anchor.  The foresail was lowered and stowed to prevent wind damage.  Within hours the winds began to build.  The day before, we’d said our sad goodbyes to the people of the village, knowing the weather wouldn’t allow us to go ashore.  I could see them watching our ship from the shoreline, surely concerned for us.  Luckily, we could remain in contact using the VHF radio, and this allowed us to relay weather reports as we received them from the satellite.  Certainly, they were battening down their hatches as well, tying down roofs and securing loose items.  Our weather reports were the only access they had to the forecasts.  

Tensions rose with the winds.  At this point, the forecasts were calling for winds in the 30’s, but we were seeing gusts in the mid 40’s already.  Whenever I thought the winds surely couldn’t get stronger, the wind gauge would climb higher and higher.  As the winds increased, the fetch became a real problem.  (Fetch - area of ocean or lake surface over which the wind blows in an essentially constant direction, thus generating waves. Britannica.com)  The howling winds blowing across the shallow waters of the lagoon were creating steep chop.  Soon, we were all searching for handholds as the boat bucked to and fro.  This bucking motion put extreme load on the anchor tackle, so we used the motors to press forward during the gusts, releasing the load on the anchor chain.  By this time, the sun had gone down.  We could watch the lights on shore to ensure we were holding our position, but with the extreme conditions and a shallow reef right behind us, the situation was intense.  

At around 1 a.m., we felt a sudden jolt.  Mark carefully worked his way up to the bow, only to find that our secondary anchor rode had snapped.  Now we were completely relying on our Rocna.  All night the winds and waves tormented us.  Every muscle in my body was clenched.  My mind raced with the what ifs.  Mark sat dutifully at the helm for the entire night.  When I came to sit next to him at sunrise, I could see the exhaustion in his face.  

“We have to leave.  I think we’ll be better off out at sea with no reefs to worry about and deeper water to absorb the fetch.  I can’t do this another night.”  

I looked out at the sea around us.  White-capped waves washed over our bow.  Seconds later our stern steps were fully submerged.  The lagoon was an eruption of crashing waves.  How would we lift our anchor in this?  I shuddered to imagine Mark kneeling on the bow, bringing up the anchor as the waves lifted the boat above the horizon and then crashed back down in a trough.  I would be at the helm to keep tension off the chain and motor toward where the anchor was buried.  In this wind and chop, maneuvering would be difficult. 

Mark decided we’d leave the secondary anchor and stop here on our way back to retrieve it.  The conditions were too dangerous to attempt getting it with the dinghy, and it would be hard enough to haul up our main anchor without anyone getting hurt.  The secondary anchor would be here when we returned.

Mark radioed the village to tell them of our intentions, then he and Elizabeth made their way up to the bow.  With one hand I held the helm and with the other, the throttle.  I took a deep breath, trying to calm the shakiness I felt.  Mark motioned for me to motor forward, and I pushed the starboard engine up to 1,000 rpm, and watch the spedometer to see if we were moving.  Nothing.  I pressed to 1,500 rpm and slowly saw our speed increase.  Each wave knocked us backwards and caused us to veer to one side or the other, making it hard to stay on course.  Once we were turned off the wind, the windage caused the boat to turn even farther off course.  

Meanwhile, Elizabeth held onto the Genoa as she used her other hand to direct me to where the anchor was.  Mark unhooked the bridle, careful not to get his fingers caught in the chain if a wave suddenly jerked it taut.  I held my breath as I struggled to maintain our position.  I knew I was not on track.  

“SARAH!  AIM INTO THE WIND!!  THE ANCHOR’S WAY OVER THERE!!”  Mark screamed, flailing his free hand to the right angrily.  I revved the engines to give me more steerage.  I was overcorrecting, trying to overcompensate for the conditions.  I took another deep breath and kept my eye on the wind direction.  Gradually, I righted us and Mark finally gave me the okay sign and nodded.  The anchor was up.  

Like a bucking bronco, we motored through the lagoon and out the leeward pass into the the deep.  The bucking continued, this time in all directions due to the rotating winds of the storm.  These deeper seas take longer to adjust to new wind direction, so our bucking bronco quickly turned into a washing machine.  Our bodies, exhausted and weary, struggled to adjust to this new, although equally extreme, motion.

We’d had a sleepless night, and with 24-hour watch cycles, we’d have 3-4 more bumpy, sleepless nights before arriving in Guam.  Thankfully, the 30-knot winds were now from behind us, pushing us along.  At one point, we surfed down a wave at a whopping 17 knots, a record speed for Field Trip (and one I never wanted to see again!!).   The strong winds persisted until we were half a day from Guam.  Because of our emergency exit from the Ulithi Atoll, we couldn’t plan for our arrival time.  We’d be entering the harbor in Guam at 11:30 at night.  In the dark.  We called port control and were flooded with relief to hear a southern American accent telling us we could anchor in the harbor for the night before checking in with the officials in the morning.  

Just for a bit of excitement, our anchor got entangled when we attempted to drop it for the night.  Mark had to hop in the dinghy and untangle it.  Finally, plumb tuckered out, we tucked our weary bodies into bed, closed our eyes, said a prayer of thanks, and fell fast asleep. 


Popular posts from this blog

People of the Forest - Orang-utans

King Neptune

A Warm Fulaga Welcome