V53 Blog. March 17 2020
The world is a very strange place right now. And stranger still, our— the Kwai crew’s— assumptions of this, experience of it, is all through gossip traded among the crew of the emails we’ve gotten from family and others, and emailed headlines. We are affected in that our schedule keeps changing. As borders are shutting the day to day reality of being on a cargo boat in the middle of the Pacific stays the same, but our destinations change, and any decisions based on any assumption of the future we know are liable to change again and again.

Meanwhile, our reality, the reality of sunrises and sunsets over tropical islands and endless horizons, the reality of the constant noise and music and laughter and the singing of Kiribati culture, the reality of being so filthy at the end of each day that I (Shanan, the mate) take my clothes into the shower with me to rinse them out (my work uniform consists of one pair of shorts, two shirts that I swap out, a buff, hat, sunnies, shoes, and massive amounts of sunscreen. My work clothes are a loss so I wear the same thing day in and day out). The reality of a cabin that is so hot that my chocolate stash is a melted ruin, and if I didn’t have a fan at night I would be in a puddle of sweat. The reality of rain showers and millions of stars. The reality of waking up each morning and being ready to spend the next 12 hours creating order out of chaos as myself and 8-12 Kiribati guys play Tetris loading and unloading the ship of everything from USB cards to 40 tons of copra (dried coconut— Kiribati’s only export) to 300 drums of petrol to diapers. Flour. Soda. Car batteries. Laundry soap. Underware. Chantale, the Supercargos’, reality of distributing that chaos onshore— the right stuff to the right people for the right amount of money paid at the right time.
The reality of dolphins breathing around the boat at night. Unseen, but as we breathe with them we know they’re feet away in the blue ocean that defines our reality perhaps more than anything else.

We were at Washington Island today. The most remote of the Kiribati line islands, it has a reef ringing the island that is broken in one spot, and that one spot is the only place to get boats to and from the shore. ( It was dynamited.) We managed to anchor this time (last time the anchor wouldn’t hold and Captain Anika kept us drifting in place for two days while we unloaded cargo.) We lucked out— conditions were lighter this time, our anchor held and offloading the 150 rusty drums of petrol into bouncing small boats was smooth. Washington is beautiful— picture blue sea and reef giving way to a line of white beach which turns into dense verdant undergrowth. Green grasses in the clearings under arcing coconut palms. The palms are so dense in places it is almost dark under them, their roots drinking from canals of brackish water that reflect the sky. Washington has a freshwater lake at the center, someone told me the only Pacific Atoll to do so. At the loading spot maybe 30 kids were playing semi naked in the water, a hug gang of them getting in the way of the unloading boats, shrieking and having a great time. I teased them that they were strong and would help us unload, and then had to deal with getting a mess load of flexing children who were very eager to help off the boat.

The Cook Islands portion of Voyage 53 got cancelled soon after we left Hawaii, as the Cook Islands were one of the first countries to close their borders. Therefor we have been doing an extended Kiribati tour, back and forth between the islands distributing cargo and Kiribati passengers. At Fanning Island we actually tie up to a mooring ball inside the lagoon— the only island that the Kwai can get inside of. This has the advantage that we never have to worry about the anchor dragging, and the flat protected water makes discharging cargo less of a challenge. However, the lagoon holds a lot of water… and every tide change a good amount of that water funnels through the narrow entrance channel. As a general rule we try to time our entrances and exits to slack tide, but arriving there from Christmas a week ago we were early and decided to try to get in anyway. The tide was going out and as the Kwai nosed her way towards the mouth onboard it felt like a rollercoaster of white water rapids. We had only to get through the narrowest spot and then we would be in the eddy. We went forward… slowed… slowed… and then came to a stop. The current was too strong, even with our RPMs up all the way. We literally could not gain ground. We held station for a few moments, and then conceded defeat to nature’s time tables. Captain Anika skillfully backed the boat out of the current and we waited a few hours for slack water.

The big worry here is not so much the virus as that as more and more borders close and ships stop they will run out of food and other goods that are imported. They rely on staples (rice, flour) being brought to Christmas by cargo ship, and then traditionally its been the Kwai that distributes that food to Washington and Fanning. Yes there is fish and coconuts… but probably not at a level to easily support the current populations. The tourism on Christmas is completely gone, and while the rest of the world panics about the virus and the stock market they wonder about running out of food.

In Kiribati, “kowara” is “how are you?” and the response to that is “Melalung” (spelled wrong, appologies…) which means, essentially, in good health. Stay in good health, everyone. Please. Cheers from the Pacific.

First Mate Shanan