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Lonely beauty

Jan 1, 2003

The South Pacific cyclone season was fast approaching and it was time to make a decisionnorth or south? We had spent the previous cyclone season circumnavigating the North Island of New Zealand, and, after four months exploring Tonga, we had planned to go back to sail around the South Island. But those southern latitudes were looking awfully cold.

Two years earlier, we had sailed to the Line Islands -- Christmas and Palmyra -- where we kept hearing about a small atoll called Kanton, with a sheltered lagoon, excellent fishing, and a tiny population. It was warm and out of the cyclone belt, and the passage was bound to be easier than the sail to New Zealand. At least that's what we told ourselves. We were headed back to the equator.

Kanton is an isolated outpost of the Republic of Kiribati, lying about midway between Tarawa, the country's capital 955 miles to the west, and Christmas Island, 900 miles to the east. Just 75 people live on the island, all of them government officers and their families. They are the most recent in a long line of temporary inhabitants that include NASA scientists, who built and operated a tracking station for John Glenn's first orbit of earth; Pan Am employees, who ran a flying-boat resort in the lagoon; and the U.S. Air Force, who monitored the Kwajalein missile tests from the island.

The atoll is a 20-mile, kidney-shaped ring of sand and coral surrounding a turquoise lagoon filled with healthy reefs, a profusion of fish and turtles, and lots of sharks. There is just one pass into the lagoon, with a rushing current that can reach 10 knots as it tries to empty and fill the lagoon twice a day. Slack water lasts about 10 minutes.

We organized our charts and provisions in American Samoa before sailing north and obtained visas by fax from the Kiribati consul in Honolulubut they proved unnecessary. In Pago Pago we met several other voyagers that were headed to the atoll on their way back to the States. This is a well-worn path that starts in American Samoa, goes almost due north to Kanton, then goes east along the equator to the Line Islandstaking advantage of variable winds and a favorable currentand finally aims northeast to Hawaii.

About 700 miles separate Kanton from American Samoa, with the islands of Tokelau in between. Shifting over the expanse of sea north and south of Samoa is the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), an area of active rain squalls and heavy cloud that marks the convergence of equatorial easterly winds and the familiar southeast trade winds. As we sailed north, we expected the winds to be east/northeast as they bent into the convergence zone and so planned to stay to the east side of our track. The cloud pictures from Honolulu, coming through every six hours via the single-sideband and our computer, helped us monitor and anticipate the weather.

We were pleasantly surprised with a sunny, light-wind passage, until the last day when the winds shifted to the north. Our final 50 miles were a bouncy beat that caused the lines securing our anchor to chafe through. With the noise of a freight train, our 60-lb CQR and 400 feet of 3/8ths, BBB chain flew over the bow. The line securing it belowdecks thankfully held, and an hour later, after performing some strategic maneuvers with halyards in between dips on the bow, we had the chain re-stowed and the anchor thoroughly tied down on deck. We had escaped the SPCZ relatively unscathed. Of course, that meant we were in for double trouble on the return trip south.Approaching the lagoon

The entrance into Kanton is easily found with two large, white fuel tanks on the north side of the pass and the semi-submerged wreck of President Taylor pointing the way on the south side. The 500-foot troop transport ship went aground in 1942 while trying to evade a Japanese submarine that had been sighted in the area. President Taylor had been ordered inshore by the Navy Commodore in charge of the convoy escorting the ship. The ship's captain objected, sure that he would be driven aground, and he was proved correct. All 900 troops and 90 crew got ashore unharmed, and the captain was later exonerated.

After storms and a fire, most of the ship sank, but several large sections remain above water, making it a good landmark. In addition, an old stone lighthouse (unlit) sits on the south shore of the pass. Our entrance was made easy by a pair of cruisers on the beach who, via handheld radio, kept us updated on the height of standing waves in the pass, the intensity of whirlpools, and other helpful information.

Half the village was at the wharf to welcome usbut this was mainly because we were bringing them a whole shopping list of supplies from American Samoa. While we were in Pago Pago, we had been in radio contact with our friends, who relayed the list of items that the islanders wanted us to buy for them. We had been quite successful getting the various tools, clothes, umbrellas and diapers, but we had one problem. We couldn't fit the 24-inch color TV/VCR unit through our companionway. This is why we found ourselves on the fantail of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Sassafras at the wharf in American Samoa.

We knew our request was bizarre, but when we asked Capt. Gene Gray if he could transport the TV and a 100-quart cooler to Kanton for us, he didn't hesitate. "Sure, no problem," was his surprisingly nonchalant answer, and then he sent a launch to pick them up. Could this be the same Coast Guard that had boarded us at sea and cited us for an undersized ship's bell? There were more surprises to come. During our Kanton sojourn we had an encounter with the Coast Guard that was also unique.The Coast Guard's symbiotic visits

Every year, the buoytender Sassafras sails from Honolulu and heads south to American Samoa to maintain U.S. navigational aids. On the return trip, the ship stops to refuel at Kanton. Entering the pass is a ship-handling exercise for the crew. They typically send their launch ahead with a pair of line handlers who get dropped off at the wharf, and they set down a series of temporary buoys to mark the channel. Frequently, the buoys are pulled under by the current.

"The Sassafras was assigned the mission of supporting the tidal gauge station and a weather balloon program at Kanton, and we always took people and supplies to maintain it," Capt. Gray explained. Pretty soon, the Sassafras crew were taking clothes and medicine for the villagers as part of an American relief effort called Operation Handclasp. One year a palette of toys was includednot the usual practiceto the gleeful delight of the children. It was such a success that the Sassafras crew started an annual drive to collect secondhand toys in preparation for their trip to Kanton. Overwhelmed, the islanders wanted to reciprocate and learned to make distinctive shell necklaces and vases to give to the crew.

"It's now the Kanton custom to give the Kiribati handicrafts to the foreigners in the Coast Guard," said Kabaneti Biite, the schoolteacher at Kanton. "So when the Coast Guard are on the walkie-talkie, saying 'We are on our way to your island,' then we have the village meeting and say how many necklaces to make for their presents. Because the Coast Guard brought what the people need here, like the clothes, the soap, so many things. So we find ways to repay the gifts."

Part of what makes the relationship unusual is that both the Coast Guard crews and the islanders are constantly changing. At the time of our visit, there were 10 government officers at Kanton: two policemen, who handled customs and immigration; a Kiribati Oil Company rep., who managed the tank farm with its diesel and jet fuel; an air-traffic controller, responsible for the mile-long runway; a carpenter; a mechanic; two teachers; a medical technician; and a meteorologist. And there was one government-approved private businessman, who had ordered the television. The total number of residents was 56, after the teenagers had been sent away to school on another island. Thus, the crew of Sassafras nearly doubled the population when they stepped ashore.The islanders live in a row of well-maintained wood-frame houses that were built as officers' quarters for the U.S. Air Force, which had a base on the island until 1979. At that time, there were air-conditioned buildings, electrical appliances, desalination plants, and massive generatorsall now dismantled and disintegrating. The diesel fuel required to keep it running was far beyond the resources or needs of the Kiribati residents. But the old buildings are being recycled; their walls are used to repair the roofs of houses or the schoolroom. There are several freshwater wells that are usually sufficient for the islanders, but not always.

"There had been a severe drought in 1994, and they were drinking stuff you wouldn't recognize as water," Gray recalled. "It was salty and foul. It barely poured. The kids were all sick with dysentery, and it was really a life-or-death situation. We ended up delivering more than 10,000 gallons of fresh water, enough to fill all of the catchment wells and to limp them along for a year. We delivered water just about every year after that, too."

Kanton represents an R&R stop for the Sassafras, and, between water deliveries and repairs to equipment and vehicles, the crew were taught where to catch lobster and shown the best dive sites and prime fishing spots. Meanwhile, the Sassafras crew initiated the now-traditional Wharf Barbecue -- firing up their grill on the dock and cooking an all-American feast of hamburgers and hot dogs, potato salad, and chocolate brownies, followed by the all-night movie marathon. They set up their biggest TV on the wharf and show videos all night long, usually starting with Disney features for the kids and finishing with Kung Fu favorites for the hard-core movie watchers.

One year, the Kanton villagers put on a welcome dance that has since expanded into a full-fledged musical celebration, which continues well into the night, using the Sassafras floodlights to illuminate the wharf stage. Not to be outdone, the crew responded with an impromptu talent show. And now the two groups alternate in a challenge to see who can outperform the other. "The crews always were warned to prepare for talent night, but never did," said Gray. "They much preferred to ad lib the whole thing." The unforgettable display we observed on our visit featured a roller-blade hockey demonstration, a cabaret musical number, a juggling act, and a slap dance. Not your typical image of the drug-busting, storm-rescuing, refugee-blockading Coast Guard crewmember."Who would have thought that a sun-baked atoll near the equator could be called a highlight of our trip?" reflected Gray. "But I can tell you that Kanton was always a mandatory stop from the crew's perspective. They would always vote to go there, even if it meant not visiting someplace like Fiji or Tonga. "A few months after the visit of the Sassafras, we were at a party in businessman Ruka Betero's open-plan, stilt house on the wharf. He was showing "Captain Ron" on his brand-new color TV. The volume was nearly drowned out by the gasoline generator running in a nearby shed, and the families sat silently through this slapstick comedy until the closing scenes, when a U.S. Coast Guard ship sails to the rescue. Suddenly a dozen children rushed to the screen. "Sassafras, Sassafras, it's the Sassafras!" they cheered. From where we sat it was clear that some of the Coast Guard's greatest friends live on a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Slammed by the SPCZ

At the end of the cyclone season, we prepared for our return trip to Pago Pago, hoping for a repeat of our earlier passage minus the at-sea anchor drill. Our first 12 hours or so were promising. We caught three yellowfin tuna, had filled the freezer and were enjoying our fourth or fifth meal of sashimi and seared ahi when the sun disappeared. We sailed into a lightning storm that we couldn't escape for three days.

The bad news was clear on the "Significant Cloud Features" weatherfax from Hawaii, a hand-drawn interpretation of the cloud formations over the Pacific. It showed a wide band of CBs (cumulonimbus clouds) directly over our position and stretching east, west, and south for a few hundred miles. Every six hours, we anxiously watched the cloud picture materializing on our computer screen, hoping it would show that the CBs had changed to SCT CU (scattered cumulous) or better yet, CLR, but that wasn't going to happen. We had sailed into the South Pacific Convergence Zone.

The SPCZ generally moves north of Samoa at the end of the South Pacific cyclone season. There is no squeezing of isobars or a drop in the barometer to forewarn sailors of its presence. It is simply an area of convection where the east and southeast winds of the South Pacific meet. The intensity of the SPCZ can be affected by the procession of highs and lows coming off Australia, with lows tending to liven things up in the SPCZ. When it is active, it is clearly visible on satellite pictures as a solid line of clouds. Those towering cumulonimbus monsters are full of rain squalls, and thunderstorms are common.We had to sail across that stretch of water and, now that the SPCZ was positioned between Samoa and us, it was unlikely that conditions would significantly improve or change for three or four months. The SPCZ doesn't move like a front or a lowit doesn't pass overhead in a day or two. It is a band of rain and cloud cover that can stretch from the Solomon Islands to Tahiti, and it slowly moves south in the summer and north in the winter. If we were going to get to Samoa, we had to work our way through it. So on we went.

The horizon was filled with thick, gray clouds, and our nights were punctuated with thunder and blinding flashes of light. At first we could sail between the areas of fireworks, but eventually the lightning was everywhere and we just plowed on. Then the wind started to build. We kept reefing and reefing until we were finally running under bare poles in the worst squall we had ever encountered. Visibility was zero, the rain was horizontal, and we just held on. We were starting to think drogue or sea anchor when the wind finally eased, and after a three-hour sleigh ride it was over. We ultimately made the passage in four-and-a-half daysone of our fastest, and at the same time longest, trips yet.

Six months later, we were relaxing on a secluded beach in Fiji, peeling freshly picked mangos and drinking the cool liquid of green coconuts. Once again, it was time to make a decision. Which way should we go -- north or south?