Magic & Mystery in Micronesia
The South Pacific gets all the glory. Books, movies, and musicals all cast the journey south of the Equator as a romantic escape from the cacophony and complexity of the Northern Hemisphere. Even Crosby, Stills, and Nash got into the act when they sang-"When you see the Southern Cross for the first time, you understand now why you came this way."
I went that way. I loved it, and I wouldn't give back a minute or a mile of it. But the Pacific is a mighty ocean covering 64 million square miles. Its great waves pass unimpeded through political borders and topographical demarcations, and in its less-lauded waters north of the equator, it hides a gem called Micronesia. It seems incongruous to use "hide" when describing an archipelago of 2,100 islands stretching across more than 4.5 million square miles of ocean. But despite its expanse and its historic ties to the United States, to all but a few Americans, Micronesia remains terra incognita.
Mention "Tarawa" to an elderly World War II veteran, and you'll evoke tales of terror and triumph spreading west from Pearl Harbor, one blood-soaked atoll at a time. Say "Palau" to a sport diver and she'll wax poetic about the Crystal Chandelier Caves. But if you say "Yap" to the average man on the street, he'll think you're merely agreeing with him.
I once asked a friend where he was sailing to next. He said, "I have no plan, and I'm sticking to it."
I liked that, but in truth, our Pacific Rim voyage has been carefully crafted to ensure that each landfall would be a personal first for both Diana and me. In spite of three decades of international cruising, this proved to be surprisingly easy. In fact, we faced a long list of enticing destinations that we'd yet to visit: Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas. When we threw Japan, the Aleutians, and Alaska into the mix, we were forced to make some tough choices.
We shaped our route out of New Zealand to take in New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and the eastern Solomon Islands. This meant crossing the equator directly south of Kosrae, the easternmost atoll of the F.S.M. Kiribati and the Marshall Islands will have to wait for another day.
When the GPS blinked "Latitude 00.00," we threw a line-crossing party. Alas, there were no Pollywogs for King Neptune to initiate, for this was my eighth crossing under sail and Diana's fifth. On this crossing, we changed the meaning of the acronym I.T.C.Z. from Intertropical Convergence Zone to Incessantly Tough and Cold Zone. And so it was that after only eight days at sea, we were more than ready to taste land in Lele Harbor, on Kosrae's east side. Those hardships were instantly put behind us when Cap'n Fatty Goodlander raced up in his dinghy bearing steaming sticky buns for Diana and ice-cold beer for me. I have written him into my will.
Kosrae is a mountainous island skirted by lowlands and mangrove swamps. A fringing reef creates an extensive saltwater lagoon lined with placid beaches. It's the least visited of the four Micronesian states because it doesn't have the famous wreck dives of Chuuk, the mysterious ruins of Pohnpei, or the colorful culture of Yap. However, it's an attractive island with warm and welcoming people.
Particularly welcoming were the members of the Sigrah family, descendants of ancient kings of Kosrae who act as the official hosts of any arriving yacht because visiting cruisers had helped their father build the family home. To honor his memory and his fondness for welcoming sailors, they continue this tradition. We used their dock, dropped off our garbage with them, raided their freshwater tank, and attended a sumptuous feast that they threw for the five international boats present. Dinner included a roasted pig, traditional yam, tapioca, breadfruit, and coconut dishes.
Although the F.S.M. has been officially independent since 1986, the United States still pumps millions annually into its government. This trickles down in the form of government jobs and contracts that underpin a struggling economy. Ambitious plans for the development of tourism are thwarted by a lack of infrastructure and the rising cost of travel. But the economic and cultural aspirations of Kosraens are clear. They want to modernize. Traditional thatching has long been abandoned for corrugated tin roofs and unpainted cinderblock walls. Outboard engines push imported fiberglass boats. Baseball caps, and Oakland Raiders T-shirts have replaced indigenous garb.
We spent an active week refreshing the ship's supplies, repairing the carnage of the passage, and hiking in the jungle. Emilson, our local guide, was a rare repository of historical, mythological, and botanical information. He uncovered sites of ancient battles, told tales of creation and sorcery, and drew sap from a tree for us to chew while climbing.
For me, the highlight was exploring the tunnel systems dug by the occupying Japanese army between World War I and World War II. I never felt closer to the harsh realities of war than I did in that twisting dank and darkness.
On our blustery passage from Kosrae to Pohnpei (or Ponape, as it's also known), Diana asked me, "Just how hard is it blowing out there?" We don't carry an anemometer on board, and I chose to underestimate a wee bit for the sake of morale. But just as I did, a VHF call from the nearby French-registered yacht NEOS informed us that the squall we were in was clocking winds at a steady 55 knots, with gusts to 62.
Diana cocked her head and aimed her eyes at me. "That's only two knots short of an official hurricane!"
Busted! Still, for all its huff and puff, it didn't blow our house down. Roger Henry, under triple-reefed main and staysail, made a snappy two-day passage to the F.S.M. capital of Kolonia, on Pohnpei.
"Capital" may be misleading, as Kolonia is a run-down town, struggling to maintain the simplest of modern infrastructure. This is ironic because few places on Earth can boast of such sophisticated ancient infrastructure. On the outer reef of eastern Pohnpei lie the ancient ruins of Nan Madol, majestic in its scale and mysterious in its origins. The canal streets and waterways linking the 93 man-made islands are often compared to Venice, but the physical accomplishment of transporting and assembling the tons of basalt pillars is best compared to the Egyptian pyramids. Although the area is believed to have been populated as early as 200 B.C., construction of Nan Madol began around the eighth century, under the authority of the Saudeleur kings. It grew and apparently thrived until it was inexplicably abandoned just before the arrival of the first Europeans in the 1500s.
Fellow cruisers Olivier and Pascaline of NEOS joined Diana and me for a tour of the complex. En route by ripping speedboat, we first stopped for a dive with the dancing manta rays in, naturally, Manta Pass. Once in the canals of Nan Madol, we switched to kayaks to better tour the 150-acre site. Our guide, Jos, explained the social, ceremonial, and religious significance of each structure. On the corner of one towering wall we saw a single basalt pillar that weighed in at 50 tons.
"How did they ever get stones like that out here to the islands and up there on that wall?" I asked.
Jos replied, "The archeologists believe the stones must have been transported by giant raft from quarry sites far away, then hoisted by an army of workers. But they haven't found a single bit of evidence to support this."
"And what do you believe?"
"We believe these stones were lifted into the air and flown here by hunani, priests with special powers. This power isn't magic as you might call it, but more a form of enlightenment, a mental control of all matter."
Whether mechanically or telekinetically transported, the important point here is that complex and accomplished cultures have existed in this region of the Pacific for far longer than is popularly recognized. A resurgence of Micronesian pride and cultural identity is due in no small part to the increasing international fascination with Nan Madol.