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Marshall Islands: WAM traditional Marshallese canoes

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WAM traditional Marshallese canoes | Marshall Islands | Oceania

[Visited: February 2016]

It is our last day in Micronesia, and after some relaxing days on Eneko island across the atoll, it is time to explore the main islands a little more. One of the most important ones is Delap; on it, we find WAM, Waan Aelon in Majol - canoes in the Marshall Islands in local language. A big canoe lies outside, as does a big piece of tree, the construction material of these traditional canoes. Inside, we find several canoes of different sizes, some already painted, others still being constructed, one hanging from the ceiling. WAM is a project which not only preserves the old building and navigation techniques which the Marshallese have been using for centuries to go around inside and between their atolls, and beyond, but also to give youngsters an opportunity to work. We want to ride one of the canoes, not only for the experience, but also to support this organization.

Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Marshallese outrigger canoe outside the workshop

We have, however, overlooked the most important factor in any atoll: tide. It is rising, and we are asked to come back in a few hours. A couple of hours later, the sea is indeed much higher. We leave some stuff at the office, but when the younger guy sees my camera bag on my shoulder, he laughs, and tells me to leave it behind as well. I hesitate, but follow his advice. It does not ring a bell yet - I still have this image in my head of a pleasant, quiet ride over the internal waters of the atoll. We walk to the koror, the smallest size canoe, and without much ado, the two Marshallese prepare the boat, take out the sail and pin the mast in its hole, ask us to sit in the middle, and off we are. Before we know it, we are on our way north, the strong winds are pushing our boat forward, and waves are everywhere. Our feet get wet, then our legs, and within a matter of minutes, the water is everywhere. It sometimes feels like we are sailing straight through the waves, and we are completely soaked. We try to imagine how it must be for the bigger canoes, going between atolls and even beyond, in wild seas, and with only the moon and stars for navigation purposes. The atolls barely rise above the sea, and are invisible from a distance. For this purpose, the Marshallese have learned to listen to the waves, the movement of the sea, and use stick charts, a schematic representation of all the atolls on pieces of wood, with small shells representing the islands. It is these navigation skills that the Marshallese are trying to keep alive.

Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Bow of a traditional Marshallese canoe seen from below

The old guy, a veteran canoe navigator, steers us through the atoll fast. Nothing romantic here: the atoll close to the main town is full of big fishing vessels, mostly Chinese; there are scores of them moored everywhere, all around us. We have to make an effort to spot palm trees and sandy beaches. When we are close to Rita, an island on the north of the atoll, we turn around: the young guy now asks us to move, takes out the mast, and puts it back in a different way so that we catch the wind again on our way back. Every time we hope to get a little dry with the sun and the wind, a wave comes to wash away these thoughts beyond doubt. Thing is: you have to surrender to it, and enjoy. I am now very happy I did not take my camera and took out my money belt, and decided to wear flip-flops at the last moment! When we are back on land, our clothes are totally drenched. It is a few hours before our departure on a very long journey home, and we try to use the wind and sun to get our clothes dry. Even after checking in for our flight, we stand outside the airport, holding our wet clothes in the air, to let the wind do its work, until the sun disappears, and we are called in to go through security. A fitting end to our stay in Micronesia!

Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Traditional outrigger canoe lying ashore in Delap
Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Close-up of a traditional Marshallese outrigger canoe with the flag painted on its outside
Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Traditional Marshallese outrigger canoe to be used inside the atoll
Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Traditional Marshallese canoes are made in this big hall
Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Close-up of the bow of a traditional Marshallese canoe
Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Traditional canoe, a koror, hanging from the ceiling
Picture of WAM traditional Marshallese canoes (Marshall Islands): Detail of a bigger traditional canoe

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