[161109, 2228 UTC, Ninigo Canoes,06°58'N / 158°12' E]
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We've been very bad. The last time we sent out a Passage Note was in September and we promised then to tell the story of the Ninigo Island sailing canoes and give some history about them. Let's just say our excuses are that we were so busy enjoying the heck out of our five week stay with the Ninigo people, then underway on a challenging passage, and then enveloped into old friends in Pohnpei and gearing up to dealing with all the maintenance we didn't do when we were having fun. Excuses. None really acceptable!
Oscar Sinapling and his wife Keren Oscar are the official tourism hosts of the Ninigo group. They are warm and welcoming people. It was they who insisted we get a first hand canoe experience. In fact, we went on two canoe expeditions with them, one an all-day affair, but that is another story for later.
Imagine this. Oscar sat with his left leg tucked under him and with his right leg swinging fore and aft at the helmsman seat of Sea Mate, his new 9 meter Ninigo canoe that was skimming across the turquoise lagoon. Holding the wide steering paddle with a fist of his right hand, he beamed out his warm gap-toothed smile and made a wide arc with his left arm and boomed, "This is our LIFE!" Keren, gave us a Mona Lisa smirk and raised her left eyebrow ever so slightly, tucked a few curly strands of hair behind her ears, and then continued to lay out fishing line from an ancient hand reel, clearly enjoying her husband's joviality. Indeed the seascape and sailing has been the life of the people here forever, or at least since the great migration of Lapita people across Oceania that began thousands of years ago. The Ninigo people love their lagoon and they love to sail - and it shows in their smiles.
The amazing Ninigo canoes are unique in design and essential to these people; they provide transportation, access to fishing and gardening grounds and communications links for all. They are single hulled out-riggers with a narrow asymmetric planked hull set onto a dugout keel and fastened with hand carved plugs called "hunahun" made from a very hard local wood called "ha". Precise vertical holes are drilled by hand in the base and planking and then hunahun are set into the two sets of holes to join the pieces together. Smaller pegs, called "hasa" are then installed perpendicular to the hunahun to keep the pegs in place. Ribs support the planks of the hull and are fastened with copper roofing nails. Out-riggers are fastened with lashings of small line, providing flex as the ama skims along the wavelets on the water surface.
Canoes today are from 5 meters long to over 15 meters long - as defined by the length of the keel section or "puhun" at or near the waterline. Carrying a single or double rectangular lugsail, they are efficient machines that can skim along in light or heavy air ("small wind" or "big wind" in the local jargon), at speeds approaching 15 knots.
According to scholars, the canted, rectangular-boom lugsail, single-outrigger canoe design of this tiny corner of Oceania represents a blending of influences from Micronesia and Indonesia. The single asymmetric hull constructed of planked sides set onto a keel with an ama windward are similar to features we saw in canoes of the out-islands of Yap. Also similar to the Micronesian tradition is the practice of shunting the Ninigo canoe, which is physically moving the mast and helmsman's station end-for-end when changing course. From east Asia comes the sail design; rectangular lugsails were characteristic of the proas of the Celebes Sea, though Ninigo canoes nine meters or longer are often sailed as ketches, with two masts carrying lugsail rigs. Sail dimensions are 2:3, the largest of which are about 16 x 24'. The lower boom of the sail terminates in a compact fork, that allows the sail to be tilted to the correct angle for the apparent wind. For upwind, the boom is secured to the base of the forward-raked mast and a sheet on the upper boom is brought aft and sheeted in tightly to reduce the sail draft. As the apparent wind moves aft, the lower boom is moved outboard on the ama and the sheet is eased, adding draft. When sailing dead downwind the sail is the most horizontal, though it is still somewhat canted. Coincidentally, we saw evidence of rare fore and aft decks seen on the Ninigo canoes on single-hulled outrigger canoes in eastern Mindanao in the Philippines, an area that shares the culture of nearby Indonesia.
Though the sailing canoes that have been plying Ninigo's waters since times BC have inevitably evolved in their design, the extremely efficient current form of the Ninigo canoe may be a relatively recent phenomenon. No one knows for sure, as there is no written history, but according to Kelly Lui (Deputy President of the local level government), all of the important design elements common today to the traditional Ninigo canoe were first realized in a canoe named Hamanoman ("amazing" in Seimat) about the time of colonization of the Ninigos in the late 19th century. With a lineage stretching three generations further back to chiefs who conquered the nearby Hermit Islands, Kelly told us that his great-grandfather, Saul, built Hamanoman and that the exact design remains a family secret. Indeed, the Ninigo canoes of each clan vary in subtle ways, but because canoe racing is competitive to near fanaticism, such wisdom is not shared.
We had the rare opportunity to help with the building of a canoe. One morning while we were anchored at Longen Island a young man named Rellen, his wife Elizabeth and one of their youngest children came calling, bringing the usual gifts from their garden: sweet potatoes, drinking coconuts, bananas. Rellen was in the throes of building a very long canoe 9-10 meters and was in need of some "medicine" as the locals usually pronounce epoxy resin. It seems that his supply of planking was not so good and he had some areas to patch - knots holes and such - or the canoe could not be completed. We agreed to come and visit the following day. The canoe was impressive but without resin to patch, Rellen was going to have difficulty getting it to float. After a careful consultation with Philip and a thorough walk around, it was agreed that we would use our own supply of epoxy to address the specific areas of concern. We also took the opportunity to ask questions about materials and construction and to watch the men using axes to rough out the gunwale and to carve dowels (or hunahun). Dressed in his most ragged boat building duds and armed with nitrile gloves, a chip brush, epoxy and bits of fiberglass cloth he'd cut to fit each patch, Philip quickly primed each spot as Leslie lifted the cloth and then replaced it back. Applying epoxy and wetting out the glass, we both massaged each little patch with brush and fingertips until each was well wetted out. Rellen's brother meanwhile was carving a bung for the biggest of knot holes and we addressed that as well. With a little more epoxy in the pot, Rellen quickly re-directed Philip to other areas he wanted the resin used. Word must have gotten around about Philip's donation of time and materials because by the next day, everyone on the island had apparently taken a stroll over to see the canoe and approved of the patches. To us it was a kick - both fun and rewarding - to be able to be able to work side-by-side and learn from these boat building masters.
It may seem odd at first that the Ninigo people are so passionate about racing their canoes. But, as Oscar so enthusiastically stated, the canoes are their life because, without them, it is doubtful they would be able to continue to thrive in their islands. The canoes are made mostly from materials collected in the jungle or salvaged from the sea, though copper nails, "canvas" for sails and line are necessary and highly prized. The canoes are fast, efficient, and provide cost-free transport in a place where buying, fueling and maintaining a skiff and outboard motor is way beyond the villager's means. A man's very identity is inseparable from his canoe, and to race against his neighbors and to win, the ultimate verification of his prowess. Too, the man whose sons are excellent sailors is a rich man indeed, since he can send them far into the lagoon or out to sea and have them help to support the family.
Even the women are competitive. We were treated to lunch by Hanit (a.k.a Sweet Honey) on Pihon Island for a number of days during the races. She and her sisters grumbled that the committee had failed to plan a women's race, even knowing that the races were of such import that few men would allow a woman on his team. And the women wanted to race!
Though there are many canoe racing committees throughout the island group, and races are scheduled at different times of the year, the premier racing season is August when the SE trades blow the strongest, bringing "big wind" and racing fever to the people. So this is when The Great Ninigo Islands Canoe Race occurs and when we visited.
In 2016, we were the only visitors from outside Ninigo and were treated like royalty. A small part of the reason for that was because, as you may remember, a snafu or two meant that government funding for the 2016 races never arrived. When the islanders reluctantly shared this information with us, we proposed to donate all the prizes for all the races from our boatload of supplies - clothing, sunglasses, fishing and rigging gear, tools, copper nails, LED lights, headlamps, solar panels and more, that we had packed aboard. The islanders were enthusiastic about the idea of winning the donations, so seventy four canoes signed up to race over five days in two locations. For days, we were WITH the people, listening to them, watching them, chatting with them and sharing their food and their passion for sailing. They asked us many questions too about our sailing and our rig and whenever possible, we shared Carina with them. In truth, the islanders are eager competitors when it comes to racing their canoes and the races probably would have occurred regardless of our prizes but we were thrilled to have been able to help to preserve this important cultural event. We encourage any of those cruisers on our mailing list to visit the Ninigo Islands and enjoy the hospitality and rare and wonderful lifestyle. You will consider it an experience of a lifetime.
We've posted many photos and even some short videos/photo shows of the villagers and their canoes on our website and invite you to review them; we think you will find them interesting.
We've since left the Ninigo Islands and have sailed for 21 days 1,300 miles northeast to Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia. It wasn't an easy passage but we got through it and arrived at Pohnpei and into the warm hugs of old friends. Some of you will remember that we visited this island about 3 years ago. In our next Dispatch Note we'll tell of our journey (and why it was so long) as well as bring you up to date of Pohnpei and the reunion we've had with the many friends we made during our last visit.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and the spirit of the fat cat, Jake
At 11/3/2016 and 22:13 UTC (GMT) our position was: 06°57.66'N / 158°12.03'E