Palm trees fringe the horizon and our GPS confirms that the atoll of Tarawa is just ahead. It is now three weeks since we left Noemea in New Caledonia and we have crossed the Equator just yesterday - June 26th. Those 25 knot easterly Trades that rattled us up the coast of Vanuatu finally eased and were replaced by the clouds and squalls of a convergence zone that went on forever. How we longed to return to those strong winds and bouncy waves!
We have a photo-copy chart of the lagoon so we sail beside the fringing coral reef until we find the pass, line ourselves up and enter the enormous lagoon. Two sleek tuna fishing boats lie at anchor and the shore is littered with rusting hulks. We know that this was a famous battleground of WWII but these despite their rust seem too new to date from that era. (They were fishing boat wrecks.)
We anchor near the wharf and then notice another yacht arriving .It turns out to be Moonflight sailed by a family from Seattle. They are returning home from New Zealand and will be our buddy boat for the rest of the way home. Our main interest is to top up our fuel and water tanks and to buy what food supplies we can find, but we have a more interesting mission as well. A friend back in Victoria has asked Anne if she will attempt to find the grave of a missing American Marine whose body never came home from Tarawa.
What we find ashore on the island of Betio is a crowded, sandy, palm tree covered bit of land with starving dogs tottering around the village, a small container port, fish plant (Japanese), a fuel depot, a few stores and a garbage dump over which children crawl. Poised along the shore are big naval guns still facing out to sea. It seems a surreal place: a sort of post-apocalyptic vision where people carry on their humble lives just ten feet above sea level amid the shards of a crashed star ship. This little island was the site of one of the fiercest battles of the war: Nov. 20 1943. The war in the Pacific was starting to roll up through the Japanese held islands and Tarawa had an airstrip that was needed to facilitate the next attacks in the Marianas. The assault was to teach the US Navy some important lessons about amphibious assaults against strongly fortified islands but at a terrible cost in human lives.
While walking along the causeway that connects Betio to the next in the ring of islands around the atoll we are picked up by an Australian Missionary who is married to a local woman. We tell him of our mission and enlist his help. He shows us a school he has built and the concrete fortification that stands behind it. We stop at a little graveyard of all the missionaries who chose to stay to help the local people rather that leave before the Japanese arrived. Too bad; they were all executed. We feel his bitterness and know we are talking to one of the ongoing casualties of that war in the lives of the present.
He drives us through a more fertile area at the beach near where we are anchored and where the worst casualties took place. Old rusty pieces of iron fluttering with garbage bag flags litter the beach but these too are of recent vintage: we are on an old garbage dump site and that accounts for the fertility as well. At this rate of garbage pile up, Tarawa will struggle ever upward to keep ahead of the rate of sea level rise due to global warming. Of course, it could also sink beneath the weight!
We never locate any American grave sites ( although some were discovered after our brief visit) and start the process of checking back out of the country. Kiribati, this far flung nation of many small Pacific islands (of which Tarawa is the crowded capital), must try to fulfil all of the functions of a nation state and we find it is a struggle to get the right rubber stamps put into our passports. " Could you come back tomorrow? I think the right stamp must be at the airport." "What about this one?" I say, determined not to make the long hot walk once again, "It`s OK. Just stamp it and put your signature and date in the middle." Ta Daaa! We are checked out!
As we hoist anchor we look thoughtfully at the scar on the shore line where a couple of days of big swells have eaten it away. Those waves were generated by something very fierce to the north of Tarawa and that is where we are headed. The season of typhoons has already started and we must run the gauntlet. We are still far short of being halfway home. It is July 4th.
That evening we sail between two little islands that are brilliantly lit in the evening light as we round the northern edge of the Tarawa Atoll. They are so lonely and so beautifully green. They are land, no matter how minute. We will not see any more for the next two months.