The Sailing Canoes of Ailuk

sailing canoe, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

Sailing has been around for a while. Like 7000-ish years. Given its historical perseverance one would think it would be more commonplace, or at least more understood. But with the advent of planes and cars and boats with big powerful engines it seems to have fallen into a sort of niche category reserved today, perhaps, for those in less of a hurry. While I’ve developed my own collection of adjectives for describing the art of sailing, most tend to see it as a romantic venture; consulting the stars, quietly disappearing over the horizon, always with the possibility of never returning… Handheld electronic navigation units, satellite phones, engines and autopilot can mar that dreamy description pretty quickly, but fortunately we know where the elemental magic of yesteryear can still be found, and that is precisely why we’ve come to Ailuk.

Now, outrigger canoes are as much a part of the Pacific image as flower leis and coconuts with straws in them. They’re found around cities and indigenous villages alike, made of anything from carved breadfruit trees to cutting-edge carbon fibre, and are particularly popular around larger universities (think tropical rowing club). The sailing canoes, however, the descendants of the voyagers that first populated these islands, have achieved an unfortunate novelty status and usually can only be seen in museums or reenactments. It seems that outboard engines have proven to be too convenient for tradition- or have they?

Ailuk is very busy- the population is low, less than 400 people, but with over 50 islets they have a respectable amount of cultivatable land and a thriving copra industry. Every morning the men take off for any given islet that can be up to two hours away and every evening they return home. And while spearing reef fish in the lagoon will keep you fed, trolling for tuna in the open ocean is both more fruitful and more exciting. The locals simply move around too much for fuel-fed boats to be practical, and with the infrequent and irregular supply ship a petrol shortage or mechanical fault would be crippling. They’ve also managed to keep in mind something that so many others have either forgotten or never learned in the first place- sailing is fun! From childhood the joy of sailing is learned in the most assured way possible. The anatomy of a sailing canoe is quite simple and is easily scaled down to a toy, and an evening low tide will undoubtedly be cause for a race. The children and canoes grow up in tandem, young teens learning finer control in simpler but still technical trainer-size hulls, eventually graduating to the real-deal which can be around 20’. It is at once both everything and nothing like learning how to drive a car. Practical, perhaps necessary, definitely commonplace, and absolutely beautiful.

sailing canoes on beach, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

children with toy sailing canoes, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

children with toy sailing canoes, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

children with toy sailing canoes, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

sailing canoe, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

marshallese men with sailing canoe, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

marshallese man putting away sailing canoe, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

marshallese men carrying sailing canoe, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

sailing canoe put away on the beach, ailuk atoll, marshall islands

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