Bonaire Finds a New Home in Kiribati

The Captain likes a good story. In fact, he might even say that he finds a good story to be more satisfying than his favorite dinner - sardines and sour cream. And if he can beat the dailies and the wires to the punch on a particular story, all the better.

This week the Captain is in the South Pacific's Republic of Kiribati, the location of the discovery of Bonaire, a ship missing at sea for nearly a year. Why don't you set sail with him? He promises open seas filled with nothing but adventure.

At the Peace Corps conference in Kiribati's capital of Tarawa this past week, volunteer instructor John Francis' colleagues were heard to moan more than once, "Not that boat story again."

But John's boat story is a good story and the concluding chapter of a full tale that began last year in Hawaii. It is an example of how one man's trash can quickly be turned into another man's treasure. Even if the treasure is caked in bird droppings.

The beginning of the story goes like this: In July of last year, a crew of five Orange Coast College sailing students and three professional yachtsmen departed from Honolulu for Newport Beach, California on a scholarship trip as a part of the college's School of Sailing and Seamanship. About a week into the journey, the mast of their 66-foot ketch, Bonaire, lost stability and began to sway uncontrollably. Soon after it was abandoned 800 miles from Hawaii with the crew being picked up by passing freighters. The ship was left to sink. However, in April of this year, a full nine months later, Bonaire turned up on a reef just off Kiribati's island of Nonouti.

This is where John enters the picture.

"It was a free for all," John remembers of his approach to the unmanned ship. He had just finished pedaling 45 minutes from his home on the island, where as a member of the Peace Corps he gives instruction on health issues. At this point, the ship was in the process of being dismantled by 10-15 locals, with one guy trying to remove the rear mast.

The ship had indeed not sunk, but drifted 3,000 miles from where it was abandoned.

The 22-year old from Jacksonville heard about the ship the day before on the radio. The list of some of the items he remembers being hauled away from the $500,000 ship is impressive: sails, cushions, radio equipment, a toilet, metal hand railings, and life preservers.

"The Kiribati people have an amazing ability to put things to use," John says. Another volunteer on the island saw one of Bonaire's sails cut to size for an outrigger canoe.

Other items from the ship, though, might simply be trophies, like the line hand crank he saw sitting in front of a house.

And the ship's toilet. John remembers seeing one guy carrying the large piece of porcelain from the shore.

John: What are you going to do with that?

Guy with toilet: In nabeka (to use to go to the bathroom).

John: But you guys use the beach for that.

The guy smiled, laughed, and moved on with his booty.

Ryan Pauley, one of the student sailors, says in an email interview, "I think it is cool if something of mine were to be found and put to use over there."

"Over there" is an island about an hour by plane from Tarawa and populated by just over 2,000 people. It is a coral atoll of rocks, sand, and palms. Reefs make access by ship difficult. High tides are the only times when canoes can access land. It is a place that might have made for a nice setting for a musical about a half-century ago.

The diet of the locals is mainly fish, rice, coconuts, and breadfruit. Tea and coffee is a luxury left to those living on Tarawa.

"One of the captains on the boat, Bob [Robert White], kept telling stories of the time he spent in the South Pacific and it definitely made me envious," says Ryan, today a 20-year old English major at UC Berkeley.

As is to be expected in a place of such isolation, life in Nonouti is a bit different from places that might, say, have modern and functioning sewage systems. Things like paved roads and email, taken for granted elsewhere, might be looked at a little differently here.

Or, for example, corned beef.

"When you have a botaki (Kiribati dinner party), canned corned beef on the table might be seen as a sign of wealth," John explains. "Ox & Palm - really a heart attack in a can because it is so salty - is the favorite brand."

After drifting in the Pacific Ocean for such a long period of time, the 24-year old racing ship was not in the best cosmetic condition. Kiribati radio reports said the initial people to board the craft saw the deck smeared in bird waste with a few opened and rusting meat tins scattered about. This was the locals' signal that it was fair game.

The disassembling of Bonaire was not surprising to most. Tales of cars and airplanes involved in accidents being wiped clean are common lore. Cut pieces of airplane fuselages can make for nice hair combs and upholstered seats, like those found in automobiles, are rare in Kiribati, or so say many locals.

By the time John got onboard, he mainly recalls seeing and smelling gasoline and oil. He quickly took some pictures and headed back to shore because "over 70% of Kiribati people are smokers."

A few days later, John heard that a message in a bottle was found on the ship. Thinking he could respond in English to the message, John went to see the guy that supposedly had the bottle. When he arrived, the guy just started laughing. John says that Kiribati people sometimes find it amusing to tease one another with stories.

Word of Bonaire's discovery was relayed from John to his father in Jacksonville. Interested in the history of the ship, John's father then searched the Internet and eventually uncovered the events that took place in the Pacific in the middle of last year.

For Bonaire, Kiribati is now its home. What will become of it nobody can say for sure.

But one thing is certain, toilets, functioning or not, are now destined to be the new signs of wealth in Nonouti, of that there is no question.

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