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Sailing The Line


In the centre of the Pacific three small islands offer a rare glimpse of how exposure to the West has an impact on human wellbeing. In order to investigate how these people are adapting to their changing world, the transition to a money-based society and the opportunities and challenges this brings, I will be sailing to the Line Islands on the S.V. Kwai, one of the last sailing cargo ships in the world and the sole boat upon which these remote communities rely for supplies.

I have visited the Line Islands twice before, once in 2011 and again in 2012, both times leading scientific research expeditions to look at local coral reef ecologies. The changes in just that one year were highly noticeable, increased connectivity with the outside world through trade and communications clearly having an effect on the natural environment and human behaviour.

Background to the Line Islands

Twenty years ago, in an attempt to reverse urban growth in Kiribati’s capital Tarawa, thousands of i-Kiribati were relocated 2000 miles east of their homeland to the most remote part of the Pacific Ocean.  The three newly inhabited islands – Kiritimati, Tabuaeran and Teraina – are outwardly similar with the same climate, native species, a common genetic pool and disused military infrastructure, with a downwards gradient of population density and degrees of isolation to the outside world the only differing factors.

Kiritimati, the southern-most and largest island with a population of 12,000, has an active airport, centralised power generators, satellite communications and an international tropical fish trade. Overfishing, pollution and runoff has taken its toll on Kiritimati’s coral reefs that are steadily degrading and no longer able to support the island inhabitants’ needs. The island is now reliant on packaged food and drink, creating a serious waste management issue.

Next on the Line is Tabuaeran, with its turquoise lagoon and vibrant community, which has initiated seaweed farming for export to China since the first telephone line was installed in 2011. This community is on the brink of connectivity with the west and the subsequent values that follow, and in 2012 started importing products packaged in mostly single-use plastic.

And finally, isolated Teraina with a population of 1,400 and served only by a dangerous landing platform, is the only place I have ever been and not seen a piece of plastic, but this change is imminent. There is currently 100 tonnes of copra rotting on the dock, as there is no longer a market for it – this news is yet to reach the locals for whom cutting copra is all they know.

The S.V. Kwai

My role on board the S.V. Kwai is to manage/inventory the cargo for each of the Line Islands for the duration of the 2 month trip. We will sail for 8-10 days between Hawaii and The Line Islands then spend between 5-9 days loading and unloading at each island, before returning to Hawaii. I will be one of a crew of 10 people living in very close-quarters on board and although the Kwai is 140ft long the majority of the boat’s capacity is under-deck storage, so living space is minimal. Having lived in places like Tonga for six months I’m not a stranger to living in basic conditions, but this journey will certainly take me out of my comfort zone, in many different ways. I can’t wait!

My Aims

- To create a proposal for a zero waste community – rather than waste disposal – for both Tabuaeran and Teraina before it’s too late. My supercargo role on the S.V. Kwai will offer a real insight to the problems at hand and the challenges/opportunities to potentially setting up a new system. By the end of this voyage I hope to have a plan for a team to go back to carry out a project, if it seems feasible.

- To document my journey and the story through paintings and sketches, with a view to a gallery exhibition later in 2013.

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