Surviving at sea Kiribati-style (without giving yourself an enema)


Once upon a time there lived two fishermen that got lost in the middle of the Pacific ocean without food or water. Five weeks later, they washed up ashore of a neighboring country 500 miles away in relatively good health. The chances of these men surviving were always going to be pretty slim but the chances of them finding a long lost relative on the tiny island they washed up on? Slim to none wouldn’t you think? Well I thought so. But then again these men aren’t ordinary men. These men are I-Kiribati and are the best navigators, fishermen and survivors in the world. They are also my relatives.

I told this story to a good friend the other day and he refused to believe me.  ‘That can’t possibly have happened.  No one could survive 33 days without water or food.’ Now as someone who goes into a fit of rage if I skip breakfast I know that my friends reaction is completely legitimate.  Except for when it comes to the I-Kiribati people.

So basically what happened was that when we were on Marakei – the day before first round elections – my cousin came to our hut and told us that her father was missing.  The day before he had made a trip to the neighbouring island – Abaiang – to get more fuel and hadn’t  yet returned.  This trip would usually take 1 day so for him not to return was a bit odd.  After 4 days, we all began to worry.  The men had gone out in a small fishing boat.  No lifejackets, no radio, hardly any supplies.  These trips are common and my Uncle had done this so many times.  He was known as one of the best sea navigators and fishermen on the island – people usually employed him to accompany them on their boat trips between islands.  So for him to be lost we all assumed that it was engine failure.  We were all worried but in true I-Kiribati way, there was never an assumption that he could have died at sea.  We all assumed that they were drifting at sea, they’d be found eventually when they drifted to land and then they’d return.  Four days turned into seven, one week turned into two, two weeks turned into a month and yet the only person that even suggested that they might not ever come back was my cousin’s wife who is known as a bit of a rebel in the family -when I asked her what she thought would have happened to him she dropped her head and let her tongue hang out before laughing and continue hanging the washing.  It wasn’t denial on anyone else’s part, there was this general feeling that they would come back eventually.

33 days later, we learned that they had been found in the Marshall Islands – 500 kms from Marakei – after I jumped on the internet at 2am after playing a particularly long game of cards with my Mum, Auntie and Grandma and read a report on the ABC website that confirmed that these men had been found.  We jumped in the car and drove up and down the island, waking up relatives and spreading the news.  Funny how we had to learn about the news from Australia but that’s island life – not everyone has a phone/electricity so everything is done word of mouth.

Four days after we learnt the news, I had to fly back to Australia.  You can then imagine my surprise when I found news articles everywhere – newspaper, websites and even the 7pm project on Channel 10!  No one had ever heard of Kiribati before but suddenly people were chatting about it.  The funniest report I saw come out was this one on ‘How to survive a month adrift at sea’.  I say funny because they mention things like using cardboard as hats, not panicking and collecting freshwater in buckets.  I don’t mean to sound patronising because this is great advice – advice that I will surely remember should it ever happen to me – but it’s clearly not written with experienced Kiribati fishermen in mind.  These men didn’t have cardboard or buckets and Kiribati people are known for their ability not to stress.  They are so laid-back about everything that I’m pretty sure any other I-Kiribati person would agree when I say that the men would have sat there, quietly talking about which way the tide was, predicting the weather and tried to figure out which island they were closest to.

Kiribati people are born survivors.  They catch fish in the middle of the night with a knife and a torch.  They make rope out of coconut husks that are strong enough to hold a house together.  They climb ridiculously high coconut trees.

Here is my cousin Kairo climbing a tree to get me a drink after we went mudcrab hunting.  Please ignore my ridiculous commentary!

I will write soon again on climate change and the threat of rising waters in Kiribati since I haven’t written on the subject for a while – but in the meantime have a look at Bear Grylls.  After what I’ve told you, I would like you all to realise how much of an idiot he looks like in this video.  Hilarious and completely over the top but very much entertaining.  And yes, he is serious.

In the Pacific ocean? I love that he’s still wearing all his clothes and even his shoes.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback 🙂

Ko rabwa

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Mauri mauri! I really enjoyed your post. Thanks. And hope you won’t mind if I post a link to it on my wee blog? Why am I, a Scottish lassie in Edinburgh, writing about Kiribati and South Tarawa? Well, I lived on South Tarawa for five years (in fact my son was born there) and I loved the place and the people. I have now just finished writing a crime novel set on South Tarawa – it’s still to be edited etc but it will be coming out at the end of the year. And from time to time I talk about Kiribati on my blog 9 hence why I would link to link to yours). Thanks again and why have you stopped writing on your blog? Looking forward to reading more posts from you soon :o)

    1. Mauri Marianne! Thank you so much for reading! I apologise for not posting recently. The truth is that I have started a new job and it has taken a lot of my time. I feel awful because I have about 6 half written posts waiting to be finished and I haven’t had the chance to. I’m hoping that over the Easter break, I can get a couple of pieces up there – believe me, I’m very disappointed in myself!
      By all means you can post a link to your blog on here. Pop it in as a comment. Once you do that, I’ll have a read of it and then I can give it another shout out on another post of mine – happy to give more publicity to other lovers of Kiribati!

      Thanks again,

  2. Cory Josue says:

    Hi.. reading this article is really inspiring and even though I’ve never read anything about the Kiribati people, I think that they are very inspiring and even though I am born with water surrounding our province, I really don’t know how to swim, or even survive at sea. I think that it is important that everyone should learn the basics of sea survival just in case they are traveling by boat, don’t you think?

    1. Absolutely even though I’m not too sure I’d be able to hack it. Though not many people travel by boat (well compared to air travel nowadays). I think a lot of people overestimate the swimming ability of islanders. They don’t really have swimming lessons and so they just learn to float at a young age but not be strong swimmers. Though surviving at sea – the islanders are incredibly smart and most resourceful!

  3. Mauri! My first time to read an interesting story for our I-Kiribati survivors. For me I can’t swim quickly if I got in deep ocean or high tide. Always afraid and fear of drowning into the sea. I proud those men who survive their life for long without food and drink. Luckily they were because they strong men. Thank God for his kind and care for all lost of hope. Thank you the author of the this article. I really like tat story. Mizz Fefena Jackisidore.

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