The storms of the last few days were still present and Aisea and some of the others decided where the best area might be to fish while avoiding the strong winds. It was raining off and on throughout the morning. As the rain fell groups of men waited out the tide by drinking coffee and munching donuts under the weathered roofs of the boathouses. Most of the boats were already afloat and tied offshore to mangrove roots. We loaded up the nets into the boat still ashore and pushed it out, fifty feet, through a foot of tidal mud. Other fishermen loaded their boats with two, long, mile or more, lines. These lines were prepared in a unique way, at an interval of about ten feet, leaves were tied off. Spears, dive masks and other gear were loaded into the boats. Once the tide was high enough; we got into the boats and headed out of the bay. There were five boats in our fleet and as we cleared the different reefs I could see the tide was still quite low. We made our way around Sokehs Rock and toward the reef flats off the northwestern leeward side of the island. In the five boats there were about forty Kapingamarangi men age ranging in age from 16 to 70. This was a community event that spanned generations. There was a hard chop on the water and the boats were crashing through, whitewater exploding off the bow. The primal scent of the "hunt" was very much in the air.
We got to the reef flats with the tide still too low; the water below the coral heads. The boat was tied off on the leeward side of a coral head. Some of the men dove in after clams and what reef fish could be found. It was cool. The air temperature was colder than the water and the wind was blowing a steady 15-20 knots. After almost an hour of waiting we got into the boats and moved over to the reef flat. There was about two feet of water over the reef. Our boat had the purse net; this we set up on the down current edge of the reef. The flow of water maintained the inflated form of the net. As we set the net and cleared the area in front of loose coral, the other men began to encompass a large area of the reef, circling both counter and clockwise from the purse net. Eventually the two leaf tied lines were joined enclosing an area of about a mile. A signal was called; the men equally spaced along the perimeter of the area began tightening the circle. Those closest to the net pulled on the lines and the excess line was loaded into the two boats on either side of the purse. At first not much could be seen, but as the area was reduced in size, the number of fish visibly increased. Eventually we were standing abreast, the fish before us frantically looking for an escape. The one break in the circle of men into the purse net was taken. We loaded the catch of about forty fish into the boat. The men seemed disappointed.
We packed up and headed to another spot. The tide was higher and the flow of water over the reef had increased. We used the same method except this time the area enclosed was almost twice that of the first set. It took longer to make the connection. Again we tightened the circle. This time, more and larger fish could be seen. Excitement high, hundreds of fish of all different colors and size were packed so tight that they could hardly swim. I counted at least four sharks, all passing so close I could touch them. I reached out and tapped one on the nose. I was unaware that to save the net, we were to let the sharks through. We loaded the boat, a volume easily ten times the first haul. The hunt was over.
The rest of the gear was loaded and the motors started; our course set for the village. Lino, across from me in the boat, picked up one of the parrotfish, still live, and bit it just behind the eyes, the kill spot. Using his finger, he punctured the fish under a fin and ripped out its innards. He separated out the liver, quickly rinsed it and then consumed it. The fish was scaled, broken into pieces and tossed into a bucket. Others followed suit during which Lino offered me the next liver morsel. It was mild in flavor and texture, surprisingly without a salty taste. I was later to discover that fish liver was one of the only sources of vitamin E for the Kapingamarangi historically. With the bucket full, a mixture of limejuice, coconut oil and seasonings was poured over the raw fish parts. The entire boat crew partook of this delicious Polynesian meal.
On each boat a sarong was donated and tied to a boat pole flown as a banner signaling to those on shore of our success and return. This was symbolic and I'm guessing for my benefit. We were well beyond visual contact. I was told this was how it was done on Kapingamarangi. It must have been quite a sight seeing five boats returning in victory, loaded with fish, streaming banners of celebration.
Upon our return to the village waterfront we were greeted by women bearing coconut oil and marmars and we could see that the feast preparations were in progress. Oil was rubbed onto our faces and necks and a marmar was placed on each fisherman's head. The cooking fires were started and the women prepared the fish for grilling. A number of baskets had been woven of palm fronds to serve as plates. There was much going on, perhaps fifty people were involved with the preparations. Decorations of flowers and various leaves were placed on the canoe. The canoe was almost entirely covered with these decorations. While people were still arriving we introduced the new waka siu to the ocean and embarked on her maiden voyage. Jimmy, Boaz and myself were honored with this first paddle. The canoe moved easily through the water. We did a loop around the lagoon and returned to the festivities. It was time to gather for the acknowledgment speeches and after that a prayer. With these done, the feast began.
The day's catch, along with rice, taro and donuts were enjoyed by all. The crowd thinned as people made their way home. Aisea, Jimmy, and myself took the canoe out again. I was interested in Aisea thoughts concerning the canoe's performance. As is his way, at least from my experiences, he said little. When asked what he might change on the next canoe, his answer was "nothing." I think he was happy to have this project done. He had played a difficult part in the construction. He was obviously the most knowledgeable and most productive of the carvers. Unfortunately, he was not in charge and the benefits of his knowledge and skills were not fully utilized. Throughout the carving he worked diligently, even through disagreement. Aisea was the master carver without the recognition of this position. Throughout the process, he handled his position with grace and dignity. It had been a pleasure working with him as well as other carvers.
The waka siu originally carried a crew of seven or eight men. At twenty-four feet, this particular canoe was to be scaled down for various reasons but still it was to carry six men. In actuality, three men seemed more than enough to have her down on her lines. I think this was a surprise to the carvers and demonstrates the years distanced the canoes have become. Throughout my three months of research I was unable to determine the size of the traditional waka siu. Connor, Jimmy and I took the canoe out for one more paddle at sunset down to Misko Beach. We left the waka siu there for the night to be photographed in the morning.
It should be noted that this launching ceremony was not an example of what is currently done. The boats used today are fiberglass skiffs with forty horsepower outboard motors. Shortly after their launching they are taken fishing and their catch is used to supply the feast. Nor was the launching an accurate representation of the traditional celebration that predated their Christian religion. (See Appendices H and I)