The leg from Robinson Crusoe Island to isolated Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is our longest sailing trip so far. We dive into its intriguing history and look at contemporary sustainability challenges and solutions.

Isla Robinson Crusoe – Rapa Nui (CHL)

We knew that Easter Island is the most remote inhabited island in the world, but we only fully appreciate what that means when we sail there. Day after day the trade winds propel us eastwards. Grey, wet and cool days are followed by cloudless and considerably warmer days. Surrounded by nothing by different shades of blue, each sign of life attracts our attention. A curious albatross flies around our boat. Much smaller and agile birds skim the surface to feed. They look a bit like swallows and we wonder how they can stay at sea for such a long time. Do they sleep while floating? At night, the starry sky is so spectacularly dark, yet clear, that we can see the Milky Way all the way to the horizon.

Waiting For Wind

The start of our trip was quite different. When we left Isla Robinson Crusoe, we first sailed north for a few days. It’s a detour compared to the direct north-westerly course to Easter Island, but a high-pressure system – without any wind – was “blocking” the direct course. By circumventing the high-pressure area, we hoped to reach the zone where the easterly trade winds blow. Light southerly winds just filled our gennaker, so we managed to sail some 80 miles a day. Although it was not very much progress, the calm sea provided comfort on board.

Yet when we reached the latitude of the trade winds, the wind completely abandoned us. At first, we were in denial, so whenever a light breeze filled the genaker again and we reached two knots of boat speed, we were hopeful. But then calmness took over. Without wind the gennaker slammed against the rigging every time a wave made our boat roll. Frustrated, we surrendered and took our beloved light-wind sail down. The minimal amount of progress was not worth the damage. It left us drifting without sails, waiting for wind. Many cruisers would have started their engine under these conditions, but we did not. We have rationed our diesel fuel and only want to use the engine if there is no other option. Besides, we don’t carry enough fuel to reach our destination on the engine anyway.

Our patience was put to the test. A slower way of traveling is almost impossible. Yet once we had surrendered to drifting, it had a calming effect. We no longer had to worry about our course or adjusting the sails. We were only occupied with reading, blogging, vlogging, baking bread, cooking food, eating, doing the dishes, and sleeping. The world became very small, with hardly any external stimuli.

Remote, But Not Alone

A highlight in our daily routine is always the weather forecast. Eager to reach our destination, we were thrilled to see that the weather finally decided to adhere to its seasonal pattern. The easterly trade winds arrived even earlier than forecast, meaning we could sail again. A look at the windless zone just south of us, illustrated in blue on our iPad, proved that our detour was paying off after all. Together with the fresh grib files, we always also download emails. Reading stories from our families and friends back home, as well as the updates and tips from fellow sailors, makes us feel a bit less isolated.

Despite our remote position, we maintain our schedule of watches during the nights. It proves to be worthwhile. We come across a handful of ships, including a large container ship that passes only two miles behind us. Furthermore, the sails and our wind vane “Herbie” regularly demand our attention. So one of us is always awake.

First In First Out

For some reason, the fish no longer bite in our lure, a temptingly tasty, bright orange squid. Is it the overfishing or are we in the marine equivalent of a desert landscape, we wonder? It’s a good thing we don’t dependent on fresh fish for our survival. We still eat fresh fruits and vegetables from Valdivia. When the supply runs out after two weeks, save for some die-hard onions, potatoes and garlic, canned food inevitably takes centre stage. Although we bought canned food in many different countries, we rarely ate it. There were usually fresh alternatives available. Delving into our food storage thus becomes quite entertaining. “It’s like a treasure trove!” Ivar exclaims. “These dried green lentils are from the Ecoplaza store in Amsterdam!” The stuff seems indestructible, and make for a scrumptious soup four years after we purchased its ingredients. Slightly more recent – but no less spectacular – finds are a jar of baby corn with a German label and a can of grilled bell peppers from Greece. In a curry they are almost as tasty as fresh vegetables, even many months after expire of their guaranteed shelf life.

Creating Our Own Time

Around the same time that we swap fresh food for canned alternatives, we notice that it stays light for longer in the evening and dark until well into the morning. Naturally, our sailing westward causes this. It reaches a point where Floris hardly sleeps from 22:00-01:00 h because, as he says “It’s still so light!”. We decide to do something we have not done before: to set the clock back two hours without having reached a destination in another time zone. Our own time zone “Lucipara 2” quickly solves Floris’s biorhythm malfunction.

It is fair to say that time zone “Lucipara 2” is actually similar to that of Easter Island. Thanks to the steady easterly trade winds we are getting close now. After 18 days and more than 2,100 nautical miles, our anchor drops at the main town of Hanga Roa. We are delighted and also quite proud that we have reached this remote destination on our own keel. It marks our longest journey so far.

Unique Polynesian Achievement

Of course, we realize how easy it is to find this island nowadays with the help of GPS and digital nautical charts. How did the original inhabitants ever find this dot in the Pacific Ocean, about the size of the Dutch island of Texel? Genetic, linguistic and archaeological research has shown that they were Polynesians. Around 1,100 AD they landed here after sailing thousands of miles in a sort of catamaran, even though they didn’t know that there was an island here. We’ll probably never know how many expeditions failed, but we do know that one succeeded. The fact that contact with the outside world only took place some six centuries later, underlines how unique their achievement was.

Exhaustion of A Paradise

Because of their isolation, the inhabitants of Rapa Nui, as they called the island, were forced to be self-sufficient. Thanks to modern research methods, we know that before the arrival of people, the island was covered with dozens of species of subtropical trees and plants, including large palm trees. Millions of birds also lived there. It must have been a paradise for the settlers. Unfortunately, both trees and birds have disappeared. As a result, the islanders were faced with major challenges. What exactly happened and how the islanders dealt with the ecological and social crises, is very relevant for our human civilization today. Just as Easter Island is a small oasis in the vast Pacific Ocean, our living planet is completely isolated in the endless universe, facing similar challenges. So we ask ourselves, what can we learn from Easter Island?

A Time of Scarcity

We start our research by learning more about the islander’s fate and their statues. We jump on our rental bikes, visit many archaeological sites, read books, articles, and go to the local history museum. The following account is our attempt to summarize the findings from a small army of scientists who have tried to unravel the mysterious history of Easter Island.

Easter Island is best known for its moai, large stone statues. Some are ten meters high and weigh many tons. The islanders built the moai to cherish the mana– the power and wisdom of influential ancestors. As time passed, the moai became bigger and bigger. It therefore took an increasing amount of manpower to make them, and a lot of wood was probably needed for their transport. The islanders also used wood for shipbuilding and fire, which made this material even scarcer. Rats, who sailed with the Polynesians, did the rest. With tree seeds and bird eggs as their favourite diet, they contributed to the complete deforestation of the island and the extinction of almost all birds. This ecological crisis made it increasingly difficult to build seaworthy vessels for fishing and to transport the ever-larger moai. Social unrest arose and the production of moai abruptly stopped. The unfinished moai in the island’s former quarry are the silent witnesses of this drama.

Resourcefulness And Innovation

Yet the misery caused by ecosystem destruction is only part of the story. The hundreds of moai that were built prove that Rapa Nui’s civilization had developed to a sophisticated level. With dedication, collaboration, and technology, the islanders succeeded in making the statues in a quarry, moving them all over the island and erecting them on elevated sites. Another impressive achievement is that the islanders were able to adjust their diet and farming methods. Archaeological research shows that they started eating fewer birds and sea fish, but more shellfish and rat meat. As deforestation increased, the fertile soil eroded and the wind got a grip on crops. In response, the islanders built ingenious stone circles stone. These kept the soil moist and protected both soil and crops against the wind. That explains why the islanders were well-fed and cheerful, according to the report of the first meeting with outsiders.

Confrontation with Europeans

On Easter Sunday, 5 April 1722, three Dutch ships led by Jacob Roggeveen stumbled upon Rapa Nui by chance. He called it Easter Island and that is how the island became known. But during this “acquaintance”, at least ten islanders were reportedly shot dead. Later contacts with outsiders turned out to be even more disastrous. Slavery and introduced diseases reduced the original population from several thousands to just 110 in 1877.

Easter Island in 2020

Today, the island is a popular holiday destination. Although this has brought prosperity, it is mainly based on the aircraft that fly in and out several times a day. They bring not only the tourists, but also food and most other stuff that doesn’t arrive by ship. Oil tankers regularly fill the large storage tanks with fossil fuels, so that the island’s large fleet of cars can continue to run. The population seems to be more dependent than ever on the outside world.

Yet we also see many promising initiatives that contribute to more self-reliance and better protection of the environment. For example, many residents have a piece of land around their house, with vegetable gardens and fruit trees. They can do their shopping in a packaging-free supermarket. There are collection points to separate and recycle waste. The service that manages the national park also grows the trees to reforest parts of the island. And during an organized beach cleaning we meet residents who are committed to a clean island.

Connected To Their Ancestors

When we speak to locals to gather examples of sustainability initiatives, we learn something extraordinary. Filmmaker and activist Leonardo Pakarati shows us his documentary Te Kuhane o te Tupuna about the struggle to retrieve patrimonial artefacts, including a unique moai that was taken from the island and is now displayed in a London museum. He explains that the moai are still very important to the islanders, since they symbolize the harmony, wisdom and energy stemming from their ancestors, the mana. Without it, people lose sight of what is really important. Not material things, but wellness, community, and cooperation.

Ancestral wisdom as an important driving force for sustainable initiatives turns out to be a common theme. At music school Toki, children can develop their musical talents on the island. Yet the school also teaches the ancestral ways of independence and self-reliance through the local language, arts, and agricultural methods. The building is an Earthship made of natural and recycled materials, and self-sustaining: it is powered by solar energy, rain water is collected and food is grown with respect for nature. Elsewhere, the association for local art and culture is committed to stimulating cycling. Just like the ancestors relied on human power, the youngest generation learns about the health and other benefits of fossil-fuel free transportation option. The association’s director stresses that they have to take good care of their island, as they have no other home. Only here is the ancestor’s mana. Finally, the waters around the island have been granted a protected status thanks to the efforts of a group of young, self-conscious islanders who are not only inspired by traditional Polynesian values of respect and protection of mother earth, but also by their desire to pass on the island in a pristine state to future generations. You can read more details about the spiritual motivation for sustainability in our separate sustainable solution item here.

Celebrating Traditional Values

When we check the weather forecast, we are happy to learn that it stays calm. It means that our anchorage will stay protected and we can witness the start of the annual Tapati festival. It’s the most important event of the year celebrating folklore, music, dance, and sports. We are eager to see as much of the many manifestations as we can. At the traditional triathlon, scarcely clothed participants compete with the elements. They paddle on straw “boats”, run with bananas around their shoulders, and swim with traditional surfboards. Elsewhere, participants show off their handicraft skills. They weave hats, make paper and necklaces, and draw ancient symbols. The evenings offer music and dance performances, both modern and traditional. A very festive vibe hangs in the air and it’s impressive to see how much the event embraces traditional values and strengthens the connections within the community. At the same time, large posters and information stands at the festival grounds remind visitors of important issues like waste management, sustainable transport, the protection of the ocean, and climate disruption.

The Future Is Up to All of Us!

The islanders’ ancestors personally experienced that the survival of human civilization depends on mutual cooperation and healthy ecosystems. At the same time, they proved to be resourceful and able to adapt. Easter Island nowadays shows that the road to a more sustainable society is not easy, with the growing tourism sector and consumer society putting a heavy burden on the islanders’ self-reliance and natural resources. Nevertheless, meeting sustainability frontrunners that are inspired by the spirit of their ancestors, and seeing so many sustainable initiatives, strengthens our conviction that the community is making progress towards a sustainable future. It means that our future is not written in stone, but depends on our own behaviour. It is up to us to apply positive, workable models and to make smart, sustainable choices in which both nature and humans thrive. That is, we think, Easter Island’s most important lesson.

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