Marshall Islands



Sitting cross-legged on the blue wooden frame only inches above the gentle waves, there is barely a sound as we glide swiftly across the clear water of the Majuro lagoon. This is our first experience in a Marshallese canoe, a distinctive craft with two parallel hulls separated by a wooden bench. These vessels were the transport of choice for many generations before and after the Europeans ‘discovered’ the tiny atoll islands of the Marshall Islands, an isolated nation in the mid-Pacific (around halfway between Honolulu and Manila). The 19th century German and Russian traders who came this way were shocked by the speeds at which these canoes could cut through the ocean.




We are taking a canoe trip with Waan Aelon in Majel (WAM), a canoe-building programme set up by Marshall Islander Alson Kelen. Alson set up WAM in order to keep alive the canoe-making skills that have long been part of Marshallese tradition but that are being lost as western culture creeps ever further into island life. But Alson’s passion, and the importance of the WAM programme, extends far beyond canoe building.




The canoe-makers are young people who have dropped out of school and have no prospect of a job. Many arrive with no social security number and no birth certificate, having been delivered on an outer island beyond the reaches of doctors, midwives and registrars. With unemployment running at well over 50% and a few poor grades in your early school years can write off your academic and professional prospects, the 25 young folks who attend the daily work and study programme receive a valuable opportunity to develop a lot more than canoe-building skills. Classes in English, Maths and a range of life skills have been put together by Alson, who with the help of a tight-knit team of Marshallese and ex-pats has created a valuable programme from nothing.




Funding is always a challenge and much of his work involves persuading potential backers of the value of his work.  Local businesses are all too aware that the training of vocational skills is always non-existent in the Marshall Islands, with very few qualified teachers around to provide education relevant for working on the islands.



As part of the WAM programme they spend a few weeks in one of the big Majuro companies (big is a relative word on an island with only 20,000 people). Several have found full-time work as a result of their work experience.




Linton, the young lad in charge of our canoe, says little but after an hour out on the lagoon invites me to take temporary charge. I scramble to my feet, almost falling in while gripping Linton a bit too tightly for his comfort. The gentle movements that look effortless in his capable hands are clearly beyond me and after a few minutes of uncoordinated incompetence I fall back to my seat, relieved not to have landed in the drink.




If you make it out to the Marshall Islands, a visit to WAM and a ride in a traditional canoe will give you a small taste of one of the islands’ most distinct traditions. More than that however, you’ll be supporting a very worthy programme that is giving young people real help in a country where opportunities are few and far between.


 Canoe rides cost $20 per person for one hour.  

You can get the Marshall Islands included in your RTW here