Author’s note: I recently came across a journal that I kept while on a trip to Christmas Island in 1987. This column, gleaned from the family-appropriate parts of that journal, is the third in a series about that once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip. — LP
Feb. 25 — At 3:30 a.m. we checked out of the Reef Hotel, loaded our gear into two cabs and headed for the Honolulu International Airport. There, along with 32 other fishermen, we boarded an Aloha Airlines 737 for the once-a-week flight to Christmas Island.
Christmas Island, also called Kiritimati, is one of 23 islands comprising the new nation of Kiribati. (The name Kirimati is a respelling of the word “Christmas” in Gilbertese, the main language spoken on the island.) From end to end, this coral atoll is about 30 miles long. It consists of about 150 square miles of land. It’s largest lagoon contains the legendary bonefish that we’ve come halfway around the world to catch.
This tiny speck on the map of the central Pacific Ocean lies 1,335 miles south of Hawaii. When we were about halfway there, our airplane turned 180 degrees. I was more than a little concerned, being aloft in the middle of the Pacific as we were. Airplanes don’t turn without good reason. After what seemed like an eternity, the pilot came on the PA system and announced that one of the ocean navigation instruments had failed. Since we hadn’t reached the “point of no return,” we were returning to Honolulu, he said. The flight attendant brought around more drinks, which took our minds off being in the middle of the ocean with less than the normal number of navigation aids.
Back at Honolulu, it was discovered that the aircraft’s entire adult beverage supply had somehow evaporated. Between repairs and restocking of necessary fluids, we took six hours to fly to Christmas Island instead of the previously planned three.
Looking out the airplane’s window as we approached Christmas Island, I noted that all the coconut trees seemed to be in rows. Then I remembered that they’d all been planted, part of various schemes to make money in the copra market. The first of them were planted by seamen under the supervision of one William Bligh, on the order of Captain James Cook in 1777.
On his third and, as it turned out, last voyage, Cook was heading north to find a Northwest Passage and anchored off the atoll. In the log of the HMS Resolution, he wrote: “As we kept our Christmas here, we called it Christmas Island. This day, the people were served fresh pork, fish and double allowances of liquor which enabled them to spend the evening with mirth and jollity.”
We stepped from the air-conditioned plane into the blinding equatorial sun. Friendly black faces grinned at us. A sign over the terminal building said, “CHRISTMAS ISLAND, ELEVATION 5 FEET.”
This was the first time I ever needed a passport to go fishing. We cleared customs without a hitch, received our Visitors Pleasure Fishing Permits and boarded an elderly bus for the ride to the only hotel on the island. It had been a long day, and we were tired, but we were determined to follow Cook’s crew’s lead, and to “spend the evening with mirth and jollity.”
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.