Well I’m in the Vava’u group in northern Tonga. It’s a lot like the San Juan Islands back home. Very protected, lots of small islands and little anchorages, and lots of whales. Fortunately, unlike the San Juans, the water is warm and clear, unfortunately the weather hasn’t cooperated. It’s been cloudy and rainy since I got here 4 days ago. I’ll take some pics and get a post up later. For now here’s all the pics from Niue:
I’ve been hanging out here in the small island nation of Niue for almost a week now. Niue’s a bit different then any of the other islands I’ve visited. For one there’s no coral barrier reef around the island for the first time since the Marquesas. Additionally there aren’t really any bays on the island either. Visiting boats pick up robust mooring off the town of Alofi on the West side of the island which is sheltered from the pre-dominant SE trade winds. The anchorage is deep and wrought with coral and caverns, so anchoring isn’t advised. If the winds do clock around out of the West, then boats must quickly leave or chance being caught in some nasty seas on a lee shore. To make matters even more fun, there are no beaches on the island, the coastline consists of steep cliffs descending to narrow coral shelves. So there’s no where to land a dinghy except at the wharf that had been blasted out through the coral. Oh yeah, and to pull your dink out at the wharf, you have to hook it up to the crane they use to offload cargo and hoist it up onto the dock so it doesn’t get smashed up by the substantial surge. It’s actually not as difficult as it might sound, but it does make for some entertaining times.
So why visit the island if no beaches, difficult dinghy landings, no anchoring and no protection from the wind and seas? For one, Niue has no rivers or streams. All the rainwater seeps through to coral and limestone rock of the island and into the sea without picking up any sediment, resulting in fantastic water clarity with visibility reaching up to 230 feet. Humpback whales come here to calve. They’ve been swimming through the anchorage most evenings. One of the boats that was here a month ago actually had one of the mothers give birth right next to their boat over night and were able to snorkel with the newborn calf in the morning. There are also sea snakes, spinner dolphins and all the other marine life I’ve been seeing, but with better visibility.
On top of the marine life, there are caves! Lot’s and lots of caves. Big caves, little caves, underwater caves, chasms every formation you can think of made up of limestone and coral. Bonne and Greg rented bikes and we spent a couple of days touring the island exploring caves and swimming in some spectacular pools.
The Niue Yacht Club takes care of the moorings, provides internet, showers and laundry facilities and makes a damn fine cheese burger. It’s not quite a yacht club like back home. Mainly it’s some chairs out on a lawn, and some picnic tables under an awning, but they server ice cream, liquor, beer and burgers. Really what more could you ask for? Their Thursday night sausage BBQ is not to be missed.
From here it’s off to Tonga. It’s something like 280 miles, so it should take 2 nights out to get there. I’ll probably be leaving in the next couple of days, but who knows?
Ok, so I’ve been a bit worried that the blog has been getting stale over the last few months. Really since the Tuamotus, things have gotten a bit routine cruising through the South Pacific. Lots a pretty islands, good snorkeling, clear water combined with some mediocre food and incredibly high prices and that’s French Polynesia for you. I really hadn’t connected with the locals in a meaningful way all through the Society Islands and was beginning to get a bit burned out on everything. Aitutaki was a refreshing change, with cheaper beer and an English speaking populous, but Palmerson! now there’s something completely different.
Palmerston was populated in the 1800s by one William Marsters and his 3 Maori wives from Penhryn Island in the Northern Cooks. All of the current inhabitants of Palmerston are direct descendants of William. The atoll has several small passages through the barrier reef, but none large enough to get a cruising boat through let alone a supply vessel. There’s no airport, so all visitors must come by boat and all boats must anchor up in the lee of the island outside the reef. The supply ship only comes once every 3-6 months depending on when enough cargo has been ordered to make it profitable to make a delivery from Rarotonga. This along with the requirement to be a Marsters to own property on the island has made for a unique society in which visiting yachts play a prominent role. Palmerston is also off the beaten path for most boats going from French Polynesia to Tonga via Rarotonga or Samoa, so they don’t get all that many cruising boats in to the island. The island families don’t seem to co-mingle very much due to some long standing feuds. They keep a close lookout for approaching yachts and it’s a race to see who can get outside the reef to greet the newcomers first. The first ones to greet a boat become that crew’s host family for the duration of their stay, a responsibility that they take very seriously and is certainly mutually beneficial as we quickly found ourselves to put to work.
Edward and Greg working on the excavator:
Willow and I heaved-to in the early hours of the morning to delay our arrival to Palmerston until well after sunrise. As always, the reef around an atoll is sometimes not visible more that ¼ mile out and approaching on a moonless night with neither of our boats having radar isn’t the brightest thing to do. I had heard about the host system on Palmerston and was not the least bit surprised to see an aluminum skiff come out to greet me on my way in. What I was surprised to see were 6 moorings outside the reef. I’d heard from many a source about having to anchor in deep, coral infested water with one of the locals directing your bow over a tiny piece of sandy bottom to set the hook in. It seems my host, Edward, had put the mooring in only a few months earlier. He came up to me in his skiff along with his sons David and Jon and asked me for a line which he then tied to the buoy and gave back to me, so I didn’t even have to pick up the mooring myself. After giving Willow the same treatment, he told us to hang tight until the officials could come out and check us in. I was a bit surprised that they even bothered with officialdom, being an island of 64 people, but Tere, island Secretary and Goodly, the Quarantine Officer came out and checked my ships papers and made sure I didn’t have any fresh fruit on board from outside the Cook Islands. Once we were cleared, Edward and his older brother Simon skiffed Bonnie, Greg and I in through the narrow, almost invisible dinghy pass through the reef and into a big fish lunch that Edwards wife Shirley had cooked for us. On the way in, Tere casually asked what our professions were and immediately came up with a whole list of projects that needed doing on the island that we could help out with. This set up a schedule that we maintained most of the next 9 days. Edward would pick us up about 10am and take us all in to the island where we’d sit around, drink coffee and talk about what projects to do that day. Then we’d work for a couple of hours, have a big lunch with Edward and Tere’s families, work for a few more hours, drink more coffee and then catch a ride back out to the boats just before the sun went down. During our stay on the island Greg and I repaired their excavator, loader, 4 or 5 computers, a keyboard, two stereos and numerous solar setups. We received some amazing hospitality on the island and it was really nice to be able to give some things back in return.
It wasn’t all work and no play on Palmerston. For one, there was always a kettle on and coffee/tea breaks were numerous, but also we spent a couple of days going out to Primrose island, one of the other main islands that make up Palmerston Atoll. Only Palmerston island is inhabited, while the other islands of the atoll serve as public parks where people can go picnicking, camping, fishing, whatever. One afternoon we went out with the skiffs to set up for the next day on Primrose. It seemed a bit odd to have to “set up” for a day on the island, but you should have seen these people go to work establishing a beach head for our next day’s activities. We hit the shore, instantly a site in the trees was picked out, swept clean of all brush and debris, coconuts were gathered, a tarp was strung up, two tables set up, plastic chairs set out and 3 jugs of water put in position so that the next morning when we got out, there was nothing to do but sit back and enjoy ourselves. Truly it was good living. The next day we spent fishing the reef, collecting coconut crab, eating and playing music. Palmerston is one of the only places on our route that doesn’t suffer from Ciguatera poising, except in grouper and sea bass. So many of the reef fish that we’d been ignoring for the last 4 months were fair game all the sudden. Unfortunately I didn’t really have any practice spearing anything but commando fish and unicorn fish, both of which were pretty stationary if you got above them. The Parrot fish I was hunting off Primrose were nowhere near as cooperative. I must have taken 15 shots or more with only one hit. That one hit put an end to my efforts for the day as it quickly attracted 4 sharks including the biggest damn Black Tip that I’d ever seen measuring every bit of 8 feet long. After that I retired to hunting Surgeon fish with David in the shallows. Even there David had one stolen off the end of his spear by the big Black Tip.
All in all Palmerston was one of my favorite spots since taking off cruising. The moorings were rolly and I didn’t get a good nights sleep the entire time I was there, but being able to contribute and interact with the locals tangibly making their lives better gave me a chance to have a purpose again which I really haven’t had since working tugs last Summer. In the end, they got a lot of work out of me, a 25lbs CQR anchor I pulled up in La Paz, a bunch of fishing gear, part of a jar of Nutella and a couple boxes of cheese. What a bargain!