Life is good here in Niue. I’ll get a post out with some highlights here in another day or so. For now here’s all the pics from the Cook Islands:
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!
Well I didn’t think I was going to get a post up from the Cook Islands, but on a whim I went to the ultra lux posh resort here on Aitutaki and they were kind enough to sell me some wifi time. So I’m sitting in the shade at the bar in front of the only white sand beach I’ve seen since coming to the South Pacific sending off a quick post. Actually I think that they rake all the coral off the beach leaving just the sand behind. Pretty nice!
Willow and I set off from Bora Bora about 12 days ago in what turned out to be the most severe weather I’d since Tate and my rambunctious crossing of the Sea of Cortez a year and a half ago. It blew out of the South 25-35 knots for 3 straight days while we were generally trying to head West Southwest putting the wind in front of the beam and sending lots of 10-15 foot waves crashing over my bow. Bodhran handled it beautifully though my butterfly hatch didn’t do well with taking direct hits from the waves and leaked like a sieve. The last day in, the weather abated nicely and I ended up making the 480 mile passage in just over 4 days.
Most of the cruising fleet went up to Samoa and were hit by even worse winds, while a few others went to Rarotonga where the port is currently full and is sending boats away. The reason all those other boats skip Aitutaki is the 30 foot wide 6 foot deep pass to get into the atoll. Most of the boats out here are well over 40 feet and draw far too much water to get into Aitutaki, so Rush, Willow, Veleda and I have had the place pretty much to ourselves for the last week. It’s a fantastic island, reminiscent of the Marquesas with the immaculately maintained yards and fields, but with good roads, cheap bike rentals, New Zealand beer and people who speak English. It’s been nice not having a language barrier with the locals, though we’ve had a hard time finding people to play music with.
I’m taking off for 190 mile trip to Palmerston Atoll tomorrow, which will definitely not have internet access. There’s no pass into the atoll, so the anchorage is exposed, but depending on weather, I’ll probably be there a week or so and then it’s off to Nuie. I should be there in a couple of weeks.