12 – 25 August: Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands – 18 02S 163 11W
When you leave French Polynesia to head west there is a huge expanse of ocean to be covered with just a few isolated atolls offering limited safe haven before arriving in Tonga 1300 miles away. The trade winds blow from the south east offering shelter on the western side of these atolls but during winter in this part of the Pacific they are constantly affected by deep lows rolling across the Southern Ocean bringing large southerly swells and westerly winds.
Therefore a stop at any of these atolls is very weather dependent with the safer option to remain at sea and tough it out. There are 4 choices for undertaking this journey, straight through and deal with what comes (surprisingly quite a popular option) or you can study the weather forecast until you suffer from analysis paralysis and finally choose either the north, south or middle route through the Cook Islands, stopping in the Cooks if conditions permit.
We left from Bora Bora late in the day, the trades were looking gentle, the southern swell unavoidable, cloud cover likely, squalls possible – off we went heading due west 561 miles to Palmerston Atoll. We had a good passage, if anything the winds were just a little too light so we rolled around in the pesky ever present swell, but all up a good trip.
After 4 nights at sea we spotted the 7 small islands on the horizon that make up the amazing Palmerston Atoll group of the Cook Islands. There is no passage into the lagoon for big boats so we picked up a mooring provided by the locals located outside the reef off the village on the sheltered side of Palmerton Island.
A Necessary History Lesson
To understand how special this place is I have to share a short history lesson. James Cook first sighted this atoll in 1774 but didn’t land there until passing in 1777, he found it uninhabited but there were signs of previous human presence. Incidentally, in the whole of the vastly spread out island group that bears his name, the Cook Islands, Palmerston Island is the only island that Captain Cook ever landed on.
Moving on 90 years to 1863 a carpenter & barrel maker from England named William Marsters came to settle in this remote spot firstly with 2 Polynesian wives, then with a third. He gave his wives an island each and set about to populate this tiny outcrop.
He sired 23 children that survived childhood and forbade interbreeding. Outsiders from other Cook Island settlements were brought in for marriages. All went well and when William’s youngest daughter died in 1973 there were over 1000 descendants of William Marsters spread throughout the Cooks and New Zealand. Thinking ahead he also planted mahogany seedlings so there would be an on going timber supply, today a small forest of amazing 150 year old mahogany trees cools the island and provides a fertile, compost rich soil. Smart lad was William.
Modern Day Politics
Nowadays everyone lives on just the one island and there are three Marsters families that rule the roost, Edward, Bill and Bob descend from each of Williams wives. There is an island council with 6 members, and issues are democratically voted on. The small population increased during our stay as the resident nurse delivered two babies, the population is now 53.
It has been a long tradition for the families to host any visitors to these shores, we were adopted by Edward, his wife Shirley and their sons . The passing yachts are about all the traffic they see, there is no airstrip or helipad, no ferry service, just small freighters from Rarotonga that can come as irregularly as 5 months apart and then occasionally the weather is too rough to land the supplies. Therefore there is no need for tourist accommodation, eateries, shops ~ just 53 people trying to survive in absolutely the middle of nowhere!
Remote As We Have Ever Been
The weather during our stay was challenging, on our second day we came back from a full day ashore and there had been a considerable wind switch to the north west. Waves were building from the open ocean and we were all lying in shallow water with our sterns just metres from the reef – this was no place to be on a lee shore and get shipwrecked! 3 of our friends let their lines go and headed to sea, westward bound, 2 of us stayed. For us we just didn’t want to leave this incredible place so soon.
Our host Edward Marsters guided us around the southern edge of the outside reef to a shelf where were could anchor in calm waters. The long lazy southern swell rolled in under us, thundering as it crashed onto the reef just 50 metres from our bow, the wind held us steady off at a safe distance but it was hardly relaxing.
We stayed 2 nights in this remote location, on the 2nd night we were the only yacht left, never before have we been so “alone”, but we weren’t really alone the whales came to play and we spent our 2 days boat bound whale watching and enjoyed some magnificent displays by these mighty creatures. We gave up trying to photograph them and just sat back and enjoyed the on going aquatic display first hand, truly one of life's magic moments.
On our 3rd night a front was due to pass over, the winds would back to the west then south and finally the trades should re-establish from the south-east. We could not stay where we were or return to the mooring field until it passed so we lifted anchor at dusk and went to sea for the night, bobbing around on the eastern side of the atoll until the front passed over. At 5am we finally returned to the mooring field off the village, it had been an interesting but sleep deprived 3 days!
More New Joiners Arriving
We knew from our daily cruisers net on our SSB Radio that we had friends on Laros, Swiftsure and Pitufa arriving after dark, never an easy undertaking but with the boats nudging forward into the anchorage at snails pace and our spotlight illuminating the mooring buoys everyone got tucked up safely.
Bad weather continued to plague us, the convergence zone dropped down above us, winds howled from the south east, the swell wrapped round the reef making it very bumpy and then the skies opened. We hooked onto a 2nd mooring for double safety, bobbed up and down and sat it out.
The weather finally cleared but the temperature dropped dramatically. We had another day visiting ashore.
How Everything Works
Kat the principal is from New Zealand and is married to Arthur who runs the government administration office, then there is an American/South African couple on a 2 year contract who are both teaching and seem to have settled into island life well.
The only other “total outsider” is Will from New Zealand who is enjoying his third visit here, he is doing odd jobs to cover his board and seems to be the driving force in promoting vegetable patches, just why they haven’t been growing their own produce before this amazes us but Will seems to have got the interest and momentum going, for now.
There is a fine collection of heavy machinery that was shipped up and barged ashore (quite an undertaking we are told) to prepare the ground and install the farm of solar panels that were donated by an Australian Aid organisation last year. The machinery remains, the cost and logistics of removing them outweigh the value of the machinery, guess they will sit and rust away like we have seen in many remote places before.
Until 5 years ago the only outside contact they had was a SSB Radio like we have on our boats. Modern communications have improved, they now have telephone and very expensive extremely slow internet via satellite, televisions now dominate their living rooms and many residents have been to Rarotonga or New Zealand.
However they rely heavily on the freighters from Rarotonga for all their supplies, it was a week late when we were there and the families were running out of staples, we cruisers helped supply everything we could spare and luckily the ship arrived the following week. There will not be another delivery until next year.
Both Arthur and Edward had severe toothache while we were there, the only option was to pull the tooth which the nurse finally agreed to do (successfully), if they went to Rarotonga to the dentist they would be gone about 10 months. When we asked Arthur what happens if you get really ill his response was “you just bend over and kiss your arse goodbye!”, then next stops would be quaint church & the fascinating cemetery in the above photos.
With the weather settled we had the dilemma of whether to stay and finally enjoy the water activities or use the winds to head to Niue, a further 400 miles west. It was a tough decision to leave but we had been here a week, new horizons beckoned. We left in company with Laros and Swiftsure, oh no, not another race!
Possibly the Most Interesting, Remote & Hospitable Place We Have Ever Visited