Saturday, October 20, 2018

A pit stop at Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands

20th- 26th September 2018


05-DSCN4754We had the anchor up and were at the Maupihaa pass by 0930. The sea looked flat calm, but  looks can be deceiving as we were still in the lee of the island. As we had a fair idea of what was lurking a few miles further out we reefed down the mainsail to the final reefing point and unfurled just half of our jib in readiness for the heavy weather that awaited us.

A whale sauntered past the entrance just as we rocketed out at a speed of nine knots courtesy of the current that roars out of the lagoon, We watched with delight as the whale’s massive tail disappeared beneath the waves.

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Five hundred and forty miles and three nights at sea lay ahead of us until we would arrive at the atoll of Palmerston in the Cook Islands. The forecast  was not brilliant and predicted strong winds and big seas, but if we didn’t hit the road today we ran the risk of the wind dying completely and having to motor for the entire passage.

By one thirty that afternoon we were in the clutches of mother nature and she was not a happy girl. The wind increased to over 20 knots with gusts hitting 30 and the waves sat tall at 3-4 metres. The conditions were  very rough and uncomfortable. About the only saving grace was that we had a full moon to light the way.

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By day’s end on the second night it seemed that she who must be obeyed was starting to calm down and the washing machine ride was all but over. Come 0900 day three the wind had vanished so down came the sails and on went the motor with just thirty six miles to run to the finish line.

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It was Sunday so it didn’t matter what time we arrived as Sunday is a day of rest in Palmerston and therefore no formal clearance  into the country would be done until tomorrow. So we  picked up one of the seven mooring balls available and hit the hay for a well earned long snooze.

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There are three routes to choose from to get to the Cook Islands and the   remaining western Pacific from French Polynesia, You can choose the north, which normally takes boats to Suwarrow, Penrhyn and onto Samoa, the south which sees you heading for  Rarotonga, the capital of the cooks or the straight up the guts middle route depending on your planned destination.

For better or for worse we choose the middle one and survived the route that has been given the unfortunate name in the cruising guides as “the dangerous middle!“ due to often unpredictable weather conditions where the south east trade winds converge with the equatorial easterly winds . This route leads you to the spec in the ocean named Palmerston.

Palmerston has a very interesting history. For starters it is the only piece of tera firma throughout the the entire Cook Islands group on which Cpt James Cook ever set foot. He first sighted the Cooks in 1774 and returned  in 1777 and made landfall here.

7-P9245554Then in 1862 a Lancashire lad named William Masters from England, along with his three Polynesian wives he picked up from from Penrhyn Island settled on Palmerston. Over the coming years William fathered 26 children. He divided the atolls and reefs so that each of the three families could live on separate atolls around the Palmerston lagoon. He also established very strict laws regarding intermarriage and decreed that all his descendants speak english. Known as the “Father” of Palmerston to this day, his law and decree still stands, as does his original home built from  timber washed ashore from the many ships that have come to grief on the reefs surrounding this tiny spec in the vast South Pacific Ocean.


06-P9235443Monday morning was a busy time for the island’s officialdom as five yachts needed to be checked in including two superyachts, Shamana a 100 ft swan design and Drumbeat, a 170 ft ketch. By the time our turn rolled around  it was near midday. Check-in was easy and painless with Arthur the island's administrator acting as customs & immigration officer, Sharon the island’s nurse wearing the hat of health inspector and Goodwell, one of the Masters brothers filling the shoes of bio - security officer. After all was said and done and we parted with  Australian dollars we were officially allowed to go ashore.

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When you arrive by yacht, well there is no other way to get there as there is no airstrip or inter-island ferries to the other islands, you are adopted by one of the three families who now live on the atoll, Bob, Edward or Bill Masters The family hosts you during your stay, providing meals ashore each day, laundry if need be and transportation to and from our floating homes.

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Depending on how many yachts arrive at the same time a family may adopt two or three vessels. Interacting with your host family and those of the other families we met during our stay was a quite a unique way to learn about their history and their modern day way of life in this isolated community, that are all related one way or another. Shirley and Eddie Masters along with there sons were our host family. Eddie also doubles as the island’s police officer He  had one of his boys ferry the crews of four yachts ashore each day and then he walked us around the island pointing out places of interest along the way.

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Palmerston is an extremely neat place. Yards are immaculate. Sand replaces the normal front lawn that we are all used to and it is constantly raked and cleared of palm tree debris. The island’s school, church and cemetery  follow suit. Shady pathways wind beneath palm trees and huge hundred year old mahogany trees planted by the “father” to ensure that his decendents would always have an ample supply of timber.

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This is a community who’s  nearest neighbours  are hundreds of miles away. Their only visitors are those of us who cross oceans and not all cruising boats make a point of stopping here. A supply ship calls in once or twice a year if the weather permits, so life here is not easy. This little band of hardy folk rely heavily on the yachts who stop here for basic staples, tools or anything else we can spare including old anchor chain to help tie down their homes during cyclone season.

28-P9245514In recent years the island’s council voted to have a solar farm installed to provide electricity to the homes and school.

Tractors and diggers were shipped  in to complete the task and now that the project is finished this machinery lies idle slowly rusting away in the salt air.

A very slow internet signal has also brought the outside world a little closer as has  satellite television, mind you  there is only one channel available so not much choice of programs, but as Aurther put it, it helps to kill time. And believe me these people have a lot of that on their hands

25-P9245504Will, Eddie our host’s brother in law from NZ is one of three outsiders on the island. The other two are the island’s nurse recruited from Papua New Guinea and Shirley, the school’s sole teacher who hails from Australia. On my walk around the island I met up with Will, an avid gardener who told me that he has started growing vegetables which he shares with the other families.

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During our stay he was growing pineapples, cucumbers and vine tomatoes, and his wife was having excellent results from her pumpkin patch. He explained that only certain veggies will grow here because of the ph levels of the soil. I offered him my basil plant but he shook his head saying that no live plants can be imported from anywhere  for fear of bringing disease and that sadly there are only limited seeds available from the capital in Rarotonga. Again life is hard for these folks.

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55-P9255584After a stay of three days we figured we’d found out all there was to know about these people who live way off the beaten track at the veritable end of the earth.  It was time to get moving again . Next stop we hoped would be Beveridge reef, weather permitting, or else we’ll be sailing another 425 miles to a rock in the ocean called Niue.

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Cruiser Info :  Cook islands official currency is New Zealand Dollars. However in Palmeston, New Zealand dollars, Australian dollars, US dollars and Euros are excepted or a combination of all.

There seven mooring balls available are owned by the three host families The mooring fees are payable to them when leaving. There are no shops ashore and cruisers must retain their garbage on board until the next port .

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Check in fees as of September 2018 were as follows:

Mooring Fee: $10 per day (paid in Aus $), Health fee: $20 (paid in NZ $), Customs,Immigration and shore leave combined: $70 ( paid in Aus $)

There is no clearing out fee and you will be given an exit document the day before you depart. Your passport will not be stamped.

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Maupiti & Maupihaa : A fine farewell to Fabulous French Polynesia. 

8th – 20th September 2018.

Maupiti : The Up’s and the Down’s

Lying roughly 30 miles northwest of Bora Bora, Maupiti is one of  the western-most islands of the Society group. As we sailed away from postcard perfect Bora, the island disappeared behind us, engulfed in a sheet of light rain. With a total lack of wind we had no choice but to engage the iron sails and soldier on to the monotonous thump of our engines.

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Arriving at the Pass Onolau on the southeast side of Maupiti, it was just as we imagined it would be. The southeast swell was rolling in creating a lumpy and confused sea with standing waves and white crested breakers. A formidable sight for the uninitiated.


The lagoon water is in a continuous state of ebb reaching speeds of 9 knots as it rushes towards the narrow pass.  Liam did a sterling job driving the boat in through the doglegged entrance and within minutes we were inside the calm turquoise waters of the lagoon.

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07-DSCN4687Standing like a sentinel on centre stage was lofty Mt Teurufaatiu which was just begging to be climbed, but not today for we weary travelers. We motored up to the village, plopped the anchor down across from the church and settled in for the evening, listening to the harmonies of the late afternoon choir practice. Thinking it might be nice to have a meal ashore, Liam did some recon only to be told that despite what our guide book said, the restaurant was closed until Monday at 12pm. So it was back to the galley for you know who.

Next morning we motored down to the reef anchorage on the south corner where the water was much, much clearer. Our Italian friends from Y2K and Obiwan were already there and we’d planned a snorkel safari with them to swim with the manta rays. These majestic creatures  show up like clockwork each morning between eight and ten.

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They line up in an orderly fashion  to have their wings and mouths cleaned of parasites by the tiny fish that inhabit the coral bommies in this part of the lagoon. It’s a bit like going to to the dentist to have your teeth cleaned, though I suspect way less painful.

During the process the mantas swim in slow circles, mouths wide open as the cleaning detail do their stuff. As soon as they are done the rays close their mouths and off they go back out  through the pass to the deep waters of the south pacific.

Next morning we all set off early in the dinghies back up to the village to tackle the mountain before the heat of the day set in. 

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11-G0031172Only four of our party of eight reached the summit. It was  definitely no walk in the park and way harder than in looked. Having to scale up over rough terrain and slippery rocks stopped four of us at the halfway point and that was just fine for us. Sweaty, panting, ashen faced person after person descended the trail past us  each saying it was a real feat of endurance to make it to the top. Apparently the last 30 minutes was hand over hand pulling yourself up the escarpment using ropes to reach the summit.  I’m proud to say that Liam made it, though he  looked as though I should have been dialing for an ambulance by the time he got back to us.

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A delicious lunch at snack Tariona on the waterfront was just the ticket after the hike, even for those of us who only managed the halfway point.

With our possy of five boats getting ready to depart the following day, the next morning was spent topping up fuel tanks, chasing non existent wi-fi and gathering plentiful fruits from the ever so friendly locals whose trees were dripping with ripe mangos and pamlemoose.

Maupihaa : Where everyone knows your name

Departing Maupiti was a piece of cake, no big rollers like there were on our arrival. At a distance of 100 miles further west  the atoll of Mauihaa  lay. This small  low atoll has the reputation of having a very narrow  pass into the lagoon if the swell is up. We most definitely had our fingers and toes crossed  that this would not be the case when we arrived.

Within ten minutes of exiting Maupiti  we’d hoisted the mainsail and our spinnaker had set nicely out the front, pulling GWTW towards her next destination.  All looked good as we ghosted along in light air. Then the inevitable happened. The wind got lighter and lighter, so down came our pretty spinnaker. With the wind dying to nothing before our eyes the mainsail started to flap and one of the batons which runs horizontally across the width of the sail to give it shape, popped out from it’s pocket. So down came the mainsail  and on went the motor. For the next 96 miles the only sound  we heard was the thumping of our yanmar diesel. We were in company of six other boats and we were all motoring, The wind gods had well and truly deserted our little fleet.

17-DSCN4731We arrived at the pass at 10am and yes, at a mere 60 ft wide, it was very narrow but the edges of the reef were clearly defined, all we had to do was stay in the middle and we’d be OK. The current through this pass is constantly ebbing  at a rate of up to 6 knots but with two engines and flat seas it was easy to navigate.

Once inside the waters of the lagoon were flat, flat, flat and what a joy it was to turn off the engine! Peace and quiet at last. Very few cruisers stop here, but it is definitely worth a visit. The atoll was devastated by a direct hit from a cyclone in the late ‘90’s and many of the villagers moved away. Now only four families are left comprising of a whooping sixteen people many of whom are related.

Most cruising boats that call into  Maupiti, our previous stop, are usually asked by the locals if they would be willing to take either supplies or human cargo or both to the families who still reside there as the atoll only gets a supply ship  visiting every 6-8 months, and that is very weather dependent. Four of our little fleet were asked and of course obliged.

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In return for the generosity from the cruisers the families put on a dinner ashore. For us it was a lavish banquet of BBQ-ed  reef fish, tuna pate, coconut crabs, poission cru and fresh lobster, We cruisers brought side dishes  and deserts to complement the meal. It is a wonderful experience meeting this isolated community who make us all feel so welcome and love to laugh and  socialize with people other than their own families.

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After a few days in the north anchorage we made the move to the south east corner of the lagoon for better protection from some forecast strong winds coming our way. It was a perfect anchorage in 10ft with a sand bottom, palm trees ashore, sandy beaches and clear waters.

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One afternoon we had a great beach BBQ of parrot fish kebabs and fresh damper bread cooked over coals, with new found friends aboard the NZ cat Chaos, their two kids and adopted Red Beaked Tropic bird named Bob.

They had rescued Bob from the sea and certain death some two months prior.

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He was just a baby who’d fell from his cliff face nest and still could not fly or feed himself. Everyday the kids would cast a net and catch small fish for him and they took him on regular outings in the dinghy and on the paddleboard hoping he would soon be strong enough to spread his wings. To date Bob is still on board.

On another excursion ashore I met Edward who was lying in a hammock reading a book . Edward  spoke perfect english and has lived alone in his one room house for sixteen years. We sat and chatted under the trees a while and he cut down a fresh coconut for me to drink. 26-P9185435

He then showed me a large coconut crab he had caught the evening before. It was a beauty. As I was leaving he asked if I’d like it and said that  if I came back at 5pm he’d have it cooked up for me. I offered to pay him for his trouble but he insisted that it was a gift for just taking the time to sit and talk. As I left I noticed an empty box of low priced red wine on his fire heap and made a mental note of that for later. Liam and I both went back to  collect the crab and gave him a much nicer bottle of red wine. His face and eyes lit up and he thanked us profusely as we said our goodbyes.

29-DSCN4749Tomorrow we’ll be leaving for Palmerston in the Cook Islands, a run of 540 miles and three nights at sea. and crab cakes will definitely be on the menu.

We have absolutely enjoyed our time in French Polynesia and it is sad to leave.The generosity of the people and the places we’ve visited in this far flung isolated country have all been special and will have a place in our hearts forever.

All good things come to an end sometime and new adventures and destinations lay ahead. It’s time to move on.

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