A pit stop at Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands
20th- 26th September 2018
We 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then 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.
Monday 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Will, 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.
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.
After 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.
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 .
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.
Follow us on our tracker at :