Journal 17-South Cooks Aitutaki and Palmerston


LAT : 18 deg South,  LONG: ‘tween 151 & 174 deg West

On a sunny morning we left Bora Bora, the lead boat of a small flotilla of ten.  Nine turned
north and DreamCatcher struck out for a southerly course, intent on reaching the less-visited
Southern Cook group.  We watched Laura Bruce, the pretty gaff-rigged cutter put up all of her
five sails before she disappeared over the horizon.  A lovely boat, we would all chuckle that
Doug would have to jibe his shorts each time he wanted to change direction, there was so
much “string” on the vessel!

We settled down to the business of passage-making – only 600 miles of it, but it had been
some time since we had sailed that distance in one hop.   It takes time to settle into the
rhythm of voyaging….. but it all falls into place, even the sleep deprivation, after a couple of
days unless of course, things go awry.   Despite the slow transit speed of a cruising boat –
about 5 mph – we’re always busy.  For example, our list of daily appointments on this voyage
to Tonga contains:

1830 Hrs “Poly Needs Ya” SSB radio net (about 50 boats passaging west)
1900 Hrs “Gary’s Net” – radio net check-ins
1945 Weather on Gary’s Net
0000 Weather fax incoming & analysis from NZ
1200     “           “       “                  “         “      “
0200 Stragglers Radio Net – the 10 boats ex Bora Bora

Additionally, preparation, consumption & cleaning of three meals a day,
Email, Navigational planning/plotting/logs, Sailing the boat, light engine maintenance and a
myriad of little things like housework.  Sleep between watches and if there’s time left, a little
light reading.

We take great pleasure in the radio nets – they link us to “life” outside our 46 foot world.  In all
our passaging so far, we have never seen another sailboat but we know there are 300 or so
of them “out there”.  The radio identities blossom into real personalities upon landfall and
friendships bloom along the way among this small group of people who are sharing a once-in-
a-lifetime, unique experience.

At the end of four days we pulled up around the northwest side of Aitutaki atoll in a small rain
squall and nosed up to the landfall waypoint, calling the Port Captain on the way.  Our intent
was to transit the ¼ mile passage from ocean through reef to the lagoon and we knew our
timing would have to be exact as the reef pass was shallow and at best, marginal for our
draft.  Bad timing.  Lying to a giant mooring ball was the monthly supply ship, the Southern
Express.   After a number of radio conversations with the Harbour Master and the ship’s
Watch Captain, it was clear that our window of opportunity for reef passage was not available
as the ship was still unloading and needed exclusive use of the pass.  Even if we had slotted
in between the succession of loaded barges and become stuck in the channel, the barges
would not be able to manoevre around us.  We all agreed it best that DreamCatcher anchor
on the reef outside and transit the pass on the morrow.  The hook went down in 60 ft of blue
water just south of the turbulent eddies that guarded the pass and it’s 9 knot current outflow.  It’
s a little disconcerting backing your boat up towards a reef to play out the necessary 250 feet
of chain – at max extension our stern was only 1 boatlength from the edge of the reef, but
sheltered from the surf by a finger of it.   Despite this somewhat unnerving circumstance, we
were soon absorbed by the vistas and activities of the reef….. small outriggers tied to dead
coral outcrops, solo fishermen wading knee deep across the draining coral seeking tide
pools that may hide a trapped fish that missed the tide. We witnessed an incredible display of
spear fishing – with the traditional wooden spear – that was so graceful and precise, it was
almost ballet.  

We napped and late afternoon were delighted to receive visitors.  The sole boat that was
inside the lagoon a quarter mile away, s/v Cats Paw, had taken pity on us in our exiled state
on the outside and decided to come meet us and bring us the weekly newspaper.  We
enjoyed a drink with them for a couple of hours and watched with bated breath as they braved
the pass entrance against a strong ebb in their small dinghy.  There were definitely several
moments when they were stationary in the roil of the waters and we breathed a sigh of relief
when the mouth of the pass eventually released them from its grip and they were able to inch
forward to the safety of the lagoon.

Discretion being the better part of valour, next morning we took the dinghy into the pass and
with our portable sounder, checked the depths.  While it was a loose sandy bottom, it became
clear that taking the big boat through to the lagoon would be risky at best with a strong
likelihood that we would get stuck on our exit later in the week, when the high tide had
subsided by a critical two inches.  So we became reef occupants for the 5 days.  Our
immediate neighbours were two shy giant sea turtles who eyed us periodically, no doubt
piqued by this large white thing that had imposed on their territory.  Unfortunately they never
ventured close enough or long enough for a good photo.

Aitutaki is the result of the subsidence of an old volcano leaving a ring of coral to mark the
ancient coastline.  It is ahead of Bora Bora in this subsidence process by several million
years, as the latter still has it’s defunct peak central to it’s lagoon.  The very first thing to hit us
about Aitutaki was that everyone speaks English: of course, we had known this academically,
but to be suddenly immersed in one’s own language was a big “aaaahhhhhh” after having
struggled with French for the prior  4 months.  Discussions with Officialdom flowed with ease,
interspersed by casual conversation.  In fact, Iti, the island’s Customs Officer tracked us down
in the coffee shop and joined us for a couple of hours, chatting away while completing the
papers.  It’s pretty laid back in Aitutaki.  Iti had forgotten his forms so jotted our info down on
the back of a paper serviette.   When matters came round to us paying the $25 fee, we only
had a $20 bill …”no worries, that’ll be fine” came the reply.  It was a rainy day and we needed
to go to the internet café several kilometers away.  “No worries, I’ll get the car”.  So Iti rode
home in the rain on his scooter, retrieved his car and returned to pick us up, then along with
the gift of bananas, drove us to the internet place.   When we asked about a location for
laundry he said “no worries, I can do that for you!” and washed a bagful for a reasonable fee,
then delivered it to the coffee shop the next day.  When was the last time a Customs Official
did this for you ?!!!!   “No Worries” became music to our ears and we chuckled for days at the
simple joy of being able to use our own language again.

Aitutaki’s village was adequate and useful but not as pretty as some, however what the village
lacked in style, the locals made up for in warmth and the lagoon in beauty.   Aitutaki’s lagoon
has been voted the most glorious in the world by airline pilots and probably hasn’t changed
much since one Capt. Bligh visited here a mere two weeks before the mutiny on the Bounty.   
We had the pleasure of spending two full blue-sky days exploring it’s waters in our dinghy,
wading ashore to crystal white sand beaches through sparkling ripples,  circumnavigating one
of the twelve motu on foot, snorkeling in gorgeous aqua waters 10 feet deep, between coral
heads and generally marveling at the loveliness of it.  With a population of only 1700 and a
handful of tourists, we had this paradise to ourselves most of the time.  Always in our vista
were thick tufts of palm trees and the white spray of breakers on the reef: bright blue, bright
green and bright white burn themselves into our minds and we’ll strive never to forget this
striking piece of our planet.  We often have to pinch ourselves that we are between the middle
of nowhere and the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of that, pops up such a shining
gem.  What a gift.

Time to move on: we had made a decision to stop at Palmerston, also along the 18 degree
line but when we tried to weigh anchor we encountered resistance from it, along with some
gut-wrenching grinding of a defiant anchor chain scraping the reef.   After 45 minutes of trying
to get free, we hailed the dive boat who generously spent half an hour jockeying around with it,
to no avail.  So, we spent an anxious night attached to the reef on a short chain awaiting help.

Our anchor chain proved stubborn but when the divers returned the following morning it took
45 minutes for two of them to free the captive chain from two huge coral heads.  We felt very
fortunate to have gotten away with zero damage to our anchor tackle system.   A gentle
breeze fanned us on our way west for the start of the 200 miler to Palmerston atoll, but faded
to little more than a zephyr and we had to motor all night.  The morning brought a brisker wind
but alas, it was on the nose!  Winds in this part of the world are supposed to be east-sector, i.
e., originating anywhere from NNE to SSE.  Not West.  This was the first time in a year when
we’d had the wind coming from forward of the beam.  We were able to close-haul the boat
and head into it with some pace: an odd motion, with the swell from behind us, the result of a
low pressure system further south, and the wind from the front.  We made good time.

Palmerston Atoll rose from the morning light as several gray-green smudges on the horizon.
Of similar structure the Tuamotus, it is a ring of reef, the exception here being that there are
relatively few motus or islets on the ring: only 5 in total, separated from each other by several
kilometers of reef.  It is the legacy of an extinct volcano which long ago subsided from view
leaving only its coral skirts behind.

We always experience a certain pre-landfall tension and this is heightened by a reef
approach.  We shy off the waypoint because it is close to the white surf teeth of the reef but at
some point, proximity is necessary and we have to draw closer to land.   Fortunately at that
point, we saw a small boat, manned by Edward Marsters, waving his arms.   Edward had
responded to our VHF call earlier and advised he could help with getting  DREAMCATCHER
settled in and in fact we would be able to use the one and only mooring that the atoll has.   
What followed was essentially a valet parking service.  Edward to’d and fro’d in his small boat
assisting with the buoy lines (of which there were several) while we jockeyed the big boat into
position for the best tie up.  The operation took half an hour – it’s difficult maneuvering 20 tons
of boat onto a pinpoint location in 18 knots of wind, 2 knots of current and a beam surf swell.   
So once again we were cheek and jowl with a reef, this time only one boat length away.  We
dropped our anchor in addition to the buoy attachment, for extra insurance.

Palmerston Atoll is a very unique place with a unique history – with a population of 62, they
are direct descendants of a patriarchal figure, William Marsters, a Lancashireman who
settled here with three Pehnryn Island wives in 1862 after being ousted from that atoll for his
polygamystic tendencies.  He fathered 26 children in Palmerston, divided the islands and
reefs into sections for each of the three “families” and established strict rules regarding
intermarriage. The original home was built using massive timber beams salvaged from
shipwrecks washed ashore. We visited it, still standing strong despite scars from woodworm
and cyclones.  This is one of the most remote communities in the world, visited by a small
supply ship only once every 5 or 6 months.  

Edward Marsters invited us to his family’s Sunday lunch and subsequently loaded us into his
aluminum skiff for the hair raising ride through the ‘pass’…..darned if we could see it!   We
experienced a high speed blur of aqua and blue with brown coral smudges on the way
through the reef.  When we did slow down inside the lagoon our eyes were met with the most
magnificent natural specters of colour possible.  Pale shimmering ice-greens, iridescent
aqua’s building to wild fluorescent blues, turning to a saturated turquoise then rich teal, so rich
it was almost opaque – an opalescent spectre of a pure sparkling mid-Pacific atoll.  The
beauty and clarity of its water and air is breathtaking.  Each time we see these lagoons our
delight is such that we have never encountered one before….what wonder must the sailors of
the 18th century have felt, their origins being from the dim gray-green seas of the London
docks and the north Atlantic?

These people are water people – their existence is not much different to ours in that they live
in and on the water most of their lives.  They love it, they know it intimately and they protect it

The Palmerston islanders have very little materially – there is no bank nor money here, no
shop.  Just humble dwellings with no windows that are seasonally threatened by cyclones.  
Nevertheless on our walk through the village we saw clean “roads” - sandy paths where the
palms had been cleared, neat enclosures for chickens and a pristine graveyard.   Care is
evident in the way the tidy village is looked after and most people on the island have a “job”.  
Edward for instance is the Policeman.  Simon, his brother is acting island Secretary (as in
Secretary of State, not “take a memo Miss Jones ‘secretary’)  and his brother in law Luke is
the Government officer whose job it is to liaise with the central Cook Island administration in
Rarotonga.   Simon took particular pride in his job of clearing us in – he put a shirt on, papers
were suitably rustled, passports leafed through, stamps stamped with authority and hands
shaken.   Someone in the island admin office had clearly taken Word documents and process
quite seriously and we were amused at the “INSTRUCTIONS TO ISLAND SECRETARY”
posting that listed the role’s duties (my goodness, a job description no less!!!).  The top item
on the list was
(1) Make coffee or cold drinks for visiting yachties !!     We certainly felt very important.    
Despite these jobs, there is still much “island time” for fishing, socializing and watching DVD’
s that they borrow from the boats during cruising season.  Edward’s extended family
managed two consecutive 3-movie nights from our stock of DVD’s!  Additionally the 4
remaining islets or motus are used for family getaways and group picnics.  A veritable choice
of family-owned paradises.

The island has a 35 KV generator which is turned on at 6pm and off at 12 twice daily so as to
provide domestic electricity and run freezers during the day and enable the night school
classes for the adults at night.  We mused when we heard that Edward was taking a….. wait
for it….. Customer Satisfaction class!!  Here, on this remote and tiny scrap of sand and
coconut palms, the long tentacles of sales & marketing had penetrated their psyche!  Not sure
how we felt about this.  I think we would have preferred a curriculum that covered, say
“Advanced Hammock Design” or “101 Things to do with a Coconut”.

Henry visited the school (GT was wooed by the shimmering lagoon)…there are 20 kids at
school with 5 teachers, probably one of the best pupil/teacher ratios on the planet!  They have
5 computers and the schooling is “packaged“ lessons from New Zealand, similar to home
schooling.   The island has had computers for a year or so, but still struggle with them and we
were pressed into trying to fix a 6 year old IBM.  A prior cruiser had advised it needed a new
VGA card – they ordered it but had no idea how to install it.  Henry did so but alas the beast
still would not work despite an hour of troubleshooting, so, it was destined for a trip back to
Rarotonga (admin capital of the Cook Islands) on the next boat in the hope it might be

The community is a Christian one with several church services offered on Sunday.  One thing
we thought was terrific was a new solar powered internet facility!  It comprises a bank of 16
solar panels, one huge satellite dish and one computer.  They charge $12US/hr which is the
cheapest in the Pacific but the locals are just coming to terms with it and at this point don’t
have the money to partake, but no doubt it will start to provide information services for the
school and the community in general.

Generosity of this family is quite astounding: they had assumed we’d join them for their family
Sunday lunch – a buffet affair on a trestle table with benches under a corrugated iron
verandah, with our feet in the sand.  Their table offered a wonderful potato salad, rice, two
baked chickens (clearly the local free range variety, not your hormone fed packaged fowl),
taro root and a tasty dish made from coconut and some other ingredients we couldn’t
identify.  Fruit cordial was cold and plentiful, with water being taken from the fresh water tanks
attached to every roof.  

A walk through the village saw several dwellings, mostly made from coral brick: the old coral
is broken down, then bashed into bricks and “cooked” until it forms a brick-like element –
long, manual, back breaking work.  Once finished the bricks are rendered with cement
brought from New Zealand and roofs are almost all corrugated tin.  Most homes have at least
one hammock slung between a couple of palm trees, testimony to the island duty of relaxin’.

All families have now located to the one islet, Palmerston: it is about 3 square miles and
divided into three sections, one belonging to each family.  This is their land forever, granted to
them by the Queen of England, (the grant document is in the form of a letter in the Auckland
museum).  The island still remains as part of the Cook Island group, however, and as such
has strong ties including citizenship, with NZ.   Some of the families have experienced a little
travel: Shirley, Edward’s wife has been to both Rarotonga and Auckland but Edward himself
only to the former.  There is no airport, no vehicles, no passenger transport, only the supply
ship, so if an islander decided to take a berth on it he mightn’t get back home for 6 months!

Like all families, they have their politics but actively work at co-operation.  During Christmas
time each of the three Marsters clans bring their food and families to the central village area
to  celebrate: similarly with New Years’ eve – a big family party.  They love the yachties: this
year 40 boats visited Palmerston, 19 of them in the month of August.  Edward happily tells of
beach parties, buffets and sing-alongs and the whole island family revels in the friendship of
each new boat, sharing the hosting “duties”.  It’s clear that their life is uplifted by the visiting
sailors.  The cruising community is their link to the outside world, with HF radio nets helping to
communicate Palmerston’s needs from a departing boat to one who intends to visit…… “it
gets boring” outside of cruising months, says Edward,  with little to do but while away the
steamy days of cyclone season.  During our 2 day stay we spent many hours at their table and
they on our boat, talking about their island world and how it works.  It is essentially a modern
day dynasty, now with 8000 people being direct descendents of William Marsters.  Edward is
5th generation.  Those who no longer live at Palmerston atoll now reside in either New
Zealand or Australia and the family boasts a newsletter!

Unlike the residents of French Polynesia who live mostly on the beneficence of the French
Government in the form of generous pensions and twice-monthly supply ships, these
Palmerston islanders have few benefits.   New Zealand does provide child support and
education. Rarotonga provides basic essential services like the generator and
communications.  But that’s it.  Their only export crop, copra, is no longer viable so they catch
fish and make crafts to export to Rarotonga twice yearly for a small profit, but there is no other
income or way of improving their standard of living….but they are not poor, nor are they sorry
for themselves nor we for them.  It did give us great pleasure, though, to be able to give them
some gifts from the boat in the way of food treats like jam, powdered milk, toothpaste (the
family had run the week before) and tinned peaches.   We also had a fun moment when
Edward tried to smell the flowers aboard DreamCatcher.  He commented they were pretty but
had no scent – of course, they were artificial and he felt a bit sheepish when we all laughed,
but Shirley was delighted when we gave her a dozen yellow silk roses for their new house,
along with 2 yards of matching fabric: such luxuries are hard to come by in Palmerston.  She
was also over the moon on getting a lipstick and some eye make-up “for Church or the
Christmas party”.    When Edward returned us to Dreamcatcher that evening, a plate of freshly
baked scones came with him in the skiff, from Shirley.  These folk who have so little
compared to us, are rich in their understanding and practice of generosity.

It was here, on the evening of September 28th that we celebrated our 1st year of full time
cruising – a bottle of Moet champagne under a full moon in the South Pacific with Palmerston
atoll entirely to ourselves.  It couldn’t have been more fitting.

As we prepared to leave Palmerston we talked much about these people and their lives and
how unique a situation this was.   We’ve resolved to stay in touch and to help make their lives
a little more comfortable and interesting.   At this point we haven’t decided how that might
happen, perhaps just an annual shipment of educational DVD’s to the school, but,
irrespective of that we plan to stay in touch with them.  

Once again our anchor had become entangled in some coral but we were able to bring it up
with some jockeying about.  Trouble was, it tangled with the multiple lines of the mooring ball
on the way up and it took us a further 20 minutes to get clear of that mess without running over
it or the reef.  Needless to say, we’re looking forward to dropping the hook in SAND asap !!   
We left mid morning under a blue sky and light breeze, bound for Tonga, 600 miles away.   
Our first day was an easy sail but ended with a cloud formation that had some vertical energy
to it.  As the night progressed we got pelted with cold rain for hours while trying to maneuver
through the grips of the South Pacific Convergence Zone.  Flashes of lightning appeared
around the sky all night.  A sailor can cope with the wind and the rain, but nothing clenches the
sailor’s gut like the sight of lightning.  A huge squall had seemingly attached itself to the boat
and we couldn’t shake it off despite all manner of course changes including reversing our
track for nearly 20 miles.  We were drenched and our deck bucket showed nearly 5” of rainfall
the next morning.  These nights are tense and filled with anxiety and it’s difficult to get sleep.   
The gray gnarly weather continued all day and into the following night.  The full moon was
obscured and we became “square-eyed” peering at the radar, squall dodging.  Later, the rain
and lightning were slowly abating and the following day we were greeted with pale blue skies
that ultimately delivered the SE trades with a healthy 15 knots of wind, for 48 hours straight.  
We chalked up a couple of 140 mile + days and loved the ride, till the wind went forward of the
beam again.  Too good to last, it eventually dropped to light confused eddies on the fourth
day and we ended up motoring for 36 hours after frustrating hours of slatting sails and boom

While in Palmerston, Shirley Marsters had given us a 6 month old People magazine left by a
previous cruiser.  This was a mistake.  Henry looked at the pictures, taking in all the sexily
dressed, accessorized and beautifully made-up women and wondered who this disheveled
alternate life-form was on the boat.  Passage-making is hard on a girl.   It is funny how an
ocean voyage changes the dynamics of a relationship, particularly if that passage is a
demanding one.   The love of your life, your happy soulmate, the one who looks great in a
cocktail outfit, morphs into some type of unkempt taciturn functionary who also lives aboard
and whose sole purpose as you see it is to relieve you from your night watch.

It has been very difficult to write this (and other) journals:  challenging to find the right words to
describe the overwhelming beauty of the atolls and the people without overloading the text
with a list of superlatives.  Apologies if we’ve overdone it – our cup simply runneth over.

Right now, at the time of writing, we are transiting the “Tonga Trench”, one of the deepest sub-
sea channels on the planet, and DREAMCATCHER has 29,000 feet of blue water beneath
her hull… we also just found out from the Stragglers Net, to add to our already vague “what
day is it?” lifestyle, that we have just crossed the dateline!  Now we’re REALLY confused!

As we sail within view of the Va’vau Island Group in Tonga, we bring to a close this 3-part
1,400 mile passage of westing.   Crossing the dateline is a milestone for us as will be the
crossing of the 180th meridian of longitude into the “eastern hemisphere”, not far away.  But
for a few days in the meantime, we’ll catch up on our sleep, catch up with some friends, and
eat our catch of the day: a 20 lb Dorado, in the quiet anchorages of the Friendly Isles.  

Malo e lelei   ….. from Tonga.
Click on link to VIEW PHOTOS FOR JOURNAL 17