Islands at the End of the Earth

“A ghost’s done that. I DEFINATELY tied them properly. I even adjusted them.”

We’d rigged twin headsails for the sailing passage between Bora Bora, Society Islands and Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands.

The bowline knots tying the sheets to the second headsail had BOTH come undone and the sail was flapping free.

Life at sea is fraught with superstition and this strange incident, at the start of a six day passage, sat at the back of both our minds. Particularly as we were setting sail into open ocean for the first time in three months.

We still had the trade winds with us, but we were in the South Pacific Convergence Zone, sometimes called ‘the dangerous middle.’ It has the potential for a complicated mess of weather conditions with potentially violent outcomes.

We had waited 18 days in Bora Bora for a weather window because of high winds. Now we had made our bid for escape we didn’t want anything going wrong.

It was certainly a passage that was challenging in parts.

Every day was so grey, wet and windy you couldn’t tell where sea ended and sky began.

We were sailing downwind with the wind ‘up the chuff’ behind us blowing 25 knots.

As Baggy climbed four metre waves it felt like we were momentarily suspended in mid air before she surfed down them, pitching violently from side to side. When we weren’t surfing, waves crashed over the deck or hit us hard on the side like cannon balls.

I wasn’t sick but felt so ill I struggled to sit upright … then it hurt to lie down … then it hurt to sleep.

Everything down below had to be extra secure and we operated a three hour on three hour off watch rota. But it was impossible to sleep and as the days went by we became ever more sleep deprived.

Cooking was attempted one handed on the gimble stove which rolled from horizontal to vertical in a split second. The other hand was used to hold on.

When it was raining you would be soaked and sliding at the same time as the rain shot through the gap at the top of the hatch entrance. Leave so much as one piece of cutlery unattended and it would fly across the saloon.

And it was SO DAMNED HOT.

All the windows were shut because of the rain and waves. It was too rough to be on deck, unless sails or steering needed attention. So we boiled down below as if we were running high fevers.

Appetites went … and then the hallucinations started. I heard old ship bells, hushed whispers and thought I was being given subliminal messages. Paul could hear singing and music.

The ocean was over 7000 metres deep in places and day in day out we saw nothing and nobody. No other boats, no planes, no fish and just a couple of sea birds.

We had gentler breeze by the end of the passage and averaged five knots over the 705 nautical miles. Mowgli (the wind vane) steered us the whole way and our twin headsail rig was perfect.

Land Ho … !!

Exactly six days later … exhausted and with great relief … we sighted the distant palm trees of Palmerston Atoll.

On arrival we were the only visiting yacht there; we radioed ashore and were met in a skiff by our ‘host family’ – Bob Marsters who had come out with his teenage daughter, May.

They guided us to a mooring buoy on an exposed anchorage next to the reef and returned later with:

– Melvy (a nurse from Papua New Guinea) who checked we weren’t diseased or infectious.

– Arthur Marsters (customs) who completed all the forms.

– a moustached bio security man in a badged shirt who wanted to know what fruit and veg we had.

Baggy was sprayed with airplane insecticide; $90 was handed over for port health, immigration, customs and landing fees.

And THEN we slept for 12 hours!

Palmerston Atoll: An Englishman’s Island

This was one of the most poignant, quirky and thought provoking places we’ve ever visited.

It’s inhabited by the descendants of one English man – William Marsters (and his three Polynesian wives). There are currently just 34 residents split across three families, but were as many as 150. More than 2000 other descendants live in Rarotonga and New Zealand.

There are only nine school pupils … and lessons are tough.

Marriage rules between the three families are strict.

Multiple wives is acceptable.

English is the native tongue.

The island is only two square kilometres!

Knowing all this as we stepped ashore we were unsure what to expect.

Thirteen thought provoking memories:

People were welcoming, friendly, kind and hospitable. And, thanks to the children, we really got under the skin of life on this tiny island.

1 I helped eight year old Medeena Marsters with her school literacy assignment – to write a creative story about a yacht helicopter rescue!

2 Paul gave rugby coaching to six year old Henry Marsters.

3 We watched the family fish, gut, fillet and wrap the DAILY bumphead parrot fish catch (worth $300).

The fish guts were fed to the hungry reef sharks on the shore while the children hit them with sticks!

4 We were literally tripping over family graves. The children even showed us some unmarked they had found hidden in the undergrowth.

5 We left our one and only Sail Training International pennant hanging at the home of Bill Marsters …. who had raised a large white ensign in our honour. It was given to him when HMS Sutherland had visited.

6 They don’t grow vegetables and live off fresh fish and pigs, tinned food, dried goods, frozen meat and ice cream brought over by container ship every three to four months.

As always … chickens everywhere but eggs and chicken meat are imported?!

Solar for the freezers – thanks to big international grants

7 The two family lunches served to us were pots of fish, chicken, sausages and pork chops, served with rice (with ‘pick out your own’ boiled weevils) and a tin of ‘pour your own’ Heinz tomato sauce. Dessert was a quarter tub of ice cream per person!!

Palmerston has the highest ratio of freezers to people in the world … all crammed with fish.

8 No dogs here … they have pet frigate birds!

9 The island is less than a mile wide … but many use motorcycles to get around.

The white ensign raised in our honour … and the many health issues outside the nurses office!

10 The few remaining inhabited homes have WiFi, mobile phones, satellite TV and health issues such as diabetes and hypertension.

12 The island is periodically hit by cyclones and has a brand new safe refuge centre and heavy lifting machinery to clear debris.

13 The diving was phenomenonal off the 1000 meter deep reef under the boat. No photos (underwater camera still lost in Bora Bora!) but we’d clearly arrived on ‘adopt a shark’ day as they followed us very closely!

It was an intense and memorable visit, but after three nights we were ready to set sail to Niue. By comparison it was an easy three day 404 nautical mile passage, with fabulous sunsets.

Niue: the worlds smallest independent nation

Not only the worlds smallest independent nation, Niue is one of the world’s largest raised coral atolls.

Matapa Chasm: our own private snorkelling spot

It’s riddled with sea tracks, limestone caves, chasms and sandy coves and had a lush forest – home to coconut crabs and protected fruit bats (flying foxes).

Limu Pools: where cool spring water ouses out of the rock wall and mixes with warm sea water.

We secured to a mooring buoy, courtesy of Niue Yacht Club (NYC), which has more members than island residents (1500) … then faced our first challenge of getting ashore.

The DIY dinghy crane: which we eventually got the hang of by the end of the week!

There’s no alongside mooring because of big swell … everything has to be craned out of the water … fishing boats, dive boats, supply boats … and Baloo (our shabby, little, much loved dinghy).

There is also no public transport so we hired a car for two days, for which we needed to buy a local drivers licence from the local police station.

Talava Arches: a labyrinth of caves used as covert lookouts back in the day.

Once ashore we spent a brilliant week walking, caving, diving and spotting breaching and spouting humpback whales, who come here to nurse their calves in the warm waters.

Waving is customary, to everyone you pass driving or walking. Even the happy dogs wagged their tails. And crime is non existent. Their jail is described as a nice place for a clean bed and a good meal.

Cyclone and Tsunami emergency procedures are well publicised and sirens are set up around the island. The last cyclone in 2004 brought 300km/h winds and 30m waves.

LOVE this painting by local artist Mark Cross

The diving was epic, with visibility up to 80 metres. We tangled with curious, free swimming sea snakes and explored jaw dropping underwater cave systems.

Add your own rubbish to the ‘Protean Habitat’ at Hikulagi Sculpture Park

Food shopping was erratic and based on what we could find locally or the supply boat had brought in

Togo Chasm: a jagged grove of coral pinnacles and an enclosed oasis with palms.

Whale wisdom: Life’s a breach … and than you dive …

So … what now?

We’ve made it to the Vava’u Group of islands in the enchanted Kingdom of Tonga!!

It was an uncomfortable and lumpy two day passage from Niue, but we averaged five knots and spotted a breaching humpback whale and several spouts.

That’s over 13,000 miles sailed over 13 months and two weeks. We can hardly believe it.

We also crossed the international date line. This meant that Tuesday 24 September 2019 completely disappeared and will forever cease to have ever existed in our lives!

As I write this we’re on a mooring buoy off Neiafu by a large bank of trees. The sun has set, large fruit bats are swooping over our heads and we’re being deafened by the sound of crickets and squealing pigs which roam free along the shoreline.

After some good sleep, a fresh food shop and a few jobs we plan to cruise around these intriguing islands and make our plans for the next stage of the journey. Oh … and there may be some Rugby World Cup watching … if we can find a TV!

We’re missing home a bit now, but trusty Yellow Brick is with us all the way.

Feature image: Avaiki Cave – Niue’s ancestral kings private bathing cave!