Yacht Fathom - Setting off from England in May 2016 on a single-handed voyage somewhere a bit warmer

Archive for the “Cook Islands” Category

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Cook Islands – Palmerston

Ten years ago while crossing the Pacific as crew on a 51 foot Najad we bypassed the whole Cook Islands en-route from French Polynesia to Tonga and I regretted that we never stopped at these islands. As Palmerston atoll came into view between the waves on the 8th August it felt so good to have arrived second time round. The two day sail from Aitutaki had been uneventful yet uncomfortable in the 3m swell and 25 knot winds. West of French Polynesia the S.E tradewinds are regularly disturbed by fronts and troughs associated with low pressure systems crossing New Zealand in the southern winter. While sailing between the Cook Islands a good weather window is needed between these disturbances so as not to encounter head winds, squalls, big seas and poor visibility while on passage. Furthermore the moorings at Palmerston atoll are only safe when the tradewinds blow from the east, as soon as the wind comes from the west you have to put to sea otherwise the boats will swing round into the reef. Several yachts have been lost this way in the past. Many cruisers sailing through the Cooks are not able to stop for these reasons, or chose not to take the risk and sail on while the winds remain favourable. I wasn’t going to miss out this time though.

Palmerston atoll measures about 6 miles by 4 miles and of the 6 motus (small islands) within it only one is inhabited. The population currently stands at 51, half of which are children. All are descendants of William Marsters, an English sea captain who settled here in 1862 with his three wives from the northern cook island of Penrhyn. The house he built for himself with the timber salvaged from a wreck on the atoll is still around over 150 years later. The salty old seadog then fathered 26 children and divided the island into three segments each occupied by the family from each of his wives. Despite strict rules being established regarding intermarriage it seems questionable whether this has been obeyed one hundred percent! Everyone has the the surname Marsters and despite a certain amount of friction between each of the families they all work and cooperate together. There is no airport and a supply ship visits every 6 months or so.

As Fathom approached the atoll I called up on the VHF and was then met at the moorings by Bob, head of the family on the west of the island. There are seven moorings in total at the present time, three owned by Bob’s family and the rest by the family on the east side. Whichever family owns the mooring you pick up adopts you for the duration of your stay. Once the boat was packed away and well secured the islands customs man dropped by for a quick look at some paperwork and then Bob took me ashore in his boat, his eight year old daughter keeping us company. Visitors are always given a warm welcome here and once adopted into the family you are given lunch and use of the families facilities. I was invited to join Bob’s family for freshly caught red snapper fish, chicken and rice with coconut fritter for desert. As a result of some forward planning I had stocked up on some kids toys in Raiatea and gave both his two young children some toy planes and cars which proved very popular. Bob gave me a tour of the island and as we walked around explained that the boundaries between each of the three families land is marked by two rows of coconut trees. Although friendly and happy to show me around I sensed that Bob was quite a controlling personality and perhaps would not be an easy person to share a small island with. It is very evident that women on Palmerston remain in the background.

Friends from yachts Danika and Muse were also at Palmerston as well as some familiar faces from the other two boats on the moorings. I met up with them all at the east of the island in the afternoon with their hosts Edward Martsers, a more easygoing family it seemed. They told us the majority of the islands population at some point in their lives leave for New Zealand or Australia to find wives, study or find work but a few never leave. Many return for retirement and to spend their last years on the island. While walking the island myself I stopped by the middle family and got chatting to Bill Marsters, the head of this family. He is quite a character and insisted that I eat two bowls of ice cream before I could leave. He told me some old stories including the one when an English navy ship turned up and 240 crew came ashore who he then hosted for an evening at his ‘yacht club’. They drank the whole islands stock of beer within two hours so donated him the same amount of beer from the ship stores which they then proceeded to finish the same evening. Bill is currently on his third wife but despite being in his 70’s told me he would like to add another (I wasn’t sure if he was joking).

The wind was blowing quite hard during this time so we were all dropped back to our boats before sunset by Edward. He mentioned they were having a fishing competition at the weekend so I gave him a couple of lures from my fishing kit, hopefully he will have more luck with them than I have had. Next morning I went back ashore with some of the other crews for a few hours but as the weather window looked good for the next five days was keen to head off towards Niue and Tonga. The visit to Palmerston rates right up there with the best moments of my voyage so far. Such a unique and interesting place and the fact very few tourists visit, and those that do have to reach the atoll by boat, make it that extra bit special.

Posted on 19 Aug in: Cook Islands

Cook Islands – Aitutaki

The 480nm sail from Bora Bora to Aitutaki took four days and despite being well reefed included a new record 24 hour run of 141 nautical miles, beating the previous record of 138nm set last year on the way to Madeira. The fresh south/south east wind allowed a broad reach the whole way and conditions became a little lively on the 2nd day when the gusts peaked at 30 knots. The same night I heard a thump in the cockpit so poked my head out the companionway to see a large bird attempting to land on the solar panel. Evidently it was tired and needed a rest and I spent the next half hour enjoying the performance as it tried to cling on to the edge of the panel as the boat rocked wildly from side to side and it would lose balance and slide off. The smile soon left my face when it started to crap all over the cockpit so I encouraged it to leave and then went back to my bunk. Disappointingly there was a lot of creaking and groaning coming from the mast step area so I will need to get a professional boat builder to have a good look at the whole thing once I get to New Zealand.  In the meantime I am not going to push the boat and will keep an eye on it. For sure the work done in Raiatea has prevented any further depression of the mast step and can only have added strength.

at anchor in the lagoon at Aitutaki

Landfall could not be made before dark on the 3rd day and I needed to arrive near high water so hove to overnight to slow the boat and by first light the next morning there was only 20 miles to Aitutaki. On the final approach a great big squall cloud began to creep up from astern and sure enough it hit just as I was negotiating the very narrow pass into the lagoon. Only boats with shallow draft (under 1.6m) can safely enter the pass at Aitutaki so it is quite a unique destination.  As I weaved Fathom along the line of white posts the depth sounder indicated 1.7m at the shallowest place, only 30cm or so of water beneath the keel. Since starting this voyage I think this was probably the most heart in mouth moment i’ve had as rain bursts and strong gusts added to the excitement. Carl from sv Muse and Dave from sv Kapai came out in their tenders to meet me and helped find a spot for Fathom to anchor in the lagoon. Only four other visiting yachts were in the harbour but as three were catamarans there was no room for little Fathom inside. While deploying the kedge anchor astern I managed to reverse over the rope and the rope cutter on the prop cut right through it. Doh! At least the water was only 2.5m deep so retrieving the anchor wasn’t a problem. At the same time a yacht anchored outside the reef had not been able to raise their anchor which had got stuck on some coral. The building swell out there meant their bow was pitching up and down 10 feet into the air and with a tight chain had destroyed their windlass and bow roller. Thankfully with the assistance of another yachts crew who had diving gear they managed to get free and head back to Raiatea to make repairs. Quite a dramatic arrival in Aitutaki!

Aitutaki has a population of less than 2,000 and the first European to weigh anchor here was Captain Bligh in the Bounty, just two weeks before the infamous mutiny. My arrival coincided with the ‘Te Maeva Nui’ festivities where there is singing, dancing and music over several evenings to celebrate the Cook Islands nationhood, self government and independence. Quite a show and a real cultural experience. With the Kapai and Muse crews I hiked to the highest point of the island one day and gave the legs a rare workout. I got to know the two dive instructors on the island and they gave me a lift to the east side one day where I got to see a breathtaking beach and small village that would have missed otherwise. The locals are probably the friendliest and warmest i’ve met anywhere. Everyone smiles and waves and because English is spoken by all it is easy to strike up conversation, a far cry from French Polynesia for me. Really happy I stopped here one of the most memorable places of my voyage so far.

Now that Fathom is west of French Polynesia the weather patterns are becoming much more important and impact passages and landfalls more significantly. The South east trade winds are regularly replaced with westerlies as a trough or front sweeps up from New Zealand. This coincides with a couple of days of increased squalls and rain. Not a good time to be at sea or in an exposed anchorage. I arrived in Aitutaki just in time and in the last couple of days the wind has again been coming out of the west. But the forecast looking forward shows south or south east winds for the next week, albeit fairly strong, so a window is there to head west. I’ve decided to leave early tomorrow for the Palmerston atoll about 200 miles away. That should be quite a place.

Posted on 06 Aug in: Cook Islands

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