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.