The Pacific Diaries

Arrival at Palmerston Atoll

31 July 2005

We have just completed the 700 mile passage from Bora Bora to Palmerston Atoll, a remote community without an airstrip, serviced by just 2 supply ships a year.

Although nominally part of the Cook Islands, the island is a pretty independent entity, populated by the descendents of William Masters, a Lancastrian who settled there in the late Nineteenth Century with 3 sisters from Penrhyn Island. Fortunately, the Atoll had 3 separate motus, one for each wife, so domestic harmony prevailed and the atoll was soon filled with the sound of small feet. 52 small feet to be exact.

We are now way west of both mainstream civilization and reliable weather. As the weather has deteriorated, the people have improved. The Irish would no doubt argue that this is one of life’s Fundamental Truths! Regrettably the quality of the anchorage has changed in line with the weather not the people. The passes into Palmerston’s lagoon are not navigable by any vessel drawing more than 3’ and the only anchorage is a fringing shelf of coral running out about 40 yards from the reef in about 40 feet of water before dropping vertically to 800 feet. As a result, you are hooked on a small head of coral, dependent on an Easterly breeze to hold you off the reef. If the wind comes around or even dies off, the swell will throw you straight onto the coral.

The people here make up for the anchorage. Palmerston gets better with every hour we spend here ( except for anchor nerves which do not ). They have no contact with the outside world apart from visiting yachts and the supply ships. As a consequence their welcome is genuine and they are delighted to share their lives with us in a manner that has passed away elsewhere along our route, victim of the cold touch of tourism’s long arm.

Thanks to Edward, our host here, I was able to fulfill two of my dreams for the Pacific cruise at once when we surfed over the reef into the atoll’s lagoon in a small boat on our way to join other local families for the day, working in their traditional fishery.

The local fishery here is intact, protected by its remoteness from the French Nuclear tests that spread ciguatera poisoning throughout Polynesia. Vast numbers of Parrot fish migrate across the reef in knee deep water from the lagoon to the ocean and back every day. Wading on the reef, the fishermen and their families spot the schools of fish in the shallows, run out a net ahead of them and run around behind the fish to spook them into the net. We catch about 250 fish in half a day - with a delicious white flesh that is not safe to eat in most of the tropics. The rarity of safe fisheries for coral eating fish makes them a valuable export for the islanders as well as their staple diet.

It transpires that this catch is a not for profit endeavour.  Everyone on the island is contributing a day of their time fishing to raise money for the island’s school.  The arrival of the freezer ship that will take away the catch is only a week away - hence the frantic activity.  What a pleasure to be part of it.

Surfing the Reef

08 August 2005

I’ve been entranced by old pictures of Polynesians riding big breakers over the reef in large canoes all the way from the Marquesas, but have been unable to find anyone who still knows how.  It turns out that Edward, our host here at Palmerston, still does it now and again when his wife isn’t looking, in a 16 foot aluminium dory with an outboard motor.

It may not be quite as picturesque at the old engravings and the girls might lament the absence of a dozen chunky islanders wearing grass skirts, but the seamanship required to pull this off and the consequences of an error in judgement are unchanged.  This is a massive rush and Edward is more than happy to find an excuse to indulge my enthusiasm on our way to the fishing ground.

We are towing a smaller boat carrying the net with a crew of three on board. Myself, Edward and Eric, a Norwegian, who turns out to have some serious unresolved thrill issues.

The theory is that you pick a big wave, run your boat up its back to a point just behind its crest, surf it up onto the reef, and then jump out as you beach. The 2 guys at the front hold the main boat against the back wash and Edward holds the boat being towed. Then as the next wave runs in and refloats you, the front two drag the boat over the remainder of the reef top while Edward stops the rear boat from being piled into the back of the front one.

So much for for the theory.  There we are surfing the reef, Edward yells ” jump” and Eric piles over the side without so much as sniff to see what’s there. As we are still on top of a 12′ breaker he disappears from sight with a classically Scandinavian gurgling noise that, for some strange reason makes me think of Monty Python.  Crumbs, that’s commitment for you.  No hesitation whatever.  No wonder those Vikings cleaned up the England team in the first European cup in the 8th Century.

Being of a more cautious disposition, I take a sneak preview over the side and jump out when I can see it’s only knee deep.  Just as well really as someone has to hang on to the boat and Eric is still busy down on the reef removing the Polynesian tattoo he’d got in a weak moment in Raiatea from his back.  Edward and I are barely holding our own with the 2 boats, which are trying to stage a train crash, when Eric finally reappears and lends a hand with heroic nonchalance.  Remind me never to do anything foolhardy with this man!

The forecast shows the wind backing to the North and building. We have to leave now or risk taking up permanent residence here. After a final exchange of gifts and farewells with Edward and his family, we unstick the anchor without drama or even a scuba dive, so often the price of taking your anchor away with you from here, and point La Novia towards Niue.