September 2000 : The Cook Islands and Niue



Another month in Paradise! More big miles – 1,500 to be precise - we are now in Tonga.

The 535 mile passage from Bora Bora to Rarotonga was something of an epic. Here in the southern hemisphere it is still winter, and although up here in the tropics the weather is mostly comfortably warm and fine, we have been feeling the effects of huge depressions sweeping eastwards from New Zealand at latitudes below us, to a greater extent than we had anticipated. We have also been having to get to grips with the ‘South Pacific Convergence Zone’ – an area of persistent low pressure which slides unpredictably around the South Pacific, somewhat similar to the Doldrums, but prone to erupt ferociously whenever it connects with another low pressure system. This leg was potentially a difficult one and we felt the same sort of anxiety about it as we had felt before crossing Biscay, obtaining weather faxes from met. services in Hawaii and New Zealand several times a day, looking for a suitable weather ‘window’ for the passage. We spent longer than planned on Bora Bora, agonising (and snorkelling) – our indecision exacerbated by interminable discussions amongst the crews of others yachts gripped by the same dilemma. On the day we left, having we reckoned identified a long enough ‘window’, we were more concerned about the likelyhood of calms – definitely "nothing nasty".

In the event, we enjoyed a day and a half of perfect trade wind sailing, followed by another day and a half of virtual calm, during which we motored for all but a very few hours of slow sailing. We had just managed to start sailing again under a clear blue sky when, entering under a slightly ominous looking bank of black cloud, the wind increased in an instant from about 8 to 25 knots and backed 90° from west to south (our course being south-west), tacking the sails. Under a now squally grey sky and in steep seas, it was as if we had been plucked out of the sunny Pacific and plonked down into the English channel in winter. I innocently saw this as a mere blip - Chris was not so sure. In fact this is what we got and worse, as the winds increased to 30-35 knots and seas built to 4 metres over the final 175 miles of the passage. We were lucky, our mates An Cala had left a day after us and were out in it for much longer and Vagabond, who left with us but is much slower, was forced to divert to another island unable to held their course for Rarotonga. We were able just about to hold our course, albeit uncomfortably close hauled, and make good speed, with a tiny genny and three reefs in the main. A night time entry into the tiny harbour, through a narrow reef channel would have been out of the question, so it was a massive relief to get into harbour on the fourth day just on nightfall. We then spent some hours through the night in radio communication with our mates, still battling the elements out at sea, offering what we could by way of sympathy and encouragement.

Rarotonga is the main island and population centre of the Cook Islands, which are spread over an area of about 800 by 500 miles. Arriving there was a refreshing experience, not least because the temperature on our arrival and for the few days after was quite significantly chillier than we had become used to, but more importantly perhaps because of its being our first English speaking country for over six months. We can get by in French, and make some attempt at Spanish, but English speaking countries are undoubtedly more relaxing and accessible. Just the ability to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations makes for a feeling of connection! ‘Raro’ is more down to earth and easy going than exotic – a consequence of its New Zealand rather than French cultural overlay. The New Zealand influence is strong - the Cook Islands are a protectorate of New Zealand which provides familiar looking food supplies (like Anchor butter), tourists and the general ambience.

The island is tiny – it only takes 55 minutes to get all the way around the coast road by bus. It took us 4-5 hours on the other hand, to complete the rigorous cross-island trek on foot, through the rugged and very scenic interior. One of the stranger sights of the island, to our eyes, also observed in French Polynesia – is the prominence of well tended grave-stones. Clusters of these mini graveyards – appear almost every hundred yards or so along the road side. Many private gardens include a grave-stone or several. What happens when you move house we wondered. What it does to the market values of such properties is impossible to imagine! Rarotonga – the Cook Islands generally – indeed the whole of Polynesia – has taken to Christianity with astonishing fervour – the result of intensely proactive missionary work in the nineteenth century. As far as we are aware, there is no vestige today of pre-Christian religious practices. Perhaps it is not surprising that Christianity has taken on its own idiosyncratic Polynesian style – another manifestation of which is the quite extraordinary singing style – an extremely complex multi-part semi-chanting which, to our ears, sounds unharmonious and raucous in the extreme.

Other highlights of Raro were the fish and chips – our first since leaving the UK – and the Empire Cinema. ‘Perfect Storm’, while not exactly a cinematic masterpiece was an inspired choice given the rigours of our passage there. There was also some exceptionally excellent snorkelling, and all in all we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves there.

Our next destination was the most intriguing one of Palmerston. This is a tiny atoll (five by seven miles) within the Cook group, 275 miles north west of Rarotonga. The largest of several small islands scattered around the reef, Palmerston Island is inhabited by a population of 50-60, all descended from the patriarchial figure William Marsters, a Lancastrian who settled there with three wives from another of the Cook Islands in 1862. To a man (woman and child) they all share the surname of Marsters! One might wonder why they bother! On the face of it, Palmerston would not be an attractive destination for yachts. There is no suitable passage through the outer reef into the lagoon, which is in any case a mass of coral heads. However, due possibly to their remoteness the islanders have encouraged a unique and rather bizarre symbiotic relationship with the cruising fraternity. Supply ships call only infrequently – although more nowadays than previously - and so yachts are encouraged to visit the island, bringing with them items needed by the inhabitants, who extend a very warm welcome in return. When a yacht appears over the horizon, someone from one of the island families will set off in a skiff to rendezvous and show the yacht to a suitable spot to anchor, on a ledge outside the reef. That family will then ‘adopt’ the yacht, ferrying the crew ashore through the rather tortuous reef passage, showing them around and providing daily meals ashore with their family. While in

Rarotonga we made it our business to discover what needed transporting from there to Palmerston and duly became a cargo vessel!

The 275 mile passage was again one where expecting light winds, we were suddenly overtaken by much heavier weather – but this time from behind, so making for a fast exhilarating passage. As we approached Palmerston, our anticipation was increased when we found we were not the only visitors – as well as several other yachts, a Royal Navy frigate was standing off outside the reef. We radioed our intention of passing close alongside her and were duly rewarded to find a smartly dressed rating ready to dip her ensign as we dipped ours in salute! This was the first visit by the Royal Navy for 23 years, so quite an event. We were shown where to anchor by our host Bill Marsters. On going ashore we found the tiny tropical island teeming with British sailors – quite a incongruous experience all round – for the vastly outnumbered islanders, the young ratings themselves, baffled to find themselves suddenly plonked on this Pacific atoll and ourselves – finding ourselves newly arrived on a sparsely populated remote island - straight into a massive and incongruously British party! The islanders seemed to be taking it all in their stride, and when the frigate left later in the day, laid on a barbecue for the visiting yachties – an international bunch including boats from Switzerland, Holland, France, USA, Australia and the UK. The next day was special too. Overnight a ship had arrived from Rarotonga carrying about 20 islanders returning from their participation in the Cook Islands Games, in which they had won 5 gold medals! Another barbecue was put on to welcome them home, preceeded by speeches, prayers and a hymn. The next day was Sunday and we went to church – our first encounter with the extraordinary singing style of the Pacific Christian church. Following this our hosts treated us to an umukai – a traditional meal cooked in an earth over on hot rocks for many hours.

The island of Palmerston appears absolutely idyllic – little village of palm huts and wooden houses in faded weatherbeaten colours, built on the immaculately clean sand under waving palm trees. Paths lead off from the main settlement to clearings with more isloated homes and surprisingly fertile little areas of cultivation. The turquoise lagoon sparkles from beyond between the palm trees, forming a backdrop to every view. It was soon apparent however that all was not well in Paradise, as we observed considerable tension between the families there. Squabbling broke out over claims to arriving yachts – evidently seen as something of a prize, or symbol of importance. But this seemed symptomatic of deeper ills in the community – possibly as it makes the transition from virtually independent patriachal rule, to a form of uneasy democracy with administration from Rarotonga. As a member of our host family put it "No other family is going to tell my family what to do". Democracy is not easy to establish in such a tiny community already riven by feud. The saddest manifestation of this conflict was that the school had been burned down some months previously, leaving several very bright little kids without education.

Our next destination was Niue, which with an area of 100 square miles and a population of 2,000, must be one of the world’s smallest independent nations. Like the Cook Islands, Niue is under the protection of New Zealand and its inhabitants have dual Niuean/New Zealand citizenship – and are deserting to New Zealand in droves. However, despite villages with as many as two thirds of the homes abandoned, the inhabitants appeared some of the happiest and friendliest we have ever encountered. There is little tourism (just under a thousand visitors in 1999) and visiting yachts are consequently made especially welcome. The lady at the counter of the communications centre told us, with tears in her eyes the poignant tale of how, last year one of the yachts visiting Nieue had, some months later, been lost en route to New Zealand with the loss of three lives. On hearing of this, the islanders had held a memorial service for the family.

Our passage to Niue was uneventful - 420 miles in 3½ days. As soon as we arrived we loved Niue. Simply going ashore was a unique experience. The island is surrounded by a coral fringe. There is no harbour, just a wharf built over the reef on the leeward side. There is a constant swell (at least while we were there) and landing the dinghy meant leaping out of it at a strategic moment, as it surged violently up and down, on to steps in the wharf, having first attached it to a small crane. The crane was then operated to lift the dinghy out of the water on to the wharf. All very entertaining, especially for anyone who has always harboured the secret ambition of being a crane driver! The geography of the island is most unusual - being a ‘makatea’ – a raised coral atoll. It rises straight out of the sea in two levels to a plateau at a height of about 200 ft. It was a most curious experience to be walking on the cliff top or on an inland track through very pretty, ferny woodlands - on coral – an exceptionally sharp and unforgiving surface. The landscape was dramatic in the extreme. The old coral would in some places rise in ‘forests’ of pinnacles, and in others form deep clefts down to the sandy floor below. At the foot of the cliffs around the whole island are numerous sea caves and arches with stalagmites and stalactites, and beautiful pools for swimming. The island being devoid of rivers meant that the surrounding water was exceptionally clear.

The only downside to Niue was the constant swell, which made sleeping quite an exhausting activity. Also we lost our dinghy, which decided to set off on its own for Tonga one night having detached itself from the back of the boat. We spent all day in a fruitless search, in the course of which we also nearly lost Chris! As one of several search parties, he had gone out seawards with a rather over-enthusiastic American friend in a big fast dinghy. Not only did they run out of fuel, they also lost VHF communication! One of the other yachts managed to find them – amid some consternation back in the anchorage. Curiously, while the yachts were effecting their own rescue mission, another rescue incident was taking place at the same time, with the injured crew of a research vessel being brought ashore for hospital treatment. The name of the research vessel was ‘Ocean Alert’ – which added enormously to the confusion of the double rescue effort! As we spend virtually all our shore time at anchor, the loss of the dinghy has put us in some difficulty, and obtaining a replacement will not be easy in these parts. For insurance purposes we reported this loss to the police which ultimately resulted in the Chief of Police – John Tokovaka - personally typing out a report for us!

After ten days in Niue, we left for Tonga where we have now arrived after a very good 48 hour sail – the best sleep we had enjoyed for some time! The major event of the passage was crossing the International Date Line, giving us Sunday and Monday all on one day!