Palmerston Atoll

Graham Shaw
Wed 14 Sep 2011 05:12
As we approached Palmerston Island two days after leaving Aitutaki, we could see our friends' boat 'Ri Ri' up on the Reef. A very heart wrenching sight.  On our travels we have seen a few boats on reefs, but it really brings it home to you when you know the people and the boat.  It was a very emotional day meeting back up with Gail and Frank, who are both still very much in shock.  The boat's mooring line parted in the early hours of the morning, and unfortunately the wind was blowing onshore, so the first indication of trouble was the large lift and then bang when they hit the reef.  Frank knew immediately what had happened and started the engine trying to back her off, then the rudder caught and snapped, and the propellor hit the coral.  A Mayday call on the radio was put out which was responsed to straight away by our friend Steve from the boat Connect 4. Gail had been spending the night ashore - I feel this was very hard for her, being unable to reach the boat and just watching her being pounded by the surf on the coral.  All the islanders came out to help, forming a line to try and retreive as much as possible from the boat before it became awash.  Also, they tried to drag her further up the reef towards the land, to stop her from being broken up even more, but I am afraid the damage had been done.  She had been holed a number of times, including the the bottom of the keel being ripped out. All so very sad.
Palmerston Atoll is very different from any other place we have ever visited.   200 miles from our last stop of Aitutaki, it is the westernmost part of the Cook Islands.  It is a coral reef surrounding a large lagoon, and there are a few small islands, the largest of which and the only one inhabited is Palmerston Island - a very beautiful island, paradise in many ways. The island was orginally inhabitated in 1862 by a Englishman (from Lancashire) called William Marsters, who ordained himself as the minister of the island and took himself three wives, two of these being sisters. He had 26 children with these three wives, and divided the island up into sections for these three families, and established strict rules regarding intermarriage.  Almost everyone on this island today is a decendant of William Marsters. Hmm, I hear you say. Yes, maybe a little bit of inbreeding going on here.  Anyway, the people are lovely but they have their own rules and customs, and you must abide by them (when in Rome, etc). 
The mooring area is just off the main island, and transport ashore is by one of the island longboats, which come out every morning to take the yachties ashore. Basically when you arrive you are hosted by one of the families, who pick you up from your boat take you ashore and look after you, and in return you help them out with whatever skills you have which may be of use to them, or with anything you do not require any more.  You are not allowed to roam around the island freely without asking permission, and also you are not allowed to help other families unless you have permission from the head of your host family.  (These "families" are obviously all parts of the same family). These rules are explained as soon as you set foot on the island, and should be respected.  It does come across quite strong, but once you ask permission for whatever it is you want to do then it seems fine  But, if you do not ask permission it goes very pear-shaped, very quickly.  It is a small community of 64 people (mostly closley related) living on a small island and everyone knows everyone else's business.  This is also a very religious place, so no one does any work on at all on a Sunday. Which includes the starting of outboard engines, so no one can go ashore.  Unless you want to go to church, and then apparently an exception can be made, so you could be transported to and from.
A supply ship calls every few months, but is often delayed by a month or two, which is the only transport except for occasional passing yachtie people who might bring stuff from Atiatiki or elsewhere.  The ground is not very fertile as it is a Atoll.  Coconuts grow everywhere, and breadfruit, but ground vegtables are very few.  Their main diet is fish, coconut and breadfruit.
The islanders have looked after Gail and Frank, and they are part of the family now, until they can sort everything out with their boat.  Regard for the law is somewhat different in little islands like this, and they very much live by their own rules.  With a ship wrecked on their reef, they clearly believe it is theirs for the taking.  So there has been a lot of diplomatic discussion on returning some items off the boat to Frank, though unfortunately some will never be seen again.  
The second day we were here Frank and Gail had a yard sale for many of the items retreived from Ri Ri.  The day was a huge success, and almost every item was sold.  Most of the the island turned out for this, it was like christmas had come twice in one year.  Frank is taking most of the essential items with him, which a number of different boats will carry to New Zealand for him.
The idea was only to stay a few days in Palmerston, but the wind has taken off again, and it is wise not to leave.  The only trouble is that one of us has had to stay on the boat to make sure she did not break her mooring, as the wind is in the 30 knot range.  On Wednesday I stayed on the boat and kept an eye on all the others in the anchorage. If they dragged we would have been blown off the reef and out to sea, but they do disapear very fast, as was proven on Thurdsay morning when a Bowman 57 dragged his anchor and broke the mooring at the same time. By the time the other boats got to them they were a good 1/2 mile away. Anyway I had such a treat staying on the boat, when two very large and one baby humpback whales came and played around the boat for about an hour.  One of those very magical moments that I have been so lucky to have.  As many might know I have been waiting to see a whale since the day we set foot on this boat.  The two larger whales were about twice the size of our boat length-wise, and they came within two metres of us - it was awesome, and the only sad thing is that the camera was ashore with Graham, so there are no photos.  And what a photo opportunity it would have been, lots of tail and fin action, all in slow motion, and big mounds coming out of the water, blowing, but no breaching which is good as I was still on a boat,  - I'd rather they did not breach onto the boat!  Also Thursday morning we were visited by a large pod of dophins which always are lovely to see.
Graham has been busy putting his carpentry skills to use - yesterday he was fitting a new sink, and today building cupboards around the sink.  And tomorrow there are some outboard motors to fix!
On Friday the host family put on a show for us, which was very entertaining, it was lovely being a part of this.  Lots of singing and dancing.
This island has given us a very different perspective on life many miles from anywhere. They survive on what can best be sourced from the land and sea, and this works for them.  They are a deeply religious community, with a very different outlook on life, which some people who visit do not understand.  The people are lovely warm and friendly, though a few host families would like to keep visiting yachties to themselves, which is very odd for the yacht people, and this can cause some upset on both sides, but all in all I have enjoyed our stay on Palmerston, and will leave with some sad and some fond memories.
We hope to leave on Sunday.  Frank and Gail will be joining us on the onwards passage to Nuie then to Tonga, and I am sure it will be a very emotional day for both of them leaving Ri Ri behind on the Reef.
Next stop Nuie, one of the worlds smallest independent countries, 400 miles to the west of here.