Aitutaki, Beveridge Reef, Niue
Travelogue 7: Aitutaki, Beveridge Reef and Niue (12 September 2009)
We left Maupiti and French Polynesia in robust winds and excellent sailing conditions for the first day, but soon had squally weather so that we were constantly reefing (that is, reducing sail area) and shaking out reefs as conditions changed. On trying to shake out a reef one morning we found that we were unable to raise the mainsail and on further inspection found that the mainsail track (on which the mainsail batten-cars slide up and down the mast) had come loose at a junction with three screws coming out, and a batt-car had therefore rolled right off the track. Able to douse the main entirely, we completed the passage with headsails alone. Evidently when reefing and cranking down on the clew (that is, the aft-most part of the sail) reefing cringle, the pull aftward pulled out the mainsail track.
On arrival at Aitutaki, the second most populous island (with 1200 people) of the Cook Islands, an independent country of about 15 islands with strong ties to New Zealand, we anchored offshore outside the barrier reef until we checked in with authorities and checked out the small inner harbor inside the reef with our dinghy, which to us appeared full to capacity. Aitutaki is not mountainous but only hilly, but has a great lagoon inside the barrier reef although it is very shallow and not suitable for cruising boats. Its small inner harbor is reached via a narrow and shallow pass that is only passable for most cruising boats at high tide. The pass carries only six feet of water at high tide in one spot, and is only forty feet wide. My boat has a draft just under four feet (with daggerboards up) so I was not worried about the depth so much as the width, as my boat has a beam of 28 feet.
On first look at the pass from offshore we could instantly tell we were no longer in French Polynesia because the pass was only marked by a few metal and wooden poles that are narrow and slight and unpainted and appear to have been scavenged from a junkyard. On the top of one someone had impaled a Coke can, that’s how small in diameter the pole was. (In French Polynesia the mouth of the pass would have been clearly marked with large lighted navigational fixed markers painted red on one side of the pass, green on the other, as international regulations require, and with similar markers running all the way down to the harbor, a distance of about half a mile.) The yacht side of the inner harbor was indeed full with about six yachts, so after making our way through the precarious pass, we anchored on the equally small working-boat side in eight feet of water, with a coral head – a “bommie” as New Zealanders call them – 20 feet or so away. We put out a second anchor to prevent us drifting onto it. Later with 20 knots plus of wind our main anchor began dragging in the silty bottom, so we ended up having to set out a third anchor, which made leaving on our day of departure a rather complicated process in such a tight anchorage studded with bommies.
Other than the poor anchorage, however, Aitutaki proved itself our favorite spot of all the places we have been so far. This was largely due to the fact that we could readily converse with the locals, almost 100% of whom are Polynesian, with the result that we could finally experience their graciousness and kindness much more so than where language proved a barrier. The island and lagoon are pretty, too, of course, but the people are really wonderful.
The very first night, a Friday, we attended a traditional dance with buffet dinner at a resort. The Cook Islands are a holiday spot especially for New Zealanders, and this resort was a favorite for honeymooners, even hosting weddings on the beach. I experienced similar dance performances in better settings on my previous trip and really only found charming here the dancing of the children, especially one about nine-year-old girl who seemed so sincere as if the dance held deep meaning for her, unlike the older dancers.
New Zealanders, too, are very nice people in my limited experience with them. We met several at Aitutaki, including one about 65-year-old who had the ruddy complexion and fair thinning hair of a man of British ancestry, and who, when I asked him what his profession was, said, “shepherd”. Another older gentleman told me he was a dairy farmer, retired. Both were at Aitutaki, though at different locales, for about a month-long vacation of fishing and golf, and had been coming for years. Very nice, easy-going, modest gentlemen, both of them.
Aitutaki has several “resorts” and numerous beach bungalows, and is characteristic of one of the most noticeable facets of the South Pacific: the whole region lives on tourism. There is no place where we have been with access -- thereby excluding Pitcairn and Ducie -- that had an economy based on anything but tourism. Aitutaki has palm trees and gorgeous beaches and a great lagoon for snorkeling and diving, not to mention the wonderful people, but the most important thing it has is an airstrip.
Aitutaki was Christianized by the London Missionary Society in 1821, and the church building was begun in 1826, completed in 1831, and still stands as The Christian Church of the Cook Islands. We attended services – ninety percent in Maori, the Polynesian language of the Cook Islands -- Sunday morning but only in the annex as the main sanctuary was undergoing restoration. It was a highly interesting scene: the local women were dressed in longish dresses in bright flowery prints and, with the exception of a couple of young women, wore hats woven out of local materials, all hats almost identical in style. I read somewhere that the hat style comes from the early days when the locals wove such hats for British seamen, then adopted the style for themselves. The hats have about a four-inch brim all around and a flat or almost flat crown. The preacher wore a double-breasted suit and was a large, barrel-chested man, more animated than the normal Anglican certainly, but not as much as, say, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s dashiki-wearing preacher in Chicago.
The most fascinating thing about the services was the singing, all the songs unknown to me except “Holy, Holy, Holy”, three of which must have been written by Polynesians themselves. These three songs were six to seven minutes long each, with the women singing a two-part harmony, the men just one part, part of the time one gender singing then the other apparently answering, but more complicated than most hymns that have a verse followed by the dominant refrain. It was unusual music to me, as if in a minor chord with numerous flat notes punctuated with occasional sharps, all sung with a certain stridency, shoulders pumping, exercising the full diaphragm, the women swaying. Certain parts of the music reminded me of Pueblo Indian chants, while the entire service reminded me a bit of a black church in the U.S., but with open windows and doors and chickens cackling outside in the cemetery, palm trees and bougainvillae across the street moving in the breeze. I am not religious but always find communal singing moving and plan to attend more services at other islands.
Driving around the island we found many more churches – Adventist, Catholic, Mormon, Presbyterian, etc. – and we decided there must be about a dozen in all, making it a 1-100 church-to-population ratio.
Everyone we met, mostly clerks and wait staff in shops and restaurants but also even all the officials we encountered (Customs & Immigration, Health Officer, and two Agriculture agents who visited the boat and seized some fresh produce), everyone without exception was friendly, eager to help, smiling, and polite. I bought some produce at the Aitutaki Market, which sells only produce and home-baked goods, and mentioned I wanted to rent a car, and the lady called up someone and within ten minutes they brought me a car. (It cost about $45 a day, compared with $200 in Huahine!) Later I ran into the lady sitting with two other women at a restaurant drinking coffee and she invited me to sit with them. One, her niece, was breastfeeding what looked like a four-year-old boy.
We partied one night on a boat with the Irish owner and his crew of two Italians and an Englishman, along with a handsome young couple from a Canadian boat. From these people we heard about a men’s club up the hill a couple of miles from town where they welcome yachties like us with an all-you-can-drink offering of their homebrew for NZ$7 (New Zealand dollar = approximately 75 US cents). Being a proud charter member of a similar organization in my hometown, it sounded like an ideal excursion, so a little after four one evening we three from Anna along with the Brit from the Irish boat went up to the club. It is an open-air place off the road a short way with a large shed roof covering the drinking area and benches, with an attached brewing room and storage space, in a lush setting amidst banyan and many other trees, banana and taro plants. A sign greeted us, “Rainforest Men’s Club – Welcome”.
About four local men of our generation and one about forty were already there, and we all introduced ourselves and shook hands. One we had seen before working on the roof when we toured the old church under restoration. The Brit with us, Paul, had been there before and was recognized and we all sat and began conversing, the locals curious about us, asking questions. No one ever mentioned money, but we brought up payment before we left. More men filtered in throughout the evening, each introducing himself to all us visitors and shaking our hands, until there were about 20 locals when we left at 6:30. Besides the roofer, among many others there was a fireman, a taro farmer, the Chief of Police, and the “ariki” or hereditary chief or king of the native tribe whose only function is to preserve the ancient culture. He also was a justice-of-the-peace and was at least 70, rather tall and erect, very pleasant, and he told a story about how he had to scare a young man in court that day with the threat of a long imprisonment for entering a house without permission, even though such a drastic sentence was not possible. I asked how old the club was and the forty-year-old said they had been at the present location for 17 years, but that the organization was over 60 years old. We talked local history and customs, cost of fuel, sport, politics, and farming – just like we do back at the club in my hometown. They spoke Maori among themselves, but English with us, and there was a lot of laughing and chuckling -- only merriment, no sullen men or any tenseness at all.
In a five-gallon bucket these gentlemen put sugar, molasses, water and yeast, let sit three days, then drink. They had a couple of pitchers that they filled from the bucket and passed the pitchers around, and they munched from a platter of sliced cucumbers. For us yachties they gave each of us a paper coffee cup which we sipped from, but among themselves they shared a small glass, or a couple of glasses, and gulped the brew down, one man filling the glass then handing it to another. The brew was not strong – I had close to ten drinks and still went to supper and made it to the dinghy and then to Anna without a stumble and felt fine the following day – and it resembled in flavor a watered-down rum drink.
We noticed that many had poor teeth, and we assumed it was from ingesting so much sugary fire-water. The club – unlike the one in my hometown, open only on Fridays – is open every night except Sunday. Over the doorway leading to the storage and brew rooms was a sign setting out the club rules, one of which said, “No local women except on special occasions”, while another said, “Women tourists allowed on pub crawl”. Yet another banned all men under 21, probably for legal reasons. The annual subscription fee was set out at only NZ$20.
Although Aitutaki has a great lagoon, we really didn’t experience it except for a dinghy ride because of the high winds and cool temperatures. At night on Anna, I put on a t-shirt and socks to sleep in, it was so cool. And one other negative thing about Aitutaki: the fees they charge us yachties make it a bad value. I ending up paying for us three about NZ$280 for five nights, much more than I had to pay for the several weeks we spent in French Polynesia, and all that for no real services – no good anchorage, no moorings, no good navigational aids, no showers or laundry, etc.
While the buffet meal at the resort with the traditional dancers was a disappointment, the other meals we had were great, every bit as good as in French Polynesia, and a helluva lot cheaper. Half a tank of fuel cost NZ$30, which is quite reasonable, and other costs for hardware and especially for beer and wine were all easy on the budget, so we were quite pleased with local prices overall.
One day we re-attached the mainsail track with epoxy and another adhesive we had aboard, and tightened up the outer forestay that protrudes out over the main crosstube, but one of the guys – for some reason both John and Dale insist on wearing sailgloves (with exposed fingertips) when doing any work on rigging or with tools – dropped a screw for our Profurl furling mechanism. We had the foresight of moving the dinghy underneath the work area for such an event, but unfortunately when the screw fell it hit the wooden seat and bounced out into the water. We dropped the dinghy anchor quickly to mark the spot and spent the rest of the day first snorkeling – the water was only eight feet deep – then using two tanks to scuba dive, but never could find the screw in the silty bottom.
The Canadian couple whom we partied with on the Irish boat came over for a visit one day, and the man, Noah from British Columbia, told us about an uninhabited reef – Beveridge Reef -- not too far off our intended path to Niue, our next port-of-call, where he said the water was crystal clear and the fish prolific. I later checked it out in our literature and on our charts, and found out that there is really no land, just coral reef that covers at high tide (just a couple of feet out here), and that has caused numerous wrecks. When I looked at our charts I found a note on both sets, “Beveridge Reef is reported to be located 3 nm NE of its location on our chart”. That sounded like an interesting challenge, so we determined to go there, 450 nm almost due West.
On the way we had real good winds downwind and we got up to 16 knots in boat speed before we furled the genoa and ran just under the staysail. Later the winds eased and we poled out the genoa to one side and pulled the staysail, on a boom, out to the other. We went along all day that way, wing-and-wing, and as night approached we decided to drop the pole from the genoa in case we were hit with squalls in the dark (we were in occasional rains and overcast skies already). On dropping the pole we discovered that its base fitting had broken through the deck and jabbed down into a small compartment accessible from the starboard head (bathroom). We sorted everything out and put a temporary patch of duct tape over the approximately eight-inch square area affected, but will have to do a proper fiberglass patch both inside and out when we get to a good anchorage and have dry weather for several days. We determined that the stainless-steel backing plate was inadequately sized for the pressures placed on it by the pole.
We timed our arrival at the reported location of Beveridge Reef – 3 nm NE of where the charts show it – for a mid-morning approach so that we would have sunshine behind us, not in our eyes. Miles away we began conning the general area with binoculars. The first sign of the reef was a small white cloud seemingly stuck just on the horizon. That turned out to be spray from crashing breakers, which we soon spotted, and so approached the reef. Climbing onto the pilothouse roof we continued scanning the reef with binoculars and found no trees and no land to inhabit, just submerged and barely submerged reef out here in the middle of the ocean, 120 nm SE of Niue, a terrible hazard to navigation in the days -- and especially the nights – before GPS.
Our scant literature on Beveridge Reef – one paragraph -- mentioned a pass into the lagoon on the west side, so we headed that way and found the pass finally, but in heavy churning water as the outgoing tide was colliding with wind waves coming from the opposite direction. I decided to bide our time and circumnavigate the reef and maybe discover another less boisterous pass, all the while fishing, and wait until we returned before entering the west pass if necessary. We put out one fish line and with a few minutes had a strike, and brought in a fine yellowfin tuna. After securing it we put out the line again and quickly had another hit, this time a black jack, or trevally, which turned out to test positive for ciguatera, so we had to offer it back to the sea. John cooked lunch and we ate and within almost two hours had come back to the west pass, which looked no easier than before, but we could see by the water color that the depth was fine, which was also something Noah told us, so I decided to go ahead and enter, which proved no problem at all in the confused, surging froth.
Unfortunately for us the weather was overcast and the winds rather strong at about 15-20 knots, which makes snorkeling and exploring in the dinghy much less pleasant. John and I went out in the dinghy, nevertheless, to see a wreck on the opposite side of the lagoon, a distance of about two miles we guessed. We were amazed to find no bommies at all over the entire route, most unusual for a lagoon created by a barrier reef made of coral, although there were occasional corals heads well below, maybe 20-foot deep. It was as if this was a fine inland sea, or lake, with a sandy bottom and beautiful turquoise water. The wreck appeared to be a fishing boat of some sort, about 75 feet in length, steel, at least a couple of decades old, with the name of “Liberty” and a string of letters that did not form a word. Because of the swell caused by the boisterous winds across such a long fetch, we did not hazard to approach the boat too closely, as it sat in coral near the surface close to the barrier reef, and we were safe in deeper water. Evidently the boat had been pushed up and over the barrier reef at some point, probably in a violent storm long after it had run into the barrier reef outside the lagoon.
After we returned to Anna, I decided to snorkel over to a reef area just a couple hundred feet from where we were anchored, even though it was partially overcast and so the underwater colors were muted. As soon as I jumped in I saw two gray reef sharks, but I continued and swam out and inspected the set of the anchor and then went over to the reef to check out the life around the corals and suddenly I noticed that there were now about four of the sharks, a couple below, a couple nearby, so I tried to concentrate on the reef life other than the sharks for a moment, and I approached a very shallow colorful area thriving with sealife. Indeed the water was the clearest I had seen on this trip, and the fish population numerous and varied, the corals healthy looking. Then I decided to look back and see what the sharks were up to and all of a sudden there were at least half a dozen within, like, 20 feet of me, and then one took a run at me -- made a lunge for me -- within arm distance, and I instinctively struck at it but it avoided me and shot away. I immediately, and also instinctively, raised up and screamed "help" to my crew back on Anna, and I took off kicking as fast as I could towards them and Dale jumped into the dinghy and came after me and I scrambled quickly into the dinghy, after taking a final look back at about three sharks tailing me. I think in retrospect that the sharks were just curious, not really aggressive or they could easily have had me, but that is the first time I have ever experienced a shark approach so closely and so rapidly as if going to strike. And I panicked. I have swum with sharks a good bit, and while I always feel a bit uneasy around them, I have never before seen them take a run at me or anyone else.
That night I dreamed of some wolverine-like creature attacking me and woke up with a start. Later I dreamed I was holding a baby and was attacked by a pack of black dogs in the dark, and had to fend them off with a stick.
The next morning was overcast and rainy, so I had adequate excuse not to test my courage and go snorkeling again among the aggressive sharks.
Later at Niue, I asked just about everyone – yachtie and locals – what they knew about Beveridge Reef, and I heard the following stories, some more than once:
1) A local woman, on hearing that we had gone to Beveridge Reef, exclaimed, “The sharks there are very dangerous”
2) A couple of weeks ago, a yacht was at Beveridge Reef and a couple of the crew were scuba diving and thought the sharks were too aggressive, so got out of the water and into their inflatable dinghy and the sharks attacked the dinghy, puncturing one side so that the outboard motor was inundated with seawater and quit running, and they had to be rescued by a dinghy from another yacht
3) A marine biology researcher was scuba diving at the pass -- like we had done at Fakarava where we saw hundreds of sharks -- but the sharks at Beveridge were aggressive so she got out and vowed not to return
4) A yachtie had been spearfishing and was pulling his catch behind him on the line that attaches the spear to the speargun and was bitten on the buttocks by a shark. He was with his wife and she stabilized him then had to sail to Niue by herself, a first for her
5) A yachtie was snorkeling with a speargun and was confronted by a shark and shot the shark and abandoned the speargun since it was attached by a line to the spear in the shark
Whether these stories are true or not, I cannot say, but they reinforce in my mind what I experienced.
The next afternoon about four we left Beveridge in very light winds in thick overcast, misty skies and had to motor all the way to Niue overnight, about 120 nm.
Niue, like the Cook Islands, is a former dependency of New Zealand, and before that of Great Britain, which is now “independent”, although they depend on New Zealand for aid in every field, use the NZ dollar as currency, and hold dual citizenship which has had the result that there are ten times as many Niueans in New Zealand (15-20,000) as there are in Niue itself (about 1600). Niue is not a high island, but most of it is at least 100 feet above sea level. In 2004 a massive cyclone hit with winds over 180 mph (300 km) and waves of 180 feet (55 meters). The waves devastated the island destroying the hospital, the main hotel, and many residences and businesses, but only one person was killed.
Niue does not have a barrier reef with a lagoon. The sea is fairly deep right up to the fringing reefs (that is, coral reefs attached to the island itself) that ring the island. Its sole usable harbor is too deep for easy anchoring so the local government has set out moorings which are administered by the Niue Yacht Club, which is little more than a bar and restaurant with an ice cream stand. From the moorings it is but a short distance to the main wharf, but because the surge is so strong, it is not advisable to tie up your dinghy there, so the Niue Fisheries department has erected a power crane that lifts small boats – fishing boats, dinghies – out of the water and onto the wharf. We had to fashion a lifting harness to use it.
Niue is basically just a big slab of volcanic rock, and has thousands of caves and crevasses, and because rainwater leaches directly into the sea with little runoff of anything else, some of the clearest waters in the world. One book I have says that visibility in the waters around Niue is over 200 feet. However, because there is a gradient between the fresh and the saltwater in the shallows before the waters mix well, there is an eerie out-of-focus sensation in shallow near-shore waters caused by the different refraction properties of saltwater and freshwater. Light reflects differently in the two types of water, and before they blend well visibility in the top freshwater layer appears to be out of focus, and is disorienting. Once you get out into the water that has been thoroughly blended, visibility is outstanding.
We went on several hikes to caves and isolated pools, all very beautiful with well-tended paths. We went snorkeling in a couple and thoroughly enjoyed it all. One day we hired a local fellow to take us on a bush hike and explain some of the rainforest trees and other flora, and the little bit of fauna. He was a farmer-type guy, carried a machete and a large knife and we set off cross-country through a protected forest area, and he showed us many kinds of trees, including the ebony tree some of which produce the hard substance known as ebony that is used for decorative purposes. He caught a coconut crab in one of the countless crevasses that break up the forest floor and showed us how to package it in the leaf of a fern, as well as other uses of plants and vines. On the way back he stopped at his extended family’s garden and we picked tomatoes and dug sweet potatoes and green onions.
The Niueans are like the people of Aitutaki, very pleasant, easy-going, generous, friendly, eager to help, smiling, happy. We visited a local workingman’s bar one evening and were welcomed with open arms, and shared a lot of laughs and good times with about five guys. The locals have the habit of whoever wants to or can afford to will buy a six-pack of beer and put in the middle of the floor, meaning it to be shared by all. All three of us put in a six-pack, but I think we each drank that much, too. Different men invited us to a village festivity with food and dancing Saturday night and then to someone’s house for Sunday lunch, but we left the island before all that took place. They spoke English to us, mostly their own Niuean language (different from Maori) to themselves. In the shops and on the wharf with the crane, everyone we encountered was friendly and eager to help and ask where we were from. At the local open-air produce market (open Tuesdays and Fridays) older ladies with big, floppy straw hats sat behind wooden tables and without exception all smiled and greeted me. And of course I bought some stuff I did not need. The people at Niue are simply wonderful, like most Polynesians, and about as friendly as one could wish.
The most striking thing that happened on Niue was swimming with humpback whales. From the moment we arrived a mother and her calf and a third whale were swimming around the mooring area. After photographing them one day we put on our snorkel gear and went not 100 feet from the boat and watched the calf nursing, the mother in a vertical position with her tail down, nose up. The calf had to come up for air much more often than the mom, and several times came within ten feet or so of me. The mother one time did the same, and we watched them continue to nurse and surface and swim a bit until we got chilled. The mother I estimated to be 40 feet in length, the calf about 15 feet. Also on the day of departure Dale and John snorkeled with them after taking the dinghy to a different area while I was involved in immigration matters. Niue has strict rules for whalewatching, including one that says people must keep at least 50 meters away, but if you are in the water, just off the stern of your boat, and they come to you, what can you do?
We are now en route to Pago Pago (pronounced “Pahngo-Pahngo”) in American Samoa, about 300 nm to the north of Niue. Our log reads 6580 nm since we left Valdivia in May.
Dale is leaving us in Pago Pago to return to the States where he has a family member with a serious illness. He also admits he is ready to return, burned out somewhat on this cruising life. Certainly it can be quite taxing, especially on relationships back home. I know. To replace Dale I have located a 45-year-old New Zealander, Glen McConchie, who will join John and me in Apia, Samoa, less than 100 nm from Pago Pago. John and I are looking very much forward to having Glen aboard.