Cruising

Glimpses of an Alternate Reality

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Palmerston Atoll, in the Cook Islands, delivers hospitality unheard-of in the real world.

We were six long days out of Bora Bora. The wind was like a baby’s breath, and the rolling swells frequently knocked it out of our sails. Progress was slow but peaceful until the western sky filled with the rapidly lowering cumulus of an approaching cold front. We were soon hunkered down in full foul-weather gear as salt spray flew in sheets over our 39-foot cutter, Moose. The red tip of Irene’s nose peaked out of her hooded jacket, projecting a look of Calvinistic resignation. Two days later we were lolling around in the windless slop left over from the blow.

That made for constant work, day and night, as we tried new sail combinations. Sleep was difficult. By the last night, as we ran down toward, and hopefully not up on, low-lying Palmerston Atoll, our nerves were jangling. We’d heard from some fellow cruisers that Palmerston had been the highlight of their circumnavigations. How could one more atoll be so memorable? Part of the answer lies in the unique way the place was settled.

In the early 1800s Palmerston was inhabited by Polynesians who were being actively “missionaried.” In 1862 there arrived a person of biblical proportions—William Marsters, patriarch. He had married three women from nearby Penryhn Island, in the northern Cook Island group, and landed on Palmerston with them. He fathered 26 children and divided the island and reef into portions for each of the three families, prudently setting down rules protecting against intermarriage and providing for the distribution of property. Land was allocated by matrilineal progression within the family groups; private ownership of land was not recognized. When we visited, about 60 people lived on the atoll, all of them named Marsters.

An atoll is a configuration of reef, islands, and lagoon that is created when a volcano pierces the ocean’s surface and turns into an island, over time becomes surrounded by coral reef, and then finally caves in, leaving a ring of reef surrounding a relatively shallow lagoon. Larger parts of the reef support plant life, develop soil, and become islands, called, in the South Pacific, motus. The village of the Marsters is situated on such a motu.

On that windy, red-eyed morning, as we sailed up into the lee of Palmerston Island, Simon Marsters motored out to Moose. “Good morning! Follow me, and I’ll show you where you can anchor,” he called across the wind.

That sounded like useful advice, since our depthsounder showed water hundreds of feet deep and I could have thrown a stone onto the reef to windward. Down rattled the faithful Bruce anchor into 30 feet of green lagoon run-off while I paid out chain with gay abandon. Irene reversed the engine and the chain came up tight as a guitar string. There is always a feeling of no small satisfaction at the end of a passage.

“They’ll be out to clear you in after lunch. They’re busy getting ready for the election,” Simon informed us. This seemed quite bureaucratic for such a small place, but if I have not learned patience, I have at least learned silence.

The prevailing easterly winds at Palmerston combine with the big ground swell generated in the high latitudes of the Southern Ocean to kick up heavy surf over the reef. All this water flows the 4 miles through the lagoon, bringing nutrients and aeration, and exits in a race through four passes on the leeward side of the atoll. This is where cruisers anchor, up on a coral ledge.

After lunch, Simon returned, bringing Jock and Goodly Marsters from health and quarantine. The Cook Islands have a free association with New Zealand. Palmerston has adopted parallel requirements for control of disease and agricultural pests, so we had a proper inspection before we were allowed ashore. Palmerston also wants to become an official port of entry for New Zealand, so the officials carefully maintain correct paperwork—but the interview was welcoming and filled with laughter.

We took up Simon’s offer of a ride to shore. The village has rambling sand pathways under coconut and mahogany trees, chickens ranging everywhere, and the most engaging children I have ever met. Most of them are preteens; older kids go off-island for school. The youngsters we met were so precocious and socially mature it was unnerving.

Palmerston’s signature feature is its system of hosting visiting boats. Of the six family groups on the island, three were off attending a sporting competition in Rarotonga. When a sail is spotted or a VHF transmission is received, a man from each family will run to his skiff and motor out at his best speed to pick up the new arrival. First man there wins. Then, just as Simon did with Moose, he will indicate an anchorage. After formalities are concluded, the crew of that boat are the guests of that host family.

Being hosted means the following: Each morning your host calls you on the VHF to ask when you would like to come ashore. The anchorage and the beach are about a mile apart, and the route varies from complicated to wild. Once you’ve landed and have picked up an entourage of children, you are taken to your host’s home and given the run of it. A typical morning might be spent snorkeling, sketching, or beachcombing. At the time there were five boats in Simon’s care because his chief competitor, who had a larger outboard, was involved with the Cook Islands elections. Simon was politely gloating over his windfall.

At noon the hosted crew(s) receive lunch. Every day we were there, Shirley, Simon’s sister-in-law, put four tables end to end under a blue plastic tarp and served 12 sailors, plus her own family. Normal fare would be two or three hot starch dishes—taro or breadfruit, for example—followed by hot fish dishes, coleslaw, and roast chicken.

Each day at noon Simon said grace and hosted all these people; each morning Shirley prepared all these dishes for people who would soon sail west and never be seen again. They weren’t her race, her kin, or from her church, but she did it all smiling. I’ve seen enough insurance salesmen to be able to recognize sincerity.

The less-visited Polynesian islands still have a tradition of welcoming those who arrive from the sea, recognizing that Pacific passages were, and still are, long and often arduous. I wondered whether Palmerston hospitality was a remnant of this tradition. But when I remarked to pastor and administrator Tere Marsters that I hadn’t seen any of the normally ubiquitous outrigger canoes at Palmerston, he laughingly replied, “Englishmen don’t paddle outrigger canoes.”

The overwhelming reception of cruisers by the Marsters and their neighbors is not a seed that falls on stony ground; it would take a very callous yachtie to receive all this bounty and not reciprocate. While we were there, a Canadian boat gave a jerry can of gasoline and one of diesel to Simon; at Tahiti prices this is a gift of some magnitude. All the other boats went through their stores and gave away powdered milk, razor blades, and CDs and DVDs. Fishing hooks are appreciated by the kids, and the school is always short of paper, pencils, markers, and the like. But the best way to win Palmerston’s hearts is to pick up a volleyball and ask for a game.

Volleyball is to Palmerston as hockey is to Canada. The women are the Cook Islands champions. The main village court is laid out pretty much to Olympic specifications, except for the encroaching coconut trees. It has long been the Palmerston tradition to challenge crews of visiting boats to a friendly game in the evening, and the locals always win.

On our third day at Palmerston the weather forecast was for westerly winds as the top of a low-pressure area went by to the south. This would put our anchorage to windward of the reef, and it didn’t look all that welcoming. Early the next morning, as the wind started shifting, we debated the options. We could stay and hope that the anchor would hold in the coral, but we were worried about the possibility of the chain wrapping around coral heads and “short-snubbing” us. Putting out to sea would reduce the number of things to bump into, but we wanted to go west and the wind would fill in from the west. Or we could motor over to the far side of the atoll and shelter behind a motu that would become protected as the wind shifted.

And so we anchored on the other side of the atoll in deep water and poor holding as the western sky became heavy with rolling lines of bruised blue clouds. The big south swell came in under us and fell thundering on the reef off our bow. The squalls and rain raged past like charging cavalry. Suddenly the wind came to a full stop and shifted back to the east. It would put us on the reef if we didn’t move very fast. The anchor got caught in the coral, the windlass groaned to an overheated stop, and the chain crunched and tore so hard the boat started shaking. Finally the anchor broke loose. But this felt like a warning.

“Irene, how far is Tonga?” I asked.

“About 600 miles. What do you think?” she replied.

“Let’s call Simon on the VHF and say thanks and goodbye.”

Simon came up on channel 16 and sounded sad. He had come aboard Moose for a cold beer at sunset the day before, and we had talked at length about his family and Palmerston’s ways. But I was unaware that when a boat leaves, members of the host family come aboard for a formal sendoff, bringing hot coffee and cookies, and fruit or fish or lobster. Our spontaneous departure had precluded this. Our VHF conversation was like a train-station farewell from an old movie: goodbye, thank you, come again, thank you Simon. We sailed on silently. Our reveries were broken when a humpback whale began breeching time after time off our beam. The folds of skin under the jaw were clearly visible. It rose like a black-and-white lighthouse and then fell in a cloud of white water, like a salute.

“What a place,” I said. “I’m so glad we came here. But I don’t really understand it.”

I remember asking Simon about it. He just grinned and said, “It’s our tradition to host boats. We’ve always done it. We really like it.”


Irene and Duncan Gould plan to leave New Zealand in August, heading for South Africa via Thailand.

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