Saturday, August 16, 2008

Palmerston now has moorings!!!!

Update:  Users beware!  We personally 3 boats that were run aground on the reef during high winds at Palmerston when moored on some of these new moorings.  

During our long passage from Bora Bora to Niue we passed close to the northern island of Palmerston Atoll.  A very friendly man named Simon Marsters hailed us on the VHF radio and inquired if we planned to stop and visit Palmerston.  Simon said that they now have moorings in place for visiting yachts.  This is very welcome news to the cruising community because until these moorings were set in place boats had to anchor amidst the coral heads on the western side of the atoll.  There are no normal boat passages into the lagoon at Palmerston, only several small boat passages for dinghies.  Plus, the lagoon is only 4-feet deep and that pretty much eliminates most yachts from entering.  The outside anchorage area is supposed to be for day anchoring only and someone should be on the yacht at all times to monitor safety in case wind direction or speed changes unexpectedly.  But some cruisers put aside the safety warnings and stay anchored off Palmerston for weeks.  We are not so fool-hardy, so we had already decided not to stop at Palmerston before Simon called us.  We were sorely tempted to stop after learning that there are now moorings available.  But there are only 380 miles to our turning waypoint to Niue and we did not want to break the rhythm of this passage since things onboard are so pleasant, so we sadly declined Simon’s kind invitation to visit Palmerston.  We told him that we would pass this invitation and the info about the new moorings to the boats following from Bora Bora in a few days.  These moorings are very new and are not mentioned in any of the guide books. 

According to the sailing guide “Charlie’s Charts of Polynesia” the islands’ inhabitants have a unique history.  Everyone is a descendant of William Marsters, who originally hailed from Lancashire, England.  William settled on one of the Palmerston Atoll islands in 1862 or 1863 with his Polynesian wife from the Northern Cook Island of Penryhn and one of her cousins.  He settled here to manage a coconut plantation.  Soon another of his wife’s cousins joined them, and William married all 3 women.  He fathered either 21 or 26 children with the 3 wives (the guide books disagree on the exact number of children, so let’s just say around 2 dozen).  He divided the islands and reefs surrounding the atoll into sections for each of the 3 “families.”  He established strict rules regarding intermarriage.   Each family was not allowed to marry anyone on their specific family island.  This obviously did not stop the practice of half-siblings marrying one another (after all, who else where they going to marry since there was no one else on the atoll but the Marsters 3 families) but William’s rules did at least prevent marriage between full-blooded siblings.  William died in 1899 at the ripe age of 78.  Thousands of his descendants are now scattered around the Cook Islands, throughout New Zealand and beyond.  The 3 Marsters branches on Palmerston are now down to about 50.  William Marsters was a true patriarch of this tiny atoll.  The current island patriarch is Reverend Bill Marsters, born in 1923.  Bill was less prolific than his ancestor and has a mere 12 children.

The atoll was uninhabited at the time of the arrival of Captain Cook in 1774, but Polynesians had once lived here and had long since abandoned the atoll.  The Polynesians called it Ava Rua, meaning “200 channels.”  The 3 Marsters families (the Tepou, Akakaingaro, and Mataiva) live on tiny Home Island, a/k/a Palmerston Island, on the west side of the atoll.  Here they grow taro and sugarcane in pits.  Many of the older residents suffer from asthma.  Like lonely Pitcairn Island where the inhabitants are also of mixed British descent, on Palmerston the first language is English.  Palmerston is the only island in the Cooks where this is so.

As in any small isolated community, there is some tension between the families.  In 1995 officials from Raratonga (the administrative center for Cook Islands) visited Palmerston.  By playing one group off against another they succeeded in undermining the authority of the island council and imposed centralized rule on independence-minded Palmerston.  The central government wanted to build a tiny airport in 2005 on Toms Island, which is 2 miles away from Home Island.  This has not yet happened.  Getting to Palmerston takes either a private yacht or a great deal of creativity. 

Each year about a dozen yachts call at Palmerston.  The Republic of Palmerston Yacht Club near the church provides cooking facilities, a washing machine, toilets, and hot rain water showers to yachties who pay NZ$20 for five-years’ membership.  Cold beer is sold daily except Sunday.  As in all Polynesia, Sundays are for religion only and any business is strongly discouraged if not outright forbidden.

There are 35 tiny islands scattered along the pear-shaped barrier coral reef surrounding the coral head-studded lagoon.  The original Marsters home was built using massive beams salvaged from shipwrecks washed ashore.  According to the guide book, the original home still stands today but bears the scars of many hurricanes.  The atoll is about 5 miles across at its widest point.  All the little islands are thickly covered by coconut palms.   Sandy beaches beneath tall palms make it very inviting.   The few inhabitants are most welcoming to visiting cruising yachts.  In years past, as soon as an approaching yacht was sighted the locals would paddle out and lead the yacht in through the coral heads and show a safe place to anchor on the surrounding reef.  This custom has now changed to VHF radio contact and the use of the new moorings.  I do not know the cost, if any, of a mooring.  They obviously are trying to encourage more visitors to this unique and very isolated place.

Here is a passage from another cruiser’s notes about Palmerston when they stopped here several years ago:  “As soon as a sailboat is sighted there is a competition among the islanders to see who can get out first in a small boat to meet the yacht.  That person’s family then becomes the hosts of the visitors on Palmerston.  The Marsters people told us that as long as we were on Palmerston we were regarded as Marsters too, and we certainly felt like part of the family.  Every day we shared meals with them, joined them on fishing trips, etc.  After crossing the Pacific, Palmerston became the highlight of our trip.”

Bill and I will probably later regret not stopping at Palmerston.  But we are now on day 5 of this passage and did not want to stop with only 380 miles to reach our destination.  The first 3 days of any long passage are the hardest.  We are settled into our watch routines and are making such good time in very pleasant sailing conditions.  Stopping now for a couple of days would make the final 380 miles harder.  That probably doesn’t make any sense to others but it does to us.   Had we known about the moorings we would have been psyched for stopping here for several days.  But as it is we are psyched for reaching Niue ASAP.

(August 18, 2008 ----- We heard someone on the SSB this morning who said that last night the residents of Palmerston hosted a dinner for the 3 yachts who were moored there yesterday and that they were all invited to attend local church services this morning.  That would have been fun.  Guess we should have stopped.)

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