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Rarotonga

Our passage in the Picton Castle from Mangareva to Rarotonga (about 1,400 miles) was good enough, involving sailing north-westerly towards the Society Islands looking for good winds – in the end we had to steam for a few days – Rarotonga was the end of one leg of this voyage and the beginning of another leg – some folks were scheduled to sign off and others would be waiting to join this ship to sail the south seas; airplanes were involved so we had to press along – in surprisingly light airs for this region, this time of year.

Soon enough, on a beautiful sunny South Pacific trade wind morning, the Picton Castle was hove-to a few miles off the east end of Rarotonga. Jagged green mountains slope down to fertile looking plains and to surf breaking on the fringe reef with bits and sparkles of turquoise against the deep blue of the seas surrounding. We were to windward so we could not take in the fragrance of land, earth, tiare flowers growing all over the place. The night before had been squally and from the ship we could see thunder and lightning over the island and well to the south of us.

As the sun climbed against a startling blue sky, the crew braced the yards around and set sail for the final few miles into Avatiu Harbour where we would be berthing for the duration of our stay and the only ship habour anywhere near here. Most of these islands have nothing resembling a harbour, sometimes a coral shelf you can put your anchor on for a bit with minute to minute diligence and the rest, well, you just heave-to off the island and drift around if you can. This morning we were hove-to off Muri Lagoon, a sweet lagoon and harbour for shallow draft vessels and the legendary assembly point for one of the principle Vaka fleets that sailed for New Zealand to settle some 900 years ago, the last chapter in about 2,000 years of Pacific voyages of discovery and migration, if I have it right.

We sailed north around and squared the yards for the short run down the north shore of Rarotonga – out of Muri the new 65′ vaka with the Cook Islands Voyaging Society sailors (who have sailed all over the Pacific in like vessels) aboard had sailed out to meet us – this was very exciting for our gang who had heard so much about Polynesian voyaging and about the big double hulled canoes called vakas that had explored and settled all of the Pacific Ocean in the greatest migration in human history, and arguably the most technologically advanced migration too. Before that people walked. Our winds were moderate, just right for sailing nicely down the coast. Off Avatiu we took in all sail, braced up sharp, poked our nose into the small harbour, turned the ship around 180 degrees and backed her in between a big expedition yacht and two cargo vessels rafted up, needed a shoe-horn for the job, but it worked out fine.

Heaps of folks on the dock on this sunny day including our new crew and old friends. Flower ‘eis all around to those coming, going and staying and thus began our visit to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. It is believed that the first European ship to call at Rarotonga was the HMAV BOUNTY post mutiny with Fletcher Christian in command in 1789 looking for a place to go and be.

What to do in Rarotonga? Plenty; first, it seems imperative to start the stay off at “Trader Jack’s”, a well known establishment on Avarua Harbour a mile or so up the shore, and the kind souls who received, collected and delivered all the ships mail to us – it was a Saturday night so there was an excellent band at the Trader’s and many of the gang danced the night away under the stars – or until midnight anyway, which is when Sunday commences and thus frivolity ceases, all for the best really, no doubt.

Then it seems that one must rent a scooter to tool around the island – or – you can take busses which are logically labelled “Clockwise” and “Anti-Clockwise”. Raro, as we and everybody else call it, is only six miles long and four wide and oval shaped, so no reason to go 3/4rs the way around the island in order to get to a spot, that if you went only 1/4 the way the other direction will get you there sooner. But scooter rentals are popular with our gang. Diving, vaka sailing, ‘island nights’ with wonderful dancing and kai-kai (food), visits to our schools to drop off donated education supplies (where the kids all danced for us and put on big feeds), whale watching from the beach – the island was surrounded by dozens of hump-back whales breaching and doing all sorts of antic easily viewed from the shore. We had maybe 600+ school kids visit the ship, which is plenty good times for the crew (and beats chipping rust as a duty!) we also had a couple nice parties aboard with fantastic Cook Island dancing to thank some folks for all their help in making this visit the delight it was – these were fun but did not go too late – tomorrow is always another day and a work day at that in this ship.

We loaded cargo and supplies for the next islands that had requested help as well as a few deck passengers anxious to get home. Deck passengers in the benign conditions usually found in these islands is a long standing tradition among vessels here and the Ministry of Transport approved our so helping out in this regard. What else? Let the gang tell their own stories, but suffice to say, our stay in Rarotonga was good. And then it becomes time to sail.

With several hundred folks on the wharf, hugging, kissing, saying good by to one and all, giving flower ‘eis, shedding a few tears, this was a picture from generations ago when an island sailing ship cast off for the next island with loved ones and supplies aboard. Tricky enough getting the ship in to Avatiu Habour 9 days ago, it was easy enough to cast off and head out as we were pointed that way anyway and all the other vessels had sailed as well. We steamed out of the harbour with cheers and whistles, outside the reef many of the crew tossed their ‘eis into the sea, the legend being that if you release your ‘ei to the sea and it washes up on the reef, you will return, if not, well, not so good…

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