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Relief Mission in the Cook Islands

Pukapuka was not originally on the schedule for Picton Castle‘s fifth world voyage. In fact, we hadn’t really considered going there until a few weeks before the ship arrived in Rarotonga, when Captain Moreland was approached by Mr. Vai Peua, a member of the Cook Islands parliament who represents the islands of Pukapuka and Nassau, for assistance. Apparently there hadn’t been a supply ship to his consituency in about eight months and people were starting to run low on food and fuel. Mr. Peua asked if we’d consider making a special trip to Pukapuka to help the people who live there. We thought about it, juggled our schedule around a bit and decided that if the logistics of this relief mission worked out, we’d do it.

The last time Picton Castle was at Pukapuka was on her second world voyage, in 2001. The crew had a wonderful time there, but Pukapuka is a bit out of the way of the more westerly route the ship has taken through the South Pacific on the two most recent world circumnavigations. Pukapuka is in the northern group of the Cook Islands, and closer culturally and linguistically to Samoa than to the rest of the Cooks. Not many people visit this atoll with a population of 500 – it’s cheaper to buy a plane ticket from Rarotonga to New Zealand than it is to buy a plane ticket from Rarotonga to Pukapuka. In my experience, Pukapukans living off the island are fiercly proud of their home, as they should be because their island is beautiful and friendly, as are their people.

After some conversation, calculation and negotiation, we made arrangements with Mr. Peua about the amount of cargo and passengers to be carried and were granted approval for this special trip by the Cook Islands Ministry of Transport. We would also be taking some cargo and passengers to Palmerston Atoll, which was originally a scheduled port visit for us, on the way to Pukapuka (it has also been a while since they’ve had a supply ship).

Throughout our stay at Rarotonga deliveries kept arriving on the wharf, unloaded from trucks and cargo manifests checked, before being loaded into the cargo hold below. By the time the ship sailed, only a series of small pathways remained through the hold to get to our own ship’s supplies. On the final day before we sailed, tanks of propane and drums of gasoline were loaded on deck and lashed down tightly. On sailing day, we welcomed 20 passengers aboard – seven going to Palmerston, one to Nassau and twelve to Pukapuka. As is standard for local inter-island passengers in the Cook Islands, they all brought their own bedrolls, to be laid out at night on the cargo hatch or any other dry space on deck for sleeping.

While this adventure was not part of our original voyage plan, it will certainly be an interesting one. The crew will now have an opportunity to sail home with our shipmates (even if only shipmates briefly), we’ll get experience handling, loading and securing cargo, and we’ll know that we did the right thing by helping out these islands in need.

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