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Tearful Farewells at Palmerston

The Picton Castle spent eight days anchored off Palmerston Atoll. While two watches spent time ashore, one watch stayed on the ship. This is not unusual, this is the norm. We follow a similar pattern every time we dock, anchor or moor. But in this case at Palmerston the attention was particularly keen.

While not paricularly dangerous, the anchorage near Palmerston is most certainly one of the trickier spots. The Captain says it’s a typical South Pacific dodgy anchorage – very few “good” anchrages in the South Pacific. Evidence of many a ship wreck are visible on the reef and stories of the ghosts of the sailors are told by the locals at night. The ship’s anchor was secure to be certain – wedged under a piece of the coral reef. What was worrisome was the wind. The wind had slowly picked up during our stay in Palmerston and by day five was blowing an average of 25 knots. While working in our favour by blowing us off the reef, it could switch, and blow us toward the reef. Fortunately, it almost never does something like this quickly or without signs that it is coming. This made anchor watch an interesting and serious affair and the Captain, Mike, Paul and Rebecca all had discussions on anchors and lessons on proper anchor watch. Constant vigilence is the key to a safe ship.

Every deckhand or trainee has an hour watch during the night during which time they watch for changes in wind speed and direction, squalls on the horizon, slack the running rigging when it rains (preventing strain on the yards), the position of the ship, observe the depth and do ship checks – watching for anything abnormal. The mate or the Captain writes up specific instructions for the crew to follow and leave strict orders to wake them if any danger or doubt arises. The new trainees are paired with more experienced deckhands during their first month on board so that they can observe proper procedures, ask questions and feel confident when their turn comes to watch.

Rebecca’s watch (the 12-4) caught a shark! Measuring a metre and a half this was no baby either and excited radio calls bounced back and forth between the ship and shore – everyone offering advice on the best way to bring it onboard the ship and the best way to gut and preserve it – not to mention the best way to cook it!

No, life onboard the ship does not consist of sailors forlornly looking at the shore waiting for their turn on land. There is plenty of work to do on the ship despite the fact that our full hold and passengers make regular ships work near impossible. We still do general maintenance and painting, organize the hold and the sole, do ship domestics, galley duty and stow and lash and ready the ship for sea… and then when the sun is high in the sky and the sweat is prominent on the brow, the Captain or one of the mates might order a swim call or a power shower. Refreshed some have a nap, some watch a movie, some read a book and some sit and talk about the day.

Back on land, back on Palmerston, preparations began for the dance performance. Costumes were finished. Hair was pulled and twisted and manipulated with vegetation. Songs were hummed. Nerves were twisted. Stomachs were knotted. And then we were ready. The islanders had prepared a massive BBQ and we, it seemed, were to be the appetizer. Our dance trainers, Haua, Bob and Taia, had coached us in three different songs which the whole island (all in all about 60 people) had turned out to see.

The women went first. Strutting to the centre of the circle – shoulders back – hips twisted ever so slightly we danced – desperately trying to remember every move while remembering to have fun and make our teachers proud. Alex, Meredith, Georgie, Alison, Cheri and Nadja all kept us all on track. While our ‘waving palm trees’ were not perfectly aligned, do trees really ever sway in perfect synchronicity? Our first two songs were over before we knew it and we walked to the perimeter of the festivities – hearts pounding and adrenaline pumping.

The men were next and they did not disappoint. They had the moves down, but more importantly they embodied the attitude behind the music. Bent knees, swinging arms, sandy shuffle, hip thrust. It was an extremely entertaining show. Well done! Both groups performed a grand finale dance before bowing into the shade of the palm trees.

Prominent islanders gave speeches, the minister gave a prayer for fair winds, our Pukapuka passengers performed four songs with dance (a little sneak preview for us) and the Captain gave his namesake – little Daniel Moreland Marsters – his first haircut.

And then we had a feast… and a true island feast it was. The table was laid out with all the local delicacies and everyone ate and ate and ate until they could eat no more. We celebrated our last night on this beautiful atoll in style with more dancing and sing-sings that lasted well into the night.

Morning came all too quickly and with it the farewells. It was much harder to say goodbye then any of us anticipated. We were all given presents. Does the generosity ever end? Some of us were given handmade fans with shells woven in. Some were given black pearls or jewellery or homemade brooms. And we all knew the effort and thoughtfulness that went into these gifts.

Many of the islanders accompanied us to the ship for snacks and a repeat dance performance. Ten yachts were also anchored or moored in the lee of the island and their crew were also invited onto the ship. Emotions ran high when it came time to haul up the anchor and get underway. While excited to get back to sea, we were also terribly sad to leave behind our new found family. But as the Captain aptly pointed out you cannot come back if you do not leave!

When the Picton Castle left we carried with us not only precious memories and gifts, but one of the atoll’s own. Taia Marsters joined the ship as a trainee and we are all thrilled to have her on board. She had been waiting since she was 12 for a chance to sail in Picton Castle. Not only is she funny and sweet, but she is also arguably one of the best dancers in the Cook Islands and a strong boat handler. Let the dancing continue!

Preparing to dance
Sharing photos in the palm trees after the dance
The men perform on the hatch

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