Captain's Log

Archive for April, 2013

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Family Life and Feasting in Tonga

By Kate “Bob” Addison

I went with Captain and Tammy to the market yesterday, and we were invited back to one of the ladies’ (Betty) houses to see some tapa cloth that she had made. Tapa is amazing stuff, like South Seas wallpaper, it’s the thickness of a few sheets of paper and comes in sheets from small squares for framing to huge cloths big enough to cover any wall or ceiling. It’s made by pounding bark until its flat, joining pieces with more pounding and then hand painting geometric designs using a traditional ink made from burnt nuts.

Betty’s house was very different to your average house in the UK, made of wood and corrugated iron with free-range pigs in the back yard and a separate kitchen hut where copra or dried coconut husks are burnt in a ground oven, (after the pigs have eaten the coconut). Captain and Tammy’s 8-month old son Dawson was a great hit here, being happily passed around the family and entertaining their small children by making faces and laughing. There might not be much money around here but I did get an impression of strong family harmony.

Betty teaches dancing to the girls in her village and we got to see them show it off at a traditional feast that night put on just for the Picton Castle crew. We were shown into an open building by the beach where there were benches to sit on and a long table spread with all sorts of treats. The table cloth was banana leaves and the food was served in the stalks of a banana leaves – they look like giant celery sticks and you can use them as a funnel to sort of pour the food into your mouth, and then stack the empty stalks like the little plates in a sushi restaurant. There was fish in coconut milk wrapped in baby taro leaves and cooked in an umu or underground oven, raw fish with coconut, clams baked with coconut, papaya with coconut, octopus, roast pig, taro, sweet potato, banana, melon, and more coconuts to drink.

After the feast we moved outside to watch some traditional dancing, which was rather similar to the Samoan dancing with incredibly intricate and quick hand movements telling the story of the song. Quite captivating. But the most memorable thing was how much fun the performers and band seemed to be having. Less polished professionals, and more kids and parents who had make their own costumes of grass skirts, feathers and shell, and we’re having great fun dressing up and showing off. Betty’s granddaughter Vi stole the show with the last dance of the show – a very impressive hula.

Back on the ship, work is continuing with the on-watch as usual – we’ve been focusing on varnish on the quarterdeck, painting all over and Sam and David Brown have been making up a new spar to replace the fore topgallant that sprung on the sail from Samoa. The spar is being made from planks of pine, laminated in layer with epoxy. It’s set hard now and the process of shaping the long cuboid into a cylinder has begun to the sound of handsaws and DB singing. Meanwhile a gang are chipping away at the old yard to get the hardware off and we’ll have the new yard varnished and aloft in no time.

Dawson checks out some Tapa cloth
feast night
feast night dancing

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Kingdom of Tonga

By Kate “Bob” Addison

We sailed from Samoa to the Vava’u Group of Tonga (at the northern end of about 400 miles of islands) and, after a three day passage, we arrived on Tuesday morning. The week has just flown by. The country, one of the last absolute monarchies left in the world, is made up of dozens of small islands laced with beaches and bays and caves in the limestone cliffs. Like Samoa everything is thickly wooded, but it’s much less steep here so there are more fields and the geography has been reminding the crew of Canada, even the south coast of the UK after being so used to seeing sandy atolls and volcanic mountains typical of the South Seas.

Vava’u is some sort of raised coral or limestone cluster of islands. We sail up a five mile fjord like passage to get to the inner harbour at Neiafu. Local regulations require us to go alongside the copra wharf for clearing in – this done in as friendly a manner as can be we cast off again to find a place to the anchor down in this deep land-locked harbour. Soon enough done and the skiff is making runs into the lovely Mango waterfront cafe and the gang spreads to the winds to see what Tonga is about.

The dress is striking – school uniform seems straight from missionary times: the girls wear very modest blue or red tunic dresses with big white collars and hair in two French plaits and matching hair ribbons. A woven mat is worn wrapped around the waist as a sign of being ‘dressed up’ for formal or special occasion wear. Some of the mats are trimmed with binding in the same colour as the rest of the outfit, others are all straw and edged with a fringe. About half the people wear traditional dress, the other half baggy shorts and shirts.

Because Tonga is and always has been independent it is visibly economically poorer than its neighbouring island nations, though it is very popular with yachties so the shiny cafes, restaurants and shops by the dinghy dock and along the main street in town add a shiny, western veneer. There are a surprising number of people who turned up on yachts and never left several years later. Most of the businesses catering to yachts are run by these sailing ex-pats who seem very happy and settled here. There’s even a Friday night boat race for all comers with some great prizes, but we’d already taken monomoy off on an overnight camping expedition before we knew about it. Not that she would probably have done too well racing against a 40-foot catamaran with no handicap!

The monomoy camping expedition with Nadja and starboard watch was excellent – and exactly what Picton Castle is all about. We rigged up the monomoy with her sailing rig and oars and stowed her with all we would need: machetes for the coconuts, tarps, water, fishing gear and hammocks. Lots of lashing lines too and some duct tape obviously. Other essentials included leftover lasagne in a cooler, snorkels, and a birthday cake for Gabe. For emergencies, there was a first aid kit and a big box of birthday butter cookies that Hayley made.

Gear stowed and all aboard we hoisted our mainsail, set the jib and pushed off from the ship reaching back towards town and then tacking round the corner towards the entrance of the harbour. We did some exploring along the coastline, tacking about and looking for nice beaches or caves and dodging the coral that reefs the shoreline just below the surface of the clear water. We found a nice sandy beach for lunch and moored up Med-style, dropping the anchor off the bow outside of the coral and then swimming ashore with a stern line and making it off to a handy mango tree.

After lunch and a snooze on the beach it was time to find a camp for the night and we found our spot on an uninhabited island called Lotuma right in the entrance to the harbour. The moon was full and bright enough to snorkel by, so we did, and then Maia and Signe showed us how to make Scandinavian ‘Troll Bread’ cooked on sticks over the camp fire. Finn played his banjo and Gabe and Nadja harmonica until late. We got up at 0530 to strike camp to be back at the ship for 0800 muster and the row back to the ship into the rising sun was gorgeous. We got back close to the ship a bit early so we tied up to a handy buoy and went for one last swim call to cool off after the row.

camping
harbour entrance
monomoy expedition lunch
school uniform and PC

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Pago Pago

By Kate “Bob” Addison

American Samoa is a very cool place. We are told it it culturally homogeneous with Independent Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), but the USA influence in American Samoa is clear from the golden arches of McDonalds to the huge Ford trucks that everybody seems to drive. Many of the people I spoke to had family in Independent Samoa, or had been born there but moved across to get married or find a job. Plenty of American jobs in American Samoa it seems, but a distinctly Samoan identity.

Geographically it is a chain of steep lush islands, the dark emerald green rainforest reaching high up the mountains and most of the buildings close to the shore line or set a little way up the slope with presumably magnificent views. The rainforest is mainly untouched, though here and there you can see patches that have been cleared for vegetable gardens or planted with banana or papaya groves. One hundred feet up the mountains slope seems to have never been touched by humans, it is that lush. It’s too steep for cattle farming so meat and dairy products are shipped in. Actually, most foods are imported; even fresh produce in spite the rich, dark volcanic soil. We met some locals who told us it was easier to earn money and buy vegetables from abroad than to grow your own – and that makes sense too given the hot, humid climate that makes a stroll down the road as sweaty as a gym session back home. It’s something like an extended stay in an unventilated bathroom with the hot taps running full, and then when the sun comes out it becomes a sauna, with steam rising from every surface.

Picton Castle was moored in Pago Pago harbour in the Island of Tutuila. The harbour looks almost like a fjord, a long, thin cut between the steep mountains. There were a handful of yachts tied up at the far end of the harbour, but it is primarily a commercial harbour with steel long liners tied up outside the fish canning factories, and cargo ships rapidly discharging containers. We got a fair bit of attention just for being there, it seems they are not so used to seeing square riggers and it was fun giving directions to the drivers who were to deliver our provisions: just go down to the harbour, it’s the tall ship next to McDonalds, you can’t miss it!

Provisioning itself was an adventure, there are several wholesalers selling food by the case or sack which was perfect for buying big quantities of canned, dried and frozen staples for our hungry crew, but finding the shops took some exciting bus rides and lots of help from incredibly friendly locals who invariably offered us a lift when we stopped them to ask directions to the next shop. We were pretty excited to find a dairy on our travels, but it turns out there aren’t any cows after all, and the dairy just bottles fruit juice and makes ice-cream from powdered milk and coconut. We tried to find some of the ice cream for research purposes, but could only find it by the 10 litre bucket which seemed a touch excessive for the two of us.

The buses in American Samoa had a distinctly Caribbean feel. They look like converted Ford transit vans with a wooden shell built onto the back and rows of wooden benches. They have Perspex windows that slide open for fresh air when it stops raining, and each bus is decorated differently, most with colourful fabric, fake flowers and feather boas all around the dash, and pumping music. You pull an overhead wire that runs the length of the bus to stop, and if the buzzer isn’t working you just bang on the overhead til the driver notices and swerves off the road to let you hop off. And just one dollar no matter where or how far you go. We met some great people on the buses – one was on his way to the dress rehearsal for the annual Fa’afafine beauty pageant, where he was doing the hair and makeup for the ‘ladies’. He said that once he was finished they looked so fabulous no one would guess they were actually men.

Flag Day is the big annual celebration in American Samoa, celebrating dependence on the USA but with some very Samoan customs, and our visit was well timed so we could be a part of it. The day started early with boat races in the harbour. Each village has a boat with about 50 people rowing each one and hundreds more wearing their colours waving and cheering from the dock. Quite an effort to turn such a long boat, but turn they did at the mouth of the harbour to head back to the finish line close to the ship. Then there’s a parade and the boat crews and crowds all head to the stadium a little way out of town to raise the Samoan and USA flags and crown the victorious rowers.

The rest of the day is filled with entertainment at the stadium: whole villages in very elegant outfits singing and dancing in unison; drummers with traditional boars’ tooth tattoos, heavy dark blue ink from waist to knee. I counted the performers for the last village and there were over 300 people dancing together, the women in long red tunics and lava lava with white flowers across the shoulder and in their hair and the men bare-chested in matching red lava lava with a sort of skirt of thin strips of white fabric hanging over the top, giving the impression of grass skirts. The dancing is fascinating, being very Polynesian but also somehow Asian. Maybe hints of the Balinese in the dancing with small, expressive hand movements performed in unison, much of the dancing performed sitting cross legged in neat rows.

The best bit was at the end of each village’s performance when the big chief man, dressed rather like the other men but with a huge headdress and staff, walked down to the front of the performers and the VIPs in the audience came down one by one to kiss him and throw handfuls of money at him. There were a couple of small girls with baskets running round scooping up the greenbacks before they blew away. It was great sport to watch the discomfort of important-looking US Navy types in smart uniform paying their respects to the chief in such an un-military fashion. Then traditional gifts were presented to the VIPS: woven pandanus hats, fans and huge floor mats, carved model canoes and shell or flowers strung onto long necklaces or eis. Really just like a Navy gift exchange ceremony only with less white uniforms and better drumming. The entertainment ended with prayers just before sunset and then the locals drifted off to feasts and parties in their villages and we wandered off in search of some food and a bus back to town.

So red, white and blue coconuts notwithstanding, we thought it was very cool how strong the Samoan identity seemed to be, and how laid back, kind and friendly the people are there. Next time it would be fun to spend much more time exploring the rest of Tutuila and the other Samoan islands, but right now the Kingdom of Tonga is calling.

Drying sails
flag day crowds
red white and blue coconuts

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American Samoa

By Captain Daniel Moreland and Kate “Bob” Addison

We sailed into American Samoa from Palmerston Atoll in the Cook Islands, about 490 miles to the SE. A light winds passage but sweet enough and under sail every inch until right up to the bay’s entrance.

We put into Pago Pago, Tutuila, pronounced “pungopungo”. Pago lies in a fine deep harbour which, along with Papeete, Tahiti and Suva, Fiji, is the finest in this part of the world. A lovely fine deep harbour too, surrounded by steep high lush green mountains covered in mists.

Clearing in was as courteous as anywhere we have ever been and plenty friendly. The harbourmaster is a nice and very helpful gentleman. The harbour is full of fish boats from all over, with a big tuna canning factory and shipyard. Yes, there are a McDonalds or two but we can live with that. Very friendly folks here.

Wednesday the 17th was Flag Day, or “Dependence Day” I guess, the day these islands came under the US flag a century or so ago. Big festivities all around and huge long boat races, 50′ long boats. Piles of red-white-blue coconuts all over as well as bunting and flags.

Back in the day the US was primarily interested in Samoa as a coaling station and something of a Navy base at the time. No sign of any Navy now. We forget that for a long time steam-ships need coal, and heaps of it. And they couldn’t carry enough on long routes, well, not and also carry cargo. So “coaling stations” were set up all around the world. There still are some odd piles of coal where you might least expect them in tropical ports here and there. This single fact kept sailing ships in business a long time after steam-ships made there way onto the maritime scene. The US Virgin Islands were also acquired in part with this point in mind.

From what we can see, the Samoans here seem quite pleased to be under the American flag. One guy told me that at one point the Yanks were encouraging some kind of ‘independence’ movement but the locals would have none of it. No doubt there is a more nuanced story.

We were happy to be here too, and just as happy to be in a good harbour in these northerly winds we were having with long strong squalls. We docked first at the main container wharf for clearing in, and shifted to a new smaller and verrrry snug berth just moments before a long big violent squall screamed over the mountains. Lucky on the timing. We got the ship all secured before it hit. Would have been maybe impossible to shift the ship in that wind, we would have just stayed where we were and listened to big forklifts all day. Looked like a weather system and not just some squalls.

All’s well, shopping is good here. Few big shops, but plenty of small shops. We are now sorting out fueling at half the price here from Rarotonga, and most other prices lower too, in similar proportions. I would say that Samoans are not shy of a good feed, you should see what is called a light lunch around here. Just for lunch at any old feedery, a plate piled high with taro, rice, odd thick banana stuff, corned beef, spam, half a chicken, and goop on it, bloody high too. Feed a family of six in Haiti for a week and a family of four. And pigs feet, you can actually get pigs feet at any cafeteria, and they look like pigs feet too. Crew report the biggest hamburgers they have ever seen. Cool kind of place. The crew made friends, danced at “Sadie Thompson’s Inn”.

Buses. The buses are pretty neat. Almost all the buses are pick-up trucks of various sizes built to look like what would be an old North American school bus with the rounded edges and corners. And some of these are pretty small taking only eight passengers, but still looking like a school bus or a bus from the 1950s. Costs a dollar to go anywhere.

On Saturday we steamed over to the finest fuel dock I have ever seen, pumped aboard 1,800 US gallons, steamed out of PagoPago Harbour and set sail for Tonga in fine breezes.

Alongside McDonalds
coming alongside fuel dock
PagoPago harbour

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Palmerston, A Doctor’s Perspective

By Dr. Brian McPhillips

The following is taken from extracts of letters home written by ship’s Doctor Brian McPhillips, about his time on Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands, aboard PICTON CASTLE.

We finally left Rarotonga 4/1 (no fooling) with the massive load of cargo and our passengers. Our passengers were fascinating to watch and talk to. They live a life of patience that is unheard of today, reminding me of the covered wagon folks moving west. They didn’t complain as our departure was delayed by two days, seemed immune to physical discomfort, mostly sitting on the top of our cargo hatch which is basically a hard wood surface and slept there at night (including an 81 year old woman who walked around the rolling deck a little unsteadily, always refusing offers of assistance, and all I could see was a broken hip waiting to happen). They smiled continuously and twice as big when their island came into view. None had been home in over two years.

The Captain again finessed anchoring on a ledge about 100 yards outside a crashing reef in 40 feet of clear blue water off the bow and 1000 feet deep off the stern! I couldn’t even see the passage through the roiling water but about six small boats powered by outboards zoomed out to us to unload cargo and passengers. We had another sweaty session of hoisting the entire cargo load brought from Rarotonga into the boats. Then we were divided into two watches with half allowed to go ashore for a day switching each day with a planned four day stay. As the doctor, I’m to be ashore all four days. The trip in was an e-ticket special. We timed the swells and surged through the reef cut ahead of breaking waves, then slalomed across the lagoon with tiny sticks marking coral heads 1 foot below the surface. After being ferried to the beach, we were all met by the mayor who distributed us among families we would stay with.

I would be staying with Tere Marsters. He is the Cook Islands Administrator for Palmerston, former pastor (everyone still calls him pastor) and is currently living alone in a spectacular 2 bedroom home on stilts facing the south shore with a grove of spaced palms between his deck and the white sand beach, reef roaring continuously in the distance. His wife and 16 year old daughter are in New Zealand for nearly a year. The daughter needed a minor operation. That meant taking a cargo ship to Rarotonga, flying to New Zealand and due to the infrequency of ships coming this way; they enrolled her in school locally for a year. The current population is 81 but only 47 are on the island presently. If a parent needs an operation, the whole family goes and returns anywhere from 2 months later on the next boat to 1 year later based on other circumstances.

We sat on the porch and talked, talked while he prepared and ate sizzling fried parrot fish in onions and sweet chili sauce (fabulous) and then talked some more. He eventually said he chose “the doctor” to house so he could enjoy some intellectual conversation. After a while I got used to the scurrying geckos, cockroaches and streams of tiny ants moving freely on the deck and inside the house which he didn’t seem to notice. His proudest accomplishment in his 10 years as administrator was getting a new school built for the 36 kids (there was no school at all for two straight years under the prior administrator) and keeping it staffed adequately. They use an American home schooling program and are reportedly thriving with this.

The timing of our evening was interesting. With all the talking, supper was at 8:30. We were done at 9:30 at which time he suggested a visiting stroll. We walked down the sandy paths and wherever there was a light on, we walked up to say hello, sit down and chat for a few minutes. I have experienced an almost uncomfortable reverence towards me as the doctor. Everyone else is on a first name basis but when Tere introduces me, someone scurries to bring a chair over, put it behind me and say “Please, doctor, have a seat, can we get you something to eat or drink?” We finally got back home at 11:30 (I had been up since 3:30 am for my morning watch) and we sat down to talk some more until the power went off at midnight (they only run generators 6 am-noon and 6 pm-midnight). At that point he asked if I wanted to go out fishing with some of the guys in the morning so of course I agreed. What time should I get up? 5:30 of course! It was a brief but peaceful sleep outside on the deck.

After fishing I changed my shirt and met the local nurse Martha from Fiji at the health clinic. I saw a total of 8 patients with most just happy to see a doctor and make sure they are okay since I’m the first one on the island in 2 years. They all kissed me on both cheeks at the beginning and end of the visits (you don’t get that on the PC or back home!). The clinic is sparse to put it mildly. They lack strong pain medication of any type, have only two types of antibiotics, no lab or X-ray facilities. The ship has much better medical supplies and I’m going to get a boat ride out today or tomorrow to get some spare medication for several people. I’ll hold another clinic tomorrow with many more expected to come in.

Tonight, we are invited for some guitar and singing by Mama Aka, the 87 year old woman I saw in the clinic today. I’m expecting it to be memorable.

4/6/13

Well, it’s been quite a whirlwind couple of days. After my fairly leisurely clinic session on Thursday, I think the word got out. Once Martha the nurse let the world know I had arrived for the day on Friday, people just started appearing and again were perfectly content to sit outside in the shade for a couple of hours for a chance to see “the doctor”. With the demand, we opened the clinic again on Saturday. Nurse Martha is a Seventh Day Adventist and normally cannot work on Saturdays but it is allowed to if it involves service to others so she came in and we saw 16 more people. By my best guess, we saw about 40 of the 47 currently here with well child visits on all the kids.

This evening was the show with the islanders playing their native drums, guitars and ukuleles with a dance performance by them and separate performances by our men and women who really did a remarkable job learning the moves of Cook Islands dancing in just two practice sessions. I didn’t dance as the clinic made me miss the rehearsals but I was videographer and I’m sure everyone will want copies of what I shot.

I finally went for a walk around the circumference of the island today taking 40 minutes including a 5 minute swim in Duke’s Pool, a crystal clear green/blue water area with perfect white sand which is where the Duke of Edinburgh swam on his visit here. Everyone continues to get a chair for “the doctor” wherever I go, still awkward. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do this for me once I’m home. I’m not expecting it on the ship either.

4/8/13

I’m sitting at the table in the salon after morning watch, just processed the >100 photos and videos I took in Palmerston. The last day was probably the most memorable of the trip so far.

I got up early, packed and walked around the village to see all the things others had been telling me about but I missed spending so much time in the clinic. The “village” basically has a wide main street that is soft sand paralleling the north shore and there is another perpendicular path that dives into the woods leading from north to south.

There is a beautiful small white church but most of the other buildings in the main area are abandoned and damaged from the last hurricane in ’06. Closer to the beach are a number of shacks that people move into almost completely during the warmer season as their sturdy in-land concrete homes get too hot with the lack of breeze. Most of the crew stayed in these shacks. Under one thatched roof there might be 6-8 beds. They say when “yachties” arrive and grab a mooring outside the reef, it turns into a race between different families to see who can get to them first and host them on the island. They never accept any money (there’s no use for it on the island anyway with no stores of any kind) but do appreciate some form of work/service in return (the ship’s crew helped complete a roof on an extension of the school this week in addition to my medical services).

The friendliness factor here is off the charts. Every time you passed one of the “mamas,” the family elders usually over 80, they hugged you and kissed both cheeks and most of the kids ran up to you from a distance and gave you a big hug. They are used to having only a nurse so one of the little boys kept saying to me “Hello nurse man.”

We had 10 am church service, the Thanksgiving service, grateful they made it safely to the end of cyclone season (for which I am pretty grateful as well) with everybody but us dressed head to toe in white. They showed us yet another version of unique fascinating singing. Pastor Tere would announce the song and if he called it “Traditional hymn…” ( as opposed to “Sunday School hymn…”) the mamas just launched into an intro that is hard to describe, a very high pitched, high volume whining shrill like they were pinching their noses that somehow ended up sounding like a bagpipe. The younger women then followed in with the lower registers and the men would start the counterpoint of medium and deeper bass voices. It was all in the Maori language. Tere told me the outer Cook Islanders traditionally have no musical accompaniment. They also reached a volume that made your spine tingle and ears ring with only about 20 adults plus maybe 10 older kids and teens who were singing.

After the service we went for the traditional Thanksgiving “feed,” a community meal with everybody bringing way too much food. Donald, our cook, brought his famous fried chicken (DFC) which was a big hit. We had many kinds of fish but also, Sunday is traditionally meat day so there was plenty of chicken, pork, and pasta with meat sauces. The refrigerated coconuts just kept coming and there were about 15 or more baked breads and pastries. After we all had more than enough, we were urged to have more – even our under 20s reached their limit.

Next came the good-bye scene. Oh my! For about an hour, everybody went around person to person with hugs, kisses and very long drawn out farewells. There were some tears on both sides. Then we invited anyone interested to come out and tour the ship so as we were ferried back out, about 25 of the island kids and adults came on separate boats. There was mutual waving goodbye from the boats to those left standing on the beach that was very emotional. The ship visitors boarded and for another hour, tours went round and round, pictures were taken and the hugs and kisses continued.

The Captain finally said it was time to go. Our boys did an encore performance of their song and dance number on the hatch cover and the islanders sang in harmony a traditional farewell song that brought tears to my eyes. Back in their boats, rather than go ashore, they stood off just a little and watched as we all went up the ratlines, loosed sails and raised the anchor, sailing off without the engine. The Captain ordered “Muster on the Quarterdeck” which usually means a lesson or progress report but this time he just directed us to take a long look and wave goodbye. As their faces became smaller off our stern, the captain encouraged us not to forget them, to write or send emails and not do what most “yachties” do which is have their unique experience that they can talk about for the rest of their lives but forget that these are real, good and generous people who consider communication from former visitors among the highlights of their lives. It is because the PC keeps coming back that we are held in such high esteem.

A final happy vignette: I asked Rose, the school teacher from England how she ever wound up here. It turns out her father was in the British Navy in WWII, developed a love of the sea, sailed in a yacht around the world and was shipwrecked and rescued on Palmerston. She has grown up hearing the stories and now has been able to visit and pay something back to the island she owes her existence to.

That’s it for now. Sorry for being so long winded but I wanted to get this down while it is fresh in my mind as I doubt I’ll ever again have four days impact on me so profoundly.

Brian, Tere and some coconuts

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Dancing at Palmerston Atoll

By Kate “Bob” Addison

For me, our visit to Palmerston Atoll, indeed our whole way of life on this South Seas voyaging barque of ours, is summed up by a comment the Captain made to Bill and Metua Marsters, my hosts on Palmerston. He said “none of us are rich, but we have a very rich life.” It’s true for most of the islanders that we visit, and just as true for most of us who sail aboard the Picton Castle.

Our visit to Palmerston was like a summary of all that is wonderful about sailing the South Pacific. From the legendary generosity of our hosts, who hadn’t even met most of us until we arrived on the beach, bag in one hand, flip-flops in the other; to the community spirit and coordination required to unload cargo and crew from ship to boat to shore and then to organise feasts and dances for everybody.

We were certainly kept busy on Palmerston. The traditional Picton Castle – Palmerston dance show needed performers, which meant we had to learn some Polynesian dances and quickly. Rehearsals were intense but fun, with everyone learning how to loosen up and match the dance steps to the words of the songs. The boys, bare-chested in colourful pareau, did two short dances, taught by shipmate Taia – one a special Picton Castle Haka, the second an interpretation of a song called “Silver Dollar”.

The girls, bedecked with flowers, learned a very lyrical dance to a traditional Polynesian love song, and for competitive purposes would like to point out that it’s much more impressive to learn a dance to a Maori song than an English one. Just saying….

We all got to relax after our performances and watch the adorable Palmerston children showing off their dancing. Finally everyone made a big circle for the ‘round the world’ dance; groups of 3 or 4 couples at a time were called into the middle of the circle to dance, swinging hips and knocking knees to the insistent rhythms of the drums. Mandatory, all hands dancing. It was brilliant fun, with nearly the whole island gathered down by the beach in the shade of the coconut trees, our ship in the background at anchor near the reef.

Sunday was a feast day to celebrate the official end of hurricane season, and almost the whole island gathered to share an enormous table-groaning spread laid out along three big tables. Some of us helped to prepare the feast too – going out on fishing expeditions, or husking coconuts. We were taught how to make traditional Polynesian dishes such as ika mata, similar to ceviche or poisson cru, it’s a raw fish dish marinated in coconut milk and a dash of lime, sometimes with onion or other vegetables chopped very fine, sometimes plain. Both coconut and fish featured heavily in the menu, as both are abundant here. There are pigs and chicken on the island too, but the majority of other foods are imported.

Most of the cargo we carried from Rarotonga was food – freezers full of meat, dairy and bread and sacks of vegetables, rice and flour. It’s hard to grow vegetables when there’s no soil, only sand. The islanders do a pretty good trade in fish to Rarotonga. We are looking forward to returning to Palmerston in six weeks or so when we will be spending our Aloha Polynesia voyage delivering cargo to the outer Cook Islands.

In between the feasting and the dancing we got to know people from the island, wandering between houses and stopping in for a cup of tea and a chat. We were much in demand to make up teams for beach volleyball and football, and the little children got lots of attention from our gang, running round, playing clapping games or finding hermit crabs to race. The swimming and snorkeling in the lagoon were excellent – it was refreshingly cool and clear with plenty of reef fish, rays and even a few good-sized reef sharks, which caused plenty of excitement. Sam and Allison took the monomoy out sailing in the lagoon with mainly local children for crew, and two of the nights ended with a sing-sing down on the beach with everybody singing their favourite songs accompanied by guitar and ukulele.

Then on the last day after we all got back aboard to sail onward, we had many of the islanders aboard the ship, we did some dances, they sang some songs and there was much hugging and saying goodbye before the Palmerstonians headed back into their boats and we ran up aloft to loose all sail, heaved up the anchor and sailed off the hook at the end of another wonderful island adventure. Most of the boats lingered nearby as we loosed sail, hove up the anchor and sailed off the hook for islands downwind.

boys dancing
little dancing girls
Nadja
P C dancing girls and the band

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Palmerston Island – An Introduction

By Kate “Bob” Addison

It’s another Monday morning in the South Pacific for the Barque Picton Castle and her crew, in position 17°33’S, 163°58’W. All square sails are set except for the mainsail, and yards are braced square as we run dead downwind towards Samoa.

It’s our first day back at sea after an amazing visit to Palmerston Atoll, our third and final Cook Island call of this South Pacific Voyage. And as always after an incredible island adventure it’s good to be back at sea, in our familiar ship with familiar work to do, the company of our shipmates and the peace of a wide sky and the open ocean.

Palmerston is not like anywhere else I’ve ever been, though it certainly has similarities with other South Pacific islands – especially Pitcairn and Aitutaki, I thought. A very beautiful low sandy atoll, Palmerston Island or Home Island is set in a huge, crystal clear lagoon, ringed with motu. It’s the only inhabited island in the lagoon and the population is 49, (plus the four passengers we carried from Rarotonga!).

Palmerston is isolated; almost 300 miles to the northwest of the other southern Cook Islands it is often considered part of the Northern Group, though it’s also nearly 300nm from Palmerston to Suwarrow, the most southerly island of the true Northern Group. Shipping services from Rarotonga to Palmerston are infrequent, counted in visits per year rather than per month. Yachts stop by occasionally, but boat or ship is the only way to get there, so a visit from the Picton Castle is very special both for our crew, and for the Palmerstonians.

We anchored just outside the pass in the reef, so the outflow from the lagoon and prevailing wind would help to keep the ship’s head towards the reef rather than swinging around on the anchor chain. The bow of the ship was anchored in about five fathoms of water and the stern in maybe 100 fathoms as the shelf drops off into the deep open ocean – so deep we couldn’t get a depth reading from the stern. This extreme underwater topography means you have to anchor unnervingly close to the reef, so half the ship’s company always stayed aboard in case of having to head out to sea in a hurry. The starboard anchor actually held beautifully this time and the weather was perfect for this anchorage with steady winds off the reef; but as Captain says this is not a place to be complacent about your anchorage.

The other half of the crew stayed ashore with local people, the watches switching over early each afternoon. We stayed in the homes of the three extended families on Palmerston – each family descended from one of the three Polynesian wives of William Marsters, the English adventurer who settled on the island and cultivated a huge number of coconut trees there in the mid eighteen hundreds. Bill Marsters, the current head of the ‘middle family’ showed us copies of papers from the National Archives in London, in which a Mr Darcy disputed Marsters’ licence to settle on Palmerston, claiming pre-existing rights to the island. I found it funny to think of nineteenth century bureaucrats sitting in an office in London trying to decide who should be allowed to plant coconuts on this tiny sandy island on the other side of the world.

But the people of Palmerston still have a very British identity as well as a rich Polynesian culture. I get the impression that the British identity was encouraged by missionaries who established the church as an important cultural focus and English as the working language, though most people speak Cook Islands Maori too. The church is a fine building, set at the intersection of the two main roads across the island, and there are six services each week and three on Sundays. Everybody wears their best clothes for church, with ladies in the traditional Cook Islands white rito hats, woven by hand from thin strips of boiled coconut fronds.

The roads are wide flat avenues of white coral sand, lined on both sides with palm trees, which provide welcome shade from the bright sun. Almost nobody wears shoes on the island, and you can circumnavigate the beautiful shore line on foot in about a half hour, or a little longer if you stop to collect shells and take photographs. The houses vary from simple huts near the beach with beds for guests with brightly coloured patterened sheets, and maybe an adjoining hut with toilet and fresh water tap and bucket for washing, to modern two story houses with balconies and all of the fittings you would expect of a any house in Europe or America.

I stayed close to the beach and the breeze coming in from the lagoon was almost as glorious as being able to watch the sunrise from my bed. Not that we were ever in bed much after sunrise as there was too much going on to waste time sleeping – stories of our Palmerston activities to follow!

Beach and P C at sunset
loading the boats for the watch change
unloading cargo

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At Anchor At A South Pacific Atoll

Morning broke clear and fair with gentle winds blowing across the lagoon and reef to our ship at anchor. In the low light of the early morning sun, the blue seas and skies takes on a rare richness.

We are anchored close to the reef and just to leeward of a small atoll deep in the South Pacific ocean. There is no other way but to anchor close. By any conventional measure, too close. A narrow shelf of anchorable depths of say, 4 to 12 fathoms drops off to thousands of feet a short cable off the reef. Anchor here or don’t anchor, heave-to instead.

But if conditions are favourable and steady, and if you keep a full navigational watch alert and ready to up anchor and beat it, there is no reason not to anchor for spell. But remain alert. Do remain alert. Many small South Pacific ships have ended their days during moments of complacency and on reefs just like this one. Including this one.

From where we swing at anchor we see the broad turquoise lagoon surrounded by small coconut-palm covered motus, nine in all, one inhabited by the 50 islanders that are hosting half our crew ashore just now. This afternoon the watches will switch out. A steady surge and boom of the surf on the reef hums louder and then softer not far from our bow. The ships heaves gently to the swell. As the sun steeves the lagoon and the small boat passes in the reef shine so brightly it hurts the eyes – it is beautiful none the less, insanely beautiful.

Minutes after we dropped the hook here yesterday, we were surrounded by island boats eager to take their cargo and supplies ashore – there our crew heaved away in excellent team work that would have impressed the old salts, hoisting from the hold and lowering on tackles into boats and barges alongside heaps of bags, packets, parcels and big boxes. This scene was yesterday, and now, but it could have been any time in the last two hundred years – and yet, our crew were providing a much needed service to this island. Cargo swung into the waiting boats, half the crew ashore, a deck sweep, and a swing rope rigged on to the starboard fore-yard arm and a swim call for the watch, not so bad. And a notch or two up from the old days. Followed by a vigilant anchor watch all night long. And, yes, the islanders brought heaps of cool coconuts for drinking, nothing quite like one cool nut to drink and dribble down your neck, best drink in the world.

They say you can used to almost anything in a couple weeks. Boot camp, mountain climbing rigors, a soul can even get used to being in a life boat after two weeks we read. You can also get used to day in day out astonishing beauty and wonder to the point all too quickly when the wonder slips away and all becomes normal and you take it for granted. This morning could be one of those moments, a day all very common in our lives in Picton Castle, yet it would be sad not to take it in, savour it for all it is worth and especially save it for another day, when the voyage is past and yet we sail onward in our memories…

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Cargo, Easter Weekend and Weather

By Kate “Bob” Addison

The evening of Easter Saturday finds Picton Castle still snug in her berth in Avatiu Harbour, Rarotonga, Cook Islands. By now we were planning to be underway, well on our way to Aitutaki with our hold filled with cargo for the outer Cook Islands, and our bunks full of passengers – mostly islanders taking the rare opportunity to get home. But unfortunately the weather gods seem to have very little respect for our carefully laid plans, and have conspired to produce singularly unhelpful wind forecasts for the next few days.

Aitutaki is due north of Rarotonga, and Palmerston lies to the northwest, making the prevailing easterly trade winds perfect for a passage from Rarotonga. Unfortunately the weather we are seeing now is not the usual steady trade winds, but the effect of a small low pressure system passing through the region and creating northwest and westerly winds. If we were to have left on schedule the winds would have had the combined effect of turning the next passage into an uncomfortable motorboat ride, bashing into wind and swell and then, worse, making it impossible for us to unload cargo once we finally made it to Palmerston.

At Palmerston, as at so many other islands, the boats must come out to the ship through a narrow pass in the reef on the west side, usually lee side of the island in the normal easterly tradewinds. This they cannot do if there is big westerly swell crashing on the reef, nor can a ship like ours anchor there under these conditions. We would have to stay well off shore. The thought of a couple or three of days hove-to off Palmerston in rolly weather was not so appealing, so Captain decided we were better off spending the weekend alongside in Avatiu – let this low blow through and winds get back to normal – and so here we are.

Today was busy, hot and hard work but rather fun, loading all of our cargo into the hold. The chest freezers packed with meat and vegetables went into the hold first, hoisted into the newly organised and emptied space using tackles on the yard and stay. A mate calls the loading operation for each piece of cargo, and a team on each tackle hoist away, hold or lower as ordered in order to lift the freezer or whatever up from the dock, swing it in over the rail and lower it down into the cavern that is the open cargo hold once the timber and tarpaulin hatch is removed. Eased into position using a tag line and a couple of hands, the freezers and everything that follows is neatly stacked, Tetris style, before being lashed to make sure it stays put when we’re underway.

Next after the freezers were the barrels for deck cargo, lining the starboard breezeway where the huge blank spars used to be before being hoisted ashore to make more room. Next were two giant water tanks, hollow cylinders made of tough green plastic, they are destined for public use on Palmerston, and I expect they will be a big help in managing water security on the island. Quite challenging to load something so bulky, but the plan worked well and they went in with no problems. Then, after the very bulky stuff was loaded, the smaller break-bulk cargo could be stacked on top – boxes, bags and sacks of a very mixed domestic cargo including everything from crates of eggs to a child’s tricycle.

We also loaded fresh provisions today. Dry food, cans and frozen meat arrived yesterday, but today was the Saturday market. Nadja was there by 6am, and by 7:30 she’d visited all of the produce stalls and bought an amazing array of fresh fruit and veggies. The quality is very good here, and I very much enjoyed walking round the market helping to collect everything she bought. It took several trips, but luckily the market is barely a cable from the ship so the walk was short if well laden. We would have had more people to help carry, but Sam needed all hands to lift and launch the monomoy, so we were each carrying a minor mountain of vegetation and hatching plans to build ourselves a hand cart for next time.

Meanwhile, the monomoy was upside down over on the hard at the other end of the harbour – she’d been getting some TLC while we’ve been here, recaulking and sealing for her bottom seams and a fresh coat or two of copper bottom paint should keep her watertight and protect the wood for another year or so. Only 23 feet long, but very solidly built, lifting the monomoy takes some serious power. Handling her manually makes us appreciate the powerful reduction on the block and tackle of the boat falls that we use to hoist her back up out of the water, until she’s hanging off the port side of the quarterdeck from the steel davits.

Good Friday was a very good day. All hands were working until lunch, and then after a visit from another group of school children, the off watches were cut loose. Most of them spent the afternoon and evening at a big annual Easter beach music festival, with plenty of local and imported live music, food carts, grassy patches to laze about on and a sand dance floor in front of the stage. Picton Castle crew contributed to the entertainment too – our very own Finn was a great success with his gas-can banjo, and our gang were dancing centre front for pretty much the whole evening. There were fairy lights in all the trees and bonfires close to the shore once it got dark, the whole effect was very pretty and magical.

So now everything is ready for us to sail on Monday, and we’re making the most of being ready early with two thirds of the crew getting the whole day off tomorrow, and the duty watch looking forward to a quiet and easy ‘Sunday almost at Sea’. We will celebrate Easter with a big lunch and ice cream, and there might even be chocolate eggs if the Easter bunny pays a visit…

From the crew of the Picton Castle to all our friends around the world, Happy Easter weekend!

caulking sydney
loading break bulk
Waiting to receive cargo

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