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The Magic of Palmerston

By Kate “Bob” Addison

15 June 2013

Most people in the world never get to visit Palmerston Island, but thanks to the Picton Castle I find myself here for the second time in just a few months. And this time we had the privilege to carry ten Palmerstonians home with us from Rarotonga as well as the ship’s cargo hold, nearly full of assorted break-bulk domestic cargo. Our crew head ashore and back to the ship through the narrow passes in the reef in the islanders’ tough work boats into the lagoon and onto the coral sand shores of “Home Island” and get shared out into islanders homes.

Upstairs in my bedroom at Bill and Metua Marsters’ Yacht Club on Palmerston Island, the fresh southeasterly breeze is blowing in through the large unglazed windows. The overhead light is already switched off and I’m typing by the light of my head torch. The point of bright light strapped to my forehead has brought some moths out of the darkness and every now and then one crash lands on my face all aflutter. The occasional insect bounces off the screen, attracted by the glow, and there’s a delicate beetle in the style of an underfed earwig that’s been scurrying around the top left corner for the past ten minutes. The sounds are of palm fronds rustling in the wind, and of lagoon water sloshing gently across sand. It’s a fresh, white, tropical noise. The main smell up here is the timber of the building and a hint of sweet tiare and frangipani flowers.

The weather has turned noticeably chilly – the first time in months I’ve needed a blanket at night and the coolness of the fresh breeze makes for excellent sleeping weather. It is, in fact, winter here in the southern hemisphere. But the same cooling breeze was less restful for the Picton Castle last night – she was anchored in her usual place on a shelf, close to the reef on the western side of the lagoon in the outflow of the pass through the reef. At about 3am the strengthening breeze pushed the ship out away from the reef and she dragged her anchor right off the shelf and into the deep water just a few meters away. This is the reason Captain keeps half the crew aboard the ship at any time in these typically difficult South Seas anchorages.

So the crew on board were called on deck to hoist back the shot and a half of anchor chain (that’s about 20 fathoms or 130 feet of chain) that was hanging straight down into the deep. The main engine was fired up quickly, but was not really needed as the trade winds were pushing the Picton Castle safely away from the reef. For the next hour the crew slowly but surely got anchor back onboard, with much sweat and grunting. The ship remained hove-to for the night, drifting slowly to leeward with a nice easy motion. It’s actually safer to heave to in this way than anchor, though it means less sleep for the crew. Then in the morning the ship steamed back to the anchorage and with the help of Bob Marsters and Chief Mate Paul, who dove and marked the perfect spot with a buoy, they were able to set the anchor perfectly, where she lay securely for the remainder of our stay on Palmerston.

Meanwhile ashore, the off watch were sleeping peacefully, enjoying the magic of a night on Palmerston after a busy day of snorkeling, volleyball and eating. Palmerston is an incredible place and it’s sometimes hard to believe that we actually get to go there, from the postcard beauty of the palm fringed white coral beaches and turquoise lagoon to the perfect kindness and hospitality of our hosts. The Palmerstonians could not be more generous in sharing what they have with us – they welcome us into their homes, give us beds with brightly coloured covers to sleep in, feed us with parrot fish, local chicken and chops until we’re much too full and then object very strongly when we try to help wash the dishes. The little children run out for hugs and the mamas kiss each of us on both cheeks welcoming us to their island and their homes. Wander around Palmerston and it won’t be long before you’re invited in to somebody’s home for a cup of tea or some cold juice and a chat about what the old Picton Castle crew are doing now, about home and about family and friends across the sea.

But we like to think it’s not an entirely one-sided experience and we do our best to give something back to the people of Palmerston too. From carrying their families and cargo from Rarotonga to running a Saturday shop ashore selling basic foodstuff, toothbrushes, flip flops, timber, and machetes. People were a bit disappointed that we didn’t have soft drinks, chocolate biscuits or tobacco to sell, but the children had fun digging through the second hand clothing from Canada and buying bridesmaid dresses and hats for a dollar an item.

18 June 2013

And now it’s Tuesday morning and we are at sea again, Palmerston Island already feeling like something of a glorious tropical dream as we get back to real life aboard our familiar ship. On Monday morning we invited the whole island out to the ship for a little light lunch and a look around the ship before we sailed. It was happy chaos with children swarming everywhere and the adults congregating around the hatch and bridge chatting with our crew and trainees and with each other. The school children had prepared a dance display for us accompanied by the traditional Cook Island drumming, and then there was a round the world dance where men choose a lady and the couples dance together first slow and then fast in the middle of the circle, or in this case, in the middle of the cargo hatch.

Great fun for both crew and locals but even the loveliest of times must end sometime. So the Captain thanked the locals sincerely for looking after our crew so well, and for coming aboard to see us off and there were hugs and kisses and goodbyes before the locals all climbed down into their strong aluminium boats leaving the crew and our passengers for Pukapuka to get ready to go back out to sea.

Our crew needed to quickly switch back into sailor mode, so we split up into watches to clean and stow the ship for sea, before a full man overboard drill was called with all gear deployed and the rescue boat launched and recovered. Oscar the MOB buoy was recovered quickly and without incident and the gear was all washed in fresh water and replaced in its brackets around the ship. Finally Captain was happy that we were ready to get underway, so we heaved up the anchor, ran up aloft to loose topsails, staysails and courses and set sail on a new course bound north by west for Nassau.

After church
All aboard
Church
Dan Hakon and Tamatoa
Hats in church
Lagoon
Lunch
Main Street
Shanna in a hat
Ship s shop

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