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Palmerston Atoll – Home Island

Barque Picton Castle at Palmerston Atoll 18-03.7S / 163-11.5W – Home Island

We had a boisterous but swift passage the 270 miles from Avatiu, Rarotonga, Cook Islands northwest to Palmerston Atoll, also in the Cook Islands. Only 43 hours at sea and it could have been shorter but we reduced sail and slowed down to avoid arriving when it was still dark of night. Strong winds drew us along at 8 knots at times but strong winds also mean heavy seas. A bit rough on our new joiners, maybe even a bit of a shock. The old hands have had thousands of miles to get used to large ocean swells. And it was rough enough for us too. But it was a great passage anyway. We hove into sight of the low atoll only a few miles away in the mist, early in the AM as we sailed along at 6.5 knots under lower topsails and a couple of fore n’ aft sails to steady the ship some. Of course, reducing sail to slow down also means that we bounce around more. Nothing to be done about it. We must set the anchor in good high light.

Palmerston Atoll was first discovered and named by Captain James Cook in 1774. The only Cook Island that the famous explorer ever saw or visited. Later the Frigate PANDORA in hot pursuit of Fletcher and the boys on the BOUNTY stopped by here some years later and actually found a spanker gaff belonging to the fated ship. I  guess it was labeled somehow. Must have been carved into. Palmerston was uninhabited then and remained so until William Marsters of England, a sailing ship mariner and ship’s carpenter, decided to set up housekeeping there in 1863. I do not have any idea why this atoll would remain uninhabited while so many others boasted large populations but so it is. A much longer story full of the romance of the South Seas, he settled there with three wives who came from Tongareva. Akakingaro, Tepou and Matavia and William settled here planted palms, harvested copra and produced 21 children in the later 19th century. The fringe reef has about six readily inhabitable motus but these are enjoyed on coconut crab hunting expeditions and camping. Everyone lives on “Home Island” with about 60 folks normally in full-time residence, only 40 just now with some folks off island. And there are 15 kids in the lovely school here. School kind of comes to a halt when the Picton Castle shows up. Instant summer holidays, days at the beach for all. The entire atoll is just under 7 miles long at its broadest north and south and Home Island is less than 1,000 yards wide and more or less roundish. But set in the SW corner of the atoll for best weather protection. There are a few passes in the reef on the lee side where small boats can get in and out in lots of current. These we got to experience many times. Good local knowledge and expert boat handling required.

It is quite amazing to feel the lumpy seas just vanish as we sailed into the lee and calm of the fringe reefs of Palmerston. From 12 to 15 foot seas to maybe one-foot seas and no swell at all in the matter of a quarter mile. As we slid into the lee and settled down we talked to the islanders on the radio. As they have done so well in the past they come out in their boats to help spot and set the anchor where it will hold the best. This does mean, however, steering the ship right up close to the reef to drop the hook. It is very very tempting for a deepwater mariner to want anchor further off, but it won’t work. You have to anchor on the ledge and let the winds hold you off the reef. And the ship needs to remain well-manned to up anchor and get away from the island quickly if conditions call for it. Scary stuff getting so close to the coral reef, if I did not know we could do this safely, and more, that it was the only way to anchor, I would not dream of it. So with the anchor down in 30 feet holding hard, the stern in 80 feet and two ship lengths astern maybe 1,000 feet deep and on to 3,000, we got sorted for four days of amazing windswept atoll life at Palmerston Atoll deep in the South Pacific.



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