Captain's Log

Archive for the 'South Pacific Voyage 2012-2013' Category

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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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Rarotonga Update

By Kate “Bob” Addison

We’ve been busy unloading the hold ready to take cargo to the outer Cooks. Second mate and handy carpenter Sam built a new platform to help keep the cargo better organised and make more usable space – the hold looks huge when it’s all empty. Now the crew are loading lumber and totes of food back in again.

Meanwhile over at a warehouse on the wharf, chief mate Michael is accepting, organising and measuring cargo with a team of helpers. We’re accepting all kinds of cargo, bags of rice to freezers full of frozen food, and of course adding names of passengers to the list. Our route for the next few weeks will be somewhat determined by where the cargo is bound for – so far we have lots of cargo for Aitutaki and Palmerston Atoll.

The outdoor market on Saturday right nearby the ship was lovely and we bought lots of fresh fruit and veggies. There were drummers and dancers, cold nu (young coconuts) to slurp from and lots of wood carvings, shell jewellery and colourful pareaus. Our sailing time is set for 1pm on Saturday so we’ll have time to go to the market once more before we sail and stock up for the next passage.

The off watch have been taking Sea Never Dry, our Lunenburg-built dory, out for day sails, round to Trader Jacks, or anchoring off the reef to do some snorkelling before sailing back. Some people have rented cars or scooters, or taken one of the dozen or so bikes from the ship to tour around the island.

Church on Sunday was very lovely, and we were all invited in for tea and sandwiches after to meet the locals and other tourist types. We had the local Sea Scouts aboard yesterday, and the children from the Avarua Catholic School are coming at lunchtime today to visit the ship. We’re having a dinner for all of the Palmerston people here in Raro tonight – there seem to be dozens of Marsters here, so I’m looking forward to matching names to faces.

The pictures in pareaus are from a workshop/fashion show/marlinspike we had just before Aitutaki to make sure people knew how to dress properly before we got to the Cooks!

Dancing at the Saturday market Rarotonga
Dawson at the Pareau fashion show
Nadja helps unload the cargo hold
Niko guiding the blank spar onto the dock
Pareau fashion show (1)
Pareau fashion show (7)
Sailing Sea Never Dry to Trader Jacks
Vaka training

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Aitutaki 2

By Kate “Bob” Addison

During our stay in Aitutaki, Picton Castle was anchored right in the pass in the reef opposite the main town of Arutanga. The idea is that the outflow from the lagoon keeps the ship’s head to the reef, and stops her swinging about too much.

There is a more or less constant outflow because there is a more or less constant inflow in to the lagoon over the reef between the motus on the windward side. Anchoring in the pass works well most of the time, though we did swing when the wind and tide were contrary. Quite exciting to have our stern to the reef, and the watch on duty ready to heave up the anchor, fire up the main engine and get underway at a moment’s notice should the anchor start dragging or the winds and swell become too strong and make the anchorage unsafe. We didn’t have to move in the end, and Captain says this is the first of the bad South Pacific anchorages – he said it is actually quite good for a terrible anchorage, and welcome to the real South Pacific!

To get ashore, the duty watch ran a scheduled skiff service in through the pass in the coral. It was a bit exciting with breakers all along the reef and full throttle needed to go in against the currents, which rip and swirl in the narrow gap in the reef. We are told that there’s been talk about blasting the pass to make it large enough for ships to come inside. It has been talked of for years we are told, but no sign of it actually happening.

I have to confess I’m quite glad as it’s so pretty and peaceful here, anchored a little way offshore, and the skiff ride is good fun. Though it’s true we would all sleep better if we were snug inside the reef, especially the Captain and mates who are called by the crew member on night watch if the weather changes, or in any doubt.

There was much enthusiasm to sail the monomoy around this stunning lagoon, so on the second day at anchor the watch launched and proceeded to tow the monomoy with the skiff through the strong outflow of the reef pass. A bit of a tricky operation, the mate rigged up the tow line off a bridle and hooked up to the monomoy with the second mate at the steering oar on the monomoy to keep her from getting out of shape and veering off into the reef. Both boats got through without a problem and the tow was let go off the beach next to the small boat landing inside and the monomoy gracefully coasted in, dropped an anchor and swung around stern to the steep beach and tied up her stern to a perfectly situated coconut tree.

The following two days the watches took turns setting out on epic lagoon sailing, leaving mid morning with the sun climbing overhead to light up the coral heads to be avoided. A lookout standing on the bow forward was need almost the whole time with hand signals indicating with way to turn in order to miss the coral head. The wind was perfect for this, not too strong and the monomoy snaked her way around the pale blue lagoon with relative ease. Upon finding a particularly stunning section of deep blue water with tall coral around, the monomoy would drop her perfect little old fashioned stock anchor in 20 or so feet of water, sail would be taken in and a swim call would ensue.

We also welcomed a group of school children aboard on Friday afternoon – the year 5 and 6 classes from Vaitau Primary School had been studying Tall Ships as part of a wider curriculum about international trade and shipping. They came out in the skiff, very well behaved, all in lifejackets, and sang us some lovely songs after their tour of the ship. The children also gave us jars of jam, some for the ship (delicious, thank you!) and some for us to take as “cargo” to the schools in the outer Cook Islands, along with letters that they had written to the children there.

We like having children aboard – it’s great seeing how excited they are, and how quickly they take everything in, and reminds us of what a cool thing it is to be sailing all over the world in a beautiful traditionally rigged ship. We hope it might broaden the perspectives of the kids and maybe inspire some of them to become sailors one day, or to pursue any other dreams that they might have.

Mooring monomoy after a day sail
Rowing monomoy out through the pass at Aitutaki
students on Aitutaki make jam in school and brought some to the ship

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Aitutaki

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Aitutaki was the Picton Castle’s first call of this voyage in the fabulous Cook Islands. The second most populated of the Cooks, Aitutaki is to Rarotonga what Bora Bora is to Tahiti – similar in style but smaller, sleepier and even more heartbreakingly beautiful. We anchored off the pass at about 1000 last Tuesday and customs and immigration officials sorted us quickly. It is amazing to see the surf pounding on the reef so close with a beautiful blue lagoon and green island not too far off after a week at sea.

Aitutaki is an atoll with a central proper island, less than 10km long and maybe a quarter as wide. The top of the island is a sharp, straight hook, the narrow peninsula being almost entirely taken up with an impressively long runway, built by the American military in WWII.

From this hook the reef continues in a more or less straight line, turning corners at the famous One Foot Island and Maina Motu, to make a distinctive triangular shaped lagoon. The lagoon colour varies from bright blue through crystal clear turquoise to a darkish green, and the temperature changes too, from refreshingly cool in the clear water, to soup-warm in the greenish parts where there is almost no flow of fresh salt water from the dark blue ocean.

There are amazing sandbars so you can splash way out into the lagoon ankle deep, and then dive off the sandbar into deep clear water. The snorkelling is amazing too; there are coral heads dotted everywhere attracting colourful fishes and I saw the biggest giant clam I have ever seen, at least a meter across and rather startling when it suddenly snapped its shell shut inches from my toes. We are told that you DO NOT want to get your foot stuck in one of these.

An island of incredible natural beauty, Aitutaki is much lower than Bora Bora or Rarotonga with just one small mountain, Maungapu, at the northern end of the island. The mountain itself is said to have been stolen from Rarotonga by the warriors of Aitutaki. According to the story, the warriors decided that they needed a mountain for their island – at that time just a sandy atoll – and so they took their canoes and went on a marauding expedition to steal the mountain of Raemaru from Rarotonga. When they got up close they realized the mountain was a bit too big for Aitutaki so they just took the top part back with them, carried aloft between them on their spears, and fighting off the Rarotongan warriors with their spare hands. Back on Rarotonga the mountain of Raemaru is still distinctly flat-topped today, a reminder of where Maungapu was sliced off in the days of legend. All makes perfect sense to me…

The first European discoverer of Aitutaki was Captain Bligh, arriving on the Bounty in April 1789 – just 17 days before the famous mutiny. It is said that he dropped off the first papaya, now growing everywhere. European missionaries followed soon after in the 1820s and 30s, and their influence is still strongly felt in the Cook Islands today as faith is a large part of life here. As it is described here; “they brought the Gospel”. There are many churches on Aitutaki, the oldest dates from 1828 and is very lovely with simple arched stained glass windows and painted wood carvings decorating the high arched roof and round pillars. Sunday is recognized as a holy day; most shops and cafes are closed and more or less the only traffic on a Sunday morning are bikes, cars and trucks carrying the faithful to church, dressed in their Sunday best. The ladies almost all wear elaborate straw hats, some decorated with fresh flowers, some with white or coloured straw flowers, the men mostly suits and ties despite the heat.

The singing in Cook Islands churches is justifiably famous. Something magical happens when the strong and joyful Polynesian voices join together in song. The men and women sing different parts and the harmonies ring out, powerful and true, easily filling the church.

There is also evidence of the island’s strong faith outside of church – almost every house has a sign posted in the garden with slogans like: “Say no to Sunday flights, the Sabbath is more important than the dollar!”. Religious views aside, I found it rather nice to spend time in a place that so openly recognises value other than the financial.

Aitutaki’s cafés and shops are more spread out than on Huahine or Bora Bora, and transport is helpful. Luckily the main road around the island is very flat so a bicycle is perfect, or for the less energetic, mopeds and cars are pretty cheap to hire and good fun to buzz around the island. Most of our gang hired mopeds for a day or two – Signe formed a 50cc biker gang on her off-watch, known as “Skou’s Angels”. The local people mostly ride on mopeds – even very tiny children, still in diapers, clinging tight to mummy or daddy’s back and the very littlest held on to the grown up with a pareau tied round their middle. The older children fly around on bicycles, dodging the chickens that wander in the road, tiny fluffy chicks in tow.

Transport was nice to have, but walking was a delight too. Strolling along the main road just outside of the town of Arutanga at sunset the sounds are terribly evocative and tropical – birds warbling in the trees, cocks crowing, crickets chirping and the sea breeze making the palm fronds swish a little. The scents of frangipani and tiare mingle with the clean salty smell of the seashore and the stars are bright overhead. So walking was a delight but surprisingly hard to do – I found it impossible to walk more than 100 meters without being offered a lift in a car, pick-up truck or on the back of a moped. And if they didn’t stop then the moped riders would all give a wave or a smile. It really does feel as though we are genuinely welcome here, and not just for our tourist dollars (though of course the “Picton Castle economic stimulus package” does bring in a few dollars to hotels, car hire, ice cream and souvenir shops).

The sense of wellbeing we found at Aitutaki was increased by the glorious weather – it’s the first settled weather we’ve had for a while, and the bright sunshine makes everyone cheerful. It helps that the sails finally got properly dry, so the on-watch are spared the daily duty of loosing all sail, flashing them out, or setting the sails briefly to spill any water out and then bunting them back up immediately, and stowing again at the end of the day. The accommodation is all nicely dried and aired too, which makes everything smell better below. It’s hot when the sun beats down, but there’s almost 50% cloud cover most days, white and fluffy scudding sedately across the bright blue skies bringing welcome shade and cool. It’s like the weather is joining the people to welcome us to the Cook Islands.

Gabe climbing for coconuts
Lady on her way to church
Scooters with a view

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Bora Bora 2

Bora Bora – what an evocative name, no? If the soft drum beat of Bora Bora drifting murmuring past your ears does not conjure up visions of the South Pacific, what will?

(Well, I’ll get to that more later when we consider Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Manihiki, Rakahanga… sweeeeeet)

Bora Bora, the name and the island, may well be the most and best recognized of south seas idol sirens. This no doubt is due to the fact that it truly is a beautiful tall mountain island in a lovely setting of a young atoll lagoon. But this world wide recognition of Bora Bora as the “south seas paradise” probably also has something to do with the Second World War and some US Navy sailors a long time ago.

Sometime after the commencement of hostilities in the Pacific in the early 1940’s, the USA sent a large contingent of the US Navy to occupy the island in order to set up and operate an air strip. They figured that they needed airstrips every so often to get airplanes across the broad Pacific to reach and supply the western islands where some real war was going on, Solomons, New Guinea, Guadalcanal and so forth.

But there were some ticklish points to consider; Bora Bora was France and France was out of the war, a large part of France was under occupation by Nazi Germany and the rest under the the collaborationist regime known as Vichy France which was openly unfriendly to the Allied cause. This US presence at Bora Bora no doubt irritated the government of Vichy France, but they could do little about it being so far removed, virtually half a planet away. And maybe they had their own troubles closer to home anyway.

Back to the story. WWII was a rough go a lot of places where soldiers and sailors were sent. But not everywhere was so seriously affected, not every military installation was on constant “red alert”, anti-aircraft guns manned and jittery, tensions running high. Bora Bora became legend in the annals of the Pacific war as the “oh-my-gosh-you-were-based-there in the war?” You see, absolutely nothing of a martial nature occurred at Bora Bora. Not a single shot fired in anger, no sign of anyone you might call an “enemy”. Just a bunch of young America Navy guys from the cities and farms of the United States looking after an air strip they scraped off a motu (now the modern airport for the island, naturally enough), making friends with the locals of this beautiful, friendly unspoiled sunny tropical island with sweet lagoons for fishing, diving, sailing, swimming, feasting, dancing of a night, making coconut wine, walks on the beach holding hands… and nothing resembling war anywhere near or, even thought of that much perhaps.

Then the war is over. Probably the news came by telegram, no doubt a big party to celebrate, after that, nothing, just as before. Bora Bora changes not at all, except that these men head home. And they tell stories of “their war” – perhaps some were chagrined to admit how easy they had it at Bora Bora while others fought and slogged it out. More probably a little bit quiet about how many babies they left behind at Bora Bora. Yes, there is something of a generation of half American Bora Bora islanders born circa 1943-46. Anyway, the legends of Bora Bora in the modern western consciousness were born along with these babies, now grandparents themselves. Now let us slip forward a few decades and bring our Picton Castle crew into the picture.

After a day sail from Huahine only 40 miles to the east and steaming through the well marked pass, we anchored off the small main town of Vaitape at Bora Bora. The anchorage is deep but very good holding as we found out that night when some particularly strong squalls blew through. Our big 1,500 pound anchor and about 300 feet of stout inch and a quarter chain kept the ship completely secure through the night. Our barque with her square-rig windage budged not a millimetre.

The cruise ship Paul Gauguin sailed in and anchored a couple days. This caused all the little shops to open their doors but we saw few of the cruise ship passengers; perhaps they were whisked off on tours.

The next few days there was plenty to do for our gang at this legendary island. We launched the longboat and raced all around the gorgeous turquoise lagoons, sailing, tacking here and there under reefed main. On shore many of the gang took bicycles for round island rides. This easily done on a leisurely day. Plenty of beautiful scenes and vistas along the way as you circumperambulate the iconic towers of lava that were once the centers of volcanoes. And nothing better than going to the local grocery store and getting a few baguettes, some cheese, Orangina and Hinano and heading off for a picnic in the shade by the lagoon, tossing bits of bread to the many colourful fishes.

There are a couple nice watering holes as well such as The Bora Bora Yacht Club where internet was available with something cold to drink. Little road-side stands sold mangoes and pamplemousse. Many purveyors of black pearls to be sure but most of us are waiting for Rarotonga for this sort of thing. And in the evenings, you could get a fine and HUGE meal at one of the BBQ caravans near the waterfront under the night sky at an open air table with your shipmates. Around these tables amidst the bbq savors, much talk of islands and passages to come.

We are sailing for the Cook Islands now, where, to those of us who have sailed these waters before, the South Pacific adventure really begins. Rarotonga; stunningly beautiful, very friendly, accessible and so much to do – mountain climbing, rent a scooter to take you around the island, school kids aboard and dancing – “Island Night Feasts” and dancing – Dancing at Trader Jacks, heading over to The Staircase for, you guessed it, more dancing – sailing in the big ocean going double canoes, called Vakas – black pearls galore – Saturday farmers market near the waterfront, fun nights at Banana Court – head over to Muri Beach Lagoon where it is believed that the fleet of vakas that headed off to settle New Zealand, not a thousand years ago assembled from all the islands and set forth – it is often said of Rarotonga by visitors – “this is what I thought (hoped) Tahiti would be like”. Rarotonga is perfect. And Picton Castle both knows Rarotonga well and is well known in Raro.

But first we will anchor at Aitutaki 200 miles ahead to the WSW – Aitutaki could well be the untouched island that Bora Bora once was. And Aitutaki is certainly the island paradise that many dream Bora Bora to be, but alas, is not. A smaller yet still high center island with lovely topography, pristine blindingly white smooth sand beaches, One Foot Island, a motu to sail to across the broad lagoon with top snorkelling – or visit the 1828 church. Soft and quiet, peaceful, and friendly, very few shops, no tour buses lined up – a great place for us to sail our long boat and dory too. And we have good friends too, at Tamanu Beach Resort where barefoot is the order of the day to be sure.

I could go on and on but I will restrain myself and wait for later Logs: In Rarotonga we soon expect to load up supplies into our 100 ton hold and on deck and help bring islanders back to their home islands before sailing onward. Palmerston Atoll; a tiny atoll with about 60 folks who have hosted Picton Castle crew many times in the past – fishing, learning to dance, much feasting, maybe some island project to pitch in with, certainly a “shade tree” medical clinic by our ship’s doctor. Manihiki; famous as one of the most beautiful atolls in the entire South Pacific and for the best black pearls – and no harbour or anchorage at all, the ship must heave-to to discharge our supplies. Rakahanga; a true old school Polynesian atoll living quite traditionally and quietly. Tongareva aka Penrhyn; also pretty serious about black pearls but here we have something of an anchorage and can even enter the lagoon if conditions suit. PukaPuka; the famous island where we actually “tie up to the reef”. Suwarrow; uninhabited but a pristine lagoon perfect for anchoring our barque and exploring, boat trips and camping expeditions. Onward we sail for Samoa, where it is well believed that exploring vakas set out from to discover and settle all of the rest of Polynesia; Tahiti, Marquesas, Hawaii, Rapa Nui, Tuamotus, Mata-ki-terangi (Pitcairn). Tonga: the South Pacific doesn’t get any more “old school” than this; the only and last actual south seas island kingdom, never, ever colonized by a European nation.

Bora Bora mountain
Picnic on the beach

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Bora Bora

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Last Thursday morning saw the Picton Castle sailing for Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, 500 miles away from Bora Bora, all square sails and fore-and-aft sails set as we made the most of the fair, light, trade-winds.

Our last port was Bora Bora, and we upped anchor and cleared out last Wednesday afternoon – in a bit of a rush as it turned out because of some fun with immigration officials. Most places in the world give you 24 hours to depart after clearing out, and in most places in the world there is a local immigration office or police station that can handle the paperwork no problem. French Polynesia used to be like that too – you went to the local Gendarmerie at your last island, where a friendly policeman stamps all your papers and checks all is in order before wishing you ‘bon voyage!’ Then the next morning you get under way. No big deal at all, and charmingly like clearing in and out of French territories elsewhere. The French Caribbean is sweet that way, very smooth and cordial. Not so here at Bora Bora.

We don’t know if the rules have changed in French Polynesia, or if the immigration department is just trying to validate its own importance in the strained economic climate of government ‘efficiency savings’ (we have seen this before), but now it seems that not one, but two immigration officials must be flown to the island from where you plan to depart the group, put up in a nice hotel, fed, watered and then flown back to Papeete, all at the expense of the vessel. No matter that the clearing out takes maybe an hour, and all they do is check the crew list and stamp the passports since we are also required to submit all of the customs forms electronically in advance, so it seems to us that it’s not so much work to justify a day trip from Papeete. They check nothing else. They do nothing else. One guy can do this in 15 minutes. Or maybe that’s just what an ignorant sailor would think.

And we were surprised that these gentlemen actually insisted on watching the ship sail out from Bora Bora. Said they had to by law. Hard to imagine that they see every one of the hundreds of cruising yachts off like this, makes us feel kind of special… Maybe they had a big influx of illegal immigrants escaping from the arduous life aboard square-rigged sailing ships. Must be all that sail-handling, power showers and the sunset guitar session on the foc’sle head making them want to jump ship. Or, perhaps it was the fact that we have Aitutaki next on the voyage plan – I mean, it is often called the most lovely island in the Pacific, but next to Bora Bora they must have thought that was too horrible to contemplate for our indentured crew, and that they were at high risk of abandoning ship shipmates and voyage in favour of working illegally in French Polynesia – perhaps washing dishes in a fancy restaurant or cleaning the rooms in an exclusive hotel?

But the most surprising about these immigration officials was their obvious delight at the idea that we might leave a couple of hours later than originally planned so that we could stow our boats and finish up some jobs before we left. The reason for their pleasure? A free night in a hotel and a whole extra day of being paid to do nothing but hang out at Bora Bora! When we tried to say we would leave immediately to avoid this additional expense, there suddenly arose an insurmountable language barrier – though our French had been perfectly adequate to be understood just minutes before. Eventually I had to go and call our agent and ask him to stop booking hotels and flights for the officials they were calling him for as they were so adamant that they would stay the night and fly home the next day. It seemed we ruined their plans of a little getaway overnight in lovely Bora Bora….

Bora Bora was nice, but the point of it is really the fabulous lagoon and the stunning peaks of the mountain of Bora Bora, rather than life ashore itself – a wonderful spot for snorkelling and diving in clear turquoise water with plenty of coral and colourful aquatic life. Our gang had a great time cycling all over, stopping for picnics and a swim on the beach, and then heading to the cheerful food caravans by the little town for dinner of steak-frites or crepes. The island is beautiful of course, but it is all carved up into expensive resorts – almost every beach is private, and there are cars everywhere. And the hordes of $1,000 a night bungalows over the water? The Captain says they look to him like prisoner-of-war camps from World War II movies…

Bora Bora seems to miss out on the friendly fun atmosphere of Huahine – most businesses seemed to be catering to tourists rather than locals – expensive black pearl jewellery, scuba diving centres, fancy imported clothes. And this all really changed on the day the cruise ship Paul Gauguin was in town too – suddenly all of the shops and little stands that had been shuttered, opened up to sell their wares to the visitors, the people running the stores changed from their every day plain pareaus and t-shirts to very lovely special occasion dresses tailored from patterned pareau cloth. It’s very nice stuff that they sell too: bright colourful pareaus or sarongs, many handpainted with big bold tropical flowers; black pearls and carved pearl shells, strings of shells or flowers to bedeck your darling, wood carvings and things woven from pandanus. All very lovely, but definitely not catering for a local crowd. Like many a sweet tropical island this one has been a little bit swamped by the forces of higher end development for others, oh well. Hard for places to find the balance, some pull it off, not sure how they do it. Still a nice place to visit, and I am sure friends could be made ashore in due course.

And so I risk making enemies of everyone back home in the snow, by saying Bora Bora was ok – good time had by all and great holding at the anchorage – but Huahine was much nicer. And the Captain says if you liked French Polynesia, you are going to love the Cook Islands and Aitutaki is up first….only 400 miles away in sweet South Pacific trade-winds – not so bad….

Bora Bora
Lovely lagoon
PC and the bungalows

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