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South Pacific Trading Barque

By Kate “Bob” Addison

July 12th, 2013

Barque Picton Castle is just twenty miles off Atiu, a raised atoll in the southern Cook islands, the first island call of this cargo and passenger run to the outer Cook Islands. We departed from Avatiu harbour, Rarotonga yesterday morning to start this second inter-island voyage; this time we’re heading up north to Penrhyn, Manihiki and Rakahanga after a short call at Atiu in the Southern Group. And then back to Rarotonga in August for the start of our next long South Pacific Voyage.

These cargo and passenger operations are a fascinating chapter in the history of our ship. Running a cargo operation under sail is definitely complementary to our core mission of sail training and adventure travel, it adds depth and purpose to our experiences and provides a true hands on training opportunity on board. The ship has always been about being part of something greater than yourself, of doing things that need doing whether you feel like it or not, simply because it needs doing. And now we have pressed our barque into a service that is bigger than the ship.

At the moment the ship’s hold is about two thirds full of cargo, about fifteen tons of which is building materials that will soon become new water tanks in Atiu. We are carrying a mother, and daughter and their dog back home to Atiu and a commercial diver up to work on the pearl farms of Manihiki. In a small way we are contributing to the workings of the Cook Islands, our home in the South Pacific.

The adventure for our crew on this voyage goes beyond snorkeling in crystal clear tropical lagoons and climbing coconut trees. We are meeting islanders on their own terms in their own homes: working with them side by side unloading cargo, being taken on family expeditions fishing or to church and then at night joining in with the dancing not just watching politely from the tourist seats.

It’s a chance to understand what’s important to different people; to see the world from different perspectives. For example, one evening in Pukapuka I saw people burning coconut husks in front of their house and sitting round the fire talking. I thought it was a great idea – free, carbon neutral energy that also acts as a natural mosquito repellent as the sweet smoke drifts up into the sky. But my island host was horrified, he said the people used to have electric street lights, but the new government wouldn’t pay to maintain them, so they were forced to regress forty or fifty years to the bad old days when fire was the only source of light. And while a fire might add a nice ambiance to an evening it’s difficult for the children to do their homework by.

Travel like this really makes you think about what’s important: education or well-being, prosperity or family, home or adventure. Maybe you can have all of those things. Maybe you have to prioritize.

And then effectively running a small business in the islands adds even more complexity, richness and challenge. It can be incredibly frustrating working with people who have a different culture to yourself. English is spoken throughout the Cook Islands, though generally as a second language and the standard varies in the outer islands. Misunderstandings are common because of cultural barriers as well as language: one person thinks saying no would be impolite while the other person thinks that saying yes, when what you really mean is no, is a rather strange and unhelpful thing to do. We are a little like children who understand the basics of the culture and how things are, but not all of the subtle nuances of how things are done.

But we are fortunate that almost all Cook Islanders seem blessed with a warm generosity and kindness, and a palpable happiness that means misunderstandings usually just end in laughter. And they do try to help us out: as the nice lady in the bank explained to me today, your cheque book will be ready in ten minutes, but that’s ten minutes ‘island time’ so you should come back in half an hour. I did and it was. Simple.

nolan at helm
splicing on the quarterdeck

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