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Penrhyn to Manihiki

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Thursday August 1st, 2013

This is a bit of a catch up log, which takes Picton Castle from her anchorage in Penrhyn lagoon to Manihiki, our last island call of the Northern Group of the Cook Islands.

The saga starts in Penrhyn where our shipmate Tom had to be flown back to Rarotonga for a painful medical condition. In itself the condition was not life threatening, but his insurance company preferred to charter a plane to send him back to Rarotonga rather than risk possible complications arising in a small and remote hospital. So within two days of being admitted to hospital, the Air Raro plane touched down on the runway and the pick-up truck ambulance was carrying us to the airfield to see Tom on his way, being well chaperoned on his flight by a Rarotonga doctor. Typical of the intimacy of the Cook Islands, we knew the pilots who had made the four hour flight from Rarotonga, so it was good to know that Tom was in safe hands.

The other good news from this incident was that Tom and his insurance company kindly agreed to allow two pregnant ladies to fly back with him in the charter plane; one of the ladies was due in a week so the alternative would have been the Cook Island government chartering a separate plane in a few days once her case became urgent. It was clearly a better solution all round for the ladies to share Tom’s plane, saving public funds and a stressful last-minute flight. So we were delighted that common sense prevailed over what could have been a bureaucratic nightmare, involving government departments, two hospitals and a Dutch insurance company with twelve time zones between them.

The next morning we hauled back our port anchor, catted the anchor with fish tackle and the capstan, and steamed back out through the pass into the open Pacific to get underway for Manihiki. It was Thursday 25th July when we left Penrhyn, just one day behind our schedule, and after an easy three day sail we arrived at Manihiki mid-morning on Sunday. We weren’t sure what sort of a welcome we would get arriving on a Sunday, and especially a Sunday during the week long Te Maeva Nui constitution celebrations, so we were prepared to heave-to for the day and go ashore on Monday if we had to. But luckily a call for Picton Castle came out on channel 16 on the VHF radio explaining that everyone was at church but that they would be happy to send a boat out for us at noon.

So we busied ourselves getting the Manihiki cargo out of the hold, sending up Lloyd’s gear and making the ship look shipshape ready to send half the ship’s company ashore that day. Lloyd is a commercial diver from New Zealand who had accepted a post diving the black pearl farms in Manihiki for six months, or maybe a year, so Picton Castle was Lloyd’s ticket from Rarotonga, but also an adventure: he gladly stood a watch, and took his turn steering the ship, standing lookout and scraping the decks side by side with the rest of the crew so we were sad to say goodbye to our shipmate, but pretty impressed that his new home in Manihiki was such a sweet place.

Manihiki, more than anywhere else in the Cooks, reminded me of the Caribbean with its brightly painted wooden houses, gorgeous turquoise water and lush vegetation. Most of the island’s income comes from farming the famous Cook Islands black pearls. Lloyd’s new host and employer, Brian was glad to show us the trappings of his trade and explain the different stages in the four years it takes to farm a pearl, while we sat around under a mango tree in the garden sipping on coconuts and watching piglets snuffle and root in the dirt and tumbling over one another. There was just time for a swim before we went back to the ship for the night, our memories filled with sunshine and the scent of frangipani flowers.

In the morning the other watch went ashore, the boat loaded up with the Raromart goods for a fast and furious sale. Paul, Katie and I were manning the store for a frantic hour and a half, and then we packed everything up so we’d have time to go black pearl shopping before heading back to the ship. Shopping for pearls was a lot of fun, the farmers pouring a few hundred out onto a velour tray for eager hands to pick through to find the prettiest according to personal preference. My favourite are the bright green ones, or black with a subtle hint of pink and round or semi baroque shape. The pearls come in different grades from A through to ungraded based on perfection, though even some of the ungraded pearls are gorgeous, and have more interesting baroque shapes with rings that catch the light and elegant drop shapes rather than the sphere of a perfect pearl.

The price of a pearl is based on size, lustre, percentage of the surface with imperfections, colour, and shape. And they can be set in jewelry so as to hide any imperfections and thus increase the value of a beautiful but imperfect pearl far beyond its loose value. If anyone’s visiting the Cook Islands and looking for a gift idea for someone special they could do a lot worse than a pearl or two, loose or in an elegant setting…

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