South Pacific Voyage 2012-2013

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!