Palmerston atollReport Abuse
The story of our visit to Palmerston Atoll was published in SAIL magazine in April, 2006. This piece is the unedited form.
It had been a long six days out of Bora Bora. The wind had been like baby’s breath and the roll of the seas frequently threw even that out of the sails. Progress was slow but peaceful; until the western sky filled with rapidly lowering cumulus that signaled an approaching cold front. Shortly after this we were hunkered down in full foul weather gear as sheets of salt spray arched back over our 39 ft. cutter Moose. The red tip of Irene’s nose peaked out of her hooded jacket and projected a look of Calvinistic resignation. Two days later we lolled around in the windless slop from this blow.
It was constant work, day and night, as new sail combinations were run up, and then, down. Sleep was little and broken. The last night, as we ran down toward, and hopefully not up upon, the low-lying atoll, nerves were a jangle.
But in the first light, there it was, Palmerston atoll. We had heard from boats that had gone this way before that Palmerston was the highlight of their four-year circumnavigation. How could another atoll be so momentous? Superficially there’re like cathedrals, in that having seen one you’ve seen them all. Part of the answer lies in the unique process of settlement that took place here.
The early 1800’s found Palmerston inhabited by Polynesians who were actively being “missionaried”. In 1862 there arrived a person of biblical proportions; William Marsters, patriarch. Marsters was an Englishman from Lancashire. He had married three women from Penrhyn Island, also in the northern Cook Island group, and it was with these that he landed at Palmerston.
He fathered twenty-six children and divided the island and reef into portions for each of the three families. He prudently set down rules protecting against intermarriage and providing for the distribution of property.
Land was allocated by matriarchal progression within the family groups; private ownership of land, as we know it, was not recognized. When we visited about sixty people lived on the atoll; all of them named Marsters. Actually, it’s not possibly to live “on” an atoll.
An atoll is a configuration of reef, islands and lagoon. It is made when a volcano pierces the ocean’s surface and becomes an island. Coral reef eventually forms around the shoreline of the island. At a later stage the old volcanic center starts to subside but the coral keeps growing up and up, keeping its head just below the surface. Finally the volcano is gone and only a ring of coral reef surrounds a relatively shallow lagoon. Larger parts of the reef support plant life, develop soil and become islands, or motus. It is on such an island that the village of the Marsters is situated.
And, on that windy, red-eyed morning, that we sailed up into the lee of Palmerston, it was Simon Marsters that motored out to the Moose.
“Good morning! Follow me and I’ll show you where you can anchor, “ Simon called across the wind.
That sounded like useful advice, since so far our depth sounder showed water hundreds of feet deep and I could have thrown a stone onto the reef to windward. Down rattled the faithful Bruce anchor into 30 feet of green lagoon run-off and I played out chain with gay abandon. Irene reversed the engine and the chain came up tight as a guitar string. There is always a feeling of no small satisfaction at these moments at the end of a passage; it’s good to have avoided reef and weather and “kept the shiny side up”.
“They’ll be out to clear you in after lunch. They’re busy getting ready for the election” Simon informed us.
This seemed quite bureaucratic for such a small place, but, if I have not learned patience, I have learned silence. So, discretely grumbling, I watched Simon flash a big smile and turn his aluminum skiff up into the frenzy water of the Small Passage.
The prevailing winds at Palmerston are from the easterly quadrant. This combines with the big ground swell generated down in the high latitudes of the southern ocean and puts heavy surf up over the reef. All of this water flows the four miles through the lagoon, bringing nutrients and aeration, and exits in a race through four passages on the leeward side. This is where yachts anchor, up on the coral ledge.
Simon had his 30 horsepower motor at half throttle to progress against the cresting outflow of the passage. He threaded the slalom of steel markers, past the wreckage of a Korean fishing boat that had missed a wind shift, and beached in front of the village.
After lunch, true to his word, Simon returned, grinning like the cat that ate the bird, and brought out Jock and Goodly Marsters, from health and quarantine.
The Cook Islands, of which Palmerston is a part, have a free association with New Zealand. Many Cook islanders make up the 8% of New Zealand’s population called Pacific Islanders. Palmerston has adopted parallel requirements for control of disease and agricultural pests. Therefore, we had a proper, by the book, inspection before we were allowed ashore. Palmerston wants to become an official port of entry, so the officials are conscious of maintaining correct paperwork; having said all this, the interview was welcoming and laughter filled. We took up Simon’s offer of a ride and went in with Jock and Goodly.
The village has rambling sand pathways under the coconut and mahogany trees, modest bungalows, chickens ranging everywhere and the most engaging children I have ever seen. Most of the kids are pre-teens; because the school burned down (mysteriously), and older students went off island for education. These youngsters, for indeed one little fellow was five, were so precocious and socially mature it was unnerving.
“What’s your name?” five-year-old John asked.
“Oh, we already have a Duncan here”.
“Well, I’m James Duncan”.
“Well, we have a J.D. too”.
So I became the larger J.D.
Little John’s dad was Edward Marsters and he was the local police officer. He told me that he adjudicated very few problems since the whole group was really a family and that consensus ruled. Little John told me the truth however; “The police take bad people and shoot them and kill them!” I think videos have arrived.
The feature that is the signature of Palmerston is the system of hosting visiting boats. I find it very hard to understand and I will report it precisely as I have experienced it.
There are about six family groups on the island. At this time only Simon’s family was hosting boats because the other three host families were off the island at a sporting competition in Rarotonga. When a sail is spotted, or a VHF transmission is received, a man from each potential host family will run to his skiff and motor at his best speed to pick up the new arrival. First man in wins! Then, just as Simon did with Moose, he will indicate an anchorage. After formalities, the crew of that boat are the guests of that host family.
Being hosted means the following. Each morning your host will call you on the VHF and ask when you would like to come in. The anchorage and the beach are about a mile apart and the route varies from complicated to wild. Once you’ve landed, and pick up your escort of children, you are taken to your host’s home and given the run of it. Typically the morning might be spent, snorkeling, sketching or beachcombing. At noon, the hosted crew receives lunch; and in our case, Simon had all five yachts. This was because his chief competitor, who had a larger outboard, was involved with the Cook Island elections. Simon was politely gloating at his windfall.
Shirley, Simon’s sister–in-law, put four tables end to end under a blue plastic tarp and served a hot lunch to twelve sailors, plus her own family.
Normal fare would be two or three hot starch dishes; taro or breadfruit for example. Two hot fish offerings, usually featuring parrot fish, were laid out. Coleslaw was another popular dish and roast chicken appeared daily. On top of this a desert of rolls filled with whipped coconut cream sat at the far end of the table, out of the reach of little fingers.
We stayed only for three days, as any shift of the wind to the west made the anchorage untenable, but some yachts have been here for two weeks. This treatment took place every day; each noon Simon said grace and had all of these people sat at his table and eat. Each morning Shirley worked to prepare all these dishes for people that would soon sail west over the horizon and never be seen again. They weren’t her race, her kin or her church, and she did it all smiling – and I’ve seen enough insurance salesmen to know sincerity.
The administrator’s Kiwi wife baked a cake one morning and brought it over for our coffee time. And she was busy, day and night, running six programs of education out of a two-room schoolhouse.
One man from another family found Irene and I wondering around near noon and took us to lunch at his mother’s house. He coincidentally fed the eight men crew of the boat that came up from Rarotonga bringing the ballets and paraphernalia for the coming elections. On another day this man went across the lagoon and harvested nine fledgling seabirds. The Palmerston islanders eat seabirds and these were cooked for us; try to image duck stuffed with anchovies – perhaps with a very full-bodied burgundy!
Palmerston is largely a non-cash island. There is no store. People produce much of their own food. In general they are, by no means, rich. So I ask, why do they offer such hospitality in such measure?
They are a religious people, but by no estimation zealots. They carry their Christianity quietly and church is not universally attended. One busy lady told me laughingly that God was just as happy if she watched a video on Sunday morning. The source of this generosity is to my mind not to be found in the church.
The less visited Polynesian islands still have a strong tradition of welcoming those who arrive from the sea. Pacific passages are even today long and often arduous. Perhaps it is the lingering remnants of that attitude? However, one day when I was walking with pastor and administrator Tere Marsters, I remarked that I hadn’t seen any of the normally ubiquitous, outrigger canoes at Palmerston. He laughingly replied, “Englishman don’t paddle outrigger canoes”. So I concluded that traditional Polynesian hospitality is not the necessary ingredient in the Palmerston welcome.
The overwhelming reception of yachts by the Marsters and their neighbors is not a seed that falls on stony ground however; it would take a very callous yachtie to receive this bounty and not initiate a quid pro quo.
A Canadian boat gave a jerry can of gasoline and one of diesel to Simon, and at Tahiti prices this is a gift of some magnitude! All the other boats went through their stores and donated powdered milk, razor blades and CD’s and DVD’s (little John likes to keep up with current police procedures!). Fishing hooks are appreciated by the kids; be prepared to be invited out to the lagoon fishing immediately after school. The school is always short of paper, pencils, markers and the like. But the way to their hearts might be the gift of a volleyball.
Volleyball is to Palmerston as hockey is to Canada. The ladies are Cook Islands champions. Kids everywhere are digging and setting a ball back and forth. The main village court is pretty much to Olympic specification; except for the encroaching coconut trees. It has long been the Palmerston tradition to challenge crew of visiting boats to a friendly game in the evening; the locals always win! We didn’t get invited to play because the upcoming elections had everybody busy with other duties. Remember this is a community of only sixty people, so there is a lot of overlap.
Our hostess, Shirley, had been sequestered and trained as an electoral officer by officials on the patrol boat that came up from Rarotonga. She learned how to issue and receive ballots, how to handle spoiled ballots and how to report attempted cases of fraud or bribery. This raised a funny speculation when one considered little Suvaroff atoll in the north. Suvaroff has only two residents and of course both are electoral officers. This could pose some problems in the area of attempted bribery for example, since the corrupting influence would have to be reported to himself; sounds like Florida! We left Shirley pondering how a spoiled ballot would be handled and took Simon’s shuttle back to the Moose.
That day the weather forecast was for westerly winds, as the top of a low-pressure area went by to the south. When the wind reversed we would be blown back, onto the coral reef, and it didn’t look all that welcoming.
Early the next morning, with the first hint of a shift, we debated the options. Stay and hope that the anchor would hold in the coral. But a lee shore, with the possibility of the chain wrapping around coral heads and “short snubbing” us, (so that there was no hang to the chain), was not really a restful thought. Up anchoring and putting out to sea would reduce the number of things to bump into, but we wanted to go west and the wind would fill in from the west. The third possibility was to motor over to the far side of the atoll and shelter behind a motu, or island, that would become protected as the wind changed. The least of three evils won out again.
And so we anchored around the other side of the atoll in deep water and poor holding, as the western sky became heavy with rolling lines of bruised blue clouds. The big south swell loomed in under us and fell thundering on the coral reef off our bow. The wind, and squalls and rain raged past like assaults of cavalry. Suddenly the wind stopped fully and came back east, putting us on to the reef if we didn’t move very fast.
The anchor lodged fast in the coral, the windlass groaned to an overheated stop and the chain crunched and tore so that the whole boat shook. I love this game! Finally it broke loose. This really felt like a message; you’ve had your time here.
“Irene, how far is Tonga?” I said.
“About 600 miles…what do you think?” she replied.
“Let’s call Simon on the VHF and say thanks and goodbye.” was my heartfelt opinion.
Simon came up on channel 16 and sounded strangely sad. He had been on Moose for a couple of cold beers at sunset the day before and we talked extensively about his family and Palmerston’s ways. What I didn’t know that when a yacht leaves, members of the host family come aboard and bring hot coffee and cookies, and fruit or fish or lobster and have a formal send off. Our spontaneous departure had precluded this. Our VHF conversation was like a train station farewell from an old movie; goodbye, thank you, no goodbyes come again, thank you Simon. We sailed on silently.
Our reveries were broken when a humpback whale began breeching time after time off the beam. The folds of skin under the jaw were clearly visible. It rose like a black and white lighthouse and then fell in a cloud of white water, like a salute.
“What a place” I said, “I’m so glad we came here”.
“I have never seen such incredible people” Irene responded.
“Yeah….I really don’t understand it.” I said, and I pondered it.
If anyone has tried to understand the theory of relativity, he may recall that initially it makes sense, but at a certain point it just becomes incomprehensible. The way we think makes it impossible to understand. I think there is a parallel in regard to the hospitality of Palmerston. It’s in equilibrium in its own way. We just don’t see all the elements.
Simon just grins and says, “That’s what we always did. It’s our tradition to host boats. We’ve always done it. We really like it”.
Posted by: J Duncan Gould