Palmerston – an interesting little community

We are still at Palmerston atoll (Cook Islands), which unfortunately has no pass into the lagoon, but the islanders have put out 9 moorings to the west of the outer reef. The first two days we had southerly winds, which made the open anchorage very rough, but as soon as the wind turned to the Southeast the seas calmed down, even though it’s still blowing hard. In the beginning we were 4 boats here, but the other three have left westwards with the easterly winds and we’re the only ones here now.

Palmerston is a curious little community. In 1863 William Marsters, a ship’s carpenter and barrel maker, arrived on Palmerston with three Polynesian wives and annexed the uninhabited island from the British. The current population of 57 are almost all descendants of Marsters (and of course wives and husbands from other Cook islands). Even though they look Polynesian, their first language is English and they consider themselves more British than anything else. The community is well organised and equipped, there’s a big solar array for a public electricity network, a telephone network, internet, most houses have a few big freezers (they export fish), washing machines, etc. so the living standard is quite high. The only downside of their isolated location (no airfield, no regular boat service) is that it’s hard to visit other islands–a problem especially in the case of a medical emergencies. We saw quite a few graves of young children on the cemetery, even though the majority o
f the islanders lived more than 80 years.

Sailing boats who stop by here are welcomed by a host family, who monitors channel 16, comes out with the boat to take the cruisers ashore whenever they give a call and invite their guests to all kinds of activities. Our hosts Edward and Shirley had us over for lunch twice, on Sunday we’re invited to join them for church and lunch and on Monday I’ll give a ‘guest lecture’ at the local school (a taster course of Spanish) where the 24 kids of Palmerston (ranging between 6 and 18 years) get their primary and secondary education.

The supply ship only comes here twice a year, so cruisers are asked to contribute staple food (e.g. Shirley was out of flour, so we brought 4 bags over), equipment for the moorings and whatever else they can spare.


Stopover in the Cook Islands

On our way east, the Cook Islands lie conveniently outspread to break up the long passage into small hops.



We were racing all day long yesterday averaging 6 knots, but we still didn’t get to Palmerston before midnight. Fortunately a boat we know from the Marquesas and the radio net gave us the exact coordinates of the mooring here, so we managed to pick up a buoy in the dark.


Pleasant sailing

Surprisingly enough the dreaded journey eastwards turns out to be more pleasant than the passage in the ‘right’ direction two months ago. Instead of the sickening rolling motion that we were used to downwind, Pitufa is now ploughing along in fortunately light winds (15 knots from the SSE) doing steadily 60 degrees on the wind. We’re not heeling too much and the boat seems calmer than in the anchorages in Beveridge or Niue…

Later this week strong southeasterlies followed by easterlies winds are forecast, by then we must be tucked away in an anchorage to wait until the wind clocks around again. After pondering this morning’s weather forecast we think we won’t be able to make it in time to Aitutaki, so we have set the course to the tiny atoll of Palmerston. 180 nautical miles to go!


Good start

We set out at noon again, going through the pass with 20 knots of wind against current was quite exciting–fortunately we had all hatches closed tightly and we hadn’t lost our sea legs thanks to the bouncy anchorages… We had a humpback whale jumping next to Pitufa right after the pass, caught a big yellowfin tuna half an hour later — looks like it’s going to be a fabulous passage.


Grib files

Looking for weather windows is an annoying pastime. Especially at times like now with a trough moving through (we have squally weather here now) the forecast models change every few hours. Today we have already requested 3 grib files via SSB radio, each time they look different and none of them is in accordance with what’s actually happening outside at the moment… We then start ‘sailing’ the cursor ahead on the map with the wind arrows, going through different options of when to head out. If you’re not familiar with grib files (we use the program zyGrib as a viewer) you can look at an online visualization of those grib files on windyty.com.

Anyway, we still don’t know whether it’s clever to sail out today as we’d get a good start followed by half a calm day, or whether we should stay until Sunday when (according to the current grib) we’d have a fast ride. But what if the gribs change in the meantime and we don’t make it to our next stop before the next wave of strong southeasterlies set in? Well, we’ll contemplate the next grib and let you know once we’re out again.


Break at Beveridge Reef

Early this morning we reached Beveridge Reef with the last dying breeze. Just in front of the pass two whales surfaced just next to the boat, spouted a few times and disappeared again with a last wave of the gigantic tail fin.

We have used this welcome break in the passage to wash some things that got salty underway, air out towels and clothes, go through our veggie storage, wipe the boat (Leeloo normally sheds part of the fur outside, on passage everything stays inside…), wash our own hair, etc. etc.
It looks like tomorrow the wind will set in from the south again, so we’ll head out on the next leg–we’ll see where the wind will take us (Palmerston or Aitutaki, Rarotonga lies to far south and Suwarow way up north would only come up as an emergency plan in strong southeasterlies).


Slow sailing

The wind has finally shifted to the north, but we were pushed too far south already to reach Beveridge Reef before dusk, so we’ve slowed down to get there tomorrow morning. Entering an uncharted submerged atoll at night didn’t seem very tempting, despite the fact that we have our old GPS tracks to follow.


Retracing our steps

We left Niue at noon today and are sailing in SSE-SE direction. Hopefully the wind will shift further N soon to allow us more easting.


Back in Niue

Yesterday it was blowing hard from the Southeast again, we set the windvane to ‘go-as-hard-as-you-can’ and Wayne Vaney sailed Pitufa straight towards Niue. When we contemplated the evening grib, we found that he was probably right: there’s a phase with easterly winds coming up–no good beating into that. Instead we decided to take a break in Niue and wait for the next clocking of the wind.

In the evening the wind freshened up even more during a squall, of course just then the fishing line stretched out and Christian and I cried out at the same time: oh, no! Fish always seem to bite in the least convenient conditions. Christian had to tie himself to the backstay with the harness, while he was fighting the biggest mahi-mahi we’ve caught so far. Butchering the 1.5 m fish on the stomping aft deck was a bloody mess, but at least we have the fridge full of fish again, a very happy cat and enough to give out some to our neighbours in the buoy field of Niue.

We arrived in Niue at 2 o’clock in the morning, but knowing the mooring field from our last stop here (who would have thought that we’d come back so quickly…) it wasn’t a big deal to pick up a buoy in the dark. This morning we cleaned the salt of the decks outside and the passage-chaos inside and now we’re waiting for the officials to check us into the country.


Tonga’s health services

Tonga’s a developing country, but the hospital is surprisingly well equipped, the staff friendly, services are free for locals and very cheap for non-residents, but they don’t have enough doctors (a few GPs, one ear-nose-throat specialist, a pediatrician, a radiologist, one surgeon who has to play specialist for everything else and two part-time surgeons) and therefore the waiting halls are full–we spent 30 hours in July just waiting for appointments. Dr. Kolini (the surgeon) was willing to find the reason(s) for Christian’s nonspecific symptoms (back problems, stomach pains, weight loss) and tried a blood analysis, ultrasound, a CT scan (yes, they even have a scanner) and even an endoscopy, but to no avail. Everything seems normal, but Christian’s still not feeling better. In Tahiti the medical system is at a European level–it’s just cheaper and waiting times are shorter than e.g. in Austria. In the meantime we try back exercises (well, not during this rough passage now) a
nd a gluten free diet (today I made a tapioca-rice-flour flatbread with Pitufa stomping 40 degrees on the wind in 25 knots apparent and heeling quite a bit).


We are sailing in the wrong direction!

Hundreds of boats sail across the Pacific towards the west each year riding the easterly trades, but only a handful sails eastwards–at least in the trade wind belt. Tough boats from New Zealand who want to sail to French Poly take a ride on the westerlies way down south in the ‘roaring fourties’ and ‘screaming fifties’–their names speak for themselves… When I checked in on the radio net for boats on passage this morning, I had to repeat our course twice, until the moderator finally believed me and added ‘oh, you’re going in the wrong direction’.

We didn’t take this decision lightly, but Pitufa sails well to windward and we’ve done it before when going from Tahiti to the Gambier and from Tahiti to the Marquesas. We set out yesterday in full foul-weather gear into a southerly wind of 20 knots in pouring rain and only about 18 degrees Celsius at the end of a trough that brought nasty weather, but we wanted to get a headstart going with this system. We got seasick like never before with this rough start–poor Leeloo was the only one to throw up though (3 times, to make up for the rest of the crew), but at least we made 120 nm on the first day. Today it’s much more pleasant, sunny and light winds (Leeloo’s already munching cat food again), but while the grib files insist that we have 15 knots from the south, we get 10 knots from the east-southeast instead–and are driven way to far north. Well, Wayne Vaney the windvane is set on a windangle of 50 degrees and we’ll see where he’ll take us. The Cook Islands are spread out f
rom north to south, so we’re bound to manage to get to one of them.


Sailing back east again

Cruising’s not much fun when you’re not fit and Christian hasn’t felt well since May. We tried everything out the Tongan health system has to offer, but still have no diagnosis. After long pondering we’ve therefore decided to sail back to Tahiti. New Zealand would have been another option, but it’s winter there and difficult with the cat, sailing to Fiji and flying back to Austria would have been other possibility, but then who knows how long that quest would have taken.
Tahiti’s the only option where we can all go together, but it won’t be easy sailing 1500 nm against the prevailing winds.


Photos of Tongatapu

Tongatapu, Tonga

Tongatapu is the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga. The capital Nuku'alofa is a busy town with lots of markets and cheap eateries. We spent a winter month exploring this island and its adjacent motus in July 2016.

(50 photos)


Quiet motus

Just north of Tonga’s densely populated main island Tongatapu a barrier reef with a few tiny motus on it extends about 5 nm east and another 5 nm north. Yesterday we took Pitufa up to the south-eastern corner of this reef–just 8 miles as the seagull flies, but we still took 4 hours for this stretch of careful reef navigation (about 12 nm around the reef). The motus here are pretty with fine, golden sand, a dense vegetation, but it seems that (fortunately) hardly anybody comes here. The anchorages are not mentioned in cruising guides, only the motu closest to Nuku’alofa has a tourist resort on it, so we share this quiet corner just with a few birds.

Today we walked around the motu next to our anchorage and it reminded us a lot of the motus in the Tuamotus or Gambier. Sadly the resemblance ends when you look into the water: the coral seems to be mostly dead and the rocks are just covered in a coarse, brown algae that overgrows the reefs once the coral’s dead (or maybe it suffocates coral underneath?). This plant seems to dominate the underwater landscape not only in the Society Islands of French Polynesia, but also here around Tongatapu. We’ve seen hardly any fish so far–the fishermen who sell bags of colourful reef fish (there is no ciguatera here) on the market have to go further and further to find some catch. We haven’t seen any tuna or mahi-mahi at the fishmarket at all (fished empty?). In town there are signs at many buildings (hospital, harbour extension, etc.) that praise ‘the people of Japan’ as sponsors–probably they got fishing rights and a vote at the International Whaling Commission in exchange. We hope tha
t the reefs are in better shape around the other archipelagos of Tonga.

After a period of southerly winds, the breeze has shifted to the East and it’s much warmer, finally it’s pleasant enough to sit in the cockpit without hoodie and socks :-) The water in our 2.5 m shallow anchorage has reached 26°C again (after the chilly 24°C of last week).

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