Palmerston Island is part of the southern Cook Islands group. It is a small island that is part of a fringing atoll. It is also the most remote place we have ever sailed. Not from a geographic standpoint, mind you – the Galapagos Islands are much farther from their closest neighbors – but from an accessibility standpoint. The supply ship arrives from Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, a 2-day sail to the southwest, about once every 3 months, although sometimes it’s much longer between visits. Aside from delivering supplies and picking up frozen parrotfish, the island’s only export, the ship serves as transportation to and from Rarotonga. The only other way to access the island is by private yacht or the very occasional small cruise ship.
Situated halfway between French Polynesia and Tonga, we figured Palmerston would make a convenient stop for catching up on some sleep and putting some sand between our toes for a few days. Our 5-day passage from Bora Bora taxed us physically and mentally as we encountered stronger winds and bigger seas than expected and dealt with an autopilot failure that had us constantly on alert and hand-steering on and off for the last day and night of the trip. We arrived to Palmerston exhausted and picked up a mooring ball in 25 knots of wind. Anywhere else this would be no big deal but the mooring balls in Palmerston are just outside the reef… and by “just,” we mean 100-150 feet from the potentially hull-crushing reef. In a west wind any mooring ball failure could put a boat on the reef within seconds, as evidenced by the remains of S/V Ri Ri ashore. The wind was blowing a safe direction, from the southeast, though, which meant that if ours didn’t hold we would simply drift out to sea. Simply. Right.
Our original plan had been to spend about three days on this lovely little atoll swimming, snorkeling and enjoying the company of the islanders. In cruising, however, plans are only intentions. Before we even arrived, the weather forecast changed drastically and a big high pressure system started moving our direction bringing 30-40 knot sustained winds projected to last at least a week. The only hope we had to move on before this wind event reached us was dashed by the need to fix our autopilot (hand-steering our entire next passage in heavy weather was only a last resort), so we settled in alongside our friends on S/V Curiosity who arrived a couple days after us and prepared to wait out the blow. And wait we did, for 10 days. After the fourth day, the wind was holding steady in the 30s and gusting into the 40s (the highest we saw was 49.5 kts). We didn’t leave the boat for 5 days straight. Finally, by Saturday morning the winds had backed enough for us to feel comfortable leaving the boat to go ashore. So, we hailed Bob.
Palmerston has a very unique history. It was discovered by Captain Cook in 1771. There are only 30 or so residents and they are all direct descendants of one man, William Marsters. In 1863 Marsters, a British ship’s carpenter and barrel maker, arrived on the island with two Polynesian wives (later supplemented with a third) and decided to settle there. He sired some 23 children whose descendants now inhabit the island.
Three branches of the Marsters family remain on Palmerston, each branch being descended from one of William’s three wives; marriage within a family group is prohibited. Although the population once peaked at nearly 300, it is now hovering around 30 inhabitants, eleven of whom are children. Palmerston is administered by the Cook Islands government in association with New Zealand through an Island Council consisting of six members: the head of each of the three families and three other members appointed by each family.
Upon arrival in Palmerston yachts are “claimed” and greeted by a host, either Bob or Edward, who shows them to a mooring and takes care of them throughout their stay, including transportation to the island in a metal skiff. While it’s possible to dinghy ashore with local knowledge of the reef pass, visitors’ whereabouts and movements are fairly controlled, we suspect for both safety and privacy reasons. This is, after all, a family-owned and governed island. Our hosts during our stay were Bob and his wife, Tupo, and their children, Andrew, Mae, Madeenia and Henry. The day we arrived Bob brought Customs & Immigration, Health, and Biosecurity officials to Gadabout to check us in. For the duration of our stay, Bob made himself available to pick us up and ferry us ashore when we wanted a break from the boat and even provided rain slickers to keep us dry on the ride.
Our trips ashore were typically timed for midday and each time we were treated to lunch with the family. Afterward we were free to relax or walk around the island, usually with Madeenia (8) and Henry (6) as our guides. We’re not sure everything they told us on these tours was accurate but we did learn some interesting tidbits.
We visited the school and spent some time chatting with Sherrin, an Aussie who is in her second year of a teaching assignment on Palmerston. She and the nurse, Melvie, who is from Papua New Guinea, are the only non-locals living on the island.
There’s a cellular station, a solar farm, a small medical clinic (any emergencies, however, have to wait for the ship to take them to Rarotonga), an administrative building, and a cyclone shelter. And not much else. But the scenery is beautiful and there are plenty of places to relax and take it in.
On Sunday morning we went to church with the family. The ladies all wear hats to church so our hosts provided loaners for Paula and our friend Nikki. In church, the men sit on the left side and the women on the right. We weren’t able to contribute much in the way of singing as the hymns were mostly in Maori but it didn’t matter. The locals’ voices were loud enough to be heard in Rarotonga. Never have we heard so much volume from so few people in any church.
From home cooked meals to lessons on coconut husking and hat weaving, the way Bob and his family brought us into their daily lives was an experience we’re not likely to get in many places.
Even when we were stuck on the boat in the blow he called us on the radio every day to check in and make sure we were safe. Other folks we met asked us to make sure our anchor light was on (it always is) so they would be able to see us when they looked out each night. You can’t buy that kind of hospitality. We’re so glad we made Palmerston a stop on this journey.