August 2014 - Cook Islands

1 August 2014  Bora Bora to Penrhyn, Cook Islands (Day 3)
At around seven o'clock, Glenys gybed the genoa back across to port.  We had one heavy shower during the morning, which sucked all the wind away, so we motored for twenty minutes.  The rest of the day was lovely, bobbing along at 3-5 knots on a broad reach in six foot seas. We had quite a bit of cloud in the morning, but it brightened up later.

In the morning, I listened to the radio net and it's amazing the variation in reports from different areas.  Harry from "Malua" is down at 17 degrees and a lot further west, sailing directly to the Va'vau group in Tonga and reported winds over 30 knots from the southeast and huge seas.  The GRIB files forecast that Suwarrow will have some horrible heavy rain and squalls in two days’ time.  Touch wood, we should be okay up here.

We've fallen into our normal routine, with Glenys sleeping in the morning and me in the afternoon.  The rest of the time we're reading because there’s not much else to do.  Glenys has started to make a courtesy flag for the Cook Islands.  We put out two fishing lines, but no luck yet.

By dusk, the wind had veered again and was more behind us, so we gybed the genoa back to starboard, poled out wing on wing.  I love this sail configuration.  We've found that we can have the genoa poled out to starboard even when the wind is up to 120 degrees on our starboard side.  You would think that the wind would get behind the genoa, but by moving the pole forwards, it stays inflated.  The main advantage, especially in light winds, is that both the main and genoa have clean air.

It was another lovely night, but the gentle rocking motion is very soporific.  Glenys had to wake me up three times at 0100 before I clawed my way out of deep sleep.  At 0400, we had a set of showers pass over us giving us confused winds dropping down to 5 knots then gusting up to 20 knots from all directions, so I gave up trying to sail, rolled away the genoa and we motored for a few hours.

2 August 2014  Bora Bora to Penrhyn, Cook Islands (Day 4)
The days are starting to turn into a blur now - it was another lovely sunny day with light 10-15 knot winds from the east.  We pulled the jib back out to port in the morning and poddled along on a broad reach at 4-5 knots in the 4-6 foot seas.

Nice Wahoo

I checked into the Isabella net at eight o'clock and people are bolting for cover.  "Malua" is two days from Tonga and Harry says that it's like being in the Southern Ocean, with 30-35 knot winds and huge seas.  I'm glad that we're up here.

We landed a nice 3-4 foot long wahoo, which I filleted.  Glenys cooked some for lunch and made Fish in a Creamy Mushroom Sauce for dinner with mashed potatoes and peas - yummy.  She's put three meals worth into vacuum sealed bags and put them at the bottom of the drinks fridge because her small freezer is full up.  The small vacuum sealing appliance is turning into an essential part of her food management - it not only seals food into a compact bag, but helps to preserve it longer by sucking out the air.

It was such a nice calm day that I spent most of it down below, catching up on editing photos and our website and spent a few more hours programming my Marine Life application.  I got so engrossed in it that I had a "reality attack", when I suddenly realised that we're all alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The wind slowly backed during the day and by two o'clock in the afternoon, we were on a broad reach doing six knots with 180 miles to go - there was a fighting chance that we could make landfall tomorrow afternoon, so we pulled out the stay sail to go faster.  Unfortunately, a hour later the wind dropped a little and we resigned ourselves to another two nights at sea.

By sunset, the wind had backed even more, so that we were on a close reach with the wind 80 degrees off our starboard bow.  The forecast is for the wind to back even more over the next 24 hours, so we altered course to go 20 degrees further upwind.  It's no hardship to go upwind in these light winds and calm seas and if the wind increases or backs more then we'll be able to ease the sheets and hopefully get to Penrhyn in one tack.

We had some short heavy showers during the night, which brought 20 knot winds.  At 0200, during a particularly windy squall, I rolled away the staysail and reefed the genoa and we spent the rest of the night with one reef in the main and 5 wraps on the genoa.  Why do we always seem to get these squalls at night?  

Typically the wind will drop down to 5 knots and the sails will start to flop around.  The wind then starts to increase and back and, in less than a minute, we'll have over 20 knot winds.  Depending if the squall hits us directly, we may have heavy rain or even none at all, before the damn thing passes by and the normal winds return - until the next squall arrives...  In the pitch black of a moonless night, it's very unsettling.  

3 August 2014  Bora Bora to Penrhyn, Cook Islands (Day 5)
At 0800, we had 80 miles to go.  The wind was 10 knots from the north east as forecast, and we were bumbling along at 3-5 knots in 4 foot seas, planning to sail slowly for 24 hours to arrive at the pass into Penrhyn in the morning. Unfortunately, we were surrounded by heavy rain showers, some of which brought 20 knot winds and heavy rain.

A more scary sunset with lots of squalls lurking

It could have been a lot worse.  We heard reports on the net about the weather that others were getting.  Boats in Suwarrow spent last night on anchor watch with 25-30 knot winds as squalls went through - one boat apparently dragged and went up on the reef (we heard that "Amiable" was a total write-off.)  "Scotia" (on their way to Samoa) had to heave-to in 54 knot winds and "Malua" was hit by a huge wave which ripped off his bimini and cause other damage - they both still have sustained winds over 30 knots.  Not exactly a "milk run".

The afternoon was pleasant being mostly sunny, but the wind dropped, so at times we were only making 2-3 knots.  We continued bobbing along until midnight, when a huge black system approached and sucked all the wind away, forcing us to start motoring.  Fifteen minutes later, we had over 20 knots of wind, then fifteen minutes later we were motoring again.  This happened a few times during the rest of the night.

By 0300, we were 20 miles from the entrance, motor-sailing slowly.  There are no navigation lights on this low lying atoll, so even though we've had reports that the charted position is accurate, we decided to keep a healthy five miles offshore until dawn.

I've been pondering why we always seem to arrive at the end of long passages at night or have to slow down to avoid arriving at night.  If we say that the best time to enter coral-strewn waters is between 0900 and 1500, then that's only a 6 hour window.  So there's only a 25% chance of making a perfect landfall.  

If we average 5 knots on a 600 mile trip, then that works out to 120 hours (5 days).  However, if that average speed changes by 1/2 knot, then the passage time could be between 109 and 133 hours - that's a massive 24 hours difference for a tiny change in speed.  There's obviously no point in trying to plan - we should just leave when we're ready and accept that there's a 75% chance that we'll have to heave-to or slow down to wait for dawn.

4 August 2014  Bora Bora to Penrhyn, Cook Islands (Day 6) 
At eight o’clock in the morning, we hove-to a mile from the pass into the Penrhyn atoll.  It’s quite a narrow pass that runs roughly west to east, so we wanted to wait until the sun was higher in the sky to give us good visibility of the coral in the water.  We made our approach at ten o'clock, but had to abort our first attempt because a big, black cloud came over just as we were getting close.  Ten minutes later, the cloud had passed and we motored through.  The tide was going into the lagoon at two knots, so the wind was against the tide, but we only saw small two foot standing waves.

After getting through the pass, we turned sharp right and roughly followed a series of markers that are shown on the Navionics charts.  I say roughly because the markers are wooden sticks put in place by the locals - some are not there and some are on different coral reefs.  With good light, we easily eye-balled a route through the many small reefs and dropped our anchor off the village of Omoka at 08°58.71S 158°03.10W.

Anchored off Omoka, Penrhyn

The water at this side of the lagoon is very murky, so we couldn't see the sea bed, but it felt like we’d dropped the anchor in a sandy patch because the anchor held very well, which was a good job because we had a lee shore just 50 metres behind us.  Fortunately, the wind was only blowing 10-12 knots, so we only had a 1½ foot chop.  There’s a seven mile fetch across the lagoon and I've read that the sea builds up in strong easterly trade winds and makes this anchorage very uncomfortable. 

After a wait of only 30 minutes, the customs and immigration officer, Ru Taime, came on board.  He was dressed very casually in a pair of shorts and a flowery tropical shirt and was very friendly.  After we’d filled in the normal paperwork, he sat and chatted for a while, then had a quick look around the boat, more for his own curiosity rather than an official function.  He spotted Glenys’s ukulele and had a short play with it.  

Ru told us that it was Constitution Day and a public holiday, so the Health and Quarantine officer may not come out today and we would have to stay aboard until we’d been fully cleared in.  That wasn't too much of a hardship because after five nights at sea, we need the rest.

We’d read that the Penrhyn islanders are keen to trade for things because supply ships only come in every couple of months and they often need practical things that have broken or worn out.  During our conversation, Ru told us that he was going snorkelling for pearl oysters for the rest of the day and asked if we had any gloves.  I took this for a signal that he would like some gloves, so I was quite happy to give him a pair that I’d been using to catch fish.

Ru discovered that I knew something about computers and immediately said that he had a problem with the display on his laptop.  After a bit of discussion, I've said that I’ll go to his house and have a look at it for him.  I'm also going to take him some movies to copy onto his laptop.

We pottered around for the rest of the afternoon reading and napping.

5 August 2014  Omoka to Tetautua, Penrhyn, Cook Islands
I was up early and paid for an internet connection which was reasonably fast, so I published our website and did a few admin jobs.  The Health and Quarantine officer, Tuku Marsters, turned up at around ten o'clock, filled in the forms and did a cursory tour of the boat lightly spraying everywhere with a pethidrin  insecticide.

Main Street, Omoka

We then had a long chat about him and the island.  Tuku is very proud of being a direct descendant of a sailor called William Masters, who came here in the late 1800s and married a local lady.  He took his wife to the remote atoll of Palmerston and started a family there.  After a few years, William left Palmerston and went wandering, coming back to Penrhyn where he married another two ladies from Penrhyn.  Meanwhile, his first wife married his friend who had remained back on Palmerston. 

Accounts differ, but I think that William Masters took one of his wives back to Palmerston and one remained here in Penrhyn.  There are about 50 direct descendants on Palmerston and a thousand or so scattered across the other Cook Islands and beyond, with a fair number of Marsters here in Penrhyn, who are direct descendants of the third wife who stayed here.  At some point in the past, the name changed from Masters to Marsters.

Tuku is in charge of all health matters on the island including the control of mosquitoes, flies and rats.  Part of his job is going around looking for stagnant pools of water and treating them with chemicals to kill the mosquito larvae.  He told us that there are quite a few derelict houses that exacerbate the problem, with unused water tanks and he is in a constant battle to get permission to pull them down.

Just before he left, Tuku asked for NZ$20 for his fees, but didn't have any change for the NZ$100 note that we’d got from a bank in Papeete.  After a little negotiation, neither of us knowing the exchange rate to US dollars, we agreed that US$18 was acceptable.

Having cleared in properly, we went ashore leaving the dinghy in a small boat harbour.  We first walked to find Ru’s house and arranged to come back later to look at his laptop.  He gave us directions to the bank, which was open today, so we wandered along the dirt track that acts as the main road though the village.

At the bank we found Alex Maletapu sitting on a chair in front of the counter chatting to the bank teller and wielding a sharp looking knife.  I introduced myself, shook hands and then asked if he was in the middle of an armed robbery, to which they both laughed and said where would he hide?  The bank teller happily changed one of our NZ$ 100 notes into smaller denominations.  After chatting for ten minutes (these people have time to spare), we found out that Alex’s wife bakes the bread for the village and that we should call by at the yellow house a little later.

We wandered off towards the church and were called over to a small house on the edge of the shore.  William Masters, a large elderly gentleman was sitting on a plastic chair just outside his house and invited us to pull up a chair.  We sat and chatted for over fifteen minutes with him and his wife, Jemima about various things.  One of the first things he did was to inform us with great pride that he was a direct descendant of William Marsters from Palmerston.  

Turoa shows me how to open a coconut

Bizarrely, William asked us if we had a spare Cook Island flag - apparently, the flag used by the Girls Brigade at the Sunday church parade is getting very tattered and he wants to give them a flag.  We apologised profusely, that we didn't have a flag and the conversation drifted onto pipi pearls.

The islanders collect small two inch diameter oysters, which grown on the many coral reefs within the atoll.  These Pipi oysters produce a golden-coloured mother of pearl on the inside of the shell and the islanders find golden-coloured natural pearls.  Jemima went inside and returned with a small jar containing a dozen of these beautiful pearls - ranging in size from tiny 1mm diameter to 6mm diameter. 

She showed us her largest pearl (6mm diameter) and said that she would get $200 for it.   The agent apparently pays between NZ$50 and $80 per gram for the smaller pearls.  William showed us a shell with a small pearl embedded in the inside of the shell and, when Glenys showed great interest in it, they insisted on giving it to her. 

The ground next to William’s house was littered with cast-off Pipi oyster shells with the mother of pearl glinting in the sun.  I wandered over to have a look at the beautiful gold colours.  I asked if I could take a few, at which William’s wife opened a cupboard and handed me a huge bag of shells that she’d been collecting that had the deepest gold colour.  I couldn't possibly take the whole lot, so after a lot of protesting, she allowed me to take only a handful.  They also gave us some black pearl oyster shells, so we left with a heavier load than we arrived.

We wandered to the church and walked through the graveyard, noting that many of the gravestones were marked with the name Marsters.  There are two churches in Omaka, a Catholic one at the other end of the village and the Cooks Island Christian Church, which we had a walk around.  It is a simple church, but is decorated in carved wood and quite lovely.  No-one is allowed to take photographs in the church, so I didn't (even though I was itching to.)  There's no altar in the church, just a very high pulpit where I assume that the minister preaches from on high - very like a Baptist church.

We continued up the back road towards the bakery and stopped to chat with a lady sitting outside her house.  She insisted that we take a seat and we found out that she was called Abba Taine (pronounced Ebba) and is the daughter in law of Ru Taine, the customs guy.  (By this time, I was starting to get the feeling that all the islanders are related in some way.)  

Abba’s father, Turoa, arrived and insisted on getting some coconuts for us to drink.  It was interesting how easily he opened them up - he had a big four foot long metal stake that was driven into the ground and had a sharp point on the top end.  Turoa simply hammered the coconut onto the spike and then tore the fibrous outer shell off using the stake as a lever - 30 seconds per coconut.

With two coconuts in my rucksack as gifts to drink later, we wandered off and found Alex’s yellow house and were of course invited in to chat a while.  Alex told me that he had owned a pearl farm in the atoll, but a few years ago a yellow algae bloom had come into the atoll, carrying with it some disease that had killed off the farmed oysters.  The islanders lost a lot of money and since then no one has been brave enough to start up again.  Before we left, Alex produced a big loaf of bread and insisted on giving it to us.

Anchored off Tetautua

We walked to Ru’s house, but I was unable to fix his laptop - it only had a minor fault on the screen and it was too risky to try to take it to pieces.  I started copying movies from my hard drive to his laptop, but it was taking far too long, so he gave me a brand new 1TB hard disk drive to take away and copy films - the islanders might live on a remote atoll, but they have the latest high-tech toys.

This trading thing is quite subtle and easy to mis-understand.  Ru asked me if we had any limes on board, to which I immediately assumed that he wanted some limes.  I replied truthfully, that I didn't know and would have to ask Glenys.  Ru then wandered off and returned with a bag of limes as a gift to me - I was embarrassed that I’d made a wrong assumption.

The wind was starting to blow harder and the waves were starting to build up in the anchorage, so we motored over to Tetautua on the east side of the atoll and anchored on a sandy patch at 08°57.48S 157°55.70W in six metres of water. There were two other boats already anchored here - David and Katrina on “Laragh” and Paul and Celeste on “The Beguine” had arrived a few days ago.  After chatting to Katrina on “Laragh” to get some local knowledge, we took our dinghy ashore and tied up at Rio Teika’s house.

Rio and his wife Kura (pronounced Koola) are very welcoming and love to include yachties in their daily life.  Rio is on the village council and seems to be the person who manages community projects.  He’s discovered that yachties are a great source of technical knowledge and spare parts, so he looks after any visitors and, in return puts them to work on whatever needs fixing.  It’s a brilliant strategy - the yachties get involved in village life and the village gets things fixed.

He’d already roped David and Paul into doing jobs ashore and we found them in a shed trying to fix the island’s flat-bed truck.  The truck’s starter motor had burnt out and the villagers have been push-starting the truck for over a year.  David and Paul were in the middle of fitting a new starter motor, so we left them to it and had a walk around the village, stopping every so often to say “Kia Orana” and to have a quick chat.

The Penrhyn islanders love to sing

Back at Rio’s house, we were invited to go fishing with Rio and the other boats that evening, so we went back to the boat to re-group and have a sandwich before we went out again.

We all went out in Rio’s aluminium boat to a shallow reef in the middle of the Tetautua Pass.  Rio provided us all with bamboo poles with a six foot length of fishing line tied to the end.  Using small hooks and small bits of fish as bait, we started to pull in small 4” Soldierfish.  For bait, Rio and Sam (Rio’s cousin) were biting a small chunk of skin off a fish’s belly - I had a go and was rewarded by a mouth full of scales and a cut on my lip from a spike on the fish’s fin.

After an hour of fishing, we had caught over 50 small fish, so we went back to Rio’s house where they barbecued the fish and laid on a meal for everyone with chicken, breadfruit and rice as well as the fish (which were very small and had to be eaten like sardines.)

David and Katrina had brought their musical instruments over, so I went back for my guitar and Glenys’s ukulele.   These instruments were then commandeered by Rio, Tu Loa (known as Mr T, the community policeman), Dave (the Mechanic) and Tommy (another cousin) who treated us to some Cook Island Songs.  The playing style is very relaxed and the singing was fabulous with close harmonies.  

Rio told us that his guitar has a broken string and so has Mr T’s guitar, so they were very keen to play the instruments.  We didn't leave until eleven o'clock.

6 August 2014  Tetautua, Penrhyn, Cook Islands
We had a late start to the day after our late night.   When we went ashore we found Kura’s mother (Mama P) visiting.  Kura gave Glenys a necklace that she’d made from small cowries & woven palm leaves and Rose (Kura's daughter) gave her a pair of earrings made from polished pearl shells and woven palm leaves.

I left Glenys visiting with the ladies and went to find Paul and David who were still working on the truck. They’d got the starter motor physically fitted and were struggling with the wiring.  Someone had taken the old starter motor off a year ago and he was now off-island, so no-one knew what he had done.  

Glenys and Mama P

Paul and David immediately roped me into the discussions and five minutes later I was under the truck, inspecting the wiring. It took me an hour or so to figure out what was going on and an hour to fix it, but just after lunch, I turned the key and the truck burst into life - sorted.  

On hearing the truck start, we suddenly had a crowd of villagers in the shed all gathering to see the truck start.  There’s still a problem with a broken light switch and the front headlights are stuck on, so they have to disconnect the battery after they've used the truck - a job for another day.

After being treated to lunch by Kura, we were then roped into helping to sort out the flag pole outside the Sunday School.  The block at the top of the flagpole was missing and had to be replaced.  The flag pole was made from two pieced of iron tubing - one concreted into the ground and a smaller one slid inside it from above. 

Rio’s plan was to use the crane on the newly fixed truck to pull the top section clear of the bottom section.  Unfortunately, the reach of the crane wasn't enough to lift it clear and every time we tried to move the sling up the pole, the top section would slide back down.  We had a ladder, but it was only 10 foot long and barely reached a third of the way up.  It was like a Monty Python sketch with everyone making a suggestion, none of which worked.

After an hour or so, I suggested that they lift the ladder higher using the digger arm on their tractor and I would climb up the ladder and tie the halyard in place.  Rio wasn't too keen, but eventually we had the ladder in place and I was precariously balanced on the top step, lashing the small pulley in place.  Having sorted that job out, we wandered back to Rio’s house.

Rio is quite subtle in the way that he works.  We were chatting about life in general, when he said “I was wondering something.” 
I replied, “What?”
“I was wondering when you’ll be fixing the light switch on the truck”
“Tomorrow morning, I guess”

Rio just nodded, satisfied.

Kura was just about to bake some bread and Rio wanted us to stay for a while and take some bread with us, but we politely declined and said that we’d see them in the morning.  Just before sunset, I heard a shout from outside and found Rose alongside with two small loaves of fresh bread for us - these people are so generous.