We departed the wee world of Mopelia, our final stop in French Polynesia Monday morning May 19 for our 500 miles passage west to Suwarrow situated in the Northern Cook Islands approx. 900 miles south of the Equator.
Suwarrow has been described as a real Treasure Island and the most romantic Island in the world by Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson. This very isolated atoll is comprised of a dozen small islets rimming the pristine waters of one of the best land locked lagoon harbours in all of the Pacific waters. It is certainly on the path less travelled.
Though thought to be home to Polynesian settlers in times past it receives its name from the Russian ship Suvorov which landed on these barren shores in 1814. During the mid-19th century a ship from Tahiti found treasure in an old iron chest worth approx. $5 mill today.
During WWII the US set up a watch station on Anchorage Island, the largest of the group and some years later the island received its fame from a lone New Zealander, Tom Neale who came to live in isolation for 15 years between 1952 and 1977. He wrote of his adventure and his tale, ‘An Island To Oneself’, is a testimony of his will and endurance and both Kaija and I found it a terrific read and one we recommend.
After reading his book, we too had a desire to spend time here, alone, and being a month or so ahead of the Pacific Puddle Jumpers Cruisers we hoped to do just that.
Our 5 day sail was uneventful with two exceptions. On night two, being hundreds of miles from anywhere or anybody, we saw very bright light on the horizon. We thought it a fishing vessel but had no read of it on our 48 mile radar and no response to our various VHF calls. We were concerned not so much about Pirates but because some of these large fishing Seining vessels carry nets that run for 100 miles, drawn into a circle 33 miles across. We did not want to become part of his catch. It was not until the morning dawn that the light faded from view and we never did discover its origin. The winds were light and we were sailing downwind and if we were to have any chance of making landfall during daylight hours we needed to pick up the pace. It was time for the Spinnaker. We carry an Asymmetrical Chute intended more for running on a slight angle to broad reaching. Because we were DDW (dead downwind) I decided to use the Spin Pole in effect to allow for a better angle and a more stable set. The breeze was between 8 – 10 knots and had been for many hours. We hoisted the chute and trimmed her out and soon we were doing a comfortable 6 knots in the light breeze. Excellent! Well, just when you think you have it all under control long came a strengthening breeze and it took only a matter of minutes before it was blowing 20 kts., a lot more wind than needed when flying the chute, especially shorthanded. We had a Chute sock, but I quickly realized that we were beyond dousing with the sock, it was time to blow the sheet and get it down quick. With Auto driving hard to keep the nose down and avoid broaching I let the sheet fly. Kaija, on the deck, was attempting to secure the chute by pulling down the sock. This was not to be. She quickly let me know we had a slight problem. Our chute had hour glassed around the head stay. This was not good. We were in danger of damaging the chute and unable to use our headsail in this current situation. It required someone going aloft to sort this mess out. We took a vote and decided neither of us was going up the stick in these conditions. It would have to wait until we reached Suwarrow.
The next day with light winds again we were making slow progress under main sail alone and it was time to fire up the ‘iron genny’ (engine) in order to make landfall during daylight. In these lighter conditions we continued to watch the chute curl, furl, and continue to wrap and rewrap itself around the head stay but with lighter stress and I decided to relax the halyard a foot or so. Gradually we watched the chute inch its way downward. Ok…so it’s a game of inches…over the span of that day we slowly worked the chute down but it was not until the next morning as we arrived at Suwarrow that we finally managed to the get chute completely down and stowed and all the mess sorted…with no damage. Thank you Lord!
As we arrived at Suwarrow we noticed a couple of boats in the anchorage. But as we came thru the pass out came one and then the next. Aha, were we to get our wish…Suwarrow all to ourselves. Alas, as we rounded the headland we saw one boat remaining. This turned out to be the Sailing Cat Sonadora owned by a nice lady Carol from UK enroute NZ on her second circumnavigation. We enjoyed a day on the island with her crew and learned the ropes of successfully negotiating our way into the ripe coconuts with our trusty Machete. Yes there is an art to it and once learned you will never be thirsty again…provided you are on an island with Coconuts.
The following day, Sonadora departed and our dream came true….An Island to Oneself! No one else, no Wardens, or Field and Stream boys, no authorities telling us what to do or not do, no other cruisers…Paradise to explore! – For 4 hours.
Then once again we were in the company of three French Cats a German Cat and three French monohulls…wow…a crowd.
But being the friendly sorts we are, it wasn’t long until the beach parties began and we were all busy exploring the island Tom Neale journalled so well.
We found his original shack, cooking hut and garden and were introduced to the Suwarrow version of the Coconut Crab and did we find crab…WOW!
That’s the beauty of coming to a place where few have gone before. Mother Nature and all her inhabitants have a chance to replenish and flourish. For the next few days we hunted crabs, fished and snorkelled the many reefs close to the anchorage. They were beautiful and full of sharks, black tip, white tip, reef and greys they were all there and in large numbers. As were the very large snappers and groupers and all manner of good eatin fishies, it was just a question of how fast can you swim, spear and walk on water. The trolling was excellent and wasn’t long before the freezer started filling up. Also, it wasn’t long until the crowd started to thin out and one morning we woke up knowing that we were once again all alone. This time we had a few days and perfect weather to take the dinghy and explore the other islands rimming the atolls. In particular we wanted to go and find what Tom Neale described in his book as ‘The Perfect Reef’. We did and it was….SPECTACULAR! In the 10 years that we have been cruising and diving it was the most incredible reef dive we have ever had. We weren’t in the water but a couple of minutes when, spear gun in hand, I had a large Pacific Jack, bigger than me, swim right up to my mask. I could have kissed him, he was that close. Needless to say, my trigger finger was twitching, but that wee small voice that belongs to my survival instinct said “Elmer, if you shoot that fish you are gonna die” and although I recognized that to be a little harsh, I knew if I shot that fish I would be taken for a ride to a place I may not come back from. At the very least I would lose my gun and that’s no fun. So I wiggled my fingers at him in my most friendly Nemo kind of wave and off he swam and so did I. We spent a whole day exploring that reef and Kaija discovered a new species of fish we have never before encountered. It was the Ambon Toby and Kaija, always on the lookout for a new fish, was thrilled.
Kaija found a bird sanctuary with thousands of nesting Terns and Gulls and was able to enjoy a real time of communion with them.
I discovered a beautiful whale bone vertebrae and if it weren’t for the size I would have brought it home, it was a most comfortable chair, but alas, too big and too heavy for das boat.
Over the next many days we explored other islands, fished and swam and it reminded me of the movie Blue Lagoon with Kaija and me the stars. It was heavenly, total isolation, serenity, perfection. However, it wasn’t too many days before more boats started arriving and we once again found ourselves in the company of cruisers and a good time was had by all. Todd and Gayle Sv Small World II from Hawaii, Tim and Katie Sv Marjana an Australian couple making their way home after cruising the Med for 6 yrs. and a pair of nice lads from the States, Hugh and Peter Sv Icarus recently College grads having a sailing adventure before selling the boat in Australia and head back to the land of Stuff and gainful employment.
Finally, the Island Authority/Warden arrived. His name was Harry and in company with his assistant/wife he promptly proceeded to inform us of ‘all the rules’. There was a whole lot of ‘you can’t do’ including fires on the beach, socials at the clubhouse etc., however, he was nice enough when he came to ask if we could install his SSB radio, which we did and made the best of the situation. However, it was not the same with all the rules and regs and it was time to move on.
We discovered that we had a fairly major fuel leak coming from the fuel injector pump. Despite my best efforts, this fix was way above my pay grade. I needed help and there was no help in Suwarrow. Originally, we had intended to sail for Tonga then Fiji, but given the distances it seemed a wiser course to head for American Samoa where at least we could get parts shipped in. And that is what we did. On the morning of June 18, in company with Sv Small World II we departed this Paradise of Isolation and headed for civilization.