the journey

Cook Islands

August 27, 2007

Current Location: Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands
Current Position: Approx. S18° 03', W163 ° 11'

The darkness subsided as the faint glow appeared through the dark squally clouds. I was bundled up in my foul weather gear, not what one would picture a south pacific cruiser to be wearing on the infamous coconut milk run. The rain had subsided for a moment and I piloted our DreamKeepin’ home around the frothy breakers and towards the few mast lights I could see tucked into the western notch of the island. As I stalled the boat and dropped the mainsail sleepy Nicole stirred below. Pulling herself out of the sea-berth she then poked her head up through the companionway to check on the new action. "We’re here", I said.

Just then, a small aluminum boat appeared beside us. Inside was a man and an older girl swaddled in yellow slickers. "Good Morning. Welcome to Palmerston. My name's Bob and this is my daughter Taia. We are your host family," he said. "How did you guys know we were here already?” I said. “We thought we’d just pick up a mooring or drop our hook and call ashore later on when everyone woke up." "Oh, we knew you were coming and looked for your light all last night. We saw your light on the other side of the atoll when you first came close to Palmerston and got ready to come meet you," Bob said. "You see, the first people to come greet you become your host family while you are here visiting. It is our tradition."

Little did we know at the time, but this tradition is full of fierce rivalry and tenacious strategy in becoming the first "greeter" to encounter the new yachts that appear. Even though our quarter berth was filled to the gills with supplies for other Palmerston locals, Edward, Tere, and the school, these were not our "hosts", just beneficiaries of our altruistic response at wanting to help the people by delivering their goods from the remote island of Rarotonga, as the supply ship only comes to Palmerston every few months if they're lucky. But Bob showed up first and was very clear that it didn’t matter whose supplies we had on board, he was the first to greet us, thus our new host. Weird, I thought to myself. And what an appropriate thought it was for our time on Palmerston.

Palmerston, a small atoll in the southern Cook Island group, is home to the extended William Marsters family. William Marsters arrived here in 1863, an Englishman who brought his Polynesian wife and her two cousins from Penrhyn Island to settle at Palmerston and start a coconut plantation. By the time William died in 1899, he had married all three women and established a grand family of 21 children. Through time the island was split equally between the three wives. Today there are 67 people living on the island all descending from one of the three wives. In the words of Bob, our host father, "we used to intermarry a lot until we were educated that it wasn't good. Nowadays we marry no closer in family then our cousin." Fair enough.

The next few days were filled with spending time with Bob’s family. His wife, Tipou, his daughters Taia, Goldeen, and Mihou, and his son, Andrew, all were generous, warm, and thoughtful. Bob would pick us up in his aluminum speedboat and navigate us through the tiny slit in the reef while the strong pull of water ebbed and flowed through the gap. With a hand-rolled cigarette hung loosely from his lips, he picked his way through the labyrinth of coral heads like he’s done thousand of times his whole life.

The main event each day was centered on lunch. Brunch you might say. At about 1:30, when the kids were out of school, we would all sit at the big outside table underneath the coconut trees and look out over the gorgeous aqua-blue lagoon.

Tipou would serve up heaps of rice, battered and fried parrot-fish, a little meat, plus whatever the latest yachties had reciprocated to the family out of generosity. Any vegetables, fruit, juice, or beer was usually given to them from the various boats they hosted, and a special treat for Bob and his family to enjoy on the big meals. We were fortunate to have another yacht family, Bauvier from Belgium, be part of the extended family while we were visiting. Bart, Dorothy, and their two sons, Thibaut and Olivier, were a wonderful addition and it was a pleasure getting to know them well as we shared adventures during the next few days. They were extremely generous with their contributions to Bob's family, and we got to reap the benefits having fresh pineapple and watermelon that they had brought from French Polynesia the first big brunch we shared.

Spending time with Bob and Tipou's family consisted of not only eating, but also being part of the family. We helped prepare meals, did dishes, fed the chickens and pigs, gathered and husked coconuts, went swimming with the kids, played volleyball with the other families, Nicole and the girls weaved palm fronds and made shell jewelry, laughed at Bob's jokes, and watched the girls dance as Bob and Tipou sang and played the guitar and drums. We walked around the island and saw the family graves, William Marsters old house made out of a ship's huge timbers, and visited other families where Nicole and I handed out prescription glasses to the people who could use them. The glasses had been donated and a bag handed out to us at our Puddle Jump Party in Puerto Vallarta before leaving Mexico. It is a great gift to bring to people and we are hoping to be able to collect glasses again this winter when back in California to bring to other islands for people who wouldn't normally be able to afford or even get prescrbed a pair.

Little did we realize before arriving, but as Bob explained to us on Friday evening, we had arrived during a special time, the last weekend of the month. For 6-7 months on the last weekend, each family takes their "tinny" boat across the lagoon to the motu of "Bird Island”. (Of course the motu is split up into family parcels to prevent any family squabbling.) The goal is food and the food is bird. Not just any bird, but the coveted meat of the red-tailed tropicbird that nest on the island. So on Saturday morning Nicole and I were asked to join in the gathering of the birds. We looked at each other questioningly…. yes, we would go and experience the tradition, even if it was hard for us. Part of wanting to experience other cultures and see the world for what it is, one of the foundations of our journey.

Saturday morning we set off in Bob's tinny with his daughters Taia and Mihou, and his son, Andrew. After a wet and bouncy ride through the lagoon waves we landed on Bird Island and set out rooting through the bushes for the birds. We were only searching for the flightless juvenile adults of a certain age, and for a couple of hours we navigated through the dense scrubby bushes and searched for the little creatures. In two hours time we had captured 7 birds, a small gathering compared to the sometimes 50-60 birds they can get during the earlier months of the nesting season. Inquiring about the sustainability of the population, Bob says that they have had this tradition over 100 years and that there are many other nearby motus that are not touched at all, so the birds have ample young that grow up to soar through the south pacific skies.

We put the squawking black-and-white feathered birds in the "tinny" and headed back to Palmerston Island. Back on the main island the birds were put into a temporary pen set up with fishing nets and as boats returned from Bird Island throughout the day their captured birds were also put in. Overall about 47 birds were captured. At 2:00 that afternoon the big event happened and most of Palmerston’s population showed up. Birds were tallied and divvied up evenly between all the people on the island, including the yachties that were being hosted. After numbers were called aloud allocating birds to each family, a family member would enter the pen and rush through the mass of squawking birds grabbing the defenseless creatures behind the neck and tossing them into wheelbarrows used to shuttle them back to the home-sites. It wasn't pretty and those of us visitors who love wildlife and aren't used to living on farms and killing our own food, sat back and sadly observed the reality. Killing and preparing your own food isn't easy, but is something Nicole and I want to be more comfortable at in our lives. Coming from a place of trying not to live in hypocrisy and wanting to always walk our talk, we feel that if we continue to eat meat then we shouldn’t shirk from experiences like this one, even if difficult.

The wheelbarrow full of birds was quickly brought back to part of Bob's family's land. By the time Nicole and I reached the birds, Bob had already completed the killing business and the feather plucking began. I picked up a bird and did my best at plucking feathers from the still-warm body that I held before me. Nicole shot pictures for part of the time and then tried her hand at learning how to pluck the feathers from another bird. It didn't take too long to complete and then the wheelbarrow was rolled back to the family cleaning and cooking area. This next part was a bit more complicated and we just observed how it was done. A barrel fire was lit and Tipou and Taia did a quick rotation of the birds over the fire to burn off all the leftover feathers and prepare the birds for dressing. Then Bob expertly dressed the birds and prepared them for the umu roast that would happen tomorrow, the Sunday Bird Brunch.

Sunday arrived and after a church service we attended with Bob and Tipou's family, we sat down to sample the special bird lunch. Not only was the umu-roasted bird presented, but so was a couple of local chickens, a raw parrot-fish "Poisson cru" dish, eggplant, cake, rice and drinks. I tried a little of the bird but didn’t like it much, kind of fishy and gamy. Bart and Dorothy said it tasted like pigeon, another bird I had never tasted. I did, however, enjoy the local chicken and the raw parrotfish was delicious. Bob happily gorged himself on a whole bird, but the kids mostly ate the cake and raw fish, like all kids everywhere, anything new and tasty is better then the usual.

Monday morning we made the rounds saying good-bye to the people we had met. We stopped by the school and gave Bob's kids hugs and then were shuttled back to our boat by Tipou and Bob. We gave them 5 gallons of unleaded fuel for their tinny, some aluminum rivets to help fix a leak, and Nicole presented them with a bunch of printed pictures she had taken of them and us while we were there. Hugs and handshakes ensued and an hour later we had pulled off our mooring, put up our mainsail, and jibed away from Palmerston and set out in the lumpy seas for the island of Niue.

While visiting Bob and his family, we ready an article from "Cruising World" written by the infamous writer Fatty Goodlander about his stay at Palmerston. His synopsis was that it was beautiful, the hosts truly generous and lovely, but still there was something not perfect, it was “almost paradise”. “What did you think of Palmerston?" I asked Nicole. She thought for a minute, "Interesting. A good experience, such kind people. But I'm glad we're leaving, I'm ready for a break." And that pretty much summed it up for me too.

August 21, 2007

Current Location: Aitutake, Cook Islands
Current Position: Approx. S18°52', W159 °48'

The island of Aitutaki in the Cooks reminded me a bit of our passage, dreamy, beautiful, and kind. Sailing miles in SE trade winds under full canvas cruising at a comfortable 6 or more knots in 3 foot seas under blue skies and pink sea shell sunrises was like a dream. After 22 hours from Rarotonga we had arrived.

Aitutaki's lagoon beckoned to us like a sparkling jewel, aqua and turquoise glowing just beyond our reach. Bobbing at anchor along the reef shelf we were forced to let the lagoon call us until morning. We had missed high tide. The pass is 40 feet wide and a maximum of what we heard was 6 to 7 feet deep at high water. We draw at least 5'5" if not more now that we’re fully loaded.

Throughout the night the winds increased and the weather shifted as predicted. By 08:00 two other boats had arrived and the dingy was launched. I was nervous. I knew the anchorage was crowded, the weather was supposed to worsen, and I wanted to be in that beautiful blue water I saw just yesterday.

We were too early to measure depths, as high water wasn't for a few more hours. But by 09:00 we were desperately impatient and went anyway. Sadly, our magical tool, a portable depth sounder had a cracked and flooded. Thankfully, friends from Papillion were in the channel ready to help us navigate the shallow spot with their own. We measured 5'6" at the shallowest over soft sand.

After checking in with other friends on Adio who assured us they had a spot for us and were happy to squeeze us in we raised anchor at 09:45, still an hour and a half before high high water. I held my breath as we passed the exposed ribs of rusting wreck, our signal the shallow spot would soon be under our keel. The sun shone for a moment revealing our obstacle. We bumped once and slid through the soft sand for another 10 seconds. Spinning our stern towards the other 6 boats, we squished in between Adio and Heretic. With help from friends' in dinghies pushing our bow back up into the wind and others tying stern lines off to the rusting barge which so clearly reminded me of the south seas, we were safely nestled in.

By nightfall, we were sure we were truly in the South Pacific. The deep pounding of drums drifted over the anchorage and settled with the sweet scent of frangipani and the familiar sounds of the ukulele. There was a calm that settled over us in the protected anchorage and in me as I curled up in bed. Reflecting on our day, I saw the smiles and welcoming waves people both ancient and young gave us as the zipped by on scooters or passed by on foot. I smiled thinking of my conversation with two old ladies in front of the bank who welcomed me generously to their island home and wanted to know everything about me.

In Aitutaki, time seemed irrelevant. Perhaps it was because of the heat that moved only when caressed by the wind rustling in the coconut palms. Or maybe it was that this island easily cast a comfortable spell upon those who could be charmed. We certainly were. Three days stretched into a week.

Wanting to get our bearings we rented bikes with our friends Jim and Ryan from Cardea. It wasn't that easy. The two places we knew rented bikes, or "push bikes" as they were called on Aitutaki were out. Then with guidance, we wandered to our last chance, a café offering waffles, smoothies, burgers, and malts. We didn't see a sign for bikes but we crossed our fingers. "Do you have bikes?" we asked hopefully at the counter. "Come around back," she smiled. We walked into their back yard with a rusting swing set and collection of odds and ends. There were a few rusting bikes. We were given three but there were four of us. “" long do you want the bikes?" She inquired. "Just today." And she gave us her husband’s bike.

We were off to bike around the island. Heading towards the clam restoration project we were caught in a squall and rode through it. By the time we arrived, we were dripping. Within minutes of standing above the tanks with hundreds of clams of all ages waiting to be put out in the marine reserve, we dried off as the sultry sun had reappeared. We made it a priority to visit the marine reserve situated between two motus and a wreck in the lagoon that continued to beckon to me.

Frangipani, bougainvillea, tiare and hibiscus decorated the streets and goats seemed to replace the pigs as the animal of choice on the islands. Squall after squall lined up and finally we decided to take cover under some palms and wait it out. Peddling in a stiff headwind past the airport it was clear we salty dogs hadn't used our legs in quite sometime and the rusting bikes and hard seats were a challenge we weren't quite ready accept. After making it around the tip of the island we turned back to the café that had so graciously rented us bikes and had burgers, fish and chips and smoothies.

The next day, the sun reappeared and the lagoon was glowing again. We headed out in search of the marine reserve and technicolor clams. Finding the mentioned shipwreck and thinking we were in the right place we plunged into the blue lagoon. Circling above coral bommies and along the bones of an unfortunate ship that ran through the reef we could not find any of the hundred clams that were reintroduced and the area seemed void of fish. After chilling ourselves in the 75-degree water we headed towards a palm tree studded motu with circling white tropicbirds and white sand beaches that whispered South Pacific paradise. After navigating through shallow water and coral heads we pulled our dingy to land and a spot we thought was deserted.

Serendipity had a plan for us. Minutes later, a shocked man walked out in his boxers to wash shaving cream from his smooth face in the lagoon. Craig welcomed us and quickly invited us to his wedding that was within the hour. "What's a wedding without a couple of blow ins?" the Aussie said to no one in particular.

After a beautiful ceremony, we were handed beers and champagne. This seemed like a dream to all of us and when Ryan was given a beer by the groom's father himself, he had no choice but to abandon his self-initiated month on the wagon. Having filled my memory cards with images of the wedding and our bellies with a gastronomic feast we headed out in search of the clams again. Spotting a bobbing old water bottle, the mooring marker, we tied up and slid into the water. Immediately, I recognized my old friends. ,

Giant clams introduced from Palau seemed to broaden their smiles as I circled above them and their smaller native clam neighbors. They were introduced as a faster growing food source and as a resource for their pricy shells. The reserve has been in place for seven years and the marine fisheries manager, Richard, said there has been a big increase in fish and clams in the area. With the light fading and a long ride through coral heads back to the anchorage, I regretfully said goodbye to my clam friends, promising to return.

Even in paradise, the clock eventually ticked louder, as we realized a weather window was opening for us. Wanting to leave by late afternoon, we tried to shake off the hypnotic spell of the island and scurried to get the boat ready and resupply our fresh provisions. Walking through coconut groves along a dusty road, we searched for Angelo's organic fruit and veg farm. Following an arrow pointing towards a dark green house we lingered outside looking at each other. "Hello," we called. A man with messy grey hair and coke bottle glasses appeared wearing a patched faded blue sun hat, dirty T-shirt and well worn shorts. He had dirt under his fingernails.

Angelo talked about Aitutaki, coming here from Australia 9 years ago and about the seeds he recently brought from his homeland in Rome. Shiny aubergines hung from beneath big green leaves while, butternut squash hid below my feet. Italian parsley and four varieties of basil reached for the sunshine while the arugula and lettuces wilted, begging for rain. After a tour of the plentiful gardens and long cup of coffee and hot lemon water, we realized we hadn't quite shaken the spell of Aitutaki.

We again, missed high tide and waited another day. Our time was up, we untangled ourselves from the grasp the island had upon us when we untied our lines from the rusting barge and headed out again into the channel. The lagoon's face was grey as the clouds hung lower in the sky. The wind blew off the island and as we made it back out the channel and into the ocean the sky opened up again. Raindrops obscured our view of the anchorage and lagoon as they fell for the hour it took to raise the dingy and stow everything. We steered west under a double-reefed main and rainy skies, leaving Aitutaki like a dream.

August 9, 2007

Current Location: Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Current Position: Approx. S21° 12', W159 ° 47'

The last 3 weeks...

The diesel engine is purring in the background, charging our batteries while we sit cozy in DreamKeeper sipping strong espresso and black tea. Outside, fresh rain showers down and is finally cleaning our salty sails and decks. We are presently anchored in the little harbor of Rarotonga, Cook Islands. Nicole and I, along with our friend Ryan, have just returned from an inner island hiking adventure. This morning we attempted to scale the muddy, extremely lush, and wet summit of Te Manga (653 meters), the tallest mountain on the island. Lonely Planet guidebook describes it as "a long, strenuous climb with several sections that are tough and very steep, and should only be considered by experienced hikers". We had all just received our "experienced hiker certifications" after submitting blood tests, stool samples, and Homeland Security clearances to the Cook Islands Hiking Club and paid our annual dues, so we were set.

We had only one motor-scooter between us, as I was the only fool who spent 2 hours the day before waiting in line to receive my official Cook Islands motorcycle license. The most beautiful part of the Cook Island License officialdom is that before you can get your license and take your practical test, you first need to hire (rent) your scooter, then drive it to the police station. If you don't really know how to ride one, it is best that you practice by doing a loop around the island, or two, and then go in for the practical test. When the big test finally arrives you must do one full loop around the block, always keeping to the "left" of course, as we are in New Zealand’s driving rules here. If you return unscathed and haven't injured any one else in the process, you are set. Just ante up your $16 and you are a legal driver!

After shuttling Nicole and then Ryan to the dirt road that we hoped turned into a trail, we parked our trusty mechanized mule and proceeded into the depths of the island. It wasn't long before we were wading through a creek, slopping though muddy taro fields, and then finally ascending a steep ridge laced with tree roots and "curly-cue" vines hanging from the forest’s canopy. The rain started and soon we were in the clouds, saturated with the warm tropical wetness. Onward and upward we scrambled until reaching the last ridge that traversed to the final peaks. Even though we were all official "experienced hikers", we were content and decided the true peak would elude us this wet day. For us salty sailor dawgs, success is often just about getting out and making our legs work like they are supposed to.

My intention in writing this little entry was to just paraphrase our last 3 weeks to catch you all up on our little sailing and exploring journey, as Nicole and I both recently realized we have been utterly lacking. So...

We arrived in Bora Bora after a fast and rough overnight passage to Tahaa on July 18. On Thursday, July 19, we day-sailed into Bora Bora and dropped our anchor next to the Bloody Mary's restaurant. Why, you may ask, didn’t we stay longer in Tahaa or even visit Raitea or Huahine. The simple answer is that we were not very bright at planning our adventure. Our 90-day visa was running out and we had officially "chosen" to check out of Bora Bora, instead of intelligently doing so at Huahine or Raitea, thereby allowing us to see these islands as well. Oops.

So we made it to Bora Bora in beautiful sunny weather, did our official check out of French Polynesia, procured a mooring ball at Bloody Mary's and moved in. You now may be asking, don’t you have to "leave" now that you are checked out??? Officially, yes. But the reality is, no one really does. The gendarmerie never checks and no one really seems to care, so it turns out to be no big deal. For us, we ended up officially leaving on Monday, July 30, 10 days after checking out of the country.

A piece of Bora Bora will always be with me, as it is here that I got my first tattoo. After tracking down the local famous artist, Marama, he fit me in to his busy schedule and within a couple of days my time was up. For two and a half hours I sat in his small lagoon-side studio and clenched my fists and teeth as he embedded ink into my upper left arm. The result is a 6 cm wide circular band all around my arm in traditional Polynesian design. A symbol of our journey and my connection to the ocean, the tattoo is unique and interesting and will always remind me of this special adventure.

On other days we filled our time swimming, snorkeling, walking around town, doing small boat projects, and reading. One of my highlights was hiking the steep trail up to one of the Bora Bora peaks with a few other guys. Another one of those "experienced hiker only" trails, the journey was steep, loose, and quite interesting. The final vertical rock headwall to reach the summit plateau involved some delicate footwork with the added bonus of an old electrical cable tied to a thick root for a safety line. Ryan pulled it off in his Converse All Stars, what a stud! On top, was a sweet view 180 degree panorama of the north and western sides of the island and its gorgeous lagoon.

Another shift for the DreamKeeper team was we became really social and have continued to be especially so here in the Cookie Islands. Dinner at Bloody Mary's with our good friends Jim and Ryan of Cardea, some drinks at Bloody Mary's with some other folks we've met, a night out with some live music at the Bora Bora Yacht Club, and a Polynesian Sunday buffet at the yacht club the day before we left. Yes, it finally feels like we have become true "cruisers" with all this social gala business. I should mention that we have been meeting many younger cruisers too, more around our age, which can be a bit rare out here in these circles. We always enjoy getting know all the different folks of differing ages and from various countries, but sometimes it is just nice to spend time with people from our own generation. Here in Bora Bora we have met three different couples that are in their late twenties to early forties, and all from Norway. Nicole and I both really enjoyed beginning to get to know all these folks and hoping we get to see them more in the future.

We left on Monday, July 30, after a big weather system settled down again. Out the pass and back into the mighty Pacific, we started out with a beautiful broad reach sail in 15 knots of wind and manageable seas. For the first 2 days we had a nice wind from the east and southeast (typical trade winds), and made good time towards the southern Cookies. The last couple of days we lost our wind and had to motor-sail the rest of the way to Rarotonga. The passage was 530 nautical miles, 4 days/4 nights, and probably the easiest passage we have had yet. It was just smooth and sunny and lovely out pretty much the whole way. On top of it we landed our first fish in a few months, a beautiful 25 lb. Mahi, and because its mate was nowhere to be found, our conscience let us bring it aboard and filet it up. Yumm!

Pulling into Rarotonga, we arrived to a packed harbor and had to anchor in the middle for a couple of hours while some boat shuffling happened until we could side-tie to the big container ship dock. Check in was the easiest ever and took about 5 minutes of my time. We were told we couldn't bring in any fresh veggies or fruit so the last day out Nicole made a huge batch of lime-bars with our 50 or so limes we had left. Well we arrived right before the big Constitution Day weekend and the harbormaster said that the agricultural inspection wouldn't happen until Tuesday the following week, so we were told to just go about our business and keep our yellow quarantine flag up. Looks like Nicole didn't need to make all those lime-bars after all. (After thought: the health inspector never even stepped foot on our boat, and our friend Jim, on S/V Cardea, just paid him the $20 and he wrote us a receipt saying we were all checked in, doing all this while still standing on the dock). :)

So far Rarotonga has been good. We have been extremely social starting out with a Sunday cruiser’s potluck on shore, followed by the last 3 nights having dinner on other people’s boats: Sol Searcher from California, Serai from the British Virgin Islands, and Sora from Florida. I am pretty much maxed-out on being social, but Nicole just opened up her big mouth and invited 6-8 people over for dinner and drinks tonight in saying good-bye to a girl who has been crewing on a boat here, but her time is up and she is flying out for good tomorrow. So, I will just have to suck it up and be a good cruiser. I'm being summoned into the galley to make fresh corn bread...more later….