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The Two Captains


2C Update #128 - Suwarrow and the Cook Islands - July 2005

(Land Photographs by the Two Captains & UW Photographs by Bud Bliemeister, sv Passage)

When cruisers die and go to heaven, Suwarrow will be one of the destinations available to them.   The pass is a tad dicey, the anchorage (13*14.9S; 163*06.5W) is full of coral “bommies”, and the only protection is a small area behind Anchorage Island, but it is hundreds of miles from anywhere else, the reefs are unspoiled, the fish free of ciguatera, the breeze (usually) steady over Anchorage Island, and the only sign of man is the camp of the official caretakers.

An atoll eleven miles across, Suwarrow is one of fifteen small islands belonging to the Cook Islands.  These islands are scattered in two main groups over two million square miles of ocean.  Only five of the Cooks have passable anchorages, and although they lie across the usual routes west from French Polynesia, they are so spread apart that most cruisers choose only one to visit.  And a hard choice it is to make.  Does one sail SW to Rarotonga, the lushly mountainous main island and center of the Cook Is. Culture, and/or  nearby Aitutaki?  Here is where most of the Cook Islanders live, and I’ve heard it said that the Cook Island dancers are the best in Polynesia.  Or there is the fascinating Palmerston Island a little closer to the rhumb line from Bora Bora to Tonga. Reknowned for their hospitality, all Palmerston’s inhabitants are descendants of one Englishman who settled on the island in 1862 with three Cook Islander wives and with them fathered 26 children! Alternatively, one could tack way north to visit the less-visited and more tropical Penryhn Atoll? 

Or do you choose the uninhabited atoll Suwarrow?  Originally called Suvarov after the Russian ship that first visited it,  Suwarrow was made famous by a book called An Island to Oneself, by New Zealander Tom Neale.  Neale lived the hermit’s life on Suwarrow’s Anchorage Island  from 1953 to 1978, charming the occasional yachties that found their way there, and thereby founding one of those nautical traditions that is irresistible to seafarers. Perhaps in recognition of this lure, the Cook Island government made Suwarrow a nature preserve and bird sanctuary with a caretaker/parkwarden stationed on the island, much less as a government official, than as a host to carry on Neale’s role.

I, of course, wanted to do it all, and some boats do, starting south in Rarotonga and then working their way north all the way to Penryhn.  But, there is so much to see to the west before the next cyclone season, that we, like most cruisers, realized we had to pick just one, and, after all our time in French Polynesia, the retreat to nature called strongly to us.  So many of our diving friends in last year’s group had written glowingly of Suwarrow and it’s long-time caretaker Papa Joane, it just seemed too special to miss.

Should in fact I get to yachtie heaven, I do hope that the nasty passages are somehow excised from the experience.  I know… I know, those are the parts that make the arriving sweeter, but both these two captains and almost every other cruiser we talked to in Suwarrow could do quite happily without the shakedown we underwent for three of the six days it took to reach the atoll from Bora Bora.  Our course carried us through a northern branch of the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), where equatorial north-easterly winds bump into the southeast trades.  We alternately experienced high winds, no winds, confused seas and heavy rain, making for a generally unpleasant passage.  We had stuff shaken from shelves that had ridden there uneventfully since the Virgin Islands, and, as for the leaks, well, it’s just too depressing to talk about T2’s leaks, the bane of Don’s existence.

Our last day was fine sailing, of course, at least until nightfall when it went dead calm.  We hove to for the night about twenty miles out, well clear of the atoll’s eastern reefs, and at about 5 AM fired up Perky to motor on in in time for slack tide and good light in the pass.  During the night, two other boats we’d not known were out there materialized out of the dark, and the three of us entered the pass one behind the other and found places to drop the hook in between the four boats already there.

The day after our arrival, John and Veronica, the new caretakers of Suwarrow invited all the boats in the anchorage ashore to a “light lunch” of fresh-caught tuna, poisson cru, breadfruit, and coconut pancakes, the first of several group feasts. 

How can I capture the natural warmth with which John and Vero welcomed us to this mid-ocean Eden? 

Imagine being a lone couple, plopped for six months on an island hundreds of miles from family and friends, essentially camping out and, not unlike charter captains, finding themselves reaching out over and over to constantly changing visitors of varied nationalities, not to mention different languages!  Plus, they had to be aware that they were replacing a well-loved figure – Papa Joane – who retired this year. 

Papa Joane, who it turns out is Vero’s uncle (for a nice bit of continuity), came up with them at the beginning of the season to show them the ropes…what birds nest on which island and which critters lurk on which reefs.

The rest of the required skills – from fishing, to catching coconut crabs, to weaving anything and everything from palm fronds – seem to be things every Cook Island child grows up knowing how to do. 


During the ten days we stayed at Suwarrow, we saw John and Vero wear many hats: park warden; tour guide; custom and immigration official; teacher, and musician, but the one that fit most comfortably was that of host. 

In one stop we forged the kind of bonds we’d been looking for since the Marquesas. 

It’s amazing how you can fill your time in a place like Suwarrow, even considering that, thanks to a spate of high winds, our adventures were confined to the reefs near the anchorage.   Even though waves were breaking under the dinghy, we dove a half dozen times in clear warm water on lovely reefs full of fish and many varieties of shellfish.  We trolled for dinner from the dinghy, and Don even got to break his spear-gun out of mothballs for a few forays, although the patrolling sharks and rolling seas made for a more adventurous exercise than he and his hovering tender really wanted…  We went back to trolling!

Ashore, we walked beaches and coconut groves, consumed coconuts at every stage of the nut, and learned from Vero how to make her yummy coconut pancakes, made from the coconuts that have begun to sprout. 

One afternoon that spoke to my soul was spent sitting on a fallen palm trunk in the dappled shade of the coconut grove with Marie Christine, a French lady doctor, singlehanding.  We learned from Vero to make palm-frond roof tiles for the beach palapa that John and several cruisers were restoring, which, of course, had to be christened with a big potluck when it was done.  And finally, when the wind eased just a bit, John and Vero carried us in their skiff to Gull Island to see nesting frigates, and, particularly special to me, an up-close view of a nesting tropic bird.

We might easily have stayed half the season in Suwarrow, but another group of this season’s Puddlejumpers arrived, with more not far behind them, and the anchorage was growing crowded.  It seems more and more cruisers are making Suwarrow the Cook Island of choice. Plus a weather window of steady, if strong, easterlies was forecast, which seemed ideal for carrying us on our next leg to American Samoa. 

But leaving was hard… With John and Vero as ambassadors of their country, our visit to Suwarrow sure has made me wish to see more of the Cooks.  With 20-20 hindsight I regret not being one of the boats that tried to do it all.



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All text and photos on this site Copyright Gwen Hamlin 2006


Published at Burlington, VT