Where in the World is Palmerston Island?

Oct 08, 2010| 0 Comment

Where in the world is Palmerston Island?  Why it’s right out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Still unsure?  Palmerston Island is one of 15 scattered island and atolls lumped geographically together as The Cook Islands.  Does that ring a bell?  There is a northern grouping and a southern grouping.  Palmerston Island is in the southern grouping.  One can be forgiven for not remembering where Palmerston Island is.  The First Mate understands.  It can even be allowed that one be forgiven for not having ever heard of Palmerston Island.  It lies in the middle of nowhere, and nothing has ever happened on the island to bring it to the forefront of anybody’s attention.  In 1774, when the illustrious Captain Cook bumped into Palmerston Island along with several of the other Cook Islands, he called them “detached parts of the earth”.  From such a far-ranging, ocean-going explorer, that is quite a description!

The name Palmerston Island itself is totally misleading, for we are not talking about an island here.  We are talking about an atoll made up of 35 tiny, low-lying motus dotting a pear-shaped reef.  This reef completely encloses a lagoon land-mined with coral heads.  There are no passes in and out of this lagoon.  Out of necessity, one or two deeper stretches across the reef are used as entry points, but only the most shallow of longboats and daring of drivers can make it though the narrow, winding passes without getting hung up on the coral or capsizing the boat. 

Back when Captain Cook set foot on Palmerston Island, he found an uninhabited atoll, though evidence has since been found that Polynesians did at some point in history eke out a living on its sun-baked limestone shores.  Palmerston Island is not an easy place to call home.  One must contend with difficult access to the outside world or, more importantly, difficult egress of the outside world to one’s little abode. There is little to no fresh water, a meager selection of life-sustaining plants and animals, and a homeland so low-lying that the stronger cyclones just wash right over it taking whatever is not tied down on out to sea.  Yes, definitely not a place of which most people would dream!

In 1863, almost 100 years after Captain Cook’s visit, a hearty Scot by the name of William Marsters came here to maintain a coconut plantation, that being one of the few plant species that could thrive in the dry climate and limestone soil.  He set up home with Penthyn, his Polynesian wife.  Her female cousin accompanied them and soon another female cousin joined them.  Strong in his faith and full of virile confidence, he married all three, and by the time he died in 1899, 21 kids were calling him “Dad”.  Father Marsters appears to have been very concerned about this little “nation” of people he had sired.  Three separate family groups were now thriving and breeding all bearing the surname of Marsters.  He decreed that all were to speak English first, the protestant faith was the homeland religion, and there was to be no intermarrying within one’s own family group.  Finally, before he died, he divided the atoll into three parts bequeathing each family group its fair share.

Palmerston Island did not and could not possibly agree with all of Marsters’ descendants; nor could it possibly support all of them.  Thousands of them are now spread around the Cook Islands, New Zealand and beyond, but 50 or so stalwart heirs to the island continue to call it home.  Today, they welcome visitors from the yearly migration of cruisers crossing the Pacific. They have set mooring balls outside the main entrance, and if conditions are calm enough and if one just happens to be passing by, one is invited to pick up a mooring ball. Spend a night or two, please!  One is to hail them on the VHF radio, and a representative of one of the families and another of the Cook Island national government will motor out to greet one’s boat.  Once duly processed into the island and all customs documents signed, they will take you in their boat onto the island.  A family greeting will be arranged, a tour given and lunch or dinner will be served.  No payment is necessary, but a few items that you, the yachtie, might have hanging around that they could use would be greatly appreciated.  They enjoy having visitors. They encourage visitors. Any contact with the outside world is great. “How quaint,” thinks The First Mate.  “How interesting!  How strange!  This we have to see.”

Thursday, September 30th – We are headed off shore from Bora Bora, Society Islands to Rarotonga, Cook Islands.   The morning is spent preparing for the 550nm passage.  The First Mate makes a few meal items to have ready and easy while The Captain rechecks his charts and the boat in general.  The weather is still overcast and rainy, and the forecast for the next few days shows no change.  Though The First Mate is not eager to set off in such dismal conditions, her rationalization is that, in this weather, one might as well be moving westward rather than drippily hanging around a mooring ball.

1300 – We motor out the pass.  A passing squall halts our efforts to raise sail.  When it does pass, The Captain decides to sail under jib alone in the 20 – 25-knot winds.  Even with a big sideways swell, we cruise along at 7 knots for the rest of the afternoon.  The Captain is content.  Squalls are less frequent, and their duration is shorter.  The First Mate is grateful. 

J Boats were first designed as sleek, fast racing boats.  It was only later when the company decided to meet the demand for a high-performance racer/cruiser that they jazzed up the insides of their larger models with teak, added on all the creature comforts that cruisers want and thus turned their boats into elegant ocean-going yachts.  They remained, however, first and foremost, high-performance racing boats. 

A major concern on a racing boat is eliminating any and all wind resistance.  Thus, there is no canvas on a racing boat:  no dodger to block the waves crashing over the deck and into the cockpit and no bimini to protect the helmsman from the sun.  Shelter from the elements is simply not a part of racing boat design.  The transformation from racing boat to cruising boat is a compromise and can only go so far if one wants to remain a high-performance racer.  From an uncomfortable First Mate’s point of view, this transformation falls way short in the ability, or lack thereof, to protect its occupants from the elements. 

The cockpit cannot be enclosed.  The dodger, or the forward hood over the companionway opening, is not quite large enough to completely block the heavy waves. 


Here The Captain sits under the protection of the dodger which works just great as long as wind, waves and rain are blowing over the bow.  If the wind is coming from the rear or anywhere aft of the mid-section of the boat, the dodger then offers no protection.   Even The Captain’s sunny smile falters after a few hours of cool, wet drizzle dripping down the neck of his jacket.


For the helmsman, there is no protection at all from wind, sea or rain, and since The First Mate is most often the helmsman while The Captain is snug behind the dodger or below consulting his navigation charts, she can well attest to this lack with cold, numb hands and rain-smacked face.


Traveling west around the world with the trade winds is the most comfortable way to go.  The wind is at your back pushing you along.  The boat normally stays on an even keel.  It can be delightful — except when it rains.  The rain pelts you from the rear where we, on Avante, have no protection.  There is no way for the poor individual on watch to get out of the rain.  One huddles and endures.  The opening into the bowels of the boat must be sealed, for the wind blows the rain right down the hatch onto the floor.  The First Mate has spent hours studying the cockpit configuration to come up with a way of enclosing the area like so many of the cruisers around us have been able to do, but she can come up with no solution that will work.  The configuration of the lines, halyards and sheets, which cannot be changed or removed, keep getting in the way.  Not being a natural borne sailor or even a born-again sailor, The First Mate fusses and fumes.  Enviously, she eyes the sheltered cruisers around her, for unlike her Captain, speed is not her goal;  comfort is.  That is why she is grateful for the present lessening in the frequency and duration of the passing squalls.  Oh, please, make it stay that way!

Unplanned Thing # 6 has finally caught up with us, as we knew it would.  Toward evening, The Captain notices that the water maker has stopped running.  With little daylight left, we decide to wait until tomorrow to troubleshoot the problem.  We access our water situation just in case …. 1 1/2 tanks full or 120 gallons of water.  That will get us to Rarotonga, if necessary.

1830 – To counter the heavy swell and give The First Mate a more stable surface to work on for dinner, The Captain turns the boat 40° to the right.  We are now running with the swell which does make things a little more manageable in the galley.  There is nothing romantic about working in a rolling kitchen, and the words “let’s go out for dinner” do not work at sea!

1930 – We are back on course.  To our surprise, there are even a few stars visible through the clouds. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a night watch without rain?  No such luck!  On watch at 2030, The First Mate notes a dark, heavy cloud cover, and within minutes, she is writing R-A-I-N! in the log book. 

Friday, October 1st – 0100 – Captain’s Log:  “Lots of clouds and rain during last hour.  Moon just now rising, so it has been quite dark.  We are running before the wind, and the rain approaches from the rear.  You can’t see the rain showers coming, but you know they are close when the wind picks up to 30 knots.  Then the rain hits, blowing hard, almost horizontal.  Not much protection from the dodger for rain from the rear.  You have to snap the canvas cover around the companionway opening and go below to stay dry.”

0300 – As The First Mate walks toward the Nav Station to assume her watch, she notices that water is leaking out of the galley faucet.  Our precious water!  One of us must have knocked the handle in the unsteady footing of the rolling boat.  How long has that been going?  How much water have we lost?  The Captain is apoplectic.  We are now down to 20% water in the port tank, but, thankfully, the other tank is full.  We definitely have to watch our water usage until the water maker can be fixed.

The day dawns with the usual grey cloud bank.  Winds are still up to 29 knots, and the seas are rolling.  Periodically, we get hit with a series of waves that smash into the boat coursing water down the sides, into the cockpit and drenching everything.  We run in and out of rain showers throughout most of the day.  The water maker looms as a problem to be solved, but the rolling seas and wet conditions are doing nothing to make the task possible.   To work on the water maker, located in the aft lazerette, means first pulling out everything stored in there, and then climbing down and into the tight area.  In the heaving seas, there is no way to keep either The Captain or the contents of the lazerette dry.  Add to that the fact that working down there in the contorted positions required could upset even The Captain’s cast iron stomach, we opt for continued water conservation as the best tactic for right now.

Saturday, October 2nd – Dawns another grey, cloudy day.  The First Mate wonders when she last time saw a sun rise or a sun set.  Does that happen anymore? 

0900 – Captain’s Log“Has turned into a dreary day with clouds and rain.  Everyone below most of the time with hatch closed and one companionway board in and the canvas cover used to try and keep out the rain.  The watch stander periodically sticks a head out to keep a lookout.  Visibility often poor so have to use radar.”

One word for the day is scribbled in The First Mate’s log:  “Miserable”.

As a general rule, cruisers tend to give the Cook Islands little attention.  Some of the more hardy souls heading off to points further south and west will jump off from one of the Society Islands and cruise right on by the Cook Islands.  Most, however, choose a Cook Island to stop in for a day or two to break up an otherwise long passage to either Tonga or Samoa.  You decide where you are going next and then you pick one or more of the Cooks that is not too far out of your way.  We have chosen to make two stops:  Rarotonga and Palmerston Island.

Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands.  Its natural beauty is often compared to Moorea, only on a smaller scale.  Our books describe it as an interesting, vibrant place to visit, though fellow cruisers have lamented that it is just the opposite.  Love it or hate it, all agree that its harbor is difficult.  There is no place to anchor because it is too small.  Instead, one executes another one of those med-tie-ups to a concrete wall and hopes for the best in what is frequently an uncomfortable and rolling harbor.  In north winds, the harbor can become unsafe and untenable.  One of our cruising books states that Rarotonga maritime officials will actually prevent yachts from entering the harbor if they deem conditions unsafe and that they will politely, but very firmly, suggest one move out to sea if you are in the harbor when conditions deteriorate.  We may be approaching such conditions, and by mid-morning, we are at a decision point.  Weather is not getting any better.  Rarotonga’s harbor is looking less inviting, and Palmerston Island is just one day further west.

1140 – Captain’s Log“Change of course to head to Palmerston Island instead of Rarotonga for several reasons:

  1. We would arrive at Rarotonga early Monday morning and latest GRIB file forecasts poor weather with rain and 20 knots from the North.  Rarotonga is supposed to be bad when there is a north wind.
  2. GRIB files show better weather if we stay north (generally northwest is Palmerston Island)
  3. Rarotonga has a reputation as an interesting, but not a great stop, with a small and often uncomfortable harbor.  We won’t miss much.
  4. Can pick up several days on schedule if we go direct to Palmerston.

The First Mate cannot believe this is happening.  One miserable day after another.  Why could we not have waited until a better weather window was forecast?  Granted, we are not in storm conditions, but that’s nothing a little thunder and lightening couldn’t change!

Afternoon winds are 25 – 32 knots.  Evening winds are up to 35 knots.  We continue sailing downwind and down rain with the hatch cover closed as much as possible.  Everything is wet, and what isn’t wet is damp to the touch.  This is definitely not fun and so far chalks up as our most uncomfortable passages.  A difficult day turns into a pitch black night with rain.

The First Mate writes a two-word description of the day in her log: “Terribly Miserable”.

Sunday, October 3rd – Rain all night, drizzle all day.  We see a little improvement in the afternoon with a drop in wind allowing us to unfurl the jib.  There’s even a lessening in the rain.  Glory be!  The Captain reports that he is able to stand watch outside in the cockpit, but that does not last long.  Heavy rain soon drives him below deck.  The First Mate sings a ditty: “260 miles to go, 260 miles  …. and they all rolled over and one fell out.  259 miles to go!”  Neither of us is very amused, and both wonder if this will ever end!

The new batteries bought in Papeete, we knew, were not the proper ones for the job, but The Captain is determined to find the best way to work with them and our needs.   These batteries are truck batteries.  Strong, yes, but they are not built to be heavily discharged time and time again as one would normally do with the correct batteries for this boat.  To prevent this, The Captain turns the generator on when the battery voltage drops to 12.05.  This is no problem, except that this happens every few hours.  We are “generating” ourselves to death!  A big part of the problem is our refrigeration system (AKA:  The Killer).  It has a perverse way of suddenly deciding to cycle on just as we turn off the generator.  Then, instead of using the power of the generator to cool itself, it merrily depletes the just topped up batteries.  Keeping up with the refrigerator has us running the generator 6 1/2 hours a day.  This will never do.   We look at everything we can shut off to reduce electrical load.  We turn off the inverter as often as we are able, but the big thing we do is turn off the refrigeration as soon as it reaches its coolest temperature.  This prevents it from turning on and depleting the batteries without us being aware of its usage.  It also puts us in control of when it turns on and off.  It may not like our interference, but as long as we still have ice, we are content in knowing that nothing will spoil.  By doing all this, The Captain is happy to find generator time is reduced to under 4 1/2 hours per day.  Everyone is happy  — except perhaps the refrigeration which has lost its maniacal control!  “Too bad,” gloats The Captain.

In the early evening, there is a definite drop in the winds.  Eighteen knots and under.  Wow!  We have not seen under 20 knots in days!  The seas are even becoming a bit calmer.

2000 – Captain’s Log:  “No rain for the past 2 hours.  Relatively comfortable for a change.”   The calming conditions continue into the early morning.

Monday, October 4th – 0240 – The Captain turns on the engine when wind drops to the point where he can no longer keep the sail full.  The rains soon return, but because the wind has shifted more to the beam, the dodger is finally able to do its job of keeping the rain off us.  We do not need to barricade the companionway. 

Unplanned Thing # 7 – 0830 – Circles!  We are going in circles!  The autopilot has disengaged.  It is not working.  The Captain, on watch, is able to reset the autopilot, but with heavy rains moving through, he thinks it best to don his foul weather gear and take over the helm to steer the boat himself.

0915 – When the weather improves, The Captain tries to set the autopilot, but it will not stay engaged.  The control reads “no pilot” which indicates that more is at fault here than just the autopilot.  There appears to be a problem with our whole instrument network, and that is definitely not good.  These systems provide such valuable data as wind speed, wind direction and depth.   He goes down to the circuit board and recycles both the instrument and autopilot breakers for, like re-booting a computer, this can wake them up to function properly.  It takes a long time for the instrument data to come back on, and the autopilot still shows “no pilot”.  He tries the recycling approach again, and this time the instrument data does not reappear at all.  Double not good!  He continues steering.

1030 – The First Mate assumes her watch.  Her worst nightmare realized.  What if we have to man the helm all the way to New Zealand?  She takes over the helm while The Captain goes below to troubleshoot the problem.  The good news is that the weather is improving, and we are soon able to unfurl the jib and motor sail.

1215 – Will wonders never cease?  We do have a mainsail, and we can use it!  Finally, under improving conditions, we raise that mainsail.  We put in the 2nd reef and turn off the engine.  There is even a spot of clearing in the sky!  The afternoon passes under partly cloudy skies, winds between 15 – 20 and under manual steering.

1800 – Autopilot works sometime, but needs to be closely watched.  Well, that is better that manning the helm hour after hour, but still not great.

1830 – Winds are now right on the nose, and we are having to tack back and forth, adding a lot of distance.  If we want to get to Palmerston Island in daylight tomorrow, we better take down the sails and just plain motor.  That we do and do so all night.  The autopilot finally decides to kick in and hold course, though all our instruments still are not working.  It is a relatively clear night for a change, and both The Captain and The First Mate enjoy standing their watches out in the cockpit.


Tuesday October 5th- 1045 – Land Ho!    The First Mate spots an atoll at about 8nm off the starboard bow. Gradually, over time, 2 flat pancakes emerge from the sea. We are closing in on the atolls of Palmerston Island.


1300 – As we approach the west side of the atoll where the mooring balls are located, The Captain hails Palmerston Island on the VHF.  Edward Marsters answers and advises us that the mooring area is going to be very rough in these conditions and most likely too risky.  “No!” thinks The First Mate.  We continue motoring to the mooring area to check it out for ourselves.  Edward was right.  Winds are from the west, and seas are up.  Those conditions are not all that make the mooring untenable.  The reef is so close, and the wind would be blowing us onto the reef.  There would be no room or time to do anything if we broke loose.


A mooring ball can be seen in the middle foreground of this photo.  The mooring ball is in 40 feet of water, but it shallows very quickly, as the water crashing on the nearby reef indicates.  This is not a good place for one’s boat to suddenly go adrift.


This cannot be happening!  First we by-pass Rarotonga for fear of an unsafe harbor in the strong north wind.  Now again we must continue on because of an unsafe situation.  It’s not that there’s “no room in the inn”.  Our problem is that we can’t find an inn! 


We radio Edward to tell him that we are aborting.  We will continue on to Niue — a mere 400 miles down the ocean road or 3 days ahead.  Both of us are tired and weary.  We are still on water rations due to that faulty water maker.  A finicky autopilot needs continual monitoring.   Will we ever get to port?


We knew before choosing to visit Palmerston Island that one must have the right conditions to be able to confidently pick up a mooring ball.  According to weather predictions, the winds were supposed to calm down by the time we got there.  We, however, are here, and conditions are not good.  So much for the weather forecast.

We motor on away from Palmerston Island.  After having lunch, we raise sails, turn off the engine, and continue west, sailing directly into 10 to 15 knots of wind under overcast skies.  By the end of the afternoon, the weather has improved.  For the first time in what seems like forever, the skies clear, and with greatly reduced wind, we enjoy a calm, slow sail west.  This is the weather that we had expected to find at Palmerston.  It is just late in arriving.  The Captain was unable to download a current GRIB file (weather forecast) earlier.  He is now able to do so and finds that very light winds are still forecast for the next several days.  To The First Mate’s delight, we turn around to head back to Palmerston Island.  It is now early evening, and we cannot get there before dark, but tomorrow morning, we should have no problem picking up one of their mooring balls.

2300 – Winds have dropped to below 5 knots, too light to continue sailing.  We drop sails, secure the watch, and just drift.  We head below for a quiet night’s sleep.  We are 10nm from the atoll, not near any shipping lanes and in very calm conditions.  The Captain does get up a few times during the night to check on things, but The First Mate, gently rocking in her bed, sleeps blissfully on.  Just what body and soul needed!

Wednesday, October 6th – 0600 – Overnight, we drifted a further 6nm away from Palmerston Island.  Winds are still too light to sail, we rev up the engine and motor toward the atoll. 


Finally, we have calm enough conditions that The Captain can wedge down into the lazerette to see what is going on with the watermaker.  The problem is that the feed pump has failed.  This happened to us three years ago, and we now carry a spare pump.  The Captain has the pump changed and the watermaker working again in an hour.  It is a relatively simple repair to do, just not one to do on a heaving boat with water cascading everywhere.


0900 – We call Edward to tell him he has not heard the last of us!  We’re back!  He comes out in his boat to help us get secured in their tricky mooring ball arrangement.  Even when fully tied in and secured, we are still far closer to their hazardous reef than we would normally choose to be.  Edward, however, is satisfied that his new guests are moored correctly and safely.  He returns to Palmerston to pick up the customs and immigration officials.


While we wait for their return, a welcomed breakfast is prepared.  It is not easy to cook on a rough passage, nor does one often feel like eating a lot on such passages.  Both of us are now hungry.   A simple, but hearty, cheese omelet made with fresh French Gruyere cheese is served.  Yum-m-m!


1130 – Edward returns with the necessary officials.    When we looked down on the big guy now seated on the left of the photo, we were not sure how he was going to climb up and onto Avante, but with a lot of help from his friends, Alex makes it.  Simon, his cousin several times removed, has no problem hopping on the boat.


Forms duly signed, The Captain hoists the Cook Island flag.  Alex is eased back down into the motor boat, and we climb aboard for an afternoon on Palmerston Island.


As we motor through the pass, we can see why cruisers are told not to bring their own dinghies ashore.  The channel is narrow and winding with the coral visible on all sides just below the surface. The surf and current build up making it difficult to see the channel.  Only someone who is very familiar with this pass can navigate it.  We are happy to sit tight and enjoy the ride.


Though there are 35 motus on this atoll, the 3 family groups all live on one motu, Home Island, which is where we are being taken.   We motor up to a rough limestone beach and climb ashore.  The lagoon behind us is a multitude of blues.

We follow our leaders up a dirt path to the Edward John Dick Marsters’ family home.  Grandma, sleeping on a sofa on the outside porch, wakes to greet us.  We learn that our customs official, Simon, is a brother of Edward’s and that Grandma is the boys’ mother.  We meet the wives of Edward and Simon who are not strictly speaking “of the family”.  Both boys had gone off island to seek their wives. 

We are invited to join everyone sitting around under the porch roof.  The First Mate and The Captain find that though English may be the designated first language, the Polynesian dialect has had a significant influence over the years on this isolated island in the middle of nowhere.  It is a struggle for us to understand what they are saying, and we can see that they, too, are often struggling to understand us.


Edward goes off to fetch us a drink — very fresh coconut water. 


While enjoying our drink, we have an opportunity to question them about their life here on the island.   As on most of these islands in the Pacific, they owe their livelihood to government support – either their own government or the nation to which their country is somehow affiliated.   The Cook Islands are now a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand.  Cook Islanders are dual citizens of both the Cook Islands and New Zealand, which is why so many of the Marsters’ clan live in New Zealand today.

If one does not work for the government in some form, there is very, very little opportunity for employment on little Home Island.  The coconut plantation is long gone.  There are no hospitals, no gas stations, no restaurants, no services of any kind that would offer other employment.  There are no stores.  There is a one-room school, and occasionally, there is a nurse on the island. A supply ship comes in every 6 – 9 months with the orders for goods that the families would have sent in earlier.   Experience over time has taught them exactly how much to order, but what I did not ask is where or how they got the money to pay for several months’ worth of food, goods, fuel for the generators and all the other essentials that they would need.   What did become obvious is that resources are pooled within one’s family group.  The concept of small, nuclear family does not exist on this island.

Edward offers to take us on a tour of the island while lunch is cooking.  It will not take long he says, and it does not.  There is not much to see and not a lot of land to see it on.


Main Street, Home Island, ends right at the lagoon.  Great view!


A simple grass hut would not do for William Marsters.  Selecting a prime view of his sparkling lagoon, he built his home from ships’ lumbers.  Stout and strong, it was built to withstand storms as doubtlessly it has.  The First Mate also thinks it looks unbearably hot and stuffy.  Where are the windows?  What about cross-ventilation in this tropical climate?  She imagines such considerations were not a necessity for the stalwart Scot.


No Palmerston Island tour would be complete without a visit to the patriarch’s gravesite.


On the return to Edward’s home, we walk by Alex at work in his office.  He is the only person we see at work during our tour of the island. 


We do see and meet other family members.  Most are simply sitting around doing nothing.  We cannot blame them.  There is nothing to do on this island that can take up more than a few hours at a time.    Housecleaning is little, for they live mostly outdoors.  They do not garden.  Neither vegetables nor flowers are tended.  They will not grow we are told.  There are no lawns to mow, and the only landscape work done is to clear the paths of which there are very few.  What can and does one do with oneself all day long, day after day, week after week, year after year? Oh, my!


The children show more energy than their adults, but to our surprise, we see little in the way of games or toys.  We see no balls, no bicycles. What do the children do? Having no dogs on the island, the newest crop of piglets seems to fill in that gap.


Edward explains to us that everything we are going to have for lunch today will come out of an umu, an underground earthen oven.  Traditionally, attending to the needs of the umu is men’s work.  The women prepare the food; cleaning, cutting and wrapping items that would dry out in leaves.  The men prepare the pit.  First a fire is started.  Stones are heaped on top.  When the fire has burned down and the stones are hot, the food is placed in the pit.  Meat and fish first.  Then the root vegetables which are the mainstay foods of the islands; taro, yams, cassava, breadfruit and sweet potatoes.  Everything is now covered with leaves, stones or heavy blankets and left to steam and cook for several hours.  Edward tells us that this is the easiest way to cook.  Prepare the pit, place in the food, cover it up and let it cook until you are ready to eat.  It never overcooks.  Sounds great to The First Mate, who has been eager to try an umu meal.

So what is today’s umu specialty?  Fish heads!  Really big fish heads!  Okay, The First Mate knows that some of the tastiest fish meat is known to be found in the head, especially if the cheeks are still attached, and she also knows that most people around the world savor more parts of a fish than we squeamish ones do in the States.   In fact, she herself uses a fish head or two on the boat to make a broth for soups and chowders, but then she throws the fish head back in the ocean for crabs and other scavengers to pick apart.  She does not eat it.  Keeping an open mind, she smiles enthusiastically back at Edward.

Another treat from the umu will be some kind of island bird, and we are very fortunate for we are here during the season of this bird.  That sounds okay.  Some kind of island chicken will do just fine.  She sees plenty of them pecking the dirt all around the place.


Edward removes a heavy covering of coconut palms and blankets from his umu.  Several covered pots are resting on the stones as well as several unidentified parcels wrapped in leaves.  Layered around the edges are the fish heads.  Edward carefully lifts them out into a big basin.


Here they are!  Complete with eyes, teeth, gills, ears (do they have ears?) and brains.  Oh, dear.  Please, please, please, please, please — don’t let him put a whole head on her plate!


Two young boys heft the very full basin of fish heads over to the dining area while a young girl returns to the umu for more of the leave-wrapped bundles.

Lunch is served family-style.  Grandma heads one end of the table while Edward hosts the other.  To her immense relief, The First Mate is not presented with her very own fish head. 


Though she fears that some reading this account may think her uncharitable and close-minded, she finds this a very uncomfortable meal to enjoy.  There are no serving utensils.  One either uses one’s fork or one’s fingers.  That’s okay, but she is not aware that anyone has washed their hands.  Certainly no such offer of sanitation was extended to her.  Deciding that what’s a few germs among family and friends, she fingers in along with everyone else.  To her dismay, there are no napkins anywhere in sight either.  What to do?  Please, forgive her, for she very daintily wipes the tips of her fingers on the underside of the tablecloth.  What else could she do?  No one else seemed to mind greasy fingers, but she just could not get beyond them.

Now the food.  Oh, dear, what can she kindly say about it?  It was plentiful.  How’s that?  Edward had told her that an umu was a superb way to cook because one puts the food in, covers it up and forgets about it until one is ready to eat.  It was always perfect!  She, too, had thought that in the moist heat of an umu, it would be impossible to overcook anything.  Not so.  There is a limit to how much heat a thing can take.  Plain unadulterated fish heads without butter, sauce, or lush green-leaf covering dry out if left in a hot umu for hours upon hours.  Dry fish head — it was worse than tuna in water right out of the can!  That special island bird whose season we were in?  We never did figure out what kind of bird it was, but whatever it was, it was no close kin to an island chicken.  Dark, oily flesh with an unpleasant kind of sickly taste.  The Captain later told her that he thought it was sea gull!  The First Mate felt like she had just eaten something long dead that should have been left that way!

Tasteless, greasy pork chops were also served which at least slid down The First Mate’s throat with little need to chew.  When it was commented upon that she had not filled her plate adequately on the first round, they were one thing she could return to for seconds.  Pork chops and plain sticky white rice — those were her seconds.  She found that if she poured coconut milk, which is ubiquitous throughout the islands, over the rice, it gave the rice just enough moisture to ease down her throat without gluing on to something along the way.  The final offering was a steamed dough-ball type of bread made with breadfruit, flour, coconut milk and a little sugar.  The First Mate took one small bite and knew that if she ate any more there was no way her stomach was going to process it!

Oh, what a meal!  Did she mention the flies?  All over everything, everywhere.  And those cute piglets the kids were playing with?  Well, those porklettes were under the table rubbing up against our legs with their bristly bodies.  How The Captain kept from kicking one of them half-way across the island is anyone’s guess!  Restraint, teeth-grinding restraint.   Though we tried, little conversation occurred during the meal, which is the traditional Polynesian way.  Concentrate on the activity.  Get that food into the mouth.  Open, chew, and swallow.  Repeat.  No talk!  This was hard for The First Mate.  She likes camaraderie talk at the dining table. A convivial flow of conversation helps with digestion, so she believes. Having no conversational partner meant she had no excuse not to get down to the business at hand.  Eat, Girl, eat!

After an eternity, the meal is over and done.  Dishes are cleared.  The First Mate’s offer to help is kindly refused.  The remaining food is heaped on plates and left on the table covered and somewhat protected from the flies.  Over the rest of the day, family members will wander in to grab a handful. 

The First Mate now knows what she has aboard Avante to give these people:  Mosquito Netting!  She had ordered 10 yards of this netting, for we had been told that mosquitos and no-see-ums were a big problem on the islands.  On land, they can be, but we were yet to be bothered by the noisome pests when anchored off shore.  She mentions the cloth to Edward, describing how he could make a tented cover for the food, and he is enthusiastic. She is delighted to have something that they could really use.

Our visit with Edward’s family coincided with their family fish day.  We learn that the islanders have been able to turn their local fish into a cash product.  To us, it sounded like local restaurants in Rarotonga had joined together to buy Palmerston Island fish.  Each of the three family groups has their own agreement with a buyer.  Every few days, the family sends its men out to fish the reefs.  When they return with the catch, the family gathers on the beach to clean and fillet the fish which is then frozen for shipment on the next supply ship.  We also learn that their supply ship was just reported stuck on a reef somewhere out in the Pacific during the last bout of stormy weather.  There is great concern on the island, for if the supply ship is lost, who knows when it will be replaced and how long they will go without replenishment of their supplies?  Simple as their lifestyle and needs are, they have grown depended upon the outside world for their necessities.

We say our goodbyes to Grandma and then walk with Edward back to the beach.  There, we find the family all working together to clean today’s catch of parrot fish.


Many hands make light work!  There is a happy camaraderie around the work table, and it is fun to listen to their banter back and forth.


The fillets will eventually be wrapped two to a bundle, frozen and stored until shipped.  This must be the major source of income to pay for goods ordered and arriving on the supply ship.  Each time a ship comes in, payment from the last shipment of fish also comes in and, most likely, is immediately turned around to pay for the goods that are now arriving on the ship.


Parrot fish are colorful reef fish.  We are given a couple of fillets for our dinner this evening.  The First Mate has never eaten or cooked parrot fish, and, of course, she is game to try!

We say goodbye to everyone.  Walking down the beach to the motor boat, The First Mate spots a young coconut plant.  The coconut tree spread rapidly across the Pacific.  Floating from island to island, the coconut eventually lands ashore.  There in the sand, it takes root and sends forth a shoot.  Just look at that!  If only all plants were that hardy and in need of so little care!


We climb in the motor boat and speed back through the reef opening.   Edward says he will see us tomorrow and will come by to pick us up to go back to the island.  Oh, no, not another meal!  How do we politely get out of that?  The Captain quickly tells him that we have a lot of work to do on Avante, which is very true, and that we will talk tomorrow.  As much as, The First Mate would like to visit a few of the other motus and perhaps see the remains of the coconut plantation works, she does not want another Palmerston Island Edward John Dick Marsters’ family meal!  The Captain’s comment is that this is one place he could never, ever live.  He would waste away!

The next day:  it is rainy, windy and rough!  It is not a good day to go motu-hopping around the lagoon, for we would not feel comfortable leaving Avante in these conditions.  Edward, on the radio, agrees.  He says he will be by later in the day to give us our exit papers and to say good bye.  When he shows up, he helps us remove our stern line, so we will be able to easily get underway in the morning.  We give him a box of items from the boat:  mosquito netting, an Avante t-shirt, some rope, a small utility knife, a package of clothespins, chocolate bars and various canned goods.  He is delighted and most grateful.


We wave farewell to Edward and his sons and watch them as they return through the stormy reef to their quiet island.


Our visit to Palmerston Island was not what we had expected.  We had heard of and have since talked with cruisers who were greeted enthusiastically by the whole island and attended barbecued beach feasts with lobster and whole fish, but most often these were from cruisers who had arrived there with a number of other boats.  Being only one boat, only 2 people, we did not expect a feast, but we did expect a little more enthusiasm and interest. Perhaps, being the end of the season, they were all just tired of visitors. 

The fact remains, however, that the inhabitants of Palmerston Island live the most isolated, subsistence life we have yet seen in the Pacific.  Cut off from the outside world with no radio, no newspapers, nothing, we found that they had little interest in anything outside their life on their little motu.  Though we were full of questions about their island, they had few questions or interest in our doings or of the world at large.  The only time Edward displayed any animation was when he started talking about issues between the three families.  As one can imagine, family dynamics on this small isolated island can be intense.   We wonder if the overall lack of mental and physical stimulation available on the island has anything to do with their lack of interest and the seemingly universal lethargy we saw.  We also question the amount of inbreeding that has gone on over the years on this island.  Both Edward and his brother exhibited similar speech stuttering and eye twitches.  To be kinder in our observations, maybe we can say that the islanders were merely questioned out and tired after a season of cruiser visits, even though these visits do provide them with much needed goods or food.   From T-shirts and other clothing, boat rope, fenders, cooking utensils, and many other articles we saw on the island, it was evident that cruisers were stepping in to fill a need.  As fellow cruisers, seeing those articles did make us feel good, and we were happy to offer our small share. 

We did gain one small benefit from our visit.  We now can answer the question if ever posed:  “Where in the world is Palmerston Island?”  We know.   We were there!

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