Posted by: catamarantwooceans | May 7, 2010

Palmerston Atoll

6.5.10 – Thursday – With my plans in a major change, I went in the morning to see the authorities and arrange my departure to Apia, Western Samoa. I also found a machine shop, looking like the set from the TV program “American chopper”, the one about the custom made bikes, with two guys who said they’ll do it and bring the windlass to the boat. Now, all I have to do is wait for the evening to time my arrival into Apia at daylight. So why not publish our adventures from Aitutaki onwards?

22.4.10 – Wednesday – Getting out of Aitutaki was not very easy. All the anchors were deeply embedded in the muddy bottom and I had to dive and manually extract each and every one of them. One of the ropes got entangled with a dead tree and the chain of the main anchor  wound itself around some metalic thing 2 meters down. 45 minutes later we were free and moving in the direction of the pass, which is so narrow and shallow in places that you run the risk of getting a heart attack while traversing through it. Once out, we raised the sails and were moving at around 5 knots with sails set wing and wing, the jib poled out. I was worried about having enough speed to reach Palmerston atoll, 200 miles away, in daylight.

Why sail to Palmerston?  Because it is a unique place, like no other island I know. The atoll was populated by an Englishman called William Marsters, who came there in 1862 with three Maori wives. He divided thew island to three families and fathered 26 children, whose decendants make up a comunity of about 60 people. I read quite a few blogs of yachties who visited the atoll and they all said it was a very special experience. I was determined to get there.

By 1415 we had 15-20 knots of wind right from behind, overcast sky and barometer going 4.5 milibars down in less than two hours. At 1700 we had 28 knots of wind and later gusts up to 32, neccesitating third reef. We also had some big waves, one of which was caught on camera by Michael. Later in the night it went down and we could fly full sails. And did I mention the rain? From drizzly to torrential – we experienced the whole spectrum, agaist which our funny oilskins were no defence. We got soaked!

Cooking was not possible in the conditions and we made do with crackers and sandwiches. Watch keeping was nominal, you couldn’t see more than one or two hundred meters away. I made a “Transmitting blind” call on the VHF, giving our position, course over ground and speed so that any vessel in the area will know about us.

23.4.10 – Thursday – No respite for the weary! More wind and rain, good speeds but a lot of stress. At a certain stage I noticed that the boom was akwardly tilted. The upper part of the large pin holding thegooseneck, the fitting connecting the boom to the mast, broke!  The pin that was supposed to hold the boom slid out and was stuck in a way that was impossible to fix in the current situation. I decided to wait until we were at anchor. Just after midday the rain came down hard, with gusts up to 35 knots and a sudden windshift from east to northwest making a terribly confused sea. This started the mayhem: one of the gusts tore the boom away from the mast, boom hitting one of the solar panels which slid to the side of the bimini. At the same time the spinnaker pole disengaged itself from the jib and with one end connected to the mast, the other fell onto the lifelines, luckily not hitting or breaking anything.

Boom Boom!

Slowly we put things in order; First- Fly the airplane! make the boat sail safely. Secondly – mainsail down, then we tied the boom in place so that it will not move and create more damage. I went forward and put the pole securely out of the way and lastly made the solar panel fast to the bimini’s structure with a rope. All this was done in a real deluge but we could still smile, Michael bringing the camera out to shoot a few bleary pictures of the two wet sea rats and me saying:”Can I still convince you that sailing is fun?”


With both engines forward we could make just less than 4 knots against the weather and with the poor visibility I was not sure we will be able to see and find the atoll. The options then will be very limited. Can’t go against the wind to Suvarov atoll and Niue, while an interesting place, is way out of our planned itinerary. By that time we were only 15 miles from destination and the situation did not look that good. However, just as it started, the “mini storm” subsided. Wind stabilised out of the north-north east at 12-15 knots, enabling us to use the jib and get good speed towards Palmerston. At about 8 miles away I got the first glimpse of the atoll hiding behind a curtain of rain and high swell. We started calling the island on VHF and were answered at close range by someone who told us they still had a couple of moorings that we could use. This was certainly good news because anchoring near Palmerston village is deep and very close to the reef, making wind shifts dangerous. Also, our windlass is in-operative, remember?

We were following the reef, watching the awesome breaking seas over it, until we came to the anchoring area and discovered three moorings, one of which we chose and tied to. We celebrated by eating the home made chicken soup that was on the stove before the demolition derby started and, boy, did that taste good!                                                           It was already late in the day and I was happy with the fact that no one came over. Tomorrow will be soon enough.

24.4.10 – Saturday – I started the morning with a swim, snorkling around the boat I marveled at the clear water. Many parrot and trigger fish were under me and then, in quick succession there appeared a big turtle, who swam by with no fear of the human intruder, a 4-5 foot shark (who swam by with me being a bit anxious about) and a big barracuda.

Back on the boat, we were having breakfast when the VHF came alive. “Two Oceans, this is Palmerston. Immigrations will be with you shortly”. Immigrations? I didn’t think we needed that but was ready to receive whoever will come.

While waiting we started tackling the boom problem and were trying to bring the gooseneck into position, without success, when we saw a motor skiff arrive. They came aboard and intruduced themselves: Alex – immigrations officer, Ed – police chief and our future host, Simon – Ed’s elder brother and 10 year old John, who drove the skiff over.

Welcome party

The formalities were dealt with very quickly and a pleasant conversation ensued. At a certain moment Ed asked when did we want to go ashore. I replied that we had to finish the boom work and he promptly said:”We will help you, so you will be able to come with us right away”. He and Simon joined us at the mast (Alex was way too big to come into the limited space there) quickly took control of the situation, pushed and shoved and in a matter of minutes the gooseneck and pin were in place!

We gathered our things and boarded the skiff, now driven skilfully by Ed through the very narrow boat pass, dodging coral heads all the way to the village. Of course we were rained upon the whole time, long past caring about being wet. We came ashore near the homes of Simon and Ed, meeting Shirley, Ed’s wife as well as some of the children. It was a bit difficult understanding who was whose child, but after all, they were all a big family!

Simon, Michael, Ed

The island’s people are very religious, and when hearing that both of us were born in Israel, a conversation about the bible started. In the bible that was brought over, there were some original Hebrew sentences (written in Latin letters) and they wanted to know if we could understand them (we can…). The point of this is that the people here take the scriptures very seriously and this includes the young children.

Later Ed took us walking in the island, through the rich vegetation of coconut and old mahogany trees, probably planted by the first setllers. We saw the big school (children are almost half of the population), the church and graveyard, with the old patriarch resting place and then made a few courtesy visits at some family members homes, including that of Ed and Simon’s mother.

Patriarch grave

They then took us to another Motu, where some of the family went for camping. At the beggining the idea of leaving one magical motu to go camping on another one was a bit funny, but later I could see that getting away from one’s home, however basic, to go camping could be great fun. We met Ivonne, the school headmistress and her husband, Tere (pronounced Tiri) who was actually the village administrator. Everyone was so nice and friendly, answering our questions and asking us a few.

At a certain stage we helped dismantle the camp and we all motored back to the main village. Ed took us to the Telecom communication center, where we could access Internet by Wi-Fi, use e-mail  to  download the forecast and most important let my family know that we were well.

Back at the family house, after a proper grace by Simon, we had an excellent dinner, prepared by Shirley, of fried fish, chicken, rice and coconut with flour pancakes. They eat a lot of parrot fish, which was surprisingly good.

5 stars meal

Simon showed us his visitors book, full of entries by yachts, many of which regard the stay in Palmerston as the highlight of their circumnavigation. They mentioned that some years they receive about a hundred yachts per season! And they treat all of them the same way! How do they manage?

Ed and Simon took us back to “Two Oceans” were we reciprocated by giving them some fishing equipment that I purchased well in advance for this very purpose, some shackles and foodstuff that they needed. A supply ship comes twice or thrice a year and there is no other mode of travel to other islands, save for the occasional yacht, who agrees to take the people on board. Ivonne told me that at one time she went to New Zealand by sailing four days to Niue on a yacht and then taking a plane to Auckland. We also gave them some DVD’s, which was a delicate matter, because the movies had to be suitable for the young generation too. As you all know, nowadays movies are violent and full of coarse language, which we are accustomed to but are not acceptable here on the island. Ed and Simon left and we sat down to try and digest what we saw that day. The inteligence, kindness and friendliness of the people we met were incredible and we were overwhelmed by what we experienced that day.

25.4.10 – Sunday – I woke up at 0100 to the howl of the wind. Jumped outside, the wind was 28 knots and from the south. I didn’t feel confident enough in the mooring to go back to sleep and kept an anchor watch for half an hour, until the wind went down to 15.

Sunday is a very special day for the Marsters. No work or play but go to church and rest. We were invited to attend the morning service. Ed briefed us the day before on the proper attire and now sent us to church with David, one of the sons. People were congregating, wearing their best Sunday clothes (barefoot sometime, which is acceptable) the ladies with long dresses and garland adorned straw hats. The bell, out of an old shipwreck, the “Thistle” sounded to summon the faithfull and the latecomers. I counted about 45 people, including  a lot of children, about three quarters of the island population. The serice was started by the deacon, an old lady named Aka, who included a special welcome to the two yachties. Then there was hymns singing, a sermon by the priest, reading Psalms and more Hymns, sung with beautiful harmony by all present. Interestingly, the Hymns are in Maori language, which the locals understand very little, but, of course, the feeling and intentions count.

In church

Even from the cynical, atheist corner that I come from, it all looked very sincere and serene. Clearly, in a small community as this, religion plays a positive, dominant role.

When the service was over, we all went out, many people came up to get to know us, shake hands and have their pictures taken. Simon has this 2 GB memory stick into which I later uploaded all the pictures I took on the island.

By then the weather improved greatly, the sun came out and we saw blue skies for the first time since Aitutaki. Back to the family house for an early lunch that Ed prepared ( he was absent from church, presumably for that purpose) and again fish, chicken and rice plus fresh fish in coconut milk ceviche. After the meal we had a long conversation. Ed and Simon queried us about a few things that they wanted to know. One of them was a bit surprising. Ed (who, by the way smokes incessantly) wanted to know how milk and cheeses were produced; He may have been pulling my leg! They asked about Bin Laden and September 11 and Michael, who lives in New York could give them a first-hand account of what transpired.

We were then invited to Tere’s and Ivonne’s home, which they built recently after living for three years in a palm fronds shack which still stands on the same plot. The house stands on stilts, facing the reef on the southwest – magnificent view. One can only imagine the value of such a piece of real estate in the “civilized” world. They had to bring a builder from Rarotonga, the main island, and he left before finishing some of the important features, the toilets, to mention one. So they go on using the loo downstairs in the yard and hope to finish the work soon.

Tere and family

Interesting conversations developed around the table on the upper story deck. Tere was very much interested to hear Michael’s views about the sustainability ideas and principles and their (obvious) relevance to the island. I asked Ivonne about the young generation, especially the Teenagers. Where they into the same things as their counterparts in the rest of the world? Did they follow the Pop culture? It seems they do, having the latest DVD’s, but no TV and very little internet time. They do not go to extremes here and the values instilled both at home and in school are strong. This was easy to see in their interactions during play, no anger or swearing, not even jokingly, just friendly, joyous competition.

Another guest, who actually lives now with Ivonne and Tere is Daniel, 41, of Australian origin, who made England his home. He is on the island for his doctoral thesis in Anthropology and will stay for about 6 month with various families. “So what will you do when you finish your work here? Go back to England to teach?” “No, I think I will go on studying, perhaps Psychoanalisys” he says.

Daniel with Michael

We sat there for about two interesting hours and left to go back to the boat. Ed, took us over and stayed with us until the afternoon church service was finished and he could go back. No boat driving during service!

We said our goodbyes, reiterating our promises to send Shirley the bible with explanations she coveted, the DVD of “The Guns of Navarone” for Simon and that of “Ten things that I hate about you” for Ed.

Palmerston atoll, what an experience!



  1. Hi Michael, my son Daniel Curran passed this on to me, and I found it so interesting. I live in Brisbane, Australia and last saw Daniel when he was passing through back to England last October. Loved seeing the photo of you two.

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