Pacific Crossing 2011-12
Suwarrow, Cook Islands
Passage to Suwarrow, Sunday, August 28th – Saturday, September 3rd
We headed out of Bora Bora at ten a.m. after a rather lengthy wait for a weather window. We were not alone. There were at least a half a dozen boats on the horizon as we departed. Some, like Kite our Portland, Maine friends, were heading straight for Tonga while others were planning stops as they traversed the southern route through the Cook Islands. We were striking out on the northern route with Suwarrow being our first destination. Several other boats were also making the northern trek including the British boat Pipistrelle and Aldebaran, five 30-somethings headed to New Zealand on what was basically a lark.
The weather window wasn’t a great one. It was more like the seas had dropped enough to exit the harbor and the wind, what there was of it, was blowing in a reasonable direction. For whatever reason we opted for the rhumb line route which turned out to be the noisy choice. Much slatting of sails drove us to near distraction on several occasions. Pipistrelle opted for the”sail off into the blue yonder and hope the wind allows you to come back” route. Both options turned out to be viable as we both arrived at Suwarrow six days later within an hour of one another. We, admittedly, used a bit of fuel on our route. We had hoped to cover the 685 miles in five days but it was not to be with the light winds. Naturally on the last day of the passage the wind picked up, accompanied by squalls and we spent our last night under bare poles trying to slow the boat down. Why does the wind always pipe up when you need it least?
We arrived at the pass into Suwarrow at mid-morning on Saturday, September 3rd, with brightening skies. A boat called Soggy Paws, already at anchor within, noted our approach and was relaying suggestions/directions from the Rangers whose VHF radio was on the fritz. “The entrance is easy, no problem” was the message. They were right up to a point. Just as we were about to make our right hand turn around the South Reef and into the Lagoon we were confronted with two breaching humpback whales in our path. I wasn’t completely sure how to approach the situation. Do I hit the whales or do I hit the reef?? The whales, happily, decided to head off in another direction and we were able to get back into gear and point our bow towards the anchorage. Another passage complete.
Suwarrow Atoll, Saturday, September 3rd – Tuesday, September 6th
Suwarrow is a unique and beautiful place and we wish we had stayed longer. The Atoll, a National Park, is located approximately five hundred miles north of Raratonga, the capitol of the Cook Islands. It is inhabited for only six months out of every year by two Park Rangers. They are dropped off in May with a load of supplies and eventually they are picked up sometime around October. The current Rangers, James and John, wear a variety of hats. They act as your friendly Customs/Immigration officials. They enforce the rules of the park so that the Atoll will remain a haven for wildlife. They give tours of selected motus and reefs when conditions allow and their bunkhouse provides the venue for a variety of cruiser gatherings. Suwarrow is a yachtie heaven, mostly because we’re the only ones there besides the Rangers. Over the years Suwarrow has been home to at least two “escape to a desert island” hermit types, most notably New Zealander Tom Neale. Neale first arrived in the 1950’s and made several extended stays on the Island.
Our stay was significantly shorter. On Sunday morning we went ashore and took care of our paperwork with James. Several cruisers were busy up on the bunkhouse roof messing with the VHF antenna while several more were searching their holds for spare wires that might prove to be helpful. John was tending the vegetables he grows in a raised bed behind Tom Neale’s old shack, accompanied by several green-thumbed sailors. All in all it was a model of cooperation.
During our travels to and from shore on Sunday we stopped to introduce ourselves to Dave & Sherry, the crew of Soggy Paws. Sherry is a bit of a celebrity in current cruising circles having put together cruising compendiums for the Tuamotus and Society islands. Since the compendiums were available for free online, we opted for the “Thank You” bottle of wine which was graciously accepted (and later returned as a dinner guest offering.)
Monday entailed a snorkeling trip to the manta grooming station. This undoubtedly brings to mind visions of poodles being clipped and blow driers but no. This was somewhat different. Often in the mornings at this particular spot in the Lagoon the manta rays gather to have their mouths tended to by tidy fish known as cleaners. Just as we were about to give up, having seen nothing, a giant manta appeared out of the gloom. His (Her?) wingspan was approximately twice my height. Ok, I’m short, but still… tenish feet across is nothing to sneeze at. After several swings through the area the manta was gone. I didn’t see any cleaning attempted but it was still an impressive sight. We continued on our way and snorkeled along the back of the pass reef where there was a lot (though much smaller) to see.
Monday night we went ashore for sundowners. We met several boats from rugby playing nations so we were initiated into the rugby rooting fraternity. Given our location, any actual viewing of the world cup’s early rounds was not really an option.
Tuesday was to be another day of snorkeling but the head chose that day to pack it in. Poor Roger. What a nasty job. Hoses were beaten mercilessly against the side of the boat until “clean.” Unbeknownst to those attending that evening’s pot luck, I was preparing my offering not five feet away from the carnage. The pot luck selections included the standard cruiser creations of potatoes disguised five different ways and several mysterious dips. James and John came to the rescue with the Cook Islands version of poisson cru, coconut fritters and the clams of beautiful colors we see while snorkeling. There were no reports of GI upsets after the event…
On Wednesday morning, after too brief a stay at Suwarrow, we left with Dave and Sherry on Soggy Paws for the little visited Rose Atoll.
Passage to Rose Atoll, Wednesday, September 7th – Friday, September 9th
The trip from Suwarrow to Rose Atoll is 300 miles give or take. The wind was astern (as usual) and light. We hoped for a pick-up in velocity or we’d be out for three days. The wind gods relented and the breeze filled in during the first afternoon. Overnight the sky was cloud-free, the moon was almost full and the sails were happy. Sadly the wind didn’t hold up during day two and we ended up doing a bit of motoring to get to our destination in good light on day three.
Rose Atoll, Friday, September 9th – Sunday, September 11th
The birds began to make themselves known in fairly substantial numbers several miles from Rose Atoll. As always the most curious were the boobies. They flew by the boat and craned their heads to look into the cockpit. It was almost like they wanted to see what was on offer for lunch. The approach to the pass was slightly unnerving because there appeared to be an unbroken line of breakers. Happily, it was just an optical illusion due to our angle. The pass itself was actually rather straightforward with only one narrow spot towards the inner end. We had very reasonable conditions and good light to work with so we were comfortable. By the end of the day we had been joined by Soggy Paws in the lagoon behind Rose Island, amongst the mating turtles which were shining in the sunset.
Rose Atoll, a member of the American Samoa group, is known for its bird and turtle populations. On Saturday morning we took a walk around Rose Island marveling at the variety and numbers of birds. It was almost impossible to hold a conversation without yelling over the noise. We then made our way across the rose-colored coral on the south side of the Island wondering if it was the source of the Island’s name. In the afternoon we snorkeled the entry pass. We were completely surrounded by dinner-type fish. Jacks were especially prevalent. The numbers and array of fish was amazing. The sharks seemed bigger and slightly more aggressive than in other places. I’m not sure if I was imagining it but it eventually drove me back into the dinghy. Roger, Dave and Sherry didn’t seem too bothered. From the pass we headed back into the lagoon and dove on an interesting patch reef. I was able to position myself above the edge of the reef where I could take a pretty good look at some of the smaller fish. I enjoyed seeing an arc eye hawkfish which is small but interesting. On our way back to the boats we walked around Sand Island and poked at pieces of a wrecked sailboat. All in all it was a great day and a wonderful way to spend our sixth wedding anniversary.
Sunday was spent snorkeling once again. We dove another few patch reefs before the rain ran us back to the boats.
Pago Pago, American Samoa, Tuesday September 13th – Friday, September 23rd
Wanting to inflict as little psychic trauma to the Rose Island wildlife as possible we made our way out the pass on Monday morning, headed towards Samoa. The wind was light and astern (as always) so we set up the whisker pole and off we went, wing on wing. I set about to make some water and after several hours there was a change in the pitch of the watermaker. A quick peek revealed a miniature geyser from the outboard end of the Clark pump. Off went the watermaker. After several minutes of tinkering the resident mechanic determined that we had a cracked end cap. Hmmmm. The end cap is not one of those items that usually give way so unfortunately we had no spare. What does one do when one needs a spare part and is about to sail by American Samoa, source of US domestic mail service?? One diverts to American Samoa.
Late Tuesday afternoon we made our way into the spectacular harbor at Pago Pago, American Samoa. Several mountain ridges surround the harbor and tower over the anchorage. We dropped the hook and set fairly quickly. The weather forecast was for at least ten days of settled weather which was good given the poor reputation of the holding. There were several boats we knew in the harbor including several we hadn’t seen in several months. We were hopeful that American Samoa would prove to be a pleasant surprise.
American Samoa is rather small at 200 square km. The population is approximately sixty thousand. The Islands are an unincorporated territory of the United States.
After two days of doing the things that cruisers do (check- in, scope out the grocery store, laundry) we wanted to do something a bit more enjoyable. A hike along the trail above the harbor to Mt. Alava was just the ticket. The crews of Soggy Paws, Challenger and Shango located the funky local bus which went to the trailhead and began our hike. The trail was well maintained (thanks to the USNPS) and relatively easy. We met some local guys planting native trees and cutting down invasive species along the trailside. Tourist photos involving men with machetes were taken before we continued on our way. After about two hours we reached the summit of Mt. Alava. The views from the top down onto the Harbor were terrific and we enjoyed them and a bit of wildlife watching (mice and lizards) as we ate our lunch. Unless you opt to turn around, the hike continues over the top of the ridge and down the other side to the village of Vatia where you catch another funky bus back to Pago Pago. We went with the Vatia option and slung ourselves down the numerous ropes attached to the hillside for just this purpose. We had hoped to see the native fruit bats, known as flying foxes, during this portion of the hike. No such luck unfortunately. The trip down was much faster than the trip up and we were boarding our bus home by early afternoon.
Our part didn’t turn up on Saturday as we had hoped. Patience is a virtue. We knew it would come eventually. In the meantime we scheduled a date with the commercial dock to get a fuel fill on Sunday.
On Sunday morning the anchor came up quite easily which we didn’t expect at all. We kept hearing stories of people having to get fellow cruisers to dive on their anchors to unfoul them from things like sunken sailboats and cyclone fencing. We were quite relieved. According to the guys at the fuel dock the giant tuna boats which come in to fill their tanks spend upwards of a million dollars. You have to catch a lot of tuna to pay that bill. Fortunately our bill was significantly smaller than that. Back to the anchorage we went, hoping to drop the hook in the very same, snag-free position.
Monday we and Soggy Paws rented a car for a drive around the Island. There was still a lot of damage from the tsunami of 2009, with donated tent housing still in evidence. Every village seems to have at least two churches if not more. I don’t know how they fill them. Perhaps they don’t. The second most prevalent sight in each village was a sewing shop. Every village seemed to have a sewing shop. Samoans are large and dress very traditionally (except for the teens.) This requires that people have their clothes made for them. The average Samoan wardrobe involves Lava lavas on the men (long straight skirts with belt loops but no belts) and long skirts with long tops for the women.
Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa is small enough to drive in one day. By late afternoon we had completed our tour and returned to Pago Pago. We did take advantage of our wheels to eat dinner out of town at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar. It’s a fine stop if you’re out that way.
After nine days of waiting, two sets of parts arrived. Roger installed the new end cap and we were ready for a Saturday departure.
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