August 10, 2006
Penrhyn Island (S08 58 W158 04)
Arriving at the entrance to the lagoon at Penrhyn island we were first introduced to the navigational aid system in place in the Northern Cook islands. A few 2” steel posts sticking out of the coral marked some of the hazards. Fortunately the pass is protected from the swell, and tired after a four-day 550nm passage from Maupiti, we got the anchor down safely in front of Omoka Village ready for a break. Double-handed sailing is significantly more taxing than sailing with three or four as you’re always a bit more tired having a four-on, four-off schedule where the off hours include cooking, sleeping and navigation. After a short nap we got to work pumping up the dinghy and getting the motor installed for a trip to shore to “Check In” to the Cook Islands, a self-governing New Zealand protectorate. The guide book said it would be necessary to meet with Customs, Immigration, Agriculture and Health officials and that they may all want to visit the boat, and the Agriculture official might possibly spray the boat for insects. I was feeling optimistic that I might accomplish all of this in half a day. It was just after lunch and I was relieved to find out that they don’t practice the tradition of 1 ½ hour “siestas” as they had in Mexico and French Polynesia. Pulling the dinghy into a small boat basin/swim area I was greeted with “hello and hi” as they climbed out of the water and helped me tie up to a rusty barge that served as the dock/diving platform. Being greeted in English was a welcome treat having spent the last ten months in non-English speaking countries.
About the time the dinghy was getting tied up, a man pulled up on a moped and welcomed me to Penrhyn Island and told me to get on the back of the moped as he would take me to the customs office. We putted along a crushed coral road on one seriously overloaded moped arriving at a derelict government building with no remaining doors or windows and a cinderblock shed out front. Stepping off the moped “the old man” (that’s what everyone calls him and everyone seemed to have a nickname) opened a padlock door to the shed and we stepped inside the Customs/Immigration/Agriculture office. The office had two desks: one with a few file folders atop and a rack of official ink stamps, and the other a box of junk with a thick layer of dust and a phone book for the entire country that was less than ¾” thick. I sat down and got busy filling out six different forms, had the passports stamped and all the boat paperwork in order and was on my way back to the boat in less than half an hour. From the back of the moped I got a tour of town which consists of the post office/phone company/bank in one 1000 sq. ft. building, the administrative center in another 800sq. ft. building, two churches and that’s about it. The town was pretty quiet with nearly half the residents of this village “off island” for the Constitution Day celebrations and dance performances that last nearly a month on the Cook Island of Rarotonga some 750 miles away.
Dropped off back at the quay I was greeted by “Rio” and his three-year-old son “Rio, Jr” who pulled up on a moped to chat. They actually live across the lagoon at the smaller village of TeTautua but were in Omoka village for a visit and invited us to meet up with them once we moved the boat to the preferred anchorage across the lagoon in front of their village. Back to the boat I picked up Julie to go back ashore for more exploration in the unique place. Walking along the main and only road we were waved over to a home by a group of locals, where we met David who gave us directions to the local shop as there are no signs on such a small island. The store owner Ricki was very welcoming and we pulled up chairs and chatted for half an hour before even taking a look at his shop’s goods, this being a good example of true “island time” which I’m starting to get pretty tuned into. Ricki’s store was more like a kitchen pantry, in fact just a door in the side of his home that opened up to a 6’ wide, 12’ long corridor with a shelf on one side. The normal supply ship wasn’t due for a few weeks and since it only calls on the islands every three months, the shelves were pretty bare and we found nothing of interest to purchase. I was hoping to find some Cook Island beer, but it had been sold-out for over two months. A group was forming down at the quay and as it turned out comprised nearly the whole town. The spectacle was a small supply ship from Hawaii that had called on the island unexpectedly was now preparing for departure. This was a big event on the island. The ships owner, an entrepreneur, sailed with a cargo of lumber, concrete, staples of sugar and flour and other misc. goods to small South Pacific Islands on the speculation his goods would be in high demand. It was his first visit to Penrhyn and the islanders considered his visit a real blessing as his goods were significantly less expensive than those they would normally order from Rarotonga Island. As an example the ship brought 2”x 6” x 16’ pressure-treated lumber and sold each one for $26 NZD, where through the normal supply chain, they would have cost $60 NZD each. Even though the ship had been in port only five days, the islanders had made fast friends with the crew of eight, and we were about to witness a unique send-off ceremony for such new friends. Moments after we arrived, the local Cook Islands’ Christian minister asked everyone to gather around for several songs and then a lengthy prayer and heartfelt blessings for the crew and ship. The captain of the ship then spoke and there were lots of hand shakes, hugs and even a few teary eyes as the crew boarded the ship and pulled away from the quay. Once the ship was off I jumped on the back of my new friend David’s moped and we headed to his home to cut a fresh stock of bananas which he had graciously offered upon our inquiry (of course would not accept payment). The visit included a stop to chat with his 89-year-old grandfather, an aunt and one of his nephews. Back on the moped with a full stock of bananas on my shoulder, we rode back to the quay to meet Julie and head back to the boat. I was in awe of my first afternoon spent on this magical and surreal island.
On our way back to the boat we noticed our friends, Kathy and Jerry, on Po’ Oina Roa, a 44’ Kelly Peterson-design sloop, had just dropped anchor. We stopped by to share our experiences ashore and those of our passage from Maupiti in the previous days.
The next day Julie went in for a run and I went ashore to meet up with my new friend David as he was hoping to show me around the island and I would join him to complete his daily chores. The main chore was to feed the four pigs they kept in temporary pens under a grove of coconut trees near the water. For reference everything is pretty much near the water as an atoll might only be 200 yards wide. There is not a lot of individual land ownership so the pigs could be kept pretty much anywhere as it is community property. The pigs are raised to be eaten on special occasions and are cooked “Polynesian style” in a pit. The pigs’ diet is some scraps from home but mostly a diet of coconuts. Two coconuts a day and some water are all you need to raise a nice fat pig of 200+ pounds. I’m sorry to say the pigs are kept in non-PETA-approved enclosures consisting of a pallet floor with pallet walls and a piece of old sheet metal roofing on top for shade. The full-grown pig barely fits, and consequently, they are not friendly. We gathered green coconuts from the trees with a long bamboo pole to pull them down and then split them into thirds with a machete. David also taught us how to quickly husk a coconut and we enjoyed the refreshing coconut water drinks made by chopping the top off a green coconut.
Back at David’s home we had tea and biscuits (an English tradition) and chatted again with his aunt and grandfather. We invited David and his nephew out to the boat for a visit and then late in the afternoon motored two hours across the lagoon to the village of TeTautua with its 50 residents.
The TeTautua side of the lagoon provides a nicely protected anchorage as we are now at 9 degrees south latitude and the trade winds blow in this region year round at a minimum of 12 knots day and night from the east, thus a nice protected anchorage is welcome. The constant breeze keeps the boat well ventilated and semi-comfortable although, the humidity and air temperatures are noticeably higher compared to Tahiti located at 17 degrees south. This particular lagoon is riddled with sharks and as we anchored, we had no less than 7 sharks closely circling the boat.
Soon after getting the anchor down we had visitors calling and hoping to trade local “natural” pearls and some nice shells for nearly anything we had. Hot items were bed sheets, DVD movies, music CDs and fishing gear. Lots of boats came calling hoping to trade. We made some new friends and agreed to meet around 7:30 PM that evening to go lobster fishing on the outer reef of the atoll. Catching lobster on the reef only requires a flashlight and gloves. The local guys picked up Jerry and me and we sped down the lagoon in their boat in pure darkness only guided by the stars before landing on an adjacent motu (island) and walking out to the ocean side of the reef. It’s kind of spooky wading around in up-to-waist-deep water at night stumbling on coral and stirring up all nature of reef fish, crabs and eels with your flashlight. Some of the fish would go a bit crazy and try to jump through your flashlight which always made for a surprise. The best place to find lobster is on the edge of the reef in knee-deep water very near the breakers. The lobster come out of the deeper water or their holes at night and into the shallows of the reef to feed and this is where you attempt to catch them. The idea is to first find one, which can be difficult with the foamy waves trying to knock you off balance several times a minute as you peer into the foamy waters. Next, when you spot a lobster you are to try to step on it and then reach down and pick it up. You need gloves as these are the spiny lobsters with pokey shells; fortunately, they have no pinchers like a Maine lobster. We walk the reef for a few hours and I was the only one to even spot a lobster due to less than ideal conditions on account of larger than normal waves and stronger than normal wind making it more difficult to see into the water. The one lobster I did see was a nice one and when I called one of the other guys over to demonstrate the catching method it got spooked and disappeared.
The next day was Sunday and we were invited to attend church. Religion is serious in these islands and the Cook Islands Christians dominate but for one Catholic family, who has their own church and even their own priest. Church services are daily at 6AM and also include Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoon services. On Sunday you have three opportunities to attend: 6 & 10 AM and 3PM. We were invited to the 10AM service as they had prepared special ceremonies for our attendance.
Church requires special dress: Men must wear collared shirts and long pants and women dresses and hats. No special shoe requirements are enforced and bare feet are acceptable although flip flops were most common. Locally woven hats are an island specialty so arriving on shore we were greeted by “Solomon” and he loaned Julie a decorative hat for the services. Landing at shore and getting out of the dinghy we had three 5-6’ Lemon sharks within arms length and the same number of smaller black tips looking for handouts. The sharks are prolific in the lagoon and conditioned to look for fish scraps around the village whenever they hear an outboard engine. The locals feed them as if they were pets as we were to witness later.
The church is over 100 years old and spectacular in construction with heavy 2’ thick stone walls and amazingly detailed interior wood work with cove ceilings, curves, ornate railings, a 12’ raised pulpit and balconies on three sides. It was an amazing feat of construction to build this building as all of the materials were clearly imported and a forgotten board would have taken months at a minimum to obtain. I determined the raised pulpit to be for the purpose of allowing those on the balconies a view of the minister. Only a handful of worshipers were in attendance when we arrived and then the music began. Trumpets, drums and singing were heard and then a procession marched into the church with a quartet of flag bearers in the lead followed by a contingent of Girl Guides in full regalia followed by the Boys Brigade / Band. As it turns out the flag bearers were Church deacons and took seats in a special raised enclosure facing the congregation with the minister on his 12’ tower behind them. There were no crosses, candles or similar religious regalia which seemed unique in my churchgoing experiences. The invocation was in both the local Penrhyn Maori, a special language unique to this island, and in English for our benefit. Since visitors are so infrequent, the invocation was a really nice customized welcome for us. Aside from a very unique singing of the Lord’s Prayer and a special reading of Psalms 113 in English, the proceedings were in the Penrhyn Maori language. The minister preached in the style of fire and brimstone which definitely kept you awake. It was pretty hot in the church and nearly everyone but us had fans to alternately cool themselves and shoe away the annoying black flies. After the reading of Psalms 113 the minister again did a custom prayer for us in our journeys across the seas, which again was really nice. Jerry claimed he hadn’t been to church since his first marriage in 1969 so I sat on the opposite end of the bench in case he was to be struck by lightning during the service. After the service the Girl Guides and Boys Brigade filed out, followed by the deacons and formed columns before proceeding to march around the church grounds as the band played. I got a great little video clip which I will be sure to add to my blog at some point.
We were invited to join “Sol” and his family for “island punch” at his home. Island punch is a fresh green coconut that has preferably been chilled in the refrigerator and you cut a hole in the top and drink out of the coconut. The coconut water is excellent and even better chilled. We were also treated to coconut bread made of coconut milk and flour, then baked, as well as some breadfruit baked in coconut milk. Religion is serious on this island and on Sunday many rules apply. Here are the ones we picked up on: No work, no play, no cooking, no lighting the stove, and no electricity (generator is not turned on). One story we heard was that a boy that played on Sunday was bitten by a shark on Monday as punishment by the Lord for his sin. We spent several hours chatting with the family before heading back to Kathy & Jerry’s boat to discuss and marvel at our experiences… and then it was nap time.
Back to the topic of sharks (I apologize for the obsession). They are thick in this lagoon as I mentioned previously. When we were anchoring in about 20’ of water over bright white sand, we had no less than 7 black tips swimming around the boat with sizes up to 5+ feet. Wanting to jump in the water to cool off is a bit intimidating with this many sharks waiting for what? You to jump in? When none were in sight I did jump in with my mask for a quick look around and saw none, then creeped myself out and climbed back on to the boat. Jerry and Kathy wouldn’t go in the water. Period. Some of the locals brought us some “milk fish” and when preparing it for dinner I threw the heads over the side; we had quite a show as the sharks came out of nowhere and fought for the fish parts. I won’t be swimming again at least not near this village. There are apparently “black sharks” in the lagoon which the locals say can be dangerous, but so far we’ve only seen black tips and the lemon sharks. The locals say the sharks are of no danger but then again you don’t see them swimming. Julie and Kathy were in a double kayak and had sharks attacking the rudder on the kayak.
On another outing with the locals they took us snorkeling at one of the passes which had beautiful coral and lots of fish. One of the locals speared fish and then quickly held the fish out of the water to keep it from being eaten by sharks. His companion poked at the more aggressive sharks with a spear-tipped 12’ bamboo pole. Once the 20 + circling sharks calmed down a bit and dispersed, he would again spear another fish and then quickly get it out of the water while swarmed by sharks. After the pass dive one of the locals spotted a sea turtle as we were cruising along at 15+ knots in their skiff. One man quickly took position on the bow and then with practiced precision dove off overboard and wrestled the turtle while the boat turned around to pull the turtle and swimmer aboard. The beast’s shell was an easy 3’ long and considered a delicacy by the locals. We were spared the butchering and they took the flapping turtle home alive after dropping us back on our boats.
On another outing we went with a local couple to another motu to harvest coconuts and palm fronds. The fronds are used in the weaving of intricate hats and the coconuts are a major part of the local diet. These people really live in close harmony and balance with nature taking only what they need and wasting nothing. Observing people live in their traditional ways with very little dependence on “modern” processed and packaged foods made me feel “ok” with their occasional hunting the sea turtles which are surely protected.
On August 22nd Jerry of Po’ Oina Roa and I arranged a combined celebration for our August birthdays and combination farewell party as we planned to depart Penrhyn on the 23rd. The villagers wholeheartedly got behind the party, and the festivities made for a most memorable birthday. The entire village was in attendance less four very old people who physically couldn’t make it but sent their best wishes. Arriving on shore we were greeted with amazing flower leis and an amazing spread of food. As the night progressed, the minister, mayor, host Rio, Jerry and I all delivered speeches followed by much dancing, dance performances and fun times all around. What a place!
Copyright David Kane 2005-2012