After a very rolly downwind sail from Rarotonga with my all too familiar sea-sickness making its usual appearance, Palmerston was an extremely welcomed sight. We had heard through the grapevine that mooring buoys were available for cruising yachts and we were happy to find that the rumours were indeed true. Although only 49 people live on this atoll, their reputation for being a friendly and welcoming community seems to have made its way to the cruising world and annual visits from yachts are on a steady increase. The moorings are owned by the locals and are charged out at a meagre NZ$10 per day. Having said that, if you get in touch with the locals beforehand and bring with you some pre-ordered supplies from more built-up islands in the Cooks then this fee is usually waived. What’s more is that the usual fees charged by the other Cook Islands seems to be vastly reduced here and contrary to many online sources, it is in fact possible to clear into the Cook Islands in Palmerston even though it’s not an official ‘port of entry’.
Whatever charges are made to cruisers visiting this atoll are more than made up for by the experience you get at this incredibly exceptional place. Each cruising boat is hosted by one of the three families who live on the atoll. A family member will come and collect you from the mooring each day and return you at a mutually agreed time (NB the locals are very laid back and ‘Palmerston time’ often ended up being an hour or two later than prior arrangement). The pass to get into the atoll can very treacherous. It’s not exactly a straight line and with strong currents and a shallow depth creating sizable chop, it was definitely best to leave our fate in the hands of the locals and their strong aluminium runabouts rather than our own dinghy of questionable stability.
The host families are just amazing. As well as giving us dinghy rides to and from our boats every day, they really made us feel like we were part of the family. Each day we were invited to eat with them and enjoy the local cuisine. They showed us around their island and seemed to take great pleasure in explaining their history and their way of life. We were introduced to the entire community and I’m pretty sure we had met every person living on Palmerston by the end of our visit, including the pets – although remembering all their names was another matter! We were invited to a continuous stream of activities and celebrations so that even in a place as small and isolated as this, there was always something fun to do. In the short time we were there we found ourselves involved with school parties, craft making, volleyball games, family reunions and even a funeral. We met some awesome people here. The locals are all wonderful characters and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. We also met a number of migrants from the US, New Zealand and South Africa who were staying long term on the island either to work or on an extended holiday. It was great to meet people from similar cultures and backgrounds to me who don’t have a sailing background. Not that I have anything against sailors of course (I am one after all) but it’s nice to be able to talk about things other than boats from time to time.
Anyway, back to Palmerston. The history of this place is very interesting and the locals are very proud to tell the story. The atoll had no human population until 1863, when a promiscuous Englishman called William Marsters arrived with his three Polynesian wives. He divided the island into three areas and gave each of his wives one of these areas to live and create a home. He produced 21 children during his time on Palmerston and lived to a ripe old age of 78, not quite seeing in the 20th century. In the present day, each of the three families on Palmerston is descended from one of the three wives and, of course, William himself – everyone living on this idyllic island is a Marsters. Each respective family will tell you that it is their family who are descended from the ‘main’ wife and that the other two families are descended from concubines. I guess William was very good at making each wife feel ‘special’.
Our visit happened to coincide with a visit from about 30 Marsters family members who live in New Zealand and other places outside of Palmerston. They had come together to visit Palmerston as a family and it was the first time they had all been together on the atoll in about 30 years, so it was a big honour for us to be part of this momentous reunion. Their visit was a bitter sweet event as although they were able to enjoy this paradise island as a family, they were also there to scatter the ashes of a deceased loved one who wanted to be laid to rest in his place of origin. In the usual fashion we were invited to attend all the events held by the family during their stay, including the funeral itself. Funerals are usually sad occasions but as the death of the elder was some years previously, the day was more about celebrating his life rather than to mourn. We learned that his name was Sunny and heard many wonderful stories about him throughout the day. We felt like we had a better insight into the person this day was dedicated to and we got to know even more of the family who, just like the residents of Palmeston, are just as friendly and welcoming as ever. Of course we also made new cruising friends and ran into old ones. Our friends from a gorgeous, modern and very shiny catamaran called Cheeky Monkey arrived with a freshly caught tuna and cold beers on our second night – we gladly helped to consume them. The boat is currently crewed by three very interesting men: an Israeli hipster who is an ex-second commander of a missile ship and has vowed to not shave his beard until he reaches the end of his Pacific crossing, an optimistic American extravert who also happens to be a very fine male specimen* and the owner – an astute, opinionated Englishman who also happens to be one of the most good natured and motivational people I’ve met on this trip. Part of his voyage is to film a documentary about all the interesting and remote islands he’s visited during his voyage. He apparently already has a very popular YouTube channel with blogs of his journey prior to his current crew which, unfortunately, we’ve not had the pleasure of viewing due to very slow internet – but given his reputation I’m sure he’ll produce a documentary well worth watching. Look up Cheek Monkey on YouTube and check it out if you’re interested.
After an amazing week in Palmerston we set sail once again for the most remote place we’ve visited yet – Beveridge Reef…
Here are a few more pics from this wonderful atoll
*As pointed out by Alex