Passage to Suwarrow
The passage to Suwarrow was remarkable mainly for the number of sail changes we had to make. The wind was quite variable and we were trying to make good time, which meant a lot of time on the foredeck trying to optimize the amount of sail. “Optimize” is a bit of a stretch, as I'm sure any racer would say if they spent time sailing with us, but we do what we can. We also had a bit of excitement (not the good kind) when the spinnaker wrapped itself very thoroughly around the forestay. Naturally, this happened at night as all good sail SNAFUs do. I (Barb) was roused from my comfortable bunk to help wrestle the @#$% thing down, which was no small task. Unfortunately, the sail was torn in the process, which gave us something to mend in Suwarrow.
It was also on this passage that Bjarne noticed a crack in the “pushpit”, the metal railing at the stern of our boat. Our design is odd in that a lot of the force on the mainsail is taken up by this railing instead of a more sturdy part of the boat. Bjarne had put two reinforcing stays there before we left, but the strain from the mainsail flogging when the winds were just right, or I should say just wrong, had fatigued the metal. More reinforcement was added in Suwarrow, but the chief engineering officer is still not completely happy with it. Thus, we added one more thing to the list of things to do when we reach New Zealand.
Despite these adventures the weather was pretty good on the trip and we made decent time traversing the 400 nautical miles from Sept 28 – Oct 1. We were very happy to have such a short passage and are beginning to suspect we like anchoring more than sailing ☺.
The Island and the People
An Island To Oneself is a book written about one man's experience of living on this atoll. His name was Tom Neale and he was a hermit from New Zealand, living on Suwarrow between 1952 - 1978. We have yet to read the book but had read in other books about cruisers meeting him. He was apparently very happy to see yachties, which doesn't seem too surprising when you consider he was there all alone. Right now there are 4 people living at this Nature Reserve. The main caretaker usually goes by Papa John, but his name is actually Ioane, and sometimes spelled Joane. He is an energetic man in his 70's, although he appears younger. I don't know if he is still able to do this, but he told me that he could free dive for 5 minutes! He takes great pleasure in welcoming cruisers to “his” island. His nephew Baker, perhaps in his 50s or 60s, stays with him, as does Baker's nephew Totoo (a young man, probably in his early 20s). They were joined at this time by Wolfgang, a physician who has traveled around the South Pacific for many years and who has written a couple of books about some of the people he has met. He arrived by supply ship and was there until the next one arrived. These gentlemen were very happy to see Bjarne and I, or more accurately, the sugar we had brought from Penrhyn.
Suwarrow used to be spelled Suvarov, until Cook Islands' independence, when the name was changed to more closely resemble the Cook Islanders' language. It was initially named after a Russian ship.
The atoll looks like a very large circle of islands but they are all part of a ring of coral, just some parts are below the water, although not below enough to take the boat through in most places. The anchorage was not ideal in that there is a lot of coral for the anchor to catch on or to abrade at the rode. We didn't have too much trouble but one boat had their anchor wedged quite firmly in a big coral boulder. When they used their powerful electric winch to try and raise the hook, a large chunk of the coral broke off and came up with the anchor. Bjarne snorkeled down to help them get it free.
Hanging Out in The Water
We have been snorkeling every day in the extremely clear water (more than 100 feet visibility underwater) and one day we took our dinghies out to the lagoon's pass to scuba dive. We timed it in the morning so that we could jump in outside the pass and then drift in on the flooding tide. Five of us (Taryn & Graham from Water Dragon, Robert from Evelyn Roberts, Barb & I) dove in two shifts, with the folks left on the surface towing the dinghies towards the pick-up spot for when the divers surfaced. The coral here is not really very colourful, possibly because of bleaching due to high water temperatures, but there are a lot of fish to look at. It's nice too, because the great visibility and warm water makes for a comfortable dive.
There are a lot of sharks in the waters here – mostly black-tipped reef sharks, which are sometimes curious but rarely come within 50 feet of humans. We see them drifting by usually in ones or twos pretty much every time we are in the water. The only bad incidents we have heard of from Papa Ioane have happened when someone has been spearfishing and then neglected to get promptly out of the water with their catch. Papa Ioane also said that a shark bit the propeller of his boat once, while the engine was on. I guess it seemed too much like a lure. The shark didn't repeat that mistake.
A turtle has approached Freya in the evening but unfortunately not while we were snorkeling. There have also been a variety of fish, colourful clams, a moray eel, and beautiful coral to look at.
We have become, at a cost of $10, lifetime members of the Suwarrow Yacht Club. There is a covered deck which is used by the Club and the residents, where BBQs are held. We had a couple of nights of rain and one day that was rainy and dull. Since we were able to fill our water tanks, we don't mind the rain too much. We also used the day to rest up and putter on the boat (like mending the torn spinnaker mentioned earlier).
There were 4 boats in the lagoon at any one time. Just the right number it seems for social gatherings. Papa John and the other fellows on shore hosted a couple of BBQs. They fed us lobster, crab in coconut sauce, tuna, poisson crue (raw fish marinated in coconut sauce and usually lime but they were out of lime), and coconut pancakes. The cruisers also brought stuff to eat and Bjarne coordinated a pizza night. Surprisingly to me the poisson crue did not have a raw fish texture and tasted good. Apparently the marinade alters the texture. The BBQs gave us a good chance to chat with the other cruisers. One night we had a little gathering on Water Dragon. The intention had been to play cards but the wine, rum, scotch and some other disgusting distilled drink took precedence. The plan to go diving with these folks the next morning also got kiboshed, or at least postponed, since we didn't get to bed until about 3 in the morning. Another night all of the boaters gathered on Leviathan for drinks and discussions about route planning. It was very helpful to talk to Roger about the passage to New Zealand, as they had done it 8 times. Being the smallest boat seems to mean we never host any parties, and have less dirty dishes to wash.
Because we couldn't get any provisions in Penrhyn, and there were certainly no shopping centres in Suwarrow, we were running low on a few of those staples that we thought we would be able to get almost anywhere. Luckily for us other cruisers had extra and we traded some pepperoni for milk powder, and got some flour in exchange for labour (that is, Bjarne made some bread for Robert with the flour he gave us). We expect Niue to have more goods available. We also had a little book exchange, and found a book of short stories written in Danish in the cruisers' library.
We left peaceful Suwarrow with some reluctance, on Oct 7th. What a lovely place it was. The beautiful clarity of the water, the friendly atmosphere, and just staying put for a bit, left us feeling rejuvenated. As we motored out of the lagoon, other cruisers called on the radio to wish us a safe passage. Once out of the pass we noticed we had lost our Canadian flag along with the pole it was attached to. Drat! I guess a part of us wanted to stay.