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Friday, August 17, 2012

2012, 7-29 Suwarrow Atoll, Cook Islands Our stop at Suwarrow surprised us by turning into one of the best stops yet in the South Pacific. As usual our timing was wacked and we finished our miles from Bora Bora in the middle of the night so were left hove to for a few hours waiting for the sun to rise up out of the ocean behind us. Once through the straight forward reef pass we were soon sitting still with our anchor settled into a patch of sandy bottom amidst a handful of other sailboats off of Anchorage Island, Suwarrow. The weather was holding for the moment so the day quickly filled up with bread baking and boat clean up and getting ready for a potluck and beach party at the Suwarrow "Yacht Club." Suwarrow in the Cook Islands is officially part of New Zealand much like the Marquesas and Society Islands are officially French. These larger countries provide financial support, a military presence and general government. Much to our appreciation NZ decided to turn the uninhabited island of Suwarrow into a designated Marine Park which is where we met Kiwis' Ants and Harry this years park rangers and Anchorage Island caretakers. As NZ government representatives the two men live on the atoll from June until Novemeber documenting each arriving Yachtie and insuring the island habitat remains pristine and protected. Their official duties revolve around clearing each boat in and out through customs and immigration, collecting a $50 park fee and enforcing the rules of quarantine in a bid to protect the island from non native species of flora and fauna. Unofficially they take visitors fishing, take groups to the atoll's outer motu to view nesting sea birds, give tips on the best reefs to snorkel or dive, give directions for where the best spots are to view the resident giant manta rays and most evenings at 5pm they put on a show feeding their edible garbage to the sharks at the reefs edge. Oh and they keep the burn barrell fire glowing during beach parties. This is the first season for the men and they have both already decided it wil be their last. Their life here seems idilic. Who wouldn't want to spend six months on deserted island and get paid for it? But the isolation makes for a tough duty station. In the course of their six month assignment the usual visitors come only with the periodic supply boat and the slow trickle of yachties who manage the stop. Last year there were one hundred boats and four supply ships including their original drop off. The boat drops them off in late May with a pile of boxes full of provisions and a couple of suitcases. They have a satelite phone but no VHF and lights and cooking facitities powered by a generator and a few cans of gas and propane bottles. They live in the Yacht Club building/sleeping quarters next to the library which is a dark dank rom filled with cast off and unloved paper backs left by the cruisers and a beach palapa with a few rough hewn tables and chairs and hammocks hangin about. The buildings are old and ramshakled, the cook shack looks like something a group of energetic Boy Scouts might have cobbled together thirty years ago filled with mismatched cubboards, a two burner cook top, off kilter counters and a built insink that drains into the dirt below. They fish to supliment their stores, beg for gasoline from the yachties to run their outboard between dropped off refills and have nothing more than a shoe box sized first aid kit to stand between them and the relentless sun, wind, corral, voracious mosquitos and reef life. The work isnt hard and I have no idea what the pay scale would be for them but the exstraordinairily remote location is quite unique. They live in the quarters that were originally built by New Zealander Tom Oneal a man who lived alone on the island from 1959 till his death in 1977. He spent his many years here searching for reported burried treasure and writing "An Island to Oneself." He never found the buried treasure but left as a legacy a hand cut coral pier and the buildings that are now scattered across Anchorage Island. Meeting them and listening to them talk about missing their grandkids and spending so many hours alone left me wondering what kind of person finds themself alone on a deserted island with a single stranger for a season and then wondering what they think of us as we straggle in one boat at a time to spend a few days or weeks with our anchor settled into the sand before we are off again? After the first nights potluck the weather that had been chasing us settled in and pinned us all down to our respective boats. The winds blew, the rains came down in sheets and the anchorage rocked and roared. By day two there were grumbles of boat fever over the VHF as the plans to snorkel or roam were rescheduled again and again. Three day's worth of rain and winds were fianlly interupted by a cloud break and tiny bits of sun and an impromptu beach party bubbled out of the eight boats currently in residence. Twenty people poured above deck and then onto the beach filling a table with food and the air with talk and laughter. The weather which could have turned into an enforced sentence instead turned into plans made, shared movies and hours of information and expertise exchanged as we waited for clear skies. Once past the boat fever stage the enforced slow down was a gift of getting to know new friends and forming tight bonds. With the cleared skies we expanded the friendships with more meals, fishing trips, visits to the manta rays, snorkel and diving excursions and walks on the outer motu to discover whale bones and nesting and newly hatched sea birds. Being uninhabitied means Suwarrow pretty much stays as it has been and will likley be. But that means mans touch is light but lasting. Walking the motu with the nesting birds was interesting. They have no real fear of man and sit on their nests wide eyed watching as you walk by. Their nests are built on the ground or into the low lying shrubs. There were momma birds sitting their nests, juveniles staring back in wonder and babies still covered with fluff and mouths gaping just in case dinner was arriving. Whatever the winds and waves deposit in their march westward sits lost and forgotten on the beaches. We walked around and through bits of net and polypropaline line, whale bones with vertabrae the size of a coffee table, stood before a sun bleached pile of bones that on examination turned out to not be a large bird but instead turned out to be the almost whole skull and back bone of a dolphin. We saw and counted off the impossible exhistence of more than a dozen four foot florescent tubes and a slew of regular incandescent bulbs -washed up unbroken on the reef. Is all of this the floatsam and jetsum of the island inhabitants and passing fishing fleets? Or maybe a result of an adrift cargo container or just bits of garbage left floating about over the uncounted years? Probably a bit of each but certainly a clear reminder that if it doesn't readily sink and it end up in our earths oceans it just keeps floating around our globe. What a great group of sailors. We walked and talk our way around the reefs and motu, shared meals and talked about plans and finally said our goodbyes and left with a pile of new emails addresses and new names now turned into friends. Unfortunatly not a one of the boats we met on island are headed our way in the coming months. Other than one other boat we made friends with in Mexico we will be on our own when we move north into Kiribati and the Marshals. Once again making friends along the way always brings it's own set of goodbyes. Well, the Ipods are charged up and we have a small pile of second hand paperbacks ready for the coming miles, the boat is clean and ready for passage, there are two loaves of fresh bread cooling on the counter and a couple of burger patties thawing out for passage cheese burgers so it must be time to go. In the morning we will wave goodbye and head towards American Samoa but we will keep a lookout in the miles to come for Reality, Convivia, Blue Rodeo, Naughty Girl, La Condesa del Mar, Melaina and Malarkey. Four hundred and fifty miles to go. If we mke our usual 150nm/day we will arrive..unmmm......first thing in the morning Thursday! Kat

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