Of all the places Allora has taken us, North Minerva Reef, is a stand out. The reef literally emerges only 90cm at low tide, and when walking on what feels like the Pacific’s very precipice, we had the surreal sensation that we’d been transported to another world. I urge you to read this article from New Zealand Geographic, which lays out the inherent hazards and contentious history of this fascinating ‘land:’
We, like many others, made a stop at Minerva North, to break up the often difficult passage between Tonga and New Zealand. Most boats poise themselves to try to stop, but the weather conditions have to be right to enter the pass and take the time in ‘pause’ mode as opposed to continuing onward, so we felt lucky to manage 3 days in the fold of the protected lagoon. We weren’t alone, though! The 30 boats at anchor around us were dubbed, ‘The Minerva Yacht Club!’
Our stop in Suwarrow was comprised mostly of hiding from 30 knots winds created by a squash zone from a gigantic 1044 high in the south with effects that had people digging in from the Gambier to Tonga. So we don’t have much to offer about what you might do there to enjoy yourself. What we found out was more what you can’t do, and after French Polynesia and the Tuamotos the list felt onerous. Here’s what the ranger who was running things in the winter of 2019 said:
No anchoring except at anchorage island by the ranger station. Period.
No diving. Period. (Why?)
No fishing inside the lagoon.
No going ashore on ANY motu in the park anywhere except the ranger island (supposedly because of their rat eradication program)
Technically the rules even dictate when you can leave through the pass (not before noon) though I have no idea how they think they would enforce that.
There are more no no’s, mainly things you’d expect to be prohibited. At the bottom of the list, there’s a caveat that says the ranger can add anything he wants to the list, and the current Ranger took that to heart.
That leaves snorkeling, pretty much, and nothing else.
Unfortunately, though this obviously feels excessive and extreme, the behavior of some yacht visitors has served to make the ranger feel more adamant about enforcing and expanding his rules. It doesn’t help that some people feel they have a right to harvest coconut crabs and even lament not having taken more when they found out they could sell them for big money in Niue. Or that some members of the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) showed up before the legal opening, trashed the place (according to the ranger) and left their flag planted on the beach. Suwarrow is a designated sanctuary and should be treated with the same respect as a national park anywhere.
Because the forecast called for the possibility of SE winds over 50 knots we asked for permission to anchor in the better protected SE corner and were denied. Unwilling to test the ranger’s theory that the allowed anchorage would be safe (there is at least one yacht sunk on the NW corner of that tight anchorage with south exposure), we moved, despite his objections to the south east corner, invoking our right under international law to ‘safe haven.’ Our biggest concern was the 3 mile fetch that the allowed anchorage would be exposed to. The anchoring was very poor in the SE, with coral and bommies everywhere, but it was definitely a safer spot. If we did drag we had miles to react rather than the tight lee shore of the approved anchorage. This decision did not make us popular with the head ranger, but we felt we had no choice for the safety of our boats. In the end I don’t think we saw over 35 knots, but I personally would make the same decision again.
“It’s hot here,” the Pastor’s lovely wife said with a smile, “it’s always hot. Sometimes you can see some flowers blooming and you know it’s Spring, but it’s always hot.” The village of TeTautua does not own enough cars to have much of a road so its houses tend to meander along foot trails, which double as scooter and motorcycle paths, a web centered on the imposing blue and white Cook Island church. Ungirded by streets, houses with deep porches, windows without glass, only tattered cloth curtains, lay scattered at random angles. You might forget to notice that there are no dogs (they have been disallowed by the island council, which makes everything its business). Their absence, as much as the haphazard city planning, creates the feeling of a ghost town, especially if the children are in school and the hot sun is broiling the gray coral gravel underfoot.
The island is losing its population, slowly, people emigrating to bigger more populous islands, or New Zealand. Though there is an abundance of fish, there are few (maybe none) of the occupations that keep idle hands busy in even the smallest midwestern ghost town. In the big village on the other side of the atoll there is a nurse. There is a policeman, somewhere. There are teachers. But there are no stores. There are scant few gardens, a difficult enterprise in the hard limestone pavement that constitutes the earth of an atoll. There are thriving coconut groves, possibly the remnant of a copra operation, the kind that is still subsidized in French Polynesia. For a while there was a booming pearl farm business, which succumbed to cyclones and a disease among the oysters. Perhaps the mental, emotional, spiritual space that in North American suburbia is filled with cars and traffic lights, malls, donut shops, Home Depot and Costco, here is filled by the sea herself and the Cook Island Christian Church.
It’s no secret that missionaries did a number on the South Pacific. This is still one of the main places those white shirt and tie young scrubs in the Salt Lake airport are all headed. But it was news to me that God apparently doesn’t want you to fish on Sundays (I thought Jesus was a fisherman). No work, no play, no music, no swimming (sound familiar?). Like a friendly, island version of the Taliban, they take these injunctions seriously in Penrhyn and they made it their business to see that we anchored right by town to ensure that we weren’t off enjoying ourselves on Sundays doing the devil’s worst out of sight of the church’s two story pulpit.
Naturally, we were invited to church. Hats strictly required for women (strictly not allowed in Tonga) but definitely NOT permitted for men. Diana showed up with a beautiful head wreath from Rapa (made for church there) but here she was told she had to have a hat that covered the top part of her head (cuz God is looking down, I guess?). Long pants for men (in the tropics!), luckily Mike had a light pair I could borrow so I didn’t have to wear jeans. The Pastor’s white pants (God only knows how he kept them white) were unhemmed and about eight inches too long for him, so he walked on them, barefoot when he greeted us at his house and then under sandals for the service. He carried a bible, well worn with pieces of folded paper tucked among its pages, King James translated to Māori/Tongarevan, the language of the Cook Islands.
We arrived in the morning to find out that regular church had been cancelled because an elder woman, Mama Takulani, mother of 12, had died in her sleep early that morning. She had lived on Penrhyn her whole life, in this village of about fifty people, with barely one dirt road and about four cars to drive on it, no stores, no post office, nothing but a collection of very simple homes occupied by people who must know each other very, very well.
We gathered at her house, the palangi (foreigners) outside on plastic chairs to witness a three hour funeral, mostly singing, which seemed unscripted and improvised, arising spontaneously from the group of women seated on the patio floor. Men joined in, and the harmonies were unlike anything we’d ever heard, oddly discordant and complex, a fascinating mix of church hymns and Polynesian music, all the more intense as an expression of mourning. Speeches were given by men, long speeches, in the local language, with occasional acknowledgements in English to the visiting Palangi. The woman’s body was carried to the church, in through the left-hand door, briefly spoken over, then exited through the right-hand door. She was buried in a pre-built concrete crypt in a hole dug that morning by a backhoe outside her bedroom. She was covered with a tapestry and laid in the ground. It felt very odd to witness something so profoundly personal and significant for our hosts, though they went out of their way to make us feel welcome, and afterward there was a feast, with an insistence that visitors eat first.
The next Sunday (Father’s day!) respecting their local commandments and traditions, I did not fish. The first time that has happened since I became a father, 27 years ago. Instead, we went again to church to be harangued, mostly in Tongarevan, but also in English, by a series of men who (like the pastors of Rapa), utilized a hierarchically arranged pulpit (literally with stairs) to wield their authority. Maybe you need something organized like this on an island with nothing but turquoise water and sun and fish, to keep people from running amok, though it felt so out of place with the usual island vibe of very friendly, relaxed, open people. Singing provided some relief in the service, though the performance was more structured and a little more hymn-like than what we witnessed at the funeral. There’s a lot of this kind of singing in Penrhyn, all through the week, several times a day on Sunday. They grow up with this music, so they sing with passion and confidence and subtlety. The women often hold a hand to their face as they sing, and I wasn’t sure if it was to help them hear their voices (the way you might imagine Sting in a recording studio), or to hide their faces and wide open mouths. One young woman held a book that blocked most of her face. Afterward, there was another generous feast at the Pastor’s house, with pictures of the gathering of foreign visitors (representing several countries in Europe and North America) to be posted on Facebook.
When it seemed we would be on the island for another Sunday (waiting for a weather window to depart, and fishing) we decided we would skip church, but thought we’d better say something about our decision in advance. The Pastor seemed relieved (the unexpectedly large group of sailors must have been hard on his freezer, which would not be refilled until the next supply ship, months out). He did admonish us not to do anything on our boats, especially not swim, and seemed to joke (not sure here) that the sharks were in league with God and would enforce the no swimming on Sunday rule. Diana spent about five hours in the water cleaning our hull anyway, and lived to tell.
Though we chaffed at being required to observe the religious regulations of the island, presented to us as Law (which almost certainly cannot have been constitutional in a country governed by New Zealand) we were also overwhelmed by the generosity of their reception. Gift giving and hospitality is a pervasive and vibrant cultural practice throughout Polynesia, and they outdid themselves. We did our best to give back, too. And although the dogmatic Christianity was a tad stifling, we still managed to have some good connections. The Pastor was a bit of an odd duck in that way, at least for me, it was very hard to engage him in a regular conversation. His relationship to the visiting foreigners seemed mostly about the opportunity to give speeches and express the piety of his flock and the importance of his position as their spokesman.
We were the fourth boat to visit Penrhyn in 2019, but within two days there were eight more boats. Most of them part of a group of kid boats (that is, boats which have kids on them, who generally drive the social schedule), all loaded with school supplies to give to the children of Penrhyn. Liza, of the boat Liza Lu, is a teacher from New York whose class had started a pen pal relationship with Penryhn before coming. She had more postcards to deliver and spent time at the school helping the kids compose new post cards that she would mail back to her school. Our friends on Alondra, marine biologists with two girls, eleven and twelve, brought in microscopes and spent a day with the students peering at everything from fly eyes to butterfly wings and gecko toes. A huge hit. The boat ‘Panacea’ with Tuomo, Reka and their kids presented a slideshow about how they’d come to be there aboard a sailboat, and shared glimpses of all the countries they’d seen. The families aboard s/v’s Luminesce, Calle II, Itchy Foot and Caramba all participated, too, and Adagio’s crew were elemental helping with the mosaic. It was an unusually bustling ‘point in time’ on the sleepy eastern side of Penrhyn … ~MS
Diana spent a day at the school (and several more on the boat) helping them make a mosaic for the school using local materials but also glass from Italy that she keeps squirreled away in the bilges. She donated for a center element, a piece of glass given to her by a mentor in Ravenna. The theme for the month at school was “Love,” so that inspired the design, which was set up so that many kids could work on parts of it at once. Thanks too, to Mike and Katie (s/v Adagio) for jumping in to help. We hung it on the school wall with the assumption that it might outlive the actual building itself. ~MS
A birder’s paradise, the motus around the east side of Penrhyn held nesting colonies of Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Noddy’s and White Terns. An occasional Booby and Magnificent Frigatebird would liven up the scene, but for the most part, the Tropicbirds RULED!
In May we had the chance to buddy boat with my brother Doug and his family and friends. They flew from Washington and chartered a catamaran big enough to accommodate eleven people on board. We kept a pretty busy schedule touring Raiatea and Bora Bora, hiking, snorkeling, sailing, diving, SUPing and kayaking. A few of us fit in an epic, muddy climb to the top of the peak of Bora Bora. It was great fun to sail alongside my brother, beat him sailing to windward and then watch him blow by us like a ghost ship with the wind behind the beam. He hailed us on the VHF sailing to Bora to tell us that for the comfort of his crew and to keep up with us on the windward leg he was turning on the engine. I said, “That’s awesome (I never expected to be able to beat that catamaran) he said, “Great for you, Marcus…”Evenings onboard Kiwi will probably stick with us the longest. I guess sunsets are like that. After a long day of whatever and wherevering (usually in the water) their ridiculously spacious Bali 46 was a great place to hang out with no particular agenda, sip a little rum or scotch, a glass of wine or a dark and stormy and enjoy the warm tropical breeze and another delicious meal. ~MS
I’m going to ask Marcus to wax poetic about our final weeks in the Tuamotus. Suffice it to say that this region of French Polynesia is most definitely a favorite of ours and I even heard Marcus say he could live there. If fresh produce was available, I might be on board! For the time being, these pics can be a placeholder. These are shots from Tahanea, Fakarava and Rangiroa.