Monday, August 10, 2009

Dispatch 44 Suwarrow “La Bombie”

July 17 to 29, 2009
Suwarrow is an amazing atoll within the Cook Islands, located at 13 degrees 14’ S latitude and 163 degrees 06' W longitude. The entire atoll has been designated a National Park, about 11 miles long and 4 miles wide. Within this atoll are several islands, which are nesting sites for several different species of birds and the coconut crabs which are found here, and have protected status. There are lots of uncharted reefs and, as such, travel within the atoll is restricted by the park regulations. The park is inhabited by a warden for 6 months of the year and deserted 6 months of the year. The 6 months during which the “yachties” arrive, roughly April thru October, the caretaker and his family help enforce the rules of, basically, look but don’t touch or take. Because of this it is extremely pristine, is full of birds, fish, sharks and has such intensely healthy and beautiful coral, with water visibility up to 100 feet. Suwarrow is only accessible by private yacht, there is no official transportation here and no services—no airport, stores, hospital, post office, nothing. The caretaker and his family are “dropped off” by freighter and given supplies for their 6 months of residence when they will again be picked up and returned to Rarotonga. They are completely self sufficient for this time except for items and assistance cruisers stopping here might offer.

Our passage here from Bora Bora was, well, difficult (Betsy prefers the word “rough”). We started with good winds and they only got “better” so to speak (15 rising to 20, rising to 25, rising to a high of 30). The seas, which were confused at the beginning, became only larger and much more confused with each increase in wind speed or direction change by the end of our 6 day passage. Needless to say, the winds were higher than forecast (a common occurrence around here) or we wouldn’t have set out. As in each of our passages we are in daily radio contact via a radio net with a large group of cruisers in various places either on their own passage or in an anchorage, this included a group within the atoll at Suwarrow. Coincidentally, the day before our arrival, cruisers already anchored in the atoll had beefed up and rebuilt a mooring buoy that already was in place. They were intensely sympathetic to our experience “outside” on the ocean because they, too, were experiencing high winds and could only imagine what turmoil was going on where we were. They offered to assist us with our entrance into the atoll if we could arrive by sunset and tie us onto the new mooring. That would mean some real rest after 6 days—much to be desired—so we put the “pedal to the metal” on Qayaq, sailing much harder and with more sail area up than we would normally. Sailing faster than usual with boat speeds reaching up to 7 knots we arrived just at sunset. The caretaker met us at the pass and guided us in, another cruiser sat in his dinghy at one of the reefs on the way in so we could easily avoid it, and yet another cruiser sat in his dinghy holding the mooring buoy line with a light on, so we could locate it in the dark with no problems. We arrived on the mooring, tied up by 7:30 PM, dark, intensely thankful for the calm seas and a bed that did not have a motion similar to a carnival ride. Everyone understood and had been pulling for us to get in rather than spend another night out with confused seas and high winds and were incredibly supportive and friendly the next day.

The next day, we met most of the other boats anchored here. There were of 11 boats anchored in the park, one having been here almost a month. The caretaker, John, lives here with his wife and 4 boys (ages 8, 8, 10 and 13). They have done so for 5 years, during the winter season, (Southern Hemisphere winter is Northern hemisphere summer remember), and they are delightful people, very self-sufficient needless to say. John and family fish often, usually daily as they have no refrigerator and this is their main source of food and they will share their catch—a park regulation is fishing must be done outside the atoll. Cruisers offer the same to John and his family when fishing is good, everyone eats, a great communal spirit. He will guide boats to the outlying islands to see the birds, take hikes and snorkel even more pristine waters than those around the anchorage. The cruisers, as is their style, organize parties, potlucks, and activities with the caretaker’s family, everyone has a fabulous time here. Cruisers with experience in different areas all offer John any assistance he might need, from improving his SSB antenna to new fishing lures, guaranteed to work(?). There were several boats with kids aboard, a special time for the caretaker’s kids and spirits were high. The boats included US, Canada, Austria, Italy, France, Australia and we all got along more or less with English. The people of the Cook Islands speak English as it is a New Zealand protectorate.

Our days were spent in boat projects interspersed with great recreation. We snorkeled the beautiful coral (curious black tip reef sharks usually hanging out somewhere nearby, inspecting your work if it entailed cleaning the boat or rearranging the anchor chain), walked the circumference of the islands, saw nesting birds and their chicks, (boobies, frigate birds, tropic birds and fairy terns to name a few). We would walk on the reef at the edge of the islands. The caretaker has begun feeding the sharks fish guts outside the atoll in one particular bay and the sharks are now trained to show up there if they see or hear people on the beach. One can go and just stand there and quickly, a half dozen then 10 or more sharks arrive from 1 foot long babies to 4 foot or bigger white tip, black tip and gray sharks in water a little more than a foot deep looking for handouts. Quite um, interesting, to say the least. Even more interesting is the behavior when the fish guts are thrown in—our own feeding frenzy up close right near the beach. Wow. The kids on one of the boats painted a sign to keep people away from that particular beach.

Just because it was such a amazing snorkeling site, here are a few gratuitous, beautiful underwater shots.

Another unique experience on Suwarrow had nothing to do with the setting, we just happened to be there for the partial solar eclipse. We were aboard a friend’s boat visiting when Richard stepped forward to watch the lovely sunset. It was then that we noticed the dual points of sun rather than single and someone recalled the eclipse. It was an amazing sunset also because it was one of the few that elicited the famed green flash seen just as the sun drops below the horizon, and, in this case, there were TWO green flashes. Incredible.

I called this dispatch, “La Bombie” because the anchorage is more of a coral head dance than a nice sandy place to put an anchor down. We refer to coral heads as “bombies”. While we were here, the wind did a full 360 as a front passed over within a 2 day period and, during that time, we were caught on 5 or 6 different coral heads, shortening our chain’s scope more and more with each turn. In fact, there isn’t much sand here so the best “holding” is to have your chain wrapped on a coral head that will hold the boat firmly, and hope that you are able to free the anchor when you want to leave. With the squalls, there were 30 plus knots winds again and everyone was out checking their anchors to make sure they were firmly caught on something. We were rocking and rolling so much that we got lots of sympathy in the big winds and, when the wind calmed down, Richard got on the radio and announced that the roller coaster ride was over and we were sorry we wouldn’t be able to honor the tickets of those who had purchased them for our amusement park ride. In fact, while we were pitching so much, we were down below reading and noticed a hermit crab emerge from somewhere on our boat and walk drunkenly down the salon floor. I imagined that he thought he’d stow away and go someplace more exciting only to decide to emerge and “abandon ship” because it was too rough and he was getting too sick to stay aboard. Once the weather calms down you dive your anchor chain and see what “rearranging” needs to be done. Richard was in the water free diving in 30 feet for over an hour to lift, tug, unwrap and lay out the chain in a more orderly fashion in the hopes that with the next wind shift the chain would wrap around smaller coral heads and not the bigger 5 foot tall ones. This also allows you the hope of getting your chain back on board when you leave without too many wraps. It worked as when we left the chain came up smoothly without one wrap. If you anchor too deep you need someone with dive gear to clear your chain before you leave, always interesting. Our anchor never did set properly the 2 weeks we were here but we never moved with the coral holding us in place – “bombie anchoring”.

We were making our plans and getting the boat ready for our passage to Pago Pago, American Samoa when we learned the caretaker’s wife, Veronica, was celebrating her birthday. Passage was delayed as, once again, we had an excuse for a party. John and Veronica took me and Richard out across the atoll to the “Big Island” where we witnessed the art of catching coconut crabs, an endangered species in general but still plentiful here, thanks to John and the park regulations. John is very careful to only catch the older crabs and to limit consumption to special occasions; in this way the population continues to thrive. Though they are called coconut crabs because they eat coconut, they are omnivores and coconut is not their sole source of food. They are intensely ugly but come in some pretty colors—they burrow in the sand and John catches them by finding a likely hole usually by stepping in it, up to midcalf sometimes and digging the inhabitant out. We proceeded to hike across the island benefiting from John’s naturalist knowledge, enjoying noddy bird nests, unripe pandanus fruit, the various booby species that live here. John scrambled up a coconut tree to get us some young coconuts for the nectar inside. Then we went back to the skiff and cooled off with a snorkel around the coral gardens there. We found a huge moray eel under the dingy tucked back in his coral cave, black tipped sharks, groupers and other tropical fish enjoying their protected status. I got back in the skiff first and came eyeball to eyeball with one of the coconut crabs. He had been securely placed in a large cooler, lid on and a heavy beacon light placed on top. He had easily pushed the lid up, displaced the beacon and crawled out. I had to sit on the cooler to keep him in it for the trip back. And most amazing that day, Richard caught the two fish we had for the feast—a grouper and a black jack on the line we trolled behind the dingy.

That night, the sailors joined ashore once again, all complaining that they were nearly out of food (we’d been a month or so without a store), but managed to put together a magnificent feast with whatever was available on the boat including the fish, coconut crab, various salads and, of course, birthday cake and cookies. We joked that it was a “national holiday” on Suwarrow and “all the government offices were closed as were schools and stores” (of which, of course, there are none) and nobody asked Veronica to process their paperwork that day (the only quasi-governmental function that occurs on the island in their open air dining room.) It was a fabulous event and we were so glad we stayed. Don’t tell John, but we prefer Dungeness crab, our home specialty!

We have certainly enjoyed our time here!