[091004, 2122 UTC, En Route Suwarrow Atoll to Pago Pago, American Samoa 14°26'S / 169°42'W]
Our last passage note was a quick message to let you know that Carina and crew escaped damage or injury in the earthquake/tsunami that struck the western South Pacific on September 29th. Thank you all for your emails; we appreciated them. Since then, and while underway to Pago Pago, we have been trading email messages at a furious pace with boats in the areas hardest hit by the tsunami: American Samoa, Western Samoa and parts of Tonga. We were asked to submit a summary piece to Cruising World's e-newsletter and, if it is published, it should appear October 6.
In the tsunami's aftermath, one cruiser drowned (friend Dan Olszewski of the Florida- based Freedom schooner, Mainly) and hundreds of Samoan and Tongans are dead and many more critically injured. Relief and rebuilding efforts are ongoing and many cruisers are helping, particularly at Nuiatoputapu, Tonga. This island was already short-supplied and mourning its dead from a ferry accident a couple of months ago. Cruisers are descending upon Nuiatoputapu with supplies - nails, hammers, food, clothing, bandages - from Neiafu in Tonga and Apia in Western Samoa. We hope we can help even in some small way in Pago Pago, where we hope to arrive tomorrow.
Before the tsunami struck, we were busily writing of Suwarrow Atoll, an isolated jewel located in the northern Cook Islands. So before our warm memories fade…a little history and our adventure.
Suwarrow Atoll was discovered 195 years ago on Sept 28th 1814 by the Russian ship, Suvarov, under the command of a naval officer of the Czar's fleet, Mikael Lazarev. Given the number of ships that plied the South Pacific in the 16th and 17th centuries, this was a "recent" discovery. The Suvarov was on voyage from the Baltic Sea to Alaska to establish a trading post. Lazarev named the atoll for the ship and Suvarov it became. Thus began a series of visits and visitors who were either shipwrecked here (as in the American whaler, Gem, in 1849) or arrived to exploit the island's resources, including pearl oysters. Many of these settlers were of dubious character and they exploited not only the island but Polynesians who, willingly or not, worked to make Suvarov a base for pearl and copra production. Greed quickly resulted in the nearly complete eradication of native pearl oysters and the collapse of this lucrative business. Attempts to Import new strains of pearl oysters failed.
In 1888, Suvarov became an English possession with the incorporation of the Cook Islands and legal enterprises were established, yet these also failed, and Suvarov fell into obscurity. In 1923, an American writer, Robert Dean Frisbie who had been living in the Cook Islands, visited Suvarov from his home in Pukapuka and began to visit often and write of the atoll. It was Frisbie who introduced Tom Neale, Suvarov's most famous resident, to the island. Neale was a Kiwi who was living in Raratonga, working as a clerk and dreaming of finding a deserted island to call home. Neale managed to save money to buy passage to Suvarov in 1952 and lived on and off the island until his death of cancer in 1979. His book "An Island of One's Own" sold well and has inspired many to stop here.
Upon independence, the Cook Island government changed the Russian name of Suvarov to Suwarrow and established it as a national park. Suwarrow is not served by any ferry or supply ship, so the only visitors arrive by private yacht. The atoll is known for its many shipwrecks (a sobering thought as you approach the almost invisible island in your fragile plastic sailboat), its isolation (well off the beaten path and visited by few boats) and the hospitality of those hardy few who have lived here. The Suwarrow National Park is managed for 6-8 months per year by resident caretakers. When we arrived John and Veronica Samuela and their 4 handsome young boys, Jeremiah, Jonathan, Augustino and Giovanni, were working for their 5th season at Suwarrow. Each year they negotiate a passage on whatever ship is coming or going from Raratonga, their home island, to stay here, welcome cruisers, and protect the atoll from its biggest threat, man.
The atoll is small and has a nearly-unbroken diamond shaped coral reef, with only one breach along its north shore, allowing passage into the lagoon. Upon approach, Suwarrow is difficult to see, as there are only a few motus which project above the level of the reef and fewer of these have any tall vegetation - cyclones have leveled most trees. We made a detour to the north in our approach route to add some miles to arrive during daylight and to also approach from a safer angle, should our charts be inaccurate.
Nearby the pass is Anchorage Island whose lagoon-side (bommie-ladened) anchorage affords some protection from the trade winds. While anchored here, we could see waves breaking over the length of the southern reef, approximately 4 miles away. Anchorage Island is covered with lush vegetation, including coconut palms and is home to the caretakers. The remains of a WWII watch and radio station, frequently patched but still disintegrating, and a coral sculpture of Tom Neale sit side by side with the park "headquarters", a rustic two-story, open-air cabin built upon a water cistern and occupied by the lovely Samuela family. Their large plywood table with cobbled-together wooden benches is their office, their library, their church, school for their children and the social center for the cruising fleet. Dozens of flags and momentos left by cruisers hang from the rafters.
We were the 110th boat to visit this year; each boat pays $50 USD in park fees, and though this is not an official port of entry to the Cook Islands, arrival and departure declarations are provided. Boats are required to remain anchored at Anchorage Island unless another location is specifically approved, but the entire atoll is pristine and teeming with wildlife, so this doesn't seem like an onerous request. (A couple of weeks ahead of our arrival, seven boats were allowed to anchor in the far SE corner of the atoll in the lee of Seven Islands during a week of particularly strong winds and big seas.) When we dropped anchor, six other boats were bobbing in the crystal clear (65-80') water and a small community had formed. Many afternoons included organized palm-frond-weaving socials (Veronica is a maestra!) and each evening a fire was built on the beach to beckon cruisers ashore for shared meals.
Suwarrow is also home to amazing underwater wildlife - the usual tropical fish, yellow fin tuna, grouper, whales and sea turtles - and, most notably, black tip and "grey reef sharks", the latter a species we could not positively identify in our limited library. Neither shark species are known to be dangerous, but John is extremely cautious with the grey sharks because they DO tend to be aggressive. No food scraps are allowed overboard from boats, particularly bits of fish or meat, but must be brought to shore. Each afternoon, John and 14 year old Jeremiah bring collected scraps the windward side of the island and feed them to the sharks - right under the sign which reads "No Swimming - Sharks!" that is hammered to a palm tree (we will post photos of a feeding frenzy on our website). The intent is to keep the greys out of the anchorage to make swimming safer there, and though we did not see a grey reef sharks, black tips circled Carina day and night. Russ, of the Seattle boat Zulu, tells of cleaning a fish he'd caught (only subsistence fishing by trolling is allowed) and, nearby the "Sharks" sign, having a grey shark literally come out of the water and steal the fish.
Black tip sharks are theoretically "non aggressive" though at least two showed up to watch Philip as he cleaned Carina's bottom, swimming ever closer to him as he tried to keep one eye on them and one on the task at hand. Concluding that it would be bad form to be the first cruiser attacked by black tip sharks on Suwarrow, he eventually ceded the territory to the animals and got out of the water.
John and Veronica are conscientious caretakers and seem to enjoy organizing excursions of cruisers to the outer motus of the atoll with the caveat that all, adults and children alike, respect simple rules designed to protect the delicate environment. One fine day (everything depends on weather) all boats at anchor joined an excursion. Those with undersized or engineless dinghies - us and the family of the German vessel Spica - joined the fun aboard the family's high freeboard "tinny". Our first stop, where we anchored in brilliant thigh high water and waded across the coral shelf, was to an almost treeless motu, Gull Island, barely above high tide. There we witnessed thousands of frigate birds, boobies and noddies trying to raise their chicks in the hot tropical sun. The species differed from those we knew previously, and interestingly, some boobies were nesting in trees adjacent to frigates nesting on the ground (the opposite of Isla Isabela in Mexico). These abundant and gorgeous birds were unafraid and seemed to take no notice as we quietly tiptoed nearby their nests and admired their young.
John then took us on to beautiful Seven Islands for a picnic lunch and a leisurely circum-meander of the island, during which we spied masked boobies, a magnificent brown boobie Mom regally squatting over her fuzzy chick and the brilliant shell of a coconut crab, filling completely its warren in the dirt inches above the tide . Picture a perfect, small, coconut-covered island smack dab in the middle of the clear cerulean waters of the South Pacific and you'll get a sense of what we saw. On the way to Seven Islands, we passed the monstrous rusted hulk of a fishing vessel which came to grief in the 1970's on the reef on the south side of the atoll. The story told by Tom Neale is that the wreck appeared one morning and by the time he got over to it (a few miles) the fishermen had mysteriously disappeared.
After our lunch and walk, our armada anchored just off Seven Islands for a snorkel. By this time, the skies had turned ashen and rain fell in sheets, chilling everyone. We took refuge by donning masks and snorkels and plunging into the 84 F lagoon water and snorkeling amongst the most amazing coral we have ever seen. The bommies rose from the bottom 100' or so below and were enormous - warehouse-sized it in some cases - with every square inch covered in healthy coral. It was almost like being in an upside-down cathedral. Interestingly, though the reef was filled with many types of magnificent and colorful coral, we spotted very few fish, though Leslie was thrilled to spot a favorite, the Moorish Idol, looking as elegant but as grumpy as ever. No one, including the very small children, seemed inclined to stop snorkeling but, with the skies still grey, darkness was descending and our party scrambled into dinghies headed for home.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake