Friday, September 23, 2011

Cook Islands - Suwarrow (2011)

On Tuesday, August 16th, we sailed off the mooring at the Bora Bora Yacht Club, through the pass, and set our course for Suwarrow, 680 miles to the northwest.  The winds were light to moderate throughout most of the trip.  They started out dead astern of us, making for a rocky ride, but shifted to the NNE on the second day.  We were then able to hoist the main, without it blocking the wind from the genoa, and sailed on a faster and more comfortable course.
As usual, we tuned into one of the cruising nets on our shortwave receiver once a day to hear where different boats were and their weather conditions.  On our third day out, we heard the heartbreaking news concerning our friends Frank and Gayle on s/v Ri Ri.  We first met Frank and Gayle in Nuku Hiva, when they helped clear our fouled anchor chain.  They left Bora Bora about a week ahead of us and stopped at Palmerston Atoll, which is in the Cook Islands, south of where we were headed.  They tied up to one of the moorings there, which apparently broke and Ri Ri was blown onto the reef which tore a couple of large holes in the hull, and she eventually sank.  We didn’t hear any other details except that Frank and Gayle were safe.  It saddened us to hear this news.  It was also a bit frightening to think that our trip could come to an end just as quickly because of a bad mooring, or if we drag anchor while asleep or on shore.  We vowed to be extra careful going forward. 
As we approached Suwarrow on our sixth day, we knew we wouldn’t be able to make it through the pass before nightfall.  We reduced sail for half a day to slow down and eventually hove to about 20 miles out.  As the sun came up the next day, we turned Saviah toward Suwarrow again. 
Suwarrow Atoll is a national park in the Cook Islands.  The atoll measures 9 by 11 nautical miles, with numerous small islands totaling about 100 acres of land.  There are no permanent inhabitants, and the only way to visit is by private yacht.  We had heard several favorable reviews from cruisers and were looking forward to visiting such a remote and unspoiled place.
The atoll has one navigable pass, which we motored through late that morning, and then made our way around the south end of Anchorage Island.  The calm waters of the lagoon were a welcome change from the past six days of ocean swell.  There were 14 boats already in the anchorage, and we motored around scoping out the area.  We found a spot in 35 ft of water, dropped the anchor and let out 140 ft of chain.  The atoll has a reputation of having a lot of sharks, and we noticed quite a few swimming around the boat as we enjoyed lunch in the cockpit.  Even though we were anxious to go ashore to check in and explore, we were tired and decided to take a short nap before heading in.
Two hours later, we awoke feeling somewhat rested.  We rowed to the stone pier, and made the short walk to the Suwarrow Yacht Club, where we met James and John, the park rangers.  They live on the island during the six months that the park is open.  They are dropped off at the beginning of the season and picked up at the end.  When they are dropped off, they bring some provisions but rely heavily on catching local fish or growing their own food.  Cruisers also bring food and fuel when they pass through to supplement the rangers’ provisions.  There isn’t a source of fresh water on the island, so various catchment systems are set up to collect the rain for drinking, cooking, showering and laundry.
James is the head ranger and was in charge of the administration, while John was in charge of catching and growing food for their consumption.  We sat down with James and completed our paperwork to clear into the Cook Islands.  We then left them with a bag of dry goods that we picked up for them in Bora Bora before retiring to Saviah for some more rest.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get much rest, as the winds continued to build and then shifted about 80 degrees.  Our anchor chain, most of which was lying on the sea floor got caught on a coral head as the boat started pulling in a different direction.  We were both getting too familiar with the horrible sound of the chain coming taught after it has been wrapped around a coral head and the incredible jarring force on the boat.  It is almost impossible to fix these situations at night, so we untied our snubber lines and let out more chain.  We were reluctant to let out too much chain because the wind shift put the reef behind us, and we could no longer see how close it was.  We put extra snubber lines out until the morning when we could get in the water and try to get it untangled.  We were up all night in shifts and had to replace the snubbers several times as they broke.  The force on the snubber even bent our bronze cleat, which is about an inch thick. 
The next morning the winds were a little lighter, but were forecast to increase to 25 – 30 knots over the next couple days.  We knew we had to take care of the chain quickly.  Even though we had recently done some diving in the presence of sharks, neither of us are totally comfortable getting in the water with them, but we needed to get the anchor straightened out.  Reluctantly, Andrew donned his snorkel gear and jumped in the water.  He dove down several times to 40 feet to try and unwrap the chain, but couldn’t spend enough time at that depth to do anything with the chain before needing to come back to the surface for air.  We then decided to have Di steer the boat to drag the chain around the coral head while Andrew was in the water with a snorkel mask to point in the right direction.  This only made the situation worse, and we somehow got the chain in a figure-eight around two coral heads.   
After an hour in the water shooing the sharks away and making the anchor situation worse, we put out a call to the fleet on the VHF to see if anyone could help.  The response was overwhelming and in less than 15 minutes, Dan from Loose Pointer was diving on our anchor in his scuba gear.  He managed to untangle some of the wrapped chain, and then directed us as we motored around and freed the rest of the chain.  We quickly pulled up the anchor, and Dan scoped out an anchor spot nearby that had fewer coral heads.  The hook went down in 50 feet, and we let out our chain.  He then checked to make sure it was set well.  In our new spot, the reef was about 150 ft behind us, and we felt good about our new spot.
It is pretty common for the park rangers here to arrange potlucks.  They supply several types of fish for the main dish, and the cruisers bring the side dishes.  There was one scheduled for that evening, and Di baked some bread to take.  We were really looking forward to meeting the other cruisers in the anchorage, as well as sampling the fresh fish.  Unfortunately, we ended up missing the potluck and having a very close call.
We were all packed up and ready to head to shore for the potluck, but the winds had picked up to 20 knots, and there was a 2-3 foot chop in the anchorage.  Waves of that height make for a wet ride in our rowing dinghy, so we decided to flag down another dinghy and hitch a ride with them.  Andrew went down below to turn off the electronics to save the batteries while we were ashore, when he noticed a line trailing off on the GPS screen from where we were previously swinging.  At the same time, Di was on deck and noticed that the reef behind us was getting closer really quickly, and it wouldn’t be long before we hit it.  We quickly started the engine and motored ahead to get away from the reef. 
As Di steered the boat, Andrew went up to the bow to pull up the anchor.  As he pulled up the chain, it suddenly became very light and he soon saw why – the anchor had broken off.  At the end of our chain, he found just the shackle and a short piece of the shaft of our 45 lb CQR anchor. 
By this time, other cruisers noticed our situation, and several came over in their dinghies to see if we needed help.  Jerry aboard Challenger and Kennedy aboard Far Star helped guide us to a new anchor spot, as the anchorage was quite packed and the sunlight was fading fast.  The new spot was in 60 ft of water but had fewer coral heads.  Andrew removed the butt of the old anchor and attached our spare 35 lb Danforth anchor and dropped it over the lifelines before letting out all 250 ft chain.  We backed down, and seemed to be holding well, but decided it would not be smart to leave the boat.  We were now on our smaller spare anchor, which hadn’t been well tested in our new location, and the wind was really blowing.  So, we reluctantly skipped the potluck. Fortunately, John and James put together a huge plate of food for us, and Eli and Olivia on s/v Rhythm stopped by to deliver it.  The food was quite tasty – three different kinds of fish, coconut pancakes, green salad, and many other dishes.  We ate very well that night.
The next day the winds picked up as forecast to SE 20-25 knots, with frequent gusts to 40.  We stayed put on board, working on boat projects, reading and checking our snubbers periodically for chafe.  The SE winds made the anchorage uncomfortable, as we didn’t have as much protection from Anchorage Island so the waves rolling through were bigger.  Given the conditions, we did a third night of anchor watches.
Thursday we finally saw a bit of relief as the winds shifted to the east, and the gusts weren’t as strong.  Dan on s/v Loose Pointer dove down and retrieved our anchor and returned it to us.  We decided to donate it to Suwarrow as a conversation piece and left it on shore with James – we didn’t want to lug around 45 extra pounds that we don’t need.  Everyone stopped by to take a look at the broken anchor, and of course, conversations turned to ground tackle and what kind is the best.  Our broken 45 lb CQR was the anchor that came with the boat and was made of stainless steel, which is brittle and more prone to break.  Most cruisers carry galvanized anchors rather than stainless steel, as they are made from mild steel that will bend rather than break.  This was the only part of our ground tackle system we had not yet replaced, and we feel fortunate that our close call ended so well.  Now we’ll do some research to decide which type of anchor to buy as a replacement, and it will definitely not be stainless.
James with our broken anchor

On Thursday, our fourth day, we finally felt comfortable spending some time on shore.  We spent most of that afternoon hanging out with James and John.  They have very modest living quarters and a small budget for food and other supplies to bring to the island.  But, what they do have, they are extremely generous with, and they go out of their way to make you feel at home.  When battery power allows, they let cruisers use their showers and after a particularly rainy spell, will let cruisers take on some fresh water for their tanks.  They gave us a tour of the facilities, including the fish cleaning station, composting area, their vegetable garden and the book exchange.  It was entertaining to hear them tell stories about their time spent on the island. 
They showed us how to husk coconuts, and we husked a few to take back to the boat with us.  We asked about fishing in the lagoon, and they told us to use the small coconut and hermit crabs for bait.  James showed us that whistling to the crabs draws them out of their shells.  He may have been pulling our chains, but it seemed to work.  We took back a few to use later, but didn’t need to because John gave us quite a bit of fresh tuna from that morning’s catch.  
Apparently, the coconut crabs get quite large on the island, growing to 2-3 ft wide.  They live under the roots of coconut trees and live off the coconuts, which they gather by climbing the trees and twisting them until they fall down.  James said they are quite tasty, but have been over-hunted in the past and the population is down, so they don’t eat them unless they are short on food. 
husking coconuts, filleting fish, and our crab bait
After a walk around the island, we came back at 5:30 to see James feed the sharks.  He usually keeps leftover fish scraps in a bucket and then on the night of the potlucks, he takes the cruisers over to the designated shark feed area before dinner.  Since we missed the potluck, he took us over there for a feeding.  He only feeds them at 5:30 in the evening so that they are trained to come back at the same time.  We headed over to the windward side of the island with a small bucket of fish parts and passed the sign warning “DANGER – Sharks… No Swimming”. 
About 15 feet from the water, James yelled at the sharks and about 20 of them shot over to the shallow end to wait for him.  Over the next couple minutes, he stood in ankle deep water as the black tips, white tips, and a few larger gray sharks thrashed around trying to snatch up the fish parts.  They were bouncing right off the reef in a few inches of water very close to James, and we asked if he was worried about getting bitten.  He told us that the previous ranger was bitten while doing that, but he wasn’t worried.  He said that if they got to close, he would just “give ‘em the boot”.  “The boot” on an island in the South Pacific is actually a flip flop or a pair of crocs.  He was very nonchalant as he stepped on the heads of sharks that were swimming to close to him. That night, we had our first full night of sleep without anchor watches, 10 nights after leaving Bora Bora.  
shark feed
Over the next few days, we walked around Anchorage Island at least once a day.  This was the only island on the atoll that we were allowed to visit by ourselves.  It is a small island, and you can walk all the way around in an hour if you walk really slowly.  The marine life around the island was vibrant:  black tip reef sharks swimming in the shallow water, crabs scurrying away as we approached, eels snaking their way through the water, bright blue parrotfish, and birds flying overhead.  The colors of the coral, rocks, sand, and sea changed constantly as we made our way around the island.  We agreed that Suwarrow was one of the most beautiful stops on our trip so far.
around Anchorage Island
Saturday morning, James invited everyone to join in a reef walk.  So at 10:30 am, 30 of us set out wading through the shallow water north of Anchorage Island, making our way to the fringing reef of the atoll.  At low tide, it was shallow enough for us to walk along a drying section of the reef.  He warned us to stay away from the Pacific Ocean side so we didn’t get washed away when some of the larger waves crashed down.  The colors and marine life were incredible, and after an hour of walking along the reef, we had made it to Whale Island, where lots of noddies have nests.  There were birds everywhere, very similar to the sight on Isla Isabella in Mexico.
reef walk from Anchorage Island to Whale Island
After seven days on Suwarrow, the weather forecast showed what seemed like a perfect window for our next passage to American Samoa.  We were not ready to leave, but were worried that if we missed this window, it might be another week or more until the next one comes along.  We spent the afternoon walking around the island again and then hung out with James and John for a couple hours before checking out.  It was difficult to drag ourselves away, as Suwarrow is our favorite stop so far.  But we still have a bit of ground to cover before cyclone season, and we are starting to feel pressure to put some more miles under the keel.