Ship's Log               s/v Uliad 


 

May 6:

 

     I have to be careful that this does not turn into the  "Steve complains about his boat" webpage, but here goes.  We left Bora Bora on Monday  morning after one last trip into town to spend our last French Pacific Francs and use up our French Pacific phone card with calls home.  By 1pm we were underway with sunny skies, light breezes, and cheerful dispositions. 

     By the following morning everyone was mildly seasick--not unexpected given how long we had been on land.  As usual, Kathleen got the worst of it.  Later in the day I went to start the main engine.  This is always preceded by my "daily engine check" which usually consists of checking the oil level, checking the belts, the coolant, and just taking a quick look around that nothing seems amiss.  Most of the time it's a boring, uneventful ritual.  This time when I checked the oil it was clear that water was leaking into the crankcase.  Which means that my anti-siphon valve on the raw water hose had failed.  Which means that I had to clean the valve, change the oil, and then gently tease out whatever salt water remained in the cylinder before running the engine a good long while to burn off any remaining water.  I had done this before, you see.

     It was dark by the time I finished all this.  But after completing the maneuver, the engine started making a funny sound and making way too much smoke out of the tailpipe.  So the situation is:  We are hundreds of miles from anywhere with an engine that looks like it could go at any minute.  Now this is about the time when our GPS/chartplotter in the cockpit quit working.

     So now the situation is starting to look like:  we're hundreds of miles from anywhere, with no way to get anywhere, and no way to even know where we are and which direction to go...

     OK, it actually wasn't quite that bleak.  We have sails that could take us as far as we'd ever want to go.  We have multiple back-up GPS's and charts on board.  So as soon as I reminded myself that and stopped hyperventilating, it was time to my engine manuals off the shelf and think about what to do next.

     The following morning, I was pleased to find that the chartplotter problem was simply a loose wire on the back of the box.  I looked under the valve cover of the engine and everything seemed to be running fine, so my best diagnosis at this time is a blown head gasket.  A read through my shop manual convinces me that replacing it is not a project I want to attempt by myself at sea.  And a look through my spare parts locker reveals that I don't have a spare anyway.

     For all the fantastic adventures and beautiful places we've enjoyed along our voyages, there are also occasional times (like this one) that I honestly stop and ask myself, "What in the hell am I doing out here?  Why aren't we back in a nice quiet house somewhere watching the latest episode of some sitcom and ordering out for pizza?  Why would anyone invite such hassles on himself?  You're an idiot, Steve."  They never talk about these moments in those glossy sailing magazines, but I'll bet any sailor has them. 

Steve in his usual position on the boat

     So we spent the next two days sailing along through one rain squall after another, aiming for the tiny atoll of Palmerston--nearly 700 miles from Bora Bora.  We finally arrived about 11pm in pitch blackness, wanting nothing more than shelter and rest.  We could barely make out a few lights coming from the meager settlement on the island.  We definitely couldn't see the barrier reef.  I knew roughly where some mooring balls were supposed to be, but decided it would be too dangerous to try to approach the reef at night.  Kathleen and Emmett met this news with groans of disapproval, but soon agreed that safety comes before all.  So we're now hove to in the lee of little Palmerston, broken, battered, exhausted, and anxious...waiting for the dawn and the promise of a new day with better luck to come. 

     Oh, and did I mention, we never caught a single fish on the whole passage.

 

May 10:

     Palmerston Island has a pretty interesting history.  It was first inhabited in 1862 by an Englishman named William Marsters.  He married a Polynesian woman and moved to Palmerston to start a coconut plantation.  His bride brought along two of her cousins for company and soon Mr. Marsters married both of them, also.  Think about this for a moment.  There's this one guy, with three beautiful Polynesian brides, on an island paradise with nothing to do all day but raise coconuts (which, let's face it, pretty much raise themselves).  So Mr. Marsters had to keep busy somehow and as you might imagine he turned to his three brides.  By the time he died he had fathered 26 children and it is those descendents of William Marsters who still live here today.  (Currently about 60 people)

     Although they still live pretty much a subsistence lifestyle, Palmerston is legendary among yachties for the hospitality shown to passing sailors.  We were quick to experience this first hand.  An early morning radio call was quickly answered by Edward Marsters who offered to come out in his skiff and show us where we could use one of the island's mooring balls.  The passes inside the reef here are shallow and treacherous, and impossible for us to navigate.  Outside the reef, the coral walls suddenly drop thousands of feet, so I was glad to have a safe mooring!  After helping us get tied off, Edward started the first of many explanations of island traditions:  He would be our host while we were here.  Anything we needed, we should ask him.  Any time we wished to come to shore, he would come and get us.  Whatever islander made first contact with a visiting yacht was then duty bound to play this role of host, and it was an honor that men often competed over (think, two small aluminum skiffs racing out offshore to see who will get there first).

     He then let us know that he would go get the customs officer to come and clear us into the Cook Islands, and after that, we were all invited to a barbecue that afternoon.  We agreed to the former, but begged pardon that we were exhausted and needed a day to rest before we came ashore.  Edward just shrugged and insisted then that he would bring a meal out to our boat later so we didn't have to cook. 

     A few hours later Edward was back with Simon, his brother, and Terry the Customs & Immigration officer (yup, all Marsters).  We sat in the cockpit and completed the customs paperwork over Coca-Colas and were quickly made to feel welcome here.  We hoisted our Cook Islands flag and made our entry official.  As promised, Edward was back in the late afternoon with a big bowl of rice and a huge platter of fried fish which we devoured after our long, stressful crossing.  "Tomorrow, Edward reminded us, I will bring you to see our island.  And maybe you'd like to come with us when we go clamming and spear fishing in the lagoon?"

 

May 11: 

     We have been seeing Pacific Giant Clams all over the place when we snorkel ever since the Tuamotus.  They are colorful and gregarious looking...like flowers on the seabed.  It never occurred to me that they might be good to eat until Edward invited us to go clamming.  "Tomorrow is Mother's Day", he explained, "so Mama (the 87 year old matriarch of his family) wanted to have clams for lunch tomorrow."

     After fetching Emmett and I from the boat, we were brought to the beach and waited under a Pandanus tree, waiting for a rain squall to pass.  There we met the whole clamming party:  Edward and Simon, Edward's wife Shirley, three nephews (John, David, and John), Mama, and, surprisingly enough, a tall Englishman named Daniel who had been living on Palmerston for 6 weeks now.  He is here doing field research for his PhD in Ethnology and from what I understand, he's studying the social/cultural aspects of being such a small isolated community.  He turned out to be a great companion during our stay and gave us some great insight into the subtleties of Palmerston life. 

     When the rain cleared, we climbed into a skiff and motored out across the lagoon.  We anchored near a large coral head and everyone jumped in.  The young boys had spear guns, so I spent a while watching them.  But soon I realized that they were terrible shots and terrible divers...the spear guns must be new.  I wandered across the coral to where Edward and Sylvia were gathering clams.  As they grow, the reef around the clam also grows, so often a good sized clam is half embedded in coral.  So I finally learned the technique to pry them free by watching these experts work.  Mama sat on her chair in the boat and worked quietly and efficiently the way old women do opening shells, cleaning the meat and rinsing it in the sea. 

     Eventually a sufficient number of clams had been gathered and we seemed to be winding things down when someone spotted a moray eel in the rocks near our anchor.  Now most places in the world consider the Moray Eel to be inedible, possibly poisonous, and dangerous if provoked.  Simon promptly disagreed with the first two assertions and strongly agreed with the third.  So he set out to catch it so we could have eel for lunch too.

    His technique consisted of a baited hook tied to a rope tossed in front of the cave that the eel was holed up in.  He then backed up about three feet and stuck a knife in his waistband--both hands on the rope and poised to give a mighty tug.  "Stay behind me," he suggested, "they can sometimes attack you when they're hooked."  Emmett and I backed up another 10 feet or so and I was starting to think maybe we should watch this from the boat.  But the eel proved elusive.  Twice he popped his head out and nimbly bit off a piece of bait without touching the hook.  Eventually Simon lost interest and I admit feeling a bit relieved that we wouldn't have to try eating eel. 

     Kathleen had been badly seasick on our last crossing, so she passed on the snorkeling excursion to get some rest.  But we finally came and brought her to shore as well.  Edward's house consisted of concrete walls and a corrugated tin roof.  The rain drained at one end into a discarded chest freezer that served now as a water trough for us to rinse off the salt water.  We sat under Edward's roof for hours waiting for the rain to stop, drinking instant coffee, and listening to his stories about island life.  Emmett quickly disappeared with the island boys to do whatever things wild boys in the jungle can dream up.  Kathleen chatted up old Mama, learning that she had born 14 children in her life on Palmerston!

      Late in the day, the rain finally cleared long enough for us to walk around and see the rest of the island.  This would have taken 20 minutes had we not stopped to meet the island pastor and accept an invitation to sit on his porch and chat for another hour.  Emmett loved the open-air school house where nearly 30 kids (first through 12th grade all together) study.  I liked seeing the original Marsters home--still standing after all these years as it was built from giant hull timbers salvaged from a shipwreck.

Clam hunting on PalmerstonEdward prepares to take us through the reef pass

       With the tour over and the sun setting, we had to get back to Uliad.  I should mention a bit more about the trip to and from shore.  The lagoon here is surrounded by reef and there are only a few narrow, shallow passes through it.  So when coming ashore for the first time, it looked like Edward was turning his skiff at top speed straight toward the rocks.  Just as I started bracing for impact, I could see a narrow (maybe 10 foot wide gap in the reef with a blind end and water pouring out.  So then it looks like "OK, I have been granted another 5 seconds of life",  when suddenly Edward turns left in the gap.  In the midst of those swirling rocks, the path takes a dog-leg turn, then another and suddenly we are calmly dodging coral heads on the smooth waters of the lagoon.  All this being done at top speed so as to maintain steerage against the powerful current.  Edward has obviously done it a million times, but it is exciting nonetheless.  On our trip back to Uliad, with the light fading, I had a harder time making out all the hazards flying past on both sides.  I couldn't decide if that made it better or worse.

 

May 12:

      The Sabbath is strictly observed on Palmerston.   Since church services began at 10am, Edward suggested that he come pick us up at 8:30(!!), which would give us time to have some instant coffee and visit a while before walking over to church.  We had been warned that Emmett and I would be expected to wear long pants and collared shirts, and Kathleen should have a hat and a nice dress.  That doesn't seem like an unusual expectation, but I suppose at some time in the past some yachtsmen must have showed up in swim trunks and tank tops to the embarrassment of everyone.

      More rain delayed Edward's arrival until about 9:30, so we were spared the instant coffee.  Kathleen arrived onshore having forgotten her church bonnet.  We then learned just how serious they are here about the dress code.  One of the boys ran over and slapped a hat on Kathleen's head as quickly as if she had walked up the beach nude!  It was a rather fetching local style...woven from palm leaves and decorated with plastic flowers.  I congratulated myself for remembering the camera.

     The church on Palmerston is a plain walled wooden box of Puritan architecture.  With no organ to play a prelude, a group of ladies apparently just show up an hour earlier and start singing hymns.  It was this lovely sound, mixed with birds in the trees and breeze through the palms that greeted us as we walked up the sandy path.  Inside, hard wooden benches divided the space:  Women sat on the right, men on the left.  Kathleen was instructed to sit with Emmett and I on the left, however...a special dispensation for visitors, I suppose.

     There were two things that struck me about the service.  The first was the amazing singing which took place.  The whole congregation belted out these amazing two part harmonizing minor key hymns in their native Polynesian tongues that were just stunning to listen to.  The second was the sermon.  The pastor spoke on an Old Testament lesson about the Israelites worshiping false idols.  In my Lutheran youth, this lesson usually led to a discussion of our own false idols in modern life:  we worship money and forget God...we spend Sunday watching football instead of worshiping God, etc.  I could almost give the sermon myself.  But this missionary minister from the Marshall Islands could be a bit more literal.  Until the first missionaries arrived on his island 150 years ago, his ancestors DID worship idols.  And they ATE each other.  So thanks be to God for showing us a better way, eh?

      After church, we found the grave of the original patriarch, William Marsters in the churchyard.  Then it was on to Mother's Day dinner back at Edward's house.  Dinner consisted of those giant clams served in a coconut curry sauce, baked ham, rice, taro, papaya, and lime aid or coconut water to wash it all down.  We baked a lemon cake the night before and offered it up for dessert.

The Marsters familyKath (with required hat) after Church at Palmerston

      As I mentioned, the Sabbath is strictly observed.  The islanders generally don't work, fish, swim, or play games on Sunday.  I politely inquired how they do spend the remains of the day and learned of several options.  Napping was popular.  Singing practice took place back at the church in the afternoon, and in the evening, a second church service was held where presumably, if you hadn't quite understood what was so bad about worshiping idols, you could go back and listen again.

     Visiting was also acceptable, so Edward took us on another tour of the island and we ended up at the home of Terry--whom we had previously met as the island's customs & immigration officer.  Terry's wife was the island school teacher and a white New Zealander.  Her parents were also here visiting, so I guess Edward thought the white people would probably like to visit.  After talking to these folks, as well as Daniel the Ethnologist, we came to appreciate just what a commitment it is to visit Palmerston:  There is a supply boat that generally comes every three months or so from Rarotonga.  Once it drops you off, you really have no other way to leave until the next supply boat comes...hopefully in 3 or 4 months.  There is no airport here.  It's too far from anywhere for a helicopter to fly.  In a true life or death emergency, a police boat from the closest island can get here in about 30 hours (as a doctor, I had to ask.  Happened three times last year, two of them survived, one child did not).  Occasionally in a fit of desperation someone will beg a ride from a passing yacht to Niue, where one could fly to New Zealand.  How sobering to be reminded just how far off the map we are here.

      The New Zealanders had been told by plenty of people how crazy they were to come to a place like this at their age with no predictable prospects for getting home.  They told us that they could always end the conversation by simply replying, "If that's what it took to see your grandchildren, wouldn't you do it?  In any event, none of the white folks were begging for a ride to Niue.

      We ended the day back at Edward's place, where Sabbath rules apparently allowed me to do a bit of Doctoring.  It seems that the kids all have ear problems here so I lined everyone up and looked in ears and diagnosed two outer ear infections and one middle ear infection with a chronically perforated eardrum.  So the whole family listened intently as I explained how everyone should take care of their ears when they're jumping in and out of the lagoon all the time and hopefully put an end to the plague of draining ears here.  Even with the free medical advice, we felt pretty indebted to Edward for all his hospitality here, so we also left them with a sack of canned food to give a little variety from the fish and coconuts they live on.  Emmett brought some books and games for the kids, and the best received gift of all was a stack of old DVDs.  I have some misgivings about bringing Hollywood to Palmerston, but in the end, I don't think our mostly PG selection will spoil the place.

     At the end of the day, Edward pulled me aside to talk about the church youth group they're trying to start, and whether any other yachts might be able to bring some sports equipment for them.  Basketballs, volleyballs, soccer balls, table tennis equipment...a pool table.  I told him I wasn't so sure about the pool table, but if any other sailors are reading this blog and thinking about stopping at Palmerston, please consider the above list.  Whatever hassle it is for you to bring, trust me, you will leave Palmerston wishing you had given back more for the incredible hospitality received here.   

 

May 15:

      Three days after leaving Palmerston, we arrived at another remote island called Niue (pronounced new-ay).  Once again we arrived at night, but this time we could see well enough to find a field of mooring balls and tie on to one in the darkness.  Unlike the volcanic cones and atolls that describe the other islands we've been to in the Pacific, Niue is a big chunk of limestone lifted a hundred feet above the surrounding water.  There are cliffs on all sides and no good natural harbors.  To cope with this, the locals have built a small concrete pier with a big electric crane.  To land our dinghy, we hooked it onto the big crane hook, jump out and then push a button to raise our dinghy up onto the pier.  All the local fishing boats do the same thing.  It was rather stressful to do the first time, but we got the hang of it pretty quickly.

Lifting the dinghy at the Niue town pier

      Niue is its own country--one of the smallest in the world.  But they do have a cozy relationship with New Zealand, who grants full citizenship to Niueans and handles all their foreign affairs.  In exchange, New Zealanders come here to vacation.  Although there are no beaches here, Niue does have a lush interior to explore.  The rain water percolates through that limestone to create a whole bunch of wonderous caves, chasms, and pools.  It also filters out all the sediment before running into the sea.  As a result, the water clarity here is incredible--well over a hundred feet.

     I learned this the following morning when I went to snorkel.  I thought I'd check out our mooring line and make sure everything seemed secure.  In most places, if I can see the bottom then I can dive down and reach it, but here I just kept going down and down and down until I realized that I was probably no more than half way there and running out of air fast.  I retreated to the surface and switched on the depth sounder to realize that despite being able to see each and every fish and coral head below, we were in 95 feet of water!

     The other thing we learned of when snorkeling was Niue's large population of sea snakes.  We saw a good half dozen of them slithering about in our first 15 minutes!  (Since Kathleen had confronted her fear of sharks in French Polynesia, sea snakes seemed like the next thing to face, no?)  A quick check of the guide book revealed that the banded sea snake has about the most deadly venom of any snake in the world.  I thought, "well that doesn't sound so good."  But then the next sentence went on to say how they have such tiny mouths and fangs that they are unable to bite a human.  Which sounds like a sad metaphor for something, but I don't know what.

One of Niue's many sea snakes

 

May 16:  

     The following day we rented a car and set out to see the sights of the island.  First on our list was a hike to The Arches of Talava.  To get there required a 20 minute drive up the coast, followed by a 20 minute hike through the jungle.  The path ended at the opening to a small cave.  After crouching through the first 20 feet, the cave opened up to a huge cavern with stalactites and flowing columns of rock.  The whole place looked like a half-melted gothic cathedral.  One branch led down to the sea and around a deep pit that looked like the perfect place for a pirate to hide his treasure.  The other branch led through a large rock arch down to a beautiful protected pool of water filled with tropical fish.  Further down the beach stood another even larger natural arch of rock--very impressive and very beautiful.  It was unlike any other scenery we've come across in this part of the world.

     We took a swim in the inviting waters of the pool and found it to be filled with all sorts of colorful and interesting sea creatures. (But no sea snakes!)  What an amazing place.

Exploring the Arches on NiueThe Arches of Talava--NiueEmmett at Matapa Chasm--Niue

     We returned to our car for lunch and then walked down another nearby path to reach Matapa Chasm.   This is a huge crack in the limestone cliffs.  Sheer rock walls on all sides and inviting cool blue water below.  Lots of rainwater seems to leach out here so as a result, the water is cool and barely salty.  It connects to the sea maybe 80 yards down the chasm, but is well protected enough to have no waves or current.  A bunch of local teenagers were swimming and playing when we arrived, so the scenery didn't have the same majestic solitude as the Arches, but it was still pretty cool.  Emmett jumped right in and found a few boys to play with while his Mom and Dad were content to jump in for a quick rinse and then warm ourselves on the rocks for a while.  The legend is that this was the bathing place for Niue's royalty back in the day when they had a king.  I can see why...it really is a swimmin' hole fit for a king.

 

May 20:

     It really is a looong damn way from Bora Bora to Tonga.  True, the 1200 some nautical miles wasn't as long as the 3000 mile crossing from the Galapagos to the Marquesas...but in many ways it seemed harder.  Although there were two islands for us to stop at along the way, neither offered much in the way of protection from the constant ocean rolling.  So nobody really slept well even when we were moored at Palmerston or Niue.  The weather was also worse.  Most days we had a few squalls to contend with; meaning rain and wind and get the sails reefed, followed by calm and let the sails out again and try to get the cockpit dried out again.  Tedious.  Kathleen's on again off again bouts of seasickness were definitely ON, leaving her miserable for days at a time.  Combine that with the anxiety of engine problems and we were all exhausted by the time we rolled into the island of Vava'u, Kingdom of Tonga.

    And once again, we arrived late at night.  We tried to find a spot to anchor in the dark, but couldn't find a place shallow enough.  So once again we made the agonizing decision to heave to in the lee of the island and drift about waiting until sunrise would bring clear vision into the safe and calm harbor here...

 

May 22:

     In daylight, we slowly motored up the narrow passage to the harbor in Vava'u, Tonga.  Slowly, because our engine only works at about half speed.  We found a mooring, tied up, and sighed a collective sigh of relief.  The rest of the morning was spent ferrying large Tongan officials back and forth from shore:  First came two customs officials and their paperwork, followed by the Immigration officer to stamp our passports and fill out more papers.  Later the Health Officer found us to make sure that nobody was sick onboard.  (Despite Kathleen's frequent bouts of seasickness, I just said no.)

     Our arrival also coincided with my 42nd birthday--which will also be remembered as the birthday that I almost didn't have.  You see, the international date line follows, for the most part, the 180th meridian of longitude.  It takes a zig zag up north so Russia and Alaska can be all on the same side, then it takes another odd turn in the south Pacific.  Apparently some time ago, the King of Tonga decided that he'd like his kingdom to be the first on the planet to greet each new day.  So even though the Kingdom lies entirely East of the 180th meridian, he simply decreed that the international date line should pass just to the East of the islands.  As a result, we lost an entire day somewhere in those last few miles and arrived on my birthday.  If we had been a day later, we would have skipped my birthday entirely and I suppose I could have claimed to be 41 years old for another year.  Darn.

     As it was, the birthday was a low key affair.  I went to the nearest sailor bar with Otis from Indepedence and met his friends--including Kevin the mechanic who would be out on Monday to fix our ailing engine.  That, followed by a long nap in a peaceful harbor was all I could ask for.

 

 

May 25: 

 

 

     Kevin is a diesel mechanic/jack of all trades who moved to Tonga about 6 months ago from Texas seeking many of the same things we went sailing for:  slower pace of life, more time with his wife and kids, adventures in a tropical paradise, etc.  We had exchanged a few emails underway and it was great to finally buy him a few beers and thank him for his hand-holding to get us here.  On Monday he finally came out and started taking apart our main engine.  By early afternoon, the head was off and the problem was confirmed:  the head gasket had blown between the 3rd and 4th cylinder.  Apparently this is unusual.  When a head gasket blows, usually the combustion gasses communicate not just with an adjacent cylinder, but also with the cooling water, so it presented with a slightly odd set of symptoms.

The Problem:  Kevin pulls the blown head gasket

     We had already pre-ordered a new head gasket which is now on it's way from New Zealand, so hopefully with in a couple of days we'll put this problems behind us.  In the mean time, the town of Niafou has a bunch of nifty restaurants and an ever growing fleet of yachts in the harbor.  Our freinds on Independence spent the cylcone season here.  Shortly after we arrived, old friends arrived on Gallivanter (from Samoa) and Intrepid (from New Zealand).  The island changes, the party continues.

 

May 31:

      As Rozanne Rosannadanna once said, "you know, its always somethin' ".  Just as we were seing the light at the end of the tunnel:  We knew the engine problem.  The new gasket was due to arrive on Thursday's plane.  And then on Wednesday, the Chatham Pacific Airlines plane was trying to land on another island and the front landing gear wouldn't come down.  So they turned around and went back to the main island of Tongatapu and basically crash-landed the plane on the runway there.  Upon which the Tongan authorities immediately grounded all flights until a full investigation could be carried out.

       So lots of folks around here with plans to fly home were wringing their hands and pondering their alternatives.  There is a ferry that comes twice a week, but it's a long, slow ride and the Tongan ferries apparently have a reputation for sinking with alarming frequency.  Things dragged on into the weekend and the rumor finally emerged that there would be a meeting on Monday between the airline and the Tongan civil aviation experts (!!) and hopefully passengers and head gaskets would be flying again after that. 

       These are the kinds of things that instills in people who live in remote islands a degree of patience that you or I can hardly fathom.  As for me, I just try to remind myself that it could always be worse.  The plane could have landed in the ocean...with my head gasket on board. In the mean time, there's plenty to keep us busy with socializing, school, and little boat projects here and there.  Always somethin'.

 

                                                                                                                                   

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