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Report Thirteen from the Otter: Rarotonga Respite

Aboard the yacht Otter
Opua, New Zealand
December 1999

Dear Friends and E-mail Family,

I arrived in Rarotonga Tuesday, October 5th and left eight days later on Wednesday, October 13th. The first five days were overcast and rainy most of the time Ė unusual weather for October, said the locals. The last three days were clear and sunny and the colors rich and deep, the true beauty of the island, very evident.

Rarotonga is the capital of the Cook Islands and is the most populated and second-southernmost in the chain. Small by Polynesian standards, it is an oval six miles long and four miles wide and is surrounded by a fringing reef.

Mt. Te Atu Kura rises to 2,110 feet toward the center of the island. Three other major peaks and numerous smaller ones give it a very jagged appearance from offshore.

The island is geologically new and the reef is still very close to shore with smaller, shallower lagoons than found in the Society Islands. There is only one deepwater harbor on the North Coast, that is Avatiu Harbor.

One-half mile along the coast to the east is the main town of Ararua. Rarotonga and the Cooks are English-speaking and were administered until recently by New Zealand. They are now independently governed but still look to New Zealand for aid and military defense and foreign policy. Also, their monetary system is the same as New Zealandís, except for a few of the coins, which have the Cook Islandsí imprint.

There is an old road set back from the shore that used to connect all the native villages prior to the arrival of the missionaries. There is now a newer road that runs near to the shore in most places, connects many of the small villages around Rarotonga.

There is an airport a few miles west of town capable of handling large jets. Tourism has become a factor in the islandís economy. Mostly New Zealanders, Australians, and Germans. A German family I met said theyíd been going to New Zealand for years and asked some New Zealanders, "Your country is so beautiful, where do you go on vacation?" The answer was, "the Cooks."

A few other islands are accessible by small plane from Rarotonga, such as Aitutake. These even smaller islands have a tourist influx. Some of the more remote islands, such as Palmerston and Suvarov, are only visited by the occasional small inter-island freighter or cruising yacht.

Pepper on Lolita told me the story Ė later in New Zealand Ė that while he was in Rarotonga (six weeks before I arrived) two government officials needed to get back to Palmerston. The only way to get there was by private yacht. Lolita has two separate guest cabins and he was persuaded by the dock master, a local legend, Don Silk, to take the two passengers, for a fee.

The prices of all goods in Rarotonga are low in comparison to the French islands. And being able to read the signs and understand the language made life easier, too.

Tourism on Rarotonga is low-key. There are guesthouses and small beachside hotels of maybe 20 rooms, but none of the large developments found everywhere in the Society Islands.

Little stands with produce and crafts and shells and small snack shops dot the road around the island while in the main town of Avarua there are restaurants, banks, an old movie theater, and hardware and supply stores along the main road. Plus a fairly new strip-shopping center with a half-dozen upscale shops and the latest point-of-purchase displays for cosmetics, watches, and photo products.

For a unique blend of old and new, the Rarotongans freely include artistic representations of the ancient Rarotongean Tiki with its large phallus as a decoration on bank walls and public areas.

Avatiu Harbor is a tight combination of visiting yachts and commercial shipping.

After entering the harbor through the narrow pass, the entire left side of the harbor is a concrete 900í pier along which the freighters that bring in all the supplies for the island and take out all the agricultural produce tie up. Across the back of the harbor is a 300í concrete pier where the yachts tie up.

Then to the right are the one New Zealand navy vessel, sea rescue inflatables, and what appears to be the remains of a boat service facility.

Behind the freighter pier are warehouses where the off-loaded goods are taken by forklift truck. There is one large crane along the docks that will help unload when a freighterís own cranes may not be adequate to remove cargo. This crane also lifts out the two boats I saw "on the hard" at the end of the dock.

Avatiu Harbor was home for eight days.

Following are selected excerpts from the journal of my Raratonga respite.

Weíre all on the journey,

Brec

________________________________________________________________________

Tuesday, October 5 --

The harbormaster is nowhere to be found so Chris from Mauvin helps me move Otter to the row of yachts. Chris is English, heavy-set, with short curly blonde hair, a round, clear face, and a gold earring in his left ear. He handles the lines competently and moves like a cat.

He calls over to Tamoure, which is tied off to the dock, and Peter rows out to take my stern lines. The anchor and chain are run out off the bow by Chris while I motor in reverse in between Tamoure and Theta Volantis, a 63í Deerfoot and sister-ship to Discovery.

A perfect docking, and all snuggled down, Misty on Tamoure invites me for breakfast. Iíve been up since 1:00 a.m. but feel rested. Misty makes hot coffee and bacon and butter on wheat-bread sandwiches. Peter and Misty and I catch up on our travels since Aruba: The Panama transit; crossing the Pacific, the tiny sidewalk restaurants in the Galapagos, their stops in French Polynesia. We talk for two hours.

Misty, who thinks most singlehanders are eccentric sad-sacks has dubbed us all "baggywrinkles," after the fluffed rope wadding attached to the shrouds that prevent chafe on the sails. Iím her favorite baggywrinkle.

Iím told to watch for the red pickup truck next to the harbormasterís office Ė itís the sign that heís in. I spot it and walk over to the small structure about 12í x 12í up on posts about 4í above ground. It has a small plywood front porch covered by a green translucent corrugated fiberglass rooflet.

Inside is Don Silk, who is in his seventies. His eyes sparkle, a watery pale blue. He looks familiar. I think of the type of Maine fishermen who are thin, bald on top and gray crewcut sides and short-cropped beard his weathered brown skull, who look a little like Captain Slocum.

The paperwork is done in less than 10 minutes and he stamps my passport, too. He wears most of the hats around here, and is looking to wear them all. He hands me a lot of literature and says, "Kia Orana (welcome) to Rarotonga." I remember my three days clearing in in Tahiti -- the paperwork, the stamps, the bond. This is refreshing.

Don has lived in Rarotonga since his twenties. Originally a truck driver in New Zealand, he met his wife Angel, a nurse, while he was recovering from an accident in a New Zealand Hospital. She is Rarotongan. Don built his own small sailboat and arrived in Rarotonga with his wife and daughter in the 1950ís.

He got involved in inter-island shipping through buying, refitting, and running a series of small freighters. All his ships are now gone -- lost on reefs, retired, or sold.

He wrote a book about his life on Rarotonga and the ships he owned titled, From Kauri Trees to Sunlit Seas: Shoestring Shipping in the South Pacific. Heís got a few copies on a shelf in his office Ė I buy one and he autographs it for me, signing himself as "the Friendly Harbour Master, Don Silk."

Later, after reading it, I ask him if he kept a journal. He said no, but he sent long letters to his Dad back in New Zealand and after his father died he got them all back. Those and the various shipsí logs and his memory were his sources.

And he said his friend Tom Neale had written a book while staying at his house, adding that "if Tom could write a book, then so could I!" The book Don refers to is An Island to Oneself, the account of Tom Nealeís six years of living alone on the Cook Island atoll of Suvarov, 513 miles to the north-north-west of Rarotonga.

I walk to town and pick up a letter from Dad at the post office. I find a place out of the rain to read it. Itís another wonderful account of daily life in both small detail and large feelings. I realize that both Dad and Mom are good writers.

Find the Telecom Building and make a call to Sandy. Itís 10:00 p.m. there and sheís dozing. Her voice is sweet and sleepy.

Drinks are on the Theta Volantis and I meet Colleen and Brian. Both are English from London, he was into computers and she had built, managed, and sold a market research firm. They are slowly cruising the world and writing articles for an English cruising magazine. They are also working on a book.

Their boatís name, Theta Volantis, is from a double-star and describes their relationship, she says. Peter and Misty and Chris and his wife Sally are there too. Lots of conversation Ė much of which is about the rugby matches going on and Englandís standing in the games. I know a true Yankís nothing about rugby, but everyone else is passionate about it.

Chris says when Mauvin arrives in New Zealand, Sally will go back to England for five or six months to rebuild the cruising kitty while he works on the boat.

Iím invited to dinner in Tamoure where the dinner of roast lamb and roast potatoes and broccoli are more wonderful food than Iíve seen in a long time.

Misty and Peter are from Scotland, and Misty is from Glasgow, which is where my great-grandparents Brechin were born, met, married, and left for America.

We talk of Scottish politics and the Nationalist movement. Peter, after his eight years in the military, worked in public relations for British Petroleum. They met through a personal ad, and theyíve been sailing for over seven years in their 52-footer.

Itís a long evening of yarning before I roll back to Otter and fall asleep.

The day has been long and full of land-things and people and food.

Wednesday, October 6 --

Spend a rainy day on board below drinking hot chocolate, catching up the journal, and going through the two large packages of mail and photos that Sandy sent me.

(As I am writing in the journal I get a Ďsite-thoughtí; a Ďlocation-hiccup.í Something has triggered a full memory of walking on a gray rainy Thanksgiving day in Ann Arbor, Michigan, coming back from town to Sandyís sister and brother-in-lawís house. Iím passing the corner where there is steel sculpture on a small lawn and wet leaves and chill air and dim autumn light and Norman Rockwell kitchen smells and the texture of the cracked sidewalk as if Iím walking it again. Odd. Complete and multi-sensual. These site-thoughts come to me often.)

Thursday, October 7 --

Rainy, gray, wet day. Do boat chores and errands.

While buying bread at "la Patisserie," I talk to the owner, Roger Blake, who in 1972 spoke to Neil Armstrong by ham radio (call sign ZKICV) as he orbited over this part of the South Pacific. Roger was the only radio contact available to the astronaut as he passed over this part of the Pacific.

Roger was trained as a baker in England and Holland. Met and married a Rarotongan woman and has lived here for over 30 years. He makes some of the best "hand shaped" bread Iíve ever tasted. And his coconut scones accompany my morning tea for a week.

In town in the evening I go to see the new Star Wars. Iíve heard from my son, Scott, that itís been long out in the States, but itís a new arrival here. I havenít seen a movie since Aruba. Anticipation.

And let-down. Itís awful, just so much computer-animated junk. A super-thin plot revolving around a kid with advanced industrial arts skills. Not one actor develops any character. Playing to the, "Oh! Thereís Yoda!" and "Oh! Thereís R2D2!" factor, none of them does anything but show up for cameos.

I miss the old Star Wars where there were real cardboard characters. These donít even have the dimensions of paper. I felt set up for buying a lot of toys.

The movie theater runs the movie with a 15-minute intermission for popcorn sales. They just stop the movie in the middle of a sentence and turn on the house lights, sell popcorn, then crank it up again, finishing the interrupted sentence as they bring the lights down. It all feels very 1950ís.

Friday, October 8 --

There is a small "picturesque" inter-island freighter with a blue hull just on the other side of Theta Volantis along the commercial pier. All day yesterday they ran their engines while they were using their loading crane. The exhaust stack blew black, oily soot downwind over our decks. With a hose from the dock I spend four hours scrubbing. Each little black spec smears into a smudge when rubbed and takes real elbow-grease to remove.

Bill Tschan drives up to the edge of the dock and calls me ashore. Bill has a series of books heís been compiling. He brings the newest book to each visiting yacht and asks them to write something, then sign it.

Many yachts have taken two pages and fill it with photographs, artwork, collages, poetry, and written records of their ramblings. Itís a fascinating book and I keep it to read.

I find that many other boats I know have been here ahead of me, including Comet, Calliste, Lolita, Attitude, and Pegasus. I line-handled for Pegasus in the Panama Canal, and thought Iíd never hear of her again. Small world!

In the book I paste a photograph and write:

At the age of 50, many men in India, Iím told, give their business to their oldest son and put on a dhoti, take a begging bowl, and go on a pilgrimage. Their age is counted differently -- at 51 they are one year toward "the goal."

I did the same Ė I gave my business to my daughter, found a small, sturdy, blue-water boat, and set sail.

Rarotonga Ė one of the magical names that sustained me in New England during long, snowy winters as a boy. There is this idea, since Bougainville and Cook, that the South Pacific is Paradise. Like a broken mirror, pieces of which are scattered over the vast blue sea.

Rarotonga calls me and many other cruisers from all over the world.

Rarotonga with the magic name is a piece of that vision. Thank you for welcoming me.

Then I signed it.

Another quote in the book struck me and seems to capture the spirit of the cruising life. "Now whosoever of them did eat the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus had no more wish to bring tidings, nor to come back, but there he chose to abide with the lotus-eating men, ever feeding on lotus and forgetful of his homeward way."

The person writing in Billís book says itís from Robert Dean Frisbiesí book, Dawn Sails North. Maybe so, but it originated in Homerís Odyssey, where the Land of the Lotus Eaters was one of the many temptations and dangers that Odysseus had to master on his ten-year trip home from the Trojan War.

I also find out later as Iím reading Tom Nealeís book that Frisbie lived and wrote his books on Rarotonga and had lived on Suvarov and written about surviving a hurricane there. Tom Neale met him and was inspired to go to Suvarov from Frisbiesí descriptions of this isolated, uninhabited, paradise island.

Saturday, October 9 --

Busy morning in the harbor -- two large freighters came in last night and are unloading.

There is a large Saturday morning Ďmarketí next to the harbor and I browse. There is a local band and children dancing. A large crowd.

I buy a stalk of bananas from a woman in her late sixties wearing a red T-shirt who tells me of her trip to the Holy Land with her church group. I buy some paw paw marmalade from a farmer who looks English, seventies, and his Polynesian grandchildren.

Bicycle around the island. Itís a gloriously bright day, making up for all the rain with a flood of rich color. I make mental notes of places I will stop to watercolor on my next tour.

Sunday, October 10 --

Attend service at the Ekalesia with Peter and Misty. The church was founded by the London Missionary Society in the early 1800ís. The church is jammed. Itís "Uniform Sunday," and the Boy Scouts and Brownies and Girl Guides and Boy Guides are all there with their flags. And we tourists clustered in the balcony.

Everyone sings here. The minister invites all the tourists to tea afterwards in their fellowship hall next to the church. The crowd slowly disperses and the white-walled church with its bright red roof stands stark against the deep-green mountains behind it. A large soft-leaf tree shades the gravestones around the churchyard.

About 30 tourists accept the invitation and assemble in the fellowship hall. There is a long table in the front of a number of rows of chairs. The table has a large array of homemade sweets. Before being served, however, we have a 15-minute talk about the history of the church and its mission.

The Rarotongan speaker tells us that God sent word of Jesus through Rev. Williams and the other first missionaries. He stresses that Rarotongans "own" their current religion -- itís not a white, English colonial relic, a thing imposed on them.

Iíve found a book called Cannibals and Converts in a local store. It is the autobiography of Maretu, born in Rarotonga in 1802, who participated in the traditional cannibal practices of his ancestors. He and his father were among the first converts in 1823 when the first Tahitian missionary arrived.

He then assisted the English missionaries when they arrived and was sent to establish Christian communities in the other Cook Islands. His personality, intelligence, and spirit were so powerful he converted whole islands and still stories are told of his miraculous deeds.

One example is the story of how he convinced the people of Rakahang to shift their village and church to a new site across the lagoon. Many of the men didnít want to go because the shallow water contained sea urchins with spines that would injure their feet.

Maretu told them he would be sure their feet were protected. Rakahangans say that on that day the sea urchins mysteriously moved aside providing a clear pathway for all the people of the village to walk through.

In the afternoon I make watercolors of the harbor and go back to town to draw the church. There is an evening service and the sounds of the hymns in the slanting sunlight drifts the colors and shadows into deep memory.

Monday, October 11 --

Breakfast at a restaurant in town.

I stop in at Bill Tschanís store, a small one called "ABC Trading" that carries a combination of tourist items, gifts, and some household goods. He shows me photographs of some of the exotic plants of the island. He invites me to do a cross-island walk with him on Tuesday Ė but Iím not sure as Iíve mentally set Tuesday aside for preparing to leave on Wednesday. Later I remind myself -- how many opportunities will you get to hike across Rarotonga with an amateur botanist. Likely none!

I bike around the island to do watercolors. Stop at the Ekalesia "Three in One" grocery store to talk to the man who spoke to the tourists at church yesterday. In his store he also sells hymnals and Bibles.

I want to copy the words to one of the hymns they sang that had interesting nautical imagery, "Fasten Your Anchor to the Rock." I buy an apple advertised as fresh and juicy from his refrigerator. Itís old and mushy.

A third of the way around the island in a clockwise direction is the village of Avana and a small cove. I stop to make a watercolor of the aqua water and a local man sits and watches me and talks.

He tells me itís from this bay that a replica of a Rarotongan war canoe, sailed by a Rarotongan crew, left for Auckland for the Americaís Cup.

I also learn that Tom Davis, whose mother was a Cook Islander and father was from California, was the governor of the Cook Islands for many years and was noted for building and sailing some of the first replicas. His idea was that the old sailing canoes were faster and more seaworthy than had generally been appreciated. And he proved it. Iím told to look up the canoe when I get to Auckland.

The light today is blindingly bright. Impossible for me to capture on paper.

Tuesday, October 12 --

Boat and prep-to-leave chores. Wash laundry, adjust lines on the monitor self-steering, pick up film, check out with Port Authority, and pay my fees. Get a plastic bottle full of sand and shells from the beach for my grandchildren.

Theta Volantis left yesterday for Nive, and Mauvin and Tamoure leave this afternoon. I get a weather prediction from Don Silk.

Wednesday, October 13 --

More errands. Buy fruit, fresh bread, check charts, and plot courses and distances. Top the water tank. Return the shower key. Fold up the bicycle and stow in forepeak. Fold dinghy and lash to the cabin top. Stow gear below for offshore sailing. Run out fore and aft tack lines to hook my harness tether on.

Go ashore for a last ice cream cone and make last phone calls. I get Sandyís machine again and leave a message, "Another 600 miles and six-to-12 days. Iíll call when I get to Nive. All my love," and hang up. Just like Moorea.

Leaving Rarotonga is sad, as are many of my departures. But this time is especially so because the Rarotongans were uniformly friendly and open.

End of Report Thirteen

 

 

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