Friday, August 25, 2017

Relaxing Stay in Suwarrow (Cook Islands)

[Kyle]We took a lazy day aboard after arriving and clearing in and an early night. The next morning, we were lounging in the cockpit when Dave from Capistrano swam over. (He swims everywhere.) He said there was a going to be a big pot luck ashore on the beach the later that day and invited us. Jeez, we haven't even been here a day and we already have social plans!

We had a swim and a wash and Maryanne started making some food while I got the dinghy out of lifeboat mode. We went ashore a couple of hours early to have a look around Anchorage Island. Katu showed us the trail to the other side of the island and then explained how we could get back by following the shore around. As we were walking, another boat showed up and motored through the pass. Harry was fishing outside the pass and had to give up so he could return and clear them in. They and another boat that came in after us the same day brought the total in the anchorage to five.

First impressions in Suwarrow

When we got done with our walk, we returned to Begonia to pick up the food for the potluck. On the way, we passed by the new boat. It was Pickles, the boat we had last seen in Ua Pou in the Marquesas who helped us out so much on the Day We Couldn't Get Anything Right.

We were a bit late getting back with the food, but we still beat everybody else. Katu was husking coconuts so he could use the fiber for fuel for the fire. Harry showed up with a big tray of what must have been all of the fish he had caught that week. The other sixteen people arrived one boat at a time.

The fire was lit and Harry and Katu went about the long and particular process of preparing the flat metal grill for cooking. They spent an hour scraping it, pouring water on to boil off and then examining it carefully. They did this over and over again until the surface was finally deemed to be ready for the meat. While they did this, we got caught up with old friends and met some new ones.

Sunset & BBQ Fun - Look at the size of those crabs!

It was getting too dark to see so Harry left Katu to cook while he went and retrieved a car battery and a light with their wheelbarrow.

It was a great evening. More than one of us remarked about how marvelous and strange it was to be standing on a beach on an uninhabited island (Harry and Katu are seasonal caretakers and are not residents) eating fish cooked over coconut husks by light powered by a car battery in a wheelbarrow. There was no opulence of any kind, but I doubt any of us could have felt more privileged.

As a cap for the evening, Harry took us to see the coconut crabs. Up until now, we had only seen the island's hermit crabs. They are adorable as they totter around all off-balance, looking for anything to eat. They made an efficient cleanup crew for all of the scraps left by the potluck. We left our plates on the ground and it looked as if somebody's dog had licked them clean (You know who you are!).

Coconut crabs are another story altogether. They are nocturnal, so they only come out of their burrows at night. Like the hermit crabs, they'll eat pretty much anything they can find. Harry explained that they are called coconut crabs because they have the ability to get into a coconut, not because that's what they like to eat most. One look at them and you know why. They are enormous! The first one we saw could have easily straddled a dinner plate. It was nervous because of all of the attention, so it was standing in a defensive posture with its long, spear-like second legs stabbing up toward us two feet apart. It had a whole lot of appendages all waving around. At the front were big claws, then came several sets of legs, with the last ALSO having claws (smaller ones). From its face under its beady eyes waved six antennae; two regular and four with joints like big spider legs. Harry explained that this was a medium-sized one.

I am SO glad the first one of these I ever met was when I was forty-nine. If I had been eleven, these horror-movie monsters would have given me nightmares for the rest of my life. As it is now, I can regard their beady-eyed nervousness as kind of cute. Their expression seems to be imploring us not to hurt them. That said, if I woke up and found one on my chest, I'd scream bloody murder.

Tom Neale, who was the sole inhabitant of the atoll for many years, tells a story about going to one of the other motus and setting up a second get-away home. On his first night there, he fell asleep on the beach. Later in pitch-black darkness, he was awakened by one giving his leg a good snip. Yikes!

Despite the late night, we were up early for the dinghy ride to the nearby manta cleaning station. Again, we arrived first and found nothing. What is it with mantas and island time?

The family from Midnight Sun showed up and shortly after the mantas arrived. The water was the shallowest of all of the feeding stations we have seen; only about four meters. I used my trick of hanging onto some dead coral as the rays passed by. These mantas were especially tame. I was able to swim with one with my head about mid-wingspan. Our eyes were only inches apart!

I dropped Maryanne off at another spot and took the dinghy back to the boat before swimming back to join her. We ended up taking a long, meandering circuit of the anchorage which stretched into miles of swimming along the reefs. One notable find was what looked to be the remains of a relatively recent wreck. The wing keel of a big monohull and a big chunk of the adjacent hull was resting on the bottom. Nearby were several smaller pieces, none with much growth.

We were thinking about what sort of busy evening we were going to have when the early wake-up and the miles of swimming kind of got to us. Maybe tomorrow...

Tomorrow arrived

During the day another boat arrived. Whoops, plus a latecomer – two. It's starting to get a little crowded here. We spent most of the day aboard doing unpleasant but necessary boat things. Meh...

The Day After That

We were up early again for another try with the mantas. Again they were late, although there were more of them this time. There were also WAY more of us. ALL of the dinghies showed up, which gave the place the instant feel of being overrun by too many tourists, we could hardly blame the mantas for not showing up.

We kept our visit short and headed back to Begonia via all of our new neighbors, which ate up most of the rest of the afternoon. The newest arrival was Duplicat, who we had first encountered in Fakarava. Rick is an IT guy with lots of knowledge (like Maryanne) and we were able to exchange problems back and forth. A fresh set of eyes can be very helpful in sorting things out.

Word came down that there was another potluck planned for the next night. Oh, boy! Our social schedule way out here is way busier than it is when we're in a city.

Just before the potluck started, a medium- sized military boat showed up. It was Samoan and marked “POLICE”. There were around twenty aboard. They came ashore and explained to Harry that they were rendezvousing with another boat who was to bring them some fuel. He was trying to appear good-natured about it, but was clearly pretty annoyed at never being given notice of such visits. He kept apologizing to us for the disruption to the pot luck and pacing around looking anxious. We weren't bothered. The Samoans were all nice guys and seemed to make a point of staying just long enough for introductions before returning to their boat for the evening.

Two of the boats in the anchorage had cleared out and were planning on leaving the next day. Harry wished them a safe voyage with a traditional chant from the northern Cooks and then he even persuaded shy Katu to do a Haka from the south as a farewell. That was pretty cool.

There were twenty-three of us on the remaining seven boats, which made for lots of variety. We ended up with way more food than anybody could finish. The remainder was put into bowls For Harry and Katu to keep them going until the next one.

In the morning, the Samoans were much more in evidence. Some did laundry, others hung out on the beach and the rest foraged for coconuts. We were particularly impressed with how they weaved big baskets from the fronds at hand to carry their haul. Rumor was they would be staying another night for their rendezvous.

We took a slow day off the island snorkeling and visiting other boats, including Capistrano, who had decided to wait one more day before leaving. Ted, the seventy-nine year old Captain, designer and builder of the boat was kind enough to give us a tour and regale us with stories of his two-plus circumnavigations. We were amazed. His fifteen year-old boat looks like he was delivering it home from the factory.

The departing boats were just pulling up anchor when we surfaced the next morning. The Samoan Police boat was also gone. Harry later told us their orders had changed and they left at first light.

I rigged the sailing kit for the Pudgy and we decided to sail over to the manta cleaning station for another try. We had the usual spotty attendance, so after staying a short while, we put the sails up and headed home. Since we were under sail and not using the motor, we took the long way on a meandering route meant to cover most of the local 'sights'.

Just before we got back into the anchorage, we crossed paths with Duplicat, who had just pulled up anchor and was motoring toward the pass. Just before they would have had to give way to us (power gives way to sail), we tacked and sailed alongside, waving and yelling, “Bon Voyage!” The pudgy was outmatched and we quickly lost that race. We tacked again and headed home.

At Begonia, we switched to oars and rowed ashore. Katu said that one of the other boats had cleared out and wanted to have ANOTHER potluck tonight. Fine, we'll go home and whip something up. I was kind of hoping to get to bed at a reasonable hour, but that was off. Harry hadn't had a chance to go fishing since the previous one, so Katu grilled up some fish from another boat's freezer. Perhaps it's time to ease up on the potlucks for a while.


Maryanne wanted to return to the mooring ball at the manta cleaning station again. Instead of swimming over the bommie at the mooring, she had the idea to swim across a deep channel to a large shallow area a few hundred meters behind. Jackpot! There were mantas everywhere, shuttling back and forth across the bank. We often would see six or seven at a time, but their different markings indicated there may have been fifteen or twenty in the general area. The bank was also shallower than the one by the mooring, so it was a lot easier to get up close without having to dive too deep. It was marvelous! We spent the rest of the morning there with them.

Some awesome Manta Time

We dropped the dinghy off at Begonia and did a long, sweeping snorkel of coral in the anchorage. Along the way, I spotted a Crown of Thorns sea star. This intimidating looking creature is beautiful, but it is also considered invasive, as large populations can decimate coral like locusts. Katu told me one of their ranger duties is to keep records of any found and then dispatch them before they can do any more harm. He said the best way to deal with them is to swim them to a sandy, shallow spot where they would succumb to overexposure to the sun.

Being the well-meaning good citizen that I am, I found a nice long piece of dead coral and pried it off of it's live coral prey. With it clinging to the end of my 'stick' as a thorny ball, I swam for shallow water. After boring of it's defensive ball posture, the star decided to climb down the stick toward me. Fortunately, they're slow, so I had some time, but I was now in a race to get rid of it before it got to me. Oh, did I mention that the Crown of Thorns is one of only two varieties of poisonous stars?

Just as I was about to fling both it and the stick into the sand, it got me. It pushed one of its thorns into my finger near the end of the nail and drove it in until the tip had nearly reached the knuckle. For good measure, I think it also stung me with one of its venomous feet. The pain was quite debilitating for a moment, but I soon regained my composure and we resumed our snorkeling, squeezing my left arm against my chest with the good right one. This seemed to keep the throbbing down.

Maryanne arrived with a much bigger branch of dead coral. We picked up the star again and batted it hockey-style to a spot sufficiently sunny and far from food to improve the chances that the battle would ultimately be won by us. I was in a lot of pain, but it did only seem fair considering my intent. Good on ya, spiky thing, but ow!

I toughed it out for a little while longer. Before we got to the beach, I had to admit to Maryanne that I thought it would be best if we made a beeline to the boat now. When we got there, she removed the spike, which was way longer than I had expected at the time and then cleaned it and covered it with antiseptic cream, etc.

We then went ashore for a circumnavigation walk around Anchorage island, the highlight of which was finding the nests of two placid boobies. They were juveniles, already in their new adult plumage, but they hadn't fledged yet. We were worried we would scare them into making their first leap from the safety of their nests at our approach, but they seemed as curious about us as we were of them.

We ran into the others at the beach (all of 'em). They all had decided not to depart today after all, but were going to wait until tomorrow. Could we meet on the beach later for sundowners? Sure, why not? This was at least easier; a potluck with no food.

We were getting pretty low on sundowner-on-the-beach supplies. The last two of our cold beers had disappeared at the first potluck. Cocktails were too complicated and the only wine we had left was a box of truly awful rose that we had been slowly choking our way through. There was something wrong with that wine. We think it may have spent too many hours on the dock in the sun between leaving the supply ship and being taken to the store. It was at least partially vinager-ized. We seemed to have three, maybe four glasses left in the bag, so we took that as our supply. We would be happy to be rid of it once and for all and I figured the taste would keep us from going through it too quickly.

That was the plan, anyway. What happened was Maryanne poured herself half a glass, took one taste and then just sat there holding it the rest of the night. I would take a couple of big gulps of mine, choking it down like cough medicine, looking forward to being through my share. Maryanne would top me up when I wasn't looking. Later, when I would see her glass fuller than mine, I assumed she had topped it up and that I wasn't pulling my weight, so I would bring mine up to the same level as hers. Damn those wine bags! It's so hard to keep track of the level. In this way, Maryanne had half a glass (half of which she poured into mine to get rid of it) and I had the rest.

I was okay for a while and then suddenly I was not. Not eating lunch wasn't helping either.

We made our excuses and then headed back to Begonia, which essentially broke up the party. When we got there, I was NOT feeling good and collapsed into bed with a minimum of preamble.

In the morning, I felt awful. I had hangover symptoms as expected, but mostly I just felt exhausted. It took me an hour just to muster the strength to roll over. When I did, not just my punctured finger, but my whole arm protested with stabbing pain. I felt around and all of the nodes up my arm felt like they were swollen to almost bursting. That ain't good.

I managed to get up for a few minutes, but just standing there made me feel like I was sprinting. I collapsed into a lump in the cockpit, where I didn't move for a couple of hours. At some point, I noticed my heart was pounding. I could see my watch so I took my pulse. It was 128 beats per minute. I hadn't moved anything except my heart, diaphragm and eyelids for two hours. Usually it's in the low 60s at such a time. I ordinarily need to break into a slow run to get a heart rate that high.

It seemed to be time to admit that maybe we were dealing with something more serious than a puncture wound. It seemed my body was trying to fight a more serious infection. Maryanne did a bit of research and soon produced a course of antibiotics from our medical kit. She also found out that some of the symptoms of Crown of Thorns venom include weakness and dizziness. Not only that, but alcohol thins the blood and speeds up delivery of the poison. Bad, bad and bad.

Apart from two five-minute periods where I sat halfway up, I spent the rest of the day doing my best impersonation of our floor mat. The other two boats in the anchorage left mid-afternoon, but I was too listless to take much notice. By the time I gave up feeling human and went to bed, my heart rate had fallen to ninety. The next morning, it was seventy and I felt only a little tired. I really wanted to spring back into action, but sensibly spent the day resting again, which we agreed was probably the best thing.

Feeling Better

Day three after being stung, I was down to having a really swollen finger and a sore arm below the elbow. I decided these were not things I would be needing much that day so we headed to Maryanne's Manta Spot in the morning, followed by a trip ashore to let Harry and Katu know we hadn't been trying to ignore them. They said they figured we needed a rest after all of the social activity as I'm sure they did as well.

It was low tide, so Maryanne and I took a walk along the fringing reef to adjacent Whale Island to see the nesting birds there. The water was ankle-deep. Maryanne stayed near the breakers, while I followed the inside edge looking for the spot where we left “my” Crown of Thorns. I couldn't find it.

Birds on Suwarrow

The inrush of lots of cool water over the reef from the deep sea made for some stunning variety and color of coral. Inside the lagoon, maybe only 20-40% of the coral surface is alive. Here, it was above 90%. It was difficult to pick our way through while treading only on either dead coral or sand. That was very good to see.

When we got back to Anchorage Island, we took a walk around its perimeter at the edge of the reef as well. The stuff near the pass was also over 90% living. Along the way, we kept surprising Reticulated Moray Eels. Maryanne spotted two in a vicious looking fight. Another one fled from me and tried to take shelter under one of her shoes. I can confirm that she can scream like a girl.

Eels abound in the shallows

Fun Overexposure

It was time to stop goofing around and get some chores done.

We had been leaving it too long, but now it was time to go ashore with a big ol' bag of laundry and our best bucket.

Anchorage has a backup cistern that isn't part of their drinking supply that is tucked a short walk into the jungle. We were told we were welcome to use the water if we needed to do any washing. When we got ashore, Katu changed the story and told us we were welcome to his much more convenient 40-gallon barrel of rainwater at their compound. He then sweetened the deal by offering us the use of his big tin wash basin.

Katu also told us he had gone snorkeling early that morning. He said he found a Crown of Thorns and from his description of the location, it sounded like the same one.

I was feeling back to normal again, apart from my finger, which was at the peak of multicolored gruesomeness.

The laundry was horrible, sweaty work in the midday heat, but we kept ourselves in good cheer by reminding ourselves that at least it wasn't costing us $30 a load like the last batch.

Exploring and Laundry - an odd mix of fun

We took our wet laundry home and then dressed Begonia for what appeared to be a weird and sad parade. It was plenty windy and for the first time since we arrived, we had no afternoon showers. By sunset, everything was dry and smelled of sunshine and clean air that hadn't seen a city for at least a thousand miles. Those pillows were so nice to lay our heads on.

The Crowds are Back

I climbed out of bed to find another catamaran milling around looking for a place to drop anchor. He eventually picked a spot right by us. I guess with only us there, it's hard to judge the size of the anchorage. It turned out to be Hans Peter, a Swiss singlehander who has lived in New Zealand for a while. He built his boat himself. We invited him over for dinner and we got to hear his whole interesting story. He took the long way, leaving from the Baltic and rounding Cape Horn. He told us a lot about Chile and pretty much convinced us not to go as far as the Horn, even though we think he was trying to do the opposite.

Three more boats also showed up that day. We spotted them coming in when we were over at the manta spot and made a point of stopping by each on our way home and saying hi and giving them the lowdown on what's to do. One of them hinted that there were another couple of boats on the way.

Sensing that there was no way seven boats would be able to be in the anchorage without having a potluck as a way of getting to know the group, Maryanne took charge and floated the idea to Harry and Katu for the next evening. It would have been a whole week by then and they were all for it. Harry said he would go out the next day and catch some fish. He has to go all the way out of the pass and into deep water to do so, since there's no fishing allowed inside the lagoon. I'm sure he might enjoy a chance to get out, but it's no minor task for him. We're very grateful.

We took a morning row ashore to have a walk and forage for some coconuts. As we emerged from the trail onto the beach on the pass side of the island, we could see a sail approaching on the horizon. Harry and Katu went out to meet them, and then another appeared and then yet another. By the time they were done clearing in the last boat, a Norwegian singlehander named Harold, it was too late to go fishing. Fortunately, one of the new arrivals had caught way too much the night before and was looking for a use for it. Problem solved!

Unlike the previous potlucks, everyone was pretty punctual and we actually managed to get all of the cooking done before it got dark, which was way easier than trying to do it by headlamp. It was a great crowd.

We were particularly taken with Harold. He hadn't planned to stop in Suwarrow and was all smiles and amazement at the place. His circumnavigation so far has taken a very long path. From Norway, he sailed west to North America via Greenland. He then sailed down the east coast and then to the Panama Canal. From there, he went counterclockwise all of the way around South America and then through the Panama Canal again. Then he went up the west coast to Alaska before sailing to Hawai'i and then heading south to us. He had stories of staying with the Inuit and being robbed at gunpoint in Rio, where they left him tied to the mast while they fled. Jeez!

It was still a pretty reasonable hour when the crowd dispersed. We were glad for the extra rest. We were planning on leaving the next morning and knew we would have to get up early to get ready. Since we had to go ashore for the potluck, we weren't able to get the dinghy into lifeboat mode ahead of time as usual.

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