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A different experience at Palmerston

By doina — last modified Mar 26, 2008 04:06 PM

Published: 2008-03-26 16:06:22
Countries: Cook Islands

September 2007 found Barbara Ann, a Najad 520, in Bora Bora. We were cruising with another family, onboard Surcouf, a Contest 55. From the Societies, we originally planned on Suvarov - Samoa - Tonga. The winds were not favorable for this, so we decided on Palmerston - Niue - Tonga. We didn't know much about Palmerston, other than cruising sailors are hosted by locals. The news we heard was all positive. On the way to Palmerston, I re-checked all the cruising PDF files we have in our laptop, and found a very strange one regarding Palmerston. It spoke of the "dark side" of Palmerston; the author told of long-standing family feuds, deep animosity between the island families, and the resulting intense competition to claim visiting yachties before another family could do the same. In this version, yachties were resources to be garnered and exploited, not honored guests. I have that PDF file, and can forward it, if requested (it is a little vulgar in places). The author saw and reported on the situation as he saw it, and it wasn't encouraging.

One thing that was mentioned in the file was that any hosted cruisers will be kept apart from other cruisers being hosted by different families while on shore - due to the ongoing feuding. They pick you up in the anchorage in the morning, take you to shore - where you normally end up working on projects to help your hosting family. After a dinner meal, you are taken back to the boat in the evening. You are not allowed to take your dinghy to shore. The projects cruisers help with are based on their knowledge area. Knowing this in advance, I was worried that we might be separated from the family we were cruising with. Radio Palmerston heard our two boats' VHF traffic 20 miles out, and contacted us on 16. I requested moorings, and also advised them that our two families were cruising together, and wanted to go ashore together. The only answer I received was that a boat was being sent out to meet us, and that we were to follow their instructions. While still 2-3 miles out we saw 2 outboard skiffs approaching at their max speed. It appeared they were racing, and indeed they were. The boat that reached us (in fairly steep, confused seas more than a mile offshore) came alongside and told us to follow him. We had been claimed as his, so to speak, at that point. It almost reminded me of boat-boy tactics in the Caribbean. Since each island family controls their own moorings, once you are on their moorings you belong to them for the duration. I again asked that both boats be allowed to go ashore together, and received no answer. The other boat was similarly claimed by a competitor. Things were not looking good. After being taken to a mooring, I asked if our friends could come to our host's mooring as well(in hopes this would solve the shore dilemma) and was told this was not possible. Again, I explained we were looking forward to visiting shore, but that we both had kids aboard that wanted to be together onshore. This apparently was becoming a thorny issue. We were told to wait aboard our boats for customs clearance. After an hour or so, a skiff aproached with two locals aboard - one introduced herself as the local Cook Islands customs agent. We invited them aboard, and gave them drinks and snacks. They seemed quite pleasant, but explained that very recently the Cook Islands had changed their customs procedures and Palmerston was no longer a port of entry. We were told we would have to leave Palmerston, as we could not be cleared in there. We were told, however, that if we paid a $100.00 entry fee, we could go ashore for 24 hours, but would then have to leave. We were astonished to hear this, as there were at least 6 other cruising boats moored there, with their crews all ashore for their daily visit. I asked the obvious question - what about all the other boats already here? She responded that the rules had changed after their arrival. It was obviously a fabrication, but I couldn't seem to get any more out of her. Then it dawned on us - since we wanted to be together, the islanders could not agree on how to allocate us, so we were not welcome ashore. It was that simple. We had sailed here for a unique experience, and we were getting one. We declined their 24 hour ashore offer, as did our friends. I launched our dinghy and went to another cruising boat in the anchorage that had just returned from a hosted reef diving trip. They couldn't believe my story, and said they had been there for more than a week already, with no mention of customs clearance issues. They confirmed that the other cruisers in the anchorage were ashore, busy on island projects with their respective hosts. The whole thing was becoming surreal. We did request and were granted a two night stay on our moorings, due to weather issues. However, we were asked to pay $10.00 per night for the moorings, which no other cruiser had reported. I guess this was their consolation prize for our missed labors ashore. I know there are many cruisers out there who have visited Palmerston, and had a great experience. I can only say that it's a little like visiting a communist country. You only see what they want you to see.

After leaving Palmerston we sailed to Niue. Niue is fantastic, and more than made up for the bad taste in our mouths from Palmerston. Our advice to cruisers headed west from Bora Bora to Tonga is to skip the Family Feud island and spend more time on one of the real treasures of the Pacific - Niue.

Jack Hunt