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A Visit to Penrhyn Atoll, Cook Islands

By Val Ellis last modified Sep 15, 2011 09:55 AM

Published: 2011-09-15 09:55:42
Countries: Cook Islands

"YOLO" (You Only Live Once) is a 42 foot PDQ catamaran owned by Karen and Jason Trautz. We spent four weeks in the Cook Islands in August 2011. The clearance information noted below applies to two U.S.A. citizens with no pets.

Penrhyn (Tongareva) is the northern most of the Cook Islands. It is located 740 nm north of Rarotonga. It is located at 09 degrees 01 minutes South and 157 degrees 59 minutes West. If you leave Bora Bora and sail to Penrhyn you will travel 580 nm on a heading of 321 degrees True. In 20 knot winds it took us 3.5 days to reach Penrhyn, a voyage well worth our time.

Penrhyn is the largest atoll to be found in the Cook Islands, with a 77 km long reef rim enclosing a deep lagoon of 233 km². To date it is the largest atoll we have ever visited. According to several locals, one yacht spent five months there exploring this huge atoll, and it is easy to see why. Penrhyn's numerous motus have a combined land area of 10 km². The lagoon, which has many patch reefs, is connected to the open sea by three passes.

Lagoon Passes
Takuua Pass is located on the northeast side of the atoll , Siki Rangi Pass is on the northwest, and Taruia Pass is located on the west side.

Small cargo and petrol ships access the lagoon via the Takuua and Taruia passes. The Siki Rangi Pass was reported as too shallow for ships and yachts to transit.

Most yachts enter the lagoon via the Takuua pass since it is located near the main village of Omoka, which is where you can clear-in to Penrhyn and the Cook Islands. Prior to entering this pass the wind had been blowing at 20+ knots for over a week. We motored through the wide pass at high slack tide, saw no standing waves, and briefly saw 2 knots of ebbing current. We experienced a minimum of 24 feet of water and our passage was easy and straight forward, much easier than most of the passes we experienced in French Polynesia.

About a week later, and under the same weather conditions, we anchored near the Takuua Pass and explored it via dingy. The water depth was 20 feet or more, it is a very wide pass, and it appeared to offer easy access to the lagoon. It is frequently used by the locals. Note that there is a coral pinnacle which almost reaches the surface of the water in the middle of the pass, at the lagoon end. It is located at 08.56.546 S and 157.55.857 W. The locals have marked the pinnacle with a white pole. There is deep water on ALL sides of the coral pinnacle. This small coral patch was not noted on any of our electronic charts. The locals have also used white poles to mark the large reef on the west side of the pass. We never observed standing waves in Takuua Pass and would use it in all but extremely high winds and seas from the north or east.

Our Raymarine plotter uses C-MAP NT+ chips which were spot-on in terms of passes and motu locations. Inside the lagoon the water is 65 to 210 feet deep, yet it is spotted with over a hundred surface level coral patches. Our navigation software did not identify all of the coral patches, nor correctly identify the depth of several 30 foot shallow areas inside the lagoon near Omoka, which were actually at sea level. We navigated inside the lagoon in good light using eye-ball navigation techniques which made our travel safe and easy. We recommend doing the same when using the passes. Many, not all, of the coral patches and reefs are marked with white poles.

We left Penrhyn via the Taruia Pass with 15 knots of wind from the east, during a flooding time period half way between low and high tide. Despite these conditions we noted a .3 knot outgoing (ebbing) current. We stayed to the south side of the pass in a minimum of 22 feet of water and observed a small section of 1 foot standing waves in the pass.

Clearing-In is a snap; the only real challenge is finding a good location near Omoka to drop the anchor. Most of the options are in 55 feet of water full of coral heads, and you are typically on a lee shore. In calm weather you can tie off to the metal walled cargo wharf near the large oil tanks at 08.58.8 S and 158.03.1 W. This was not an option for us in 20+ knots of wind and waves. We dropped our anchor in 35 feet of water just off a coral patch at 08.59.9 S and 158.02.8 W. Since the water was cloudy we could not determine the make-up of the bottom, yet our fish finder and raising our anchor told us that numerous coral heads covered the bottom.

One local noted that numerous boats have lost anchors, chains, and broken equipment because of wrapping coral heads in Omoka waters. When ashore a local told us where the preferred and safe anchoring location was. When we cleared-out of Penrhyn we dropped our anchor at 08.58.7 S and 158.03.1 W and played out 175 feet of chain. This large sandy area is just east of the metal walled cargo wharf and directly in front of the small boat basin. We did not observe any coral heads on our fish finder in this area and our anchor came up without any problems.

Omoka has a small inner harbor for small fishing boats just north of the commercial wharf. This provided us with a safe and secure place for leaving our dingy while anchored just outside of it.

About ten minutes after we dropped the anchor two young men arrived at the boat via their small aluminum fishing boat. One represented the Quarantine Health Inspector who refuses to travel by boat to a yacht and the other was the Agricultural Inspector. The Health Inspector asked us one question, "Is anyone sick on your boat?" He then quickly completed a brief form collected his fee (NZ$10), and gave us a receipt. The Agricultural Inspect did much the same, with the exception of very briefly looking at our fruits, veggies, and meats. He told us up front that he would not be removing any stores from YOLO. Just prior to leaving he lightly sprayed the interior of YOLO with airline bug spray. We asked the young men if they would take us to shore (round trip) to clear-in with Customs and Immigration, which they gladly did despite the rough conditions.

The Penrhyn atoll Island Secretary acted as the Customs and Immigration Officer. We enjoyed a short scooter ride to his house and then proceeded to his office located near the Post Office, Community Center, and bank. He collected our passports and we quickly completed several simple forms. He requires one day prior notice before we meet him on the day of departure, to collect the clearance fees, and retrieve our passports (his security deposit which is required so that yachties don't skip town). He stated, "Just ask a local anywhere on the atoll to call me the day before you leave, you don't have to see me in person to give me the one day advanced notice.

Clearance Fees
Health Inspection, paid upon arrival, $10 NZ
Agricultural Inspection, paid upon arrival, $10 NZ
Immigration and Customs "Departure Tax" paid upon departure, $55 NZ per adult (12 years and over)
Harbor Fees, paid upon departure: $2.00 NZ per day for up to 10 meters in length, $2.50 NZ 10-13 meters, or $3.00 NZ for vessels longer than 13 meters.

All of the above amounts are noted in New Zealand dollars, which as of August 2011 totaled about $162 US dollars. You must pay in cash, the Penrhyn Island Secretary prefers New Zealand dollars, yet he accepted US dollars. The exact exchange rate was not known by anyone, including the bank located across the street, so we discussed the issue and settled on an agreeable rate. The bank uses a one-to-one exchange rate—our loss of about 20% if we had used it.

When we arrived at Omoka, Penrhyn we did not have any New Zealand or Cooks Island currency. So, we paid all fees in U.S. dollars as stated above. The Health Inspection and Agricultural Inspection fees were quoted to us as $10 NZ. We told the young men that we didn't have New Zealand money and their reply was, "Then pay us what you feel is fair." The amount paid the Island Secretary for the other fees were non-negotiable.

Several locals told us that money paid to local officials never appears to reach the government offices in Rarotonga; instead it disappears into their pockets. Fact or fiction we will never know.

Unless you spend a lot of time in the Cook Islands and Penrhyn in particular, it is hard for most cruisers to justify their unpublished and high fees. Their monetary greed could be the primary reason that most cruisers sailing the South Pacific avoid the Cook Islands, or they complete a brief stop at the national park in Suwarrow, Cook Islands which charges $50 USD for a "landing fee" for one yacht, two people, for a period of around two weeks.

Note: James, the Park Ranger on Suwarrow, claims, "The Suwarrow National Park is a separate and independent nation and not part of the immigration, customs, health, and agricultural laws of the Cook Islands." I.e., he ignored all of the clearance paperwork created by the Penrhyn officials, and being a great bureaucrat created his own paperwork and charged his fee. I asked him to stamp our passports to note our clearance into the “Suwarrow nation.” In a circling conversation he explained that Suwarrow isn't a port-of-entry and there is no "official" immigration stamp or process, "however we will stamp your passport with a custom stamp the rangers have created for an additional $2 US per passport."

If you have additional questions concerning clearance procedures or related fees contact the Penrhyn Island Secretary, Andrew Vaeau at his home phone of 42 021 or office 42 100 or 42 116, or his son's home at 42 163. You can also send him an E-mail at [email protected] or [email protected]

Everyone speaks one of the many dialects of of Cook Islands Maori and English. All students are taught in English in their schools.

Currency, Goods, and Services
If you didn't bring it to Penrhyn, it is highly unlikely that you will find it here. There are only two villages, Omoka on the west side of the atoll and Te Tautua which is 7.5 miles to the east on a heading of 80 degrees True. Omoka has less than 200 residents and Te Tautua has about 50. When we visited Penrhyn in early August 2011 over half of the population was visiting the capital in Rarotonga for Constitution Day and participation in the related festivals and sporting events.

Once a year the government will cover all travel expenses for all outer island residents traveling to and from Rarotonga ("Raro") via a large ship, free! The return voyage and all their newly purchased belongings are also transported free of charge. Needless to say, most outer island residents take advantage of this opportunity, especially since the cost of shipping goods to Penrhyn often exceeds the price of the goods. FYI, a round trip airline ticket to Penrhyn from Rarotonga is over $3,800 NZ and the five day trip by boat (one way) is about $750 NZ. Many of the young people who travel to the "big city" of Rarotonga fail to make the return trip to Penrhyn.

Omoka has one very small store, which literally had nothing on it's shelves when we visited. Te Tautua has no stores. Numerous locals indicated that they had no food, fuel, etc. and were waiting for one of the cargo ships to arrive. Once every three to four months a ship arrives from Hawaii to the delight of everyone. This ship carries relatively inexpensive American goods which must be pre-ordered and paid for before it leaves Hawaii. There is also a petrol ship which delivers fuel to the power generator station in Omoka every few months. A small ship (less than 65 feet long) also travels from Rarotonga to Penrhyn every three or four months, "at best." It was apparent that everyone was living-off-of-the-land and sea, and bartering for goods during our visit.

Where To Anchor
Omoka: Drop your anchor in the large sandy patch at 08.58.7 S and 158.03.1 W.

Te Tautua Village: We spent several days anchored near the village of Te Tautua. This small community will wrap you in their arms and make it very hard to leave. The Saitu Masters (of Palmerston fame), Henry Tapaitau, Ben Williams, and Boss Solo families will share just about anything they have with you and wish to trade for items they need or want. You will also quickly become friends with Mama P, John, Tamu, Peter, Rosaline, Angeline, Matasa, Tatahi, Veronica, and Lennuah. The young men are more than happy to take you fishing, coconut crab hunting, lobstering, etc. We dropped our anchor in pure white sand in 16 feet of water at 08.57.5 S and 157.55.7 W. This anchor provided flat calm waters in 20 knot winds from the east, which was blocked by the motu. There are only a few coral heads near the village and they are easy to see. Before the anchor was set, we observed six sharks taking up residency under YOLO.

During our very short dingy trip to shore we observed dozens of more sharks. The beach area used by all the aluminum boats is the best place to leave your dingy. Don't be shocked, this small shallow water beach area between two seawalls will have dozens of sharks in it while the children swim or fish are being cleaned. We observed black tip, white tip, sand, and nurse sharks. As one local teen stated, "their our pets," and he literally reached out a stroked one of the six footers! We were also told that black, hammerhead, and tiger sharks swim in the very deep center sections of the lagoon. Needless to say we aren't extremely bright cruisers...we too touched and swam with the sharks hoping that they didn't like "the other white meat."

Takuua Pass: We anchored in mostly sand, a few coral heads, near Takuua Pass in the northeastern corner of the atoll at 08.56.812 S and 157.55.824. We dropped the anchor in 16 feet of water. It was flat and calm during our stay in 20 knot winds from the east, most of it blocked by the windward motu.

Just South of Te Tautua: We also anchored just south of the village. The anchor dropped 8 feet into pure sand, with a few coral heads in the neighborhood. Our GPS location was 08.58.591 S and 157.55.342 W. We never felt the 20 knot breeze coming in from the east because of the protection of the small motu in front of us. This anchorage gives you quick access to the two small reef passes which offer great snorkeling.

Cook Islands Christian Church
We were lucky enough to attend the " White Sunday” service of the Cook Islands Christian Church at Te Tautua. This service is held the first Sunday of every month at 1000. The church is located in the center of the village and is over 150 years old. Just about everyone in the village attends. The services are conducted in Maori and English, and visitors are always welcomed. Some of the customs we observed and learned were:

  1. There are a total of five services each week You will hear the call to service (ringing bell) Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 0600, and Sunday at 1000 and 1500. Sunday School sessions are also held on Sunday. The primary service is held on Sunday at 1000.
  2. The White Sunday service requires men to dress in a white shirt with a collar and white slacks. Women wear a white blouse, skirt, or dress. Women are also required to where a hat, preferably white or near white. Socks are optional and shoes can be any color. Good news, if you don't have the appropriate apparel, just mention it to one of the locals and before you can pet a shark you will be outfitted in all white, while making friends and exchanging fashion statements. Mama P. loaned Karen a couple of items and she never looked better!
  3. Monetary donations are only collected at the 1000 Sunday service. You can make your donation to the church treasurer who sits in the small booth to the left of the front door/gate of the church or place your money in the cup just inside the front door. Most of the members give their donations to the treasurer, who records their name and the amount of the donation in his accounting ledger. And, the treasurer is the first one who speaks during the service. He announces the name and donation amount of each contribution. Talk about peer pressure...let the service begin! Any and all donations are welcomed, all currencies are accepted.
  4. "Get to the church on time," not! Make sure you get to the church a half an hour early. If you are the first to arrive you can walk around the church, go upstairs, and view the beautiful interior which is done up in dark woods. Leave your camera on the boat, no pictures are allowed inside the church. And, when the first member of the church arrives you must be seated. All must be seated before the last bell; last bell is for the minister.
  5. When you walk in the church the children are seated in the front on the right side. Behind them are the beautiful ladies with their wonderful hats. The men sit in the back of the church behind the women. Guests can sit anywhere on the right side of the church.
  6. Sunday is devoted to religion, meals, and rest. Tradition states that everyone abstain from work (at home and business), swimming, fishing, traveling, etc. on Sunday. It would be considered offensive if a yachtie raised his anchor and moved his boat, went fishing/snorkeling, or was observed making repairs to his vessel on Sunday. If you plan on doing these type of activities on Sunday, your vessel should be anchored a long distance away from the two Penrhyn villages on Saturday.
  7. Casual dress is acceptable for non-White Sunday services. Men wear any type and color of slacks with a collared shirt (an Izod is acceptable). Women wear colored dresses, skirts, and blouses.
  8. The deacons are easy to spot, they are the men in white jackets and white ties.
  9. The church bell announces to everyone that it is time for church services. Attendees can enter the church prior to the ringing of the bell, or while the bell is ringing. When the minister enters the church the bell falls silent and nobody should enter the church after the minister.
  10. At the 1000 Sunday service communion is offered to those that want to participate. Communion follows the regular service. If you see the children and one or two adults leave the church, you know it is time for communion to begin. If you want to side-step communion, this would be a good time to exit the church.

You can’t go wrong attending a church service. You get to see the beautiful interior of the church, listen to the fantastic voices in song, pick-up an inspirational word or two, and enhance local friendships. And these folks can sing! The a capella harmonies were a treat to listen to, even if we didn't understand a word of them.

We were told that you can eat any fish caught in the lagoon. We certainly tasted a wide variety of them with no side affects. Sharks are everywhere and it would be very challenging to spearfish in the lagoon. I went fishing with locals several times. We anchored in the flooding pass, after dark, with a moon above. These are the "ideal" conditions which will guarantee you a basket full of fish. The locals use cane poles, short lines, and small hooks. The first few fish are caught on homemade lures (shells and feathers). Then they cut up a fish and used a small hook with fish bait to bring in the rest of the catch. We were catching 20+ fish per hour.

We drift snorkeled Takuua Pass three times. We took our dingy to the ocean side of the pass, jumped overboard, held on, and drifted into the lagoon. What an experience, one you will certainly remember! The thousands of fish came in every size, shape, and color. We spotted a few black tip, white, and gray sharks. Sea turtles and huge Manta Rays the size of queen size bed sheets also floated through the clear waters.

We also drift snorkeled the two passes at the south end of Te Tautua. These passes do not give you direct access to the ocean, yet they do drain a very large section of the outer reef. We found the variety of fish, turtles, sharks, and starfish well worth our visit.

Banking, Communications, Electricity, and Water
Omoka has a bank which is briefly open on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. There is no ATM at Penrhyn. The currency of choice is New Zealand dollars. The Cook Island currency was discontinued many years ago, yet the Cook Island coins are still in circulation. U.S. dollars are accepted by just about everyone, but you'll have to agree on the exchange rate to be used; by default it will be expected to be 1:1. Both communities have Internet and phone service. Internet service at Te Tautua was reported as unreliable by locals because, "the support technician doesn't do his job of keeping the system up all the time." The new schools built in 2011 at both communities have a computer room with Internet service. Electricity is 240 volts, 50 Hz and the power stations operate from 0700 to 1400 and 1800 to 2300 seven days per week. Water is in short supply and it might be possible to get some fresh water from the local community center or church upon request.

Believe It Or Not
Some of the information published about Penrhyn in cruising guides and tour books is inaccurate in our option. Takuua and Taruia passes are not challenging to navigate, unless passage was attempted during extreme weather conditions. The lagoon does have numerous coral patches, yet in good light they are easy to identify and many are marked with poles. There are no longer pearl farms in the lagoon. We were told that the oysters got a disease several years ago and the February 2010 typhoon eliminated all the farms.

Anchoring near Omoka is not dangerous if you drop your anchor in the large sandy spot noted above and pay attention to the local weather conditions. The locals are extremely friendly and giving, and they do not promote religious agendas. Meats, fruits, and vegatables where not removed from YOLO by governmental officials. Great news! Penrhyn has outlawed barking, no watching where you step, and peace and quiet for all, TG. Everyone spends one day a month cleaning up the motu from one end to the other and making sure no open water containers exist. "This proactive step has greatly reduced the pesky insects that plagued the islanders in the past," said one local.

Jason & Karen Trautz
SV Yolo