Suwarrow / Suvarov
Leaving Bora Bora we both felt relieved. We had finally left the French Islands and we were looking forward to exploring some new culture and islands. I think some of the reason for our relief was that we had seen our friends and other cruisers leaving heading west and listened to their passages on the SSB, so we knew we had a difficult passage to make and wanted to get it started. We knew we had missed a good weather window and we certainly felt time pressure to head west. We still had a lot of pacific to see before we had to be in Australia by end October.
Our plan was to head to Tonga, but the weather was looking unsettled with long calms and a windy finish. It suited to break the journey somewhere allowing us to pick the weather for our arrival in Tonga. There were 3 options. The southern route via Aitutaki in the Southern Cooks, the middle route via Palmeston Atoll and/or Nuie, or the northern route via Suvarov. The weather at the time was unsettled with the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) spread right across our path. It seemed that the winds were either much stronger than forecast or much weaker. Faced with a windy southern route or no wind northern route we decided to head for the middle route.
We set off on a beautiful day with a light SE wind and made reasonable progress on the first day. I flew the spinnaker for the first time since it was repaired in the Marquesas, and saw that it was a perfect job. Old Russ the sail maker on Zephyr had done a fantastic job on the large sail and had given us back our light wind horsepower. We were back in business.
The weather was looking light so we decided to head north a little to skirt over a windless patch. Well that didn’t work and the windless patch just kept moving into our path on a daily basis. We sailed, motor sailed and then motored and after day 3 we decided our best option was to head for Suvarov. On the first 5 days we had no more than 10kts of wind with some absolutely flat conditions as well. The last 50 miles we had 30kts of breeze aft abeam and arrived after a fast finish. A long passage that we had planned for 4 days had taken us 6 and quite a bit of diesel. It had been really hot, rainy, flat, windy and cold so quite a mixed bag. We did, however catch good fish with a lovely big Mahi and 3, 15kg tuna, so we were ok for food as any resupply would have to wait until we arrived in Tonga..
We entered the atoll to find our friends Vagabond Heart and Lucy Blue at anchor, and after settling down we planned to get together that evening on Pegasus. The wind started to increase and by evening it was blowing a full 40+ knots. We were glad to be in the lagoon as conditions outside had deteriorated and there was a shot frequency (8 second) 4 meter swell running. We all had a good party and with the weather set to stay very windy for the next few days we planned to spend some time on the beach in the lea of the island and all have a few dinners together. Travel between the boats was wet and windy but arrival after challenging conditions always makes for a good party and we all had many laughs.
Suvarov is basically an atoll, national park 700 miles from its nearest neighbour. The Cook Islands have a warden on station who lives there for 6 months of the year with his family, and looks after the wildlife and small islands. John, Veronica and their 4 boys were charming and very hospitable, which made the islands, and the cruising community there feel very welcoming. There were 15 boats in the small anchorage, and an American boat (Carynthia) had a couple on board who were going to get married. We were all invited and on the windy days before, the women and children spent hour’s platting coconut fronds to make a variety of ties, hats and skirts. The planned day of the wedding was delayed and when the weather cleared we all helped to prepare the beach and make food for a wedding party feast. It was a great party and the sun appeared and set over the atoll as they made their vows. All very American, lots of “I love you beautiful people “stuff, but a good party. (I think there are some pictures on the net at www.52hertz.com try looking under Pictures, Suwarrow / Suvarov.)
We really enjoyed our time in Suvarov (Suwarrow). We partied with our friends, the boys had a great time on the beach and other boats, and we explored a few of the islands. It was very different from our time in the Society Islands and exactly what we were looking for. Completely beautiful, remote yet with good social. It was a shame that we were going to miss Palmeston and Nuie. We had heard that the Humpback Whales were in the anchorage in Nuie, swimming between the boats, and that would have been fantastic, but we were sure we would see them when we got to Tonga, and there is just not time to do it all in one hit!
John had told us that the week before a sperm whale had washed up on one of the outer reefs and the decomposing body was still sitting on the reef. I thought this would make a great boys trip, so Buc (Lucy Blue) and Bill (Vagabond Heart) and myself set off to find the whale, and perhaps a tooth or two. We went out to the reef, some 3 miles, and found the body. It was pretty large and in a state of decay. We all cut teeth from the jaw and was surprised that the meat was much like steak, and not at all like fish! I also found 2 rib bones, which I carried back to Pegasus. While in Bequia in the Carib we had lunch in a house carved out of the rock, know as the Moonholes, and the owner had used whale ribs as banisters for his stair well. I thought that was an excellent idea, and hope that I can use them in a similar fashion at at some point in the future.
Dead whale smells bad. The bones are honeycombed, and seep oil, which also smells whale like and bad. My plan was to let the ribs sit in the sun and get washed and bleached naturally, so I found a spot on the aft deck and they are still there today. They don’t smell quite as much, so I guess its working. The teeth we boiled and removed of flesh and they are now pretty clean and not at all smelly. It was all quite an adventure and something that will probably never happen again. My view was that they were going to end up at the bottom of the lagoon anyway so why not take them. 3 days later the whale had disappeared, presumably washed off the reef and sunk in the lagoon.
We had been there 5 days and after the wedding many of the boats departed for Tonga and American Samoa. We said goodbye to V Heart and L Blue and moved closer to the beach and into the lea of the island. We were going to leave, but John asked if we would stay a few days until he got to know the new arrivals which were expected over the following few days.
Having not been over diligent with the video camera, we thought this an ideal opportunity to film a few things on shore with John and his children. Principally some fishing, gutting fish etc, shark feeding with the guts, and excitingly capturing a coconut crab, which we knew were on the island. We filmed all the fishing action and watched as the oldest son called the sharks into the beach on the sea side of the island. They were about 20 small Black tips and larger Grey sharks, and they went berserk when Jeremiah started throwing the fish bits into the water. I’m very glad that we didn’t see any Grey’s in the lagoon, although there were always Black Tips about when we were swimming. The Grey’s are different and just go wild when they smell blood!!!
John was quite protective of his coconut crabs. They were present on a number of islands in the atoll, and on the main island where he lived. On many island in the Pacific they were now extinct, as they had been hunted for their meat. They are quite large, perhaps 20 inches across and have very powerful claws, enabling them to husk, break and eat coconuts, which gives them a slight flavour of coconut and they are delicious. We set off into the bush with John’s boys who knew where they lived. We were lucky and found one out of its hole, which they caught and we duly filmed. After letting it go it scurried back into its hole not to be seen again. John had caught one the day before and our boys were thrilled when it grabbed their sticks and broke them with ease. I’m sure they could easily break a finger or two. Really quite prehistoric.
We spent days on the beach shelling and snorkelling the reefs and coral heads. The fish life was magnificent and we regularly saw sharks rays and octopus’ (octopuses? Octopi?). After 8 days the weather was looking good so we decided to push on to Vava’u in the Tonga group, some 700 miles southwest. The SPCZ had pushed north so we thought we should have a good run into Tonga, with perhaps some wind on the last day. On 20th August we said our goodbyes, and left on a beautiful morning with 12 kts of breeze from the East…. Perfect conditions.
We were sad to leave Suvarov. We had got on well with John, Veronica and their family. They had shown us their islands and given us free reign, for which we were grateful. It must be very difficult to live that sort of wilderness existence for 6 months and then return to the office for the remainder of the year. What a job!!
More to follow soon….Tonga and Fiji
See our photographs of Suvarov at