By square-rigger to Palmerston & Suwarrow

Note: All photos are of Suwarrow, but only the last quarter of this story relates to that remote and beautiful island which was the highlight of our adventurous cruise.

Bow watch, 2315 hours. The gloom of a moonless night is relieved by a myriad of stars lighting our path to the horizon. The ship is creaming along at 7 knots with most of the crew now tucked away in their bunks below. Alone at the bow of the ship, my duty as a lookout allows me 30 solitary minutes to absorb the wonder of my situation, before I am relieved by one of my crew-mates.

Above me square-rigged sails, puffed out and straining, power this wonderful old ship thru the swells of the ocean. Beneath the bowsprit seas are noisily parting as the vessel pitches and rolls it’s way to some of the most amazing islands on the planet.

Somehow I feel incredibly privileged to experience this feeling of being alone on the world’s biggest ocean, under a starry night sky and on a 19th century square-rigger and I’m reminded of a quote from the Soren Larsen website. “The Soren experience seems to mean different things to different people – yet one thing remains constant… a profound feeling of having been part of something special and sharing an endeavour that few knew was still available.”

I joined the ship in Rarotonga, signing on as one of 16 ‘Voyage Crew’ (those who pay for their passage). After arriving on board we were introduced to the 13 ‘Permanent Crew’ members and shown our berths. We then spent a leisurely day being introduced to the ship and learning various routines and safety procedures. During sea passages ‘Voyage Crew’ also stand deck watches and work within a normal 4 hours on and 8 hours off watch system. This rotates during the voyage to allow everyone to be on deck during different parts of the day. ‘Voyage Crew’ also have their turn at the helm, on bow lookout, conducting safety inspections and helping to trim sail, or tack the ship.

The Soren Larsen was built of oak in Denmark in 1947 and was one of the last cargo carrying sailing ships trading throughout Scandinavia, Northern Europe and Britain. She carried timber, grain and general cargo from 1949 to 1972.

Purchased in 1978 by Tony Davies and his family, she was taken to Colchester on the east coast of England and lovingly restored and re-rigged as the graceful 19th century brigantine she is today. Captain Davies specialised in period film work and so the Soren Larsen began her working life again early in 1979, starring in ‘The Onedin Line’.

Other film projects followed, including ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’ and ‘Shackleton’. In 1987 she was the flagship of the First Fleet Re-enactment Voyage to celebrate Australia’s bi-centennial, leading a fleet of square-riggers on an ambitious 22,000 mile voyage from Portsmouth via Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, arriving to a tumultuous welcome in Sydney in 1988.

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From Rarotonga our voyage takes us via Aitutaki to the remote islands of Palmerston and Suwarrow and then on to Samoa. Unfavourable winds have us motor-sailing to Aitutaki, where most crew spend a wonderful day ashore, experiencing the incredible beauty of the lagoon. I have specific instructions from the galley, so spend part of my time ‘raiding’ Annie Bishop’s wonderful garden, returning to the ship with a more than ample supply of chilies and limes.

Late that day there is much activity on board and aloft, as we set all sail to head west into the sunset and to Palmerston atoll. We are finally under sail alone, with a stiff breeze pushing us along at a good clip in moderate seas. There is much expectation on board and after three days together members of the voyage crew are slowly shedding their worldly inhibitions. Some will become lifelong friends.

We are all coping well with the rhythm of the ship and the sea. Soren’s creaking, groaning, sail slapping attitude has become familiar to us all now and there is not one incident of sea-sickness. First mate George is giving us lessons on rigging and sail handling and the crew in the galley are feeding us well.

On the third night after leaving Aitutaki we arrive at Palmerston and are hove to until first light, whereupon we are skillfully guided to our anchorage by the locals. Anchoring here is tricky, as there is no sizeable passage into the lagoon; we are positioned to the lee of Palmerston Island, one of six major islands that fringe this pristine lagoon and the only one that is populated.

A warm welcome awaits us, as we have not only carried cargo from Rarotonga for the local school, but are one of the few vessels to visit this remote atoll during the year. Bob Marsters, together with his beautiful daughter Tupou and family are our hosts for the day and we are immediately whisked off for a tour of their island with Tupou as our guide, while the family prepares lunch.

Palmerston was discovered in 1774 by Captain Cook and is the only island in the Cooks group on which he landed. He named it after the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Palmerston.

It was settled in 1863 by William Masters, a ships carpenter who arrived from Manuae with two Polynesian wives. He soon added a third wife and was eventually granted a lease of the island by the British Government. It is said that Masters was from Leicestershire in England where he had deserted his first wife and two children. On Palmerston, as undisputed leader of his community, he settled in and propagated a large family until his death in 1899. Islanders today still speak English with a distinct Midlands accent, a result of which has seen the corruption of the name Masters to Marsters.

Palmerston is a bit of an anomaly within the Cooks group and does not seem to fit comfortably within either the Northern or Southern group, being somewhere in between and further west. Its history also labels it as different, as it was not previously occupied by indigenous Cook Islands people. The population numbers around 60 and pride in family is very evident. There are three branches of the Marsters family and each has a section on the main island for houses and crops. The other islands are also equally divided between the families, except for Primrose which has only two sections. Each of the three families has two representatives on the island council.

After a sumptuous lunch of fresh parrot fish and island fruit we are free to wander around the island at leisure. I am fascinated by the original building that was erected by William Masters, using Canadian Redwood salvaged from a ship that was wrecked here in the 1870’s. The ships bell was also put to good use and is still used today to summons people to church.

After being ferried back to the ship we are joined by several of the locals, who treat us to original Palmerston Island dance and songs before we sail. They are truly hospitable people.

We depart as we had arrived; in darkness. Our course is set for Suwarrow and we accomplish that voyage in constant Force 5 winds and moderately high seas. Along the way we are accompanied for some distance by whales, one of them close to the ship, rolling on its side to expose a huge flipper and an observant eye.

At first light in the morning, three and a half days from Palmerston, we cautiously enter the pass into Suwarrow’s large lagoon and drop anchor off appropriately named Anchorage Island. It is the first calm water the ship has experienced since Rarotonga and immediately the Tarsan Rope is brought into action, as crew members fling themselves high off the side of the ship, into the lagoon’s brilliantly clear water. Here, we are in the company of fifteen or so cruising yachts, who are using Suwarrow as a stop-over, sailing westward to Samoa or Fiji.

Suwarrow is the Cook Islands first National Park. It has a category IV status from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The preservation of this fragile marine and island environment is in the hands of the few who visit, and it truly is a most beautiful and pristine place; remoteness adding to its fascination.

Before going ashore we are visited by the island’s caretaker,his wife and their children, they spend from April to October on the island each year. John is employed by the Cook Islands Environment Service and it is his task to oversee the arrival and departure of yachts during the cruising season, and to ensure their appropriate behavior within the National Park. After hearing the local rules we take off to explore the island.

Anchorage Island is where Tom Neale lived for several solitary years, in isolation from the outside world, with only the occasional passing yacht for company. His exploits are well documented in his book ‘An Island to Oneself’. The remains of his original cottage now have John’s caretaker’s house as a neighbour.

During the ship’s 3 day visit to Suwarrow, many of us also visited Gull Island, home to thousands of sea birds. This was an amazing experience with many species and plenty of chicks to be seen; however the screeching and squawking of the birds was constantly reminding us to “clear off” from their chosen habitat.

Many of us went snorkeling in the pristine waters and were enthralled by the marine life; some even saw sharks. Our two afternoons were spent ashore at Anchorage Island, where those ‘in the know’ were treated to coconut pancakes cooked by Veronica. In the evenings we enjoyed barbequed dinners on the beach followed by a sing-song; then off to our bunks, with the luxury of being at anchor and no ship’s watch to concern us.

Shortly after lunch on our 3rd memorable day at Suwarrow, the ship’s horn signals farewell to our hosts. The mid day sunlight is essential for picking our way thru the passage to the open sea. As we sadly depart, most agree that this remote and beautiful island was the highlight of our cruise.

The now familiar routine of ship life embraces us, as we set a westerly course for Samoa. We are old hands at this, looking forward to our next adventure.

Arrival at Anchorage
Cruising yachts at Anchorage
The caretakers house
Gull Island
Frigate bird with chick
Lagoon life
Beach barbeque