Tonga 6 – Suwarrow

May 27, 2019

We are back on the open water, having left Suwarrow about 6 hours ago. We are motoring with very little wind but the forecast shows that decent wind should appear soon and stay with us to Niue.

Suwarrow was a great stop. Like many of the places we have visited, it seems like two days isn’t enough but two years might not be either. There was a man, famous in these parts, who lived on this island for several years on his own. His name was Tom Neall and he wrote a book about his experiences but I haven’t read it yet.

Normally, there is a caretaker that lives on the island, which is a national park of the Cook Islands (independent but Kissel aligned/affiliated with New Zealand). When we arrived, there was no one there and all the signs said that the season didn’t begin until June 1 so technically, we weren’t supposed to be there either.

We went snorkeling in the crystal clear waters, went swinging on wooden swings left on the palm trees, and I spent at least twenty minutes by myself in a hammock, enjoying the beautiful island and fresh breeze keeping the bugs at bay.

While in the hammock, I thought about how nice it would be to spend the whole day on the island. This morphed into having the kids spend the whole day on the island and gradually turned into a full-fledged plan, involving all the kids in the anchorage spending 24 hours alone on the island.

We dropped off our kids mid-morning and had a planned appetizers and drinks session on the beach for 5 that afternoon, which would give the kids a chance to replenish their food stocks and leave if they wanted to. We could see Cobin and Marin from the boat (Tully didn’t push to be included and I didn’t push either) and all the kids seemed to be having a great time. I had noticed the mosquitoes were a presence in the calmer winds that day but they had plenty of repellent.

Around 3:30, we were out snorkeling and noticed a giant ship entering through the pass into the atoll. The “island” I’ve been calling Suwarrow is really Anchorage Island, which is a motu, or a bit of raised land that forms the perimeter of the atoll. Some atolls have more raised land than others. Suwarrow is the atoll and is composed of many motus or islets. We only visited one (Anchorage Island) but you could spend considerable time visiting and exploring the others.

Up until that point, the only signs of people in the bay were the ARC boats and two other sailing boats that were anchored with us. Suwarrow is only accessible by private yacht or by organized visits from the capital island of ? (starts with an R but I’m too lazy to look it up) which is about 500 miles away by boat.

So, it was very strange to see the boat arriving and we all thought, “The caretaker has arrived!” This wasn’t a good feeling. It was sort of like house sitting for someone, planning a small get together without their knowledge, and then having them come home early, just before the party was to begin. Maybe they wouldn’t mind but it still didn’t feel right.

All of our children were running around, unsupervised, with tents and hammocks strewn about, and we were planning cocktail hour on the beach. According to the signs, the park wasn’t even open until June 1 and no food or drinks were allowed. While there was nothing specifically prohibiting the overnight stay of thirteen children between the ages of 6-12, it probably wasn’t on the list of recommended activities either.

I watched from Charm as a small power boat went back and forth to the beach, unloading six months worth of supplies for the new caretaker. At the same time, dinghies from our fleet started to land on the beach and the children were screaming and dangling like monkeys from the trees and swings and hammocks. 

Conveniently, the power boat was going right by Charm so I flagged it down, asked if they were bringing the new caretaker and said we wanted to welcome him with some food and drink on the island if it was permitted. I mumbled something about children being on the island as well. They were obviously preoccupied with their tasks but I got some kind of permission and figured that laid the groundwork for us to develop a better plan.

When we got to the island, bearing our ceviche (Seaside had caught a 20-kg blue marlin and had taken some to all the boats to turn into appetizers), there were 6 men from the cargo ship and a giant pile of boxes and barrels. I introduced myself and learned that there were two caretakers- Harry and John. I invited them to join us and said that the kids had planned to spend the night on the island. Harry, who was quite preoccupied with unloading, said that they were supposed to have been on the island sooner and that visitors weren’t normally allowed (I assume he meant overnight) but that it would be OK.

I watched them carry boxes up the slight incline to the area with buildings as I chatted with one of the boat workers who said they were dropping Harry and John and all their stuff and would return to their boat and leave immediately afterwards to continue their supply route to Penrhyn (maybe 200 miles to the north) and other islands. I commented that it would be a lot of work for the two caretakers to move all the stuff but then said, “Well, I guess they do have six months here to do it.”

By now, you may have realized what took me a little longer to figure out. In one area, we had about 30 able-bodied individuals, snacking and drinking. About 20 feet away, we had thirteen smallish, able bodies doing nothing particularly useful and, completing the triangle at a distance of 20 feet from cocktail hour, we had two exhausted, harried-looking men and a giant pile of boxes and three heavy-looking barrels of petrol. We put the three groups together and had all the things moved into the base of the living area within 15 minutes. I made Harry and John plates so they could continue working and everyone was happy. 

John told me he had lived on the island before with his four boys who are now in college. He said his biggest challenge was being away from his younger kids but that he could call them on the sat phone. Both men live on the capital island (the R one) when they’re not taking care of Suwarrow. They were very nice but I knew they had a lot of work to do so I left them to their sweeping and unpacking.

Cobin and Marin reported that all was going well. Cobin had drunk all of his water so we replenished his supplies and he got some food (he doesn’t normally eat fish but I handed him a skewer of a meaty looking substance and he ate it and shrugged as if to say, “Not bad.” Later I’ll tell him it was marlin). We said good-bye and left before the mosquitoes took any more blood.

At 8 pm, I got a call on the VHF (we left a handheld with the kids – basically like a walkie-talkie to communicate with the boat) from Cobin. I readied myself to go retrieve them but he just wanted to let us know that he and Marin were tucked in for the night in their tent. I could hear the other kids yelling and see their headlamps flying all around but our kids have never been night owls and I knew they were on the far side of the island so hoped they would get a decent night’s sleep.

Tully was in bed and I was just going to read and go to bed myself (Joe was already asleep) when I got the next call on the VHF. Cobin said the tent was too hot and there were too many bugs outside and that he and Marin wanted to come back tot he boat. I suggested they take 15 minutes and try sleeping outside the tent. Ten minutes later, Cobin called and said they had tried but still wanted to get picked up.

So I woke Joe and we made the tricky trip in the dinghy in the dark and got our sweaty, sandy, bug-bitten, hungry, tired children and took them back to Charm, washed them, fed them, and put them to bed. Marin had over 60 mosquito bites but didn’t seem to mind. Cobin usually doesn’t get bitten but said he had a few bites. Although Marin was upset the next morning because, “I was really looking forward to sleeping on the island,” I told both kids that I was happy they made the right decision for themselves, regardless of what the other kids did. Cobin told me we had the wrong tent for tropical conditions and I’m sure he’s right. In Colorado, we don’t usually have to worry about being too hot. 

So that was our Suwarrow experience. Most of the fleet is still there but the forecast looked good for us to leave this afternoon and Niue looks super interesting so we are on our way.

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