Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Suwarrow, and Suwarrow, and Suwarrow

I’m not one to quote Shakespeare. It feels forced, since I don’t really know enough of the Bard for him to inform my everyday thinking, except in that background way in which a writer can structure your opinion about important things, even after you’ve forgotten the stories and characters.

But (methinks), this is an exception. You see, the famous atoll of Suvarov, in the northern Cook Islands, was discovered for Europe by the Russians, and so got a Russian name: “SOO-va-roff”, from my English—speaking tongue. But after the Cook Islands took on self-rule, “Suvarov” was changed to “Suwarrow” to achieve consistency with Cook Island Maori. The three Cook Islanders whom I have met all pronounced Suwarrow as “Soo-WAH-roh”, rhyming with “tomorrow.” And that brings me to the only bit of Macbeth that I know, besides “out, out, damn spot”, this soliloquy of Macbeth’s, a copy of which is taped up over the chart table on Pelagic:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Cheerful stuff, you might say, but there it is. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day” is a big part of the reason that Alisa and Elias and I find ourselves living on a sailboat in the South Pacific, far from kith and kin. I guess that what we’ve been doing for the last year, acting on a dream, is our best collective answer to the question of what we should be doing with this life that we find ourselves in the middle of, after we’ve given up on what Dostoevsky saw as the irrepressible urge to kneel down before something, anything, greater than ourselves.

Dreams have always tended to die young, as the requirements of earning a way in the world are inimical to the more misty-eyed, romantic view of life that dreaming implies. But the paucity of dreams, and their reduced shelf life, are particularly glaring in our own society and generation. Given the complete state of satiation for both necessities and frills that so many of us find ourselves in, it’s ghastly how mercantile our yearnings tend to be. We dream of buying things, we dream of ways to make money. It might be a certain French respect for dreams, and for lives organized around self-evident principles, that informs our recent Francophilia. And it is definitely the example of one man’s dreams realized that makes Suwarrow such a unique place.

Tom Neale was a Kiwi who lived in the Societies and the Cooks for much of his life, and who acted on his dream of living on a deserted island during three long stretches that he spent on Suwarrow during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. His book about his time on the island, An Island to Oneself, is still in print, and is a classic read for anyone with a touch of the starry-eyed romantic about them. The magnitude of recent change in the world is really brought home when you read Tom’s book and see how much lonelier the South Pacific was during his stay on the island. Tom had no communication with the world outside of Suwarrow, and during his first stay he went thirteen months without seeing any ships or boats or airplanes. When he suffered a debilitating back injury he was saved by the very timely arrival of only the second yacht to visit in the his first twenty months on the island. He returned to the capitol of the Cook Islands to recover, but when he was well again he couldn’t return to Suwarrow because the Cook Island government had forbidden inter-island traders from dropping him off, and it took him six years to find a private yacht willing to take him – there were that few yachts traveling the Pacific in the fifties. Nowadays it would take him six days to find a yacht willing to make the trip. Even during his last stay, in the seventies, when the word was out about the friendly hermit of Suwarrow, making the island a sought-after destination for yachts crossing the Pacific, the most yachts every visiting Suwarrow in an entire year was 17.

There were more yachts than that anchored up in Suwarrow on one day in 2008, and Pelagic was one of them.

At first the relatively crowded state was a bit of a let down. We were just finishing an idyllic passage, which always sets us up for a bit of a buzz kill when we finally reach land. And then of course Suwarrow was a symbol of solitude to us. So even though we expected there to be a lot of boats, arriving still made us miss Alaska, where we can count on having some of the more spectacular places of the world all to ourselves. Here is our view of Anchorage Island, where Tom lived:

Also sharing the anchorage was the Søren Larsen, built as a single-masted Baltic trader in 1949, now converted to a brigantine and carrying passengers around the western tropical Pacific. With a length on deck of 105 feet, the Søren Larsen definitely qualifies as a ship in the sailing world, though Alisa and I have been on commercial fishing vessels in Alaska that are much bigger, but still called boats.
By our great good fortune, the Søren Larsen happened to have on board Tom Neale’s daughter Stella. When we first went ashore Stella was cooking for a party that night for the crew and passengers of the Søren Larsen. She was cooking in an umu, an underground oven heated by a fire covered in volcanic rocks. Stella was cooking yellowtail tuna, uto, which is the meat from a sprouted coconut, and pana uto, which is bread made from uto. “I hate pana uto when it’s to hard,” she said, “but then I always go and make it too soft. I’m a bit nervous, this is the first umu I’ve done without my mum around. The island ladies never really tell you how to do it, they just expect you to follow their example.” Stella turned out to be an easy person to get to know, perhaps in contrast to her dad, who though apparently very friendly was, after all, a hermit. “Are you coming tonight?” Stella asked us when we made our goodbyes.

We rallied that evening, despite our short sleep the night before we made landfall, and we rowed back to the island with a bowl of Alisa’s peanut sauce pasta to contribute to the meal. We had expected to be subsumed in the yachtie scrum, but found that only one other yacht crew was in attendance, otherwise it was just people from the Søren Larsen and John and Veronica Samuela, the island caretakers, and their four kids, and a Kiwi who was on the island to count birds. So it was a great chance to meet the owners of the Søren Larsen, Steve and Rosie, and to talk with Stella and John and Veronica. I also chatted up Reese, who had been doing the bird counts for the previous two weeks. He told me that the most numerous birds on the atoll were sooty terns, at sixty to seventy thousand individuals, and that between five and seven percent of the global population of lesser frigate birds and red-tailed tropicbirds also nest on the atoll.

Alisa and I have been waiting for a long time to run into biologists working in one of the fantastic places that we’ve been visiting. Even though Reese protested that he was actually a microbiologist, and only doing these bird counts as an avocation, he fit the bill perfectly, as he and I drank a beer in front of the fire and chatted about this weird evolutionary strategy or that.

We stayed long enough to join in just a little of the traditional Cook Islands dancing that broke out after dinner, led by Stella and John. And then it was time to get Elias to bed. When we had him successfully transferred to his bunk, Alisa and I took stock.

“That was fun,” Alisa said.

“What a difference from last night, when we were hove to and a little queasy and all alone on the big big ocean.”

“Who’d think we’d have fun hanging out with passengers on a glorified cruise ship?”

It was the start of a fun social week. Who would have guessed that Suwarrow, the place that is famous for its former isolation, would turn out to be such a social place? It helped that most of the boats anchored there were new to us, so we got to meet some fresh faces after having been with many of the same boats all the way from Mexico to the Societies. And I think that the it really helped to have the spirit of Tom Neale about the place. His experience continues to make Suwarrow a special place. If it were just another tropical island for us yachties to visit, we’d all process our experience separately, either doing the work of discovering the place for ourselves, or glomming on to the conventional wisdom about the quality of the fishing, or the beauty of the coral relative to the Tuamotus, or whatever. But because of Tom, Suwarrow represents something: the chance that still existed, within the lifetime of almost everyone in the anchorage, to reclaim a bit of the Garden of Eden, to experience the world innocent of the grosser impositions of our fellow humans, a chance that is now either gone or very much more difficult to find. For all of us who have put together enough power of will to get ourselves all the way out here on our little plastic sailboats, the example of a dream realized is a powerful one.

The next few days were too windy for us to venture out to any of the other motus, so we spent our time on Anchorage Island. Alisa and Stella hit it off, and Stella told us how on her mother’s side she was a Marsters from Palmerston Island, a direct descendant of William Marsters, an Englishman who ran a copra operation on Palmerston in the late 19th century, and who proceeded to populate the island with the descendants of himself and his three wives. We also spent time talking with John and Veronica, the caretakers. John looked like a Cook Island version of an American Colonial gentleman, with his curly hair pulled back in a stubby pony tail and tied off with a green silk ribbon, a receding chin, splayed teeth, and a habit of blinking when he talked. He took an obvious concern over the conservation of Suwarrow. He carefully explained his approach to enforcing the national park rules. “The last caretaker showed people how to catch birds, but we don’t do that. No touching the birds, no touching bird eggs, not at all. If someone needs a fish to eat that night, I tell them OK, go fishing. But there was a boat here before, they caught a lot of fish, they knew the method for catching grouper very well, they caught seven or eight big grouper in an hour, and I went out and told them, that’s it, no more fishing. I don’t want Suwarrow to become a sport fishing park.” John also told us about the six big commercial fishing boats (“Korean, we think”) that Google Earth photographed in Suwarrow during the last cyclone season, when there was no caretaker on the island.

Alisa formed a quick friendship with Veronica, and learned a lot from her about Cook Island life. She took the chance to enlarge upon her cross-cultural survey of breast feeding habits, and found that Cook Islanders wean late; Veronica nursed her first son until he was five. We are always a little unsure how breastfeeding in public will be seen in the various places that we visit, and this news made Alisa’s life on Anchorage Island very relaxed, as no one thought twice about a nearly two year old nursing. Veronica also formed a quick bond with Eli.

Here are some of the ways in which we enjoyed ourselves on Anchorage Island.

We also, as always, did some work on the boat, as well as the endless work of washing diapers and fixing meals. We pulled in to Suwarrow with a faulty wind vane (the mechanical autopilot that we rely on for steering during passages). A bushing had worked loose so that a shaft at the very heart of the mechanism was banging back and forth. We sailed the last two hundred miles of the passage with vice grips holding the whole thing together. We didn’t have a spare bushing, but a boat we’d never met before Suwarrow graciously gave us a new one, and we were back in business. I took the chance to replace several other bushings and bearings while I was at it:

The wind had been blowing in the low 20s this whole time, with steep wind waves in the anchorage, enough so that another boat called us up and asked if we’d like a ride ashore in their outboard-powered skiff, as they had assumed that we weren’t able to make it ashore in our row boat. Rowing back and forth to Anchorage Island was actually fine, if slow, but visiting the other islands in the atoll was out of the question. Then the wind finally came down, and John the caretaker, knowing that Alisa and I were very interested in the nesting seabirds of Suwarrow, offered to organize a visit to Brushwood Island. And that’s where I’ll pick up next time.

But before I sign off, I’ll note that the great sailor Bernard Moitissier, who is considered a bit of a hero on board Pelagic, visited Suwarrow several times in the 1970s and formed a close friendship with Tom Neale. It was Bernard who placed the memorial plaque at the top of this entry after Tom had died.

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