We are still in Aitutaki, and plan to stay until Monday, because this place and its people have welcomed us so warmly. And the sunsets, oh my! Leaving, though we know we must, will be full of regret. We've been trying to post this for a week, but the internet's been wonky.
We enjoyed a fierce game of Scrabble with our Australian neighbors Ivan and Louise aboard their very shippy little yacht, Brio.
Hello and thank you: Everywhere we go people greet us with smiles and “Kia Orana!” which is the Cook Island Maori language’s traditional greeting, meaning “May you live long.” We’ve learned to say thank you very much: “Mei taki atu paka!” Cook Islands Maori, for which several dialects exist, was just declared by the UN to be one of the world’s endangered languages. To declare something as endangered is to alert people that the world would be a poorer place without it. We love hearing it spoken (and sung) here as the primary language, yet everyone switches immediately to English to talk to visitors.
The first thing we love to do in a new country is ask someone how to say hello and thank you in their language. Not only is it fun to try speaking a new language, it’s also a conversation-starter, and it always brings a smile. When you think of all the ways there are to say hello and what these greetings mean, it’s quite amazing. Besides Spanish, French and Russian, I (K) can say hello in Marquesan (Ka Oha), Tuamotan (Ka Ora), Tahitian (Iaorana), Cook Islands Maori (Kia Orana), New Zealand Maori (Kia Ora), Chinese (Ni Hao), and Tibetan (Dashi delek). Wouldn’t it be fun to collect the whole set!
Below you can see the inner harbor looking north, with preparations for the arrival of the island supply ship. Its arrival means fresh vegetables and other goodies, yippee!
Deepening Aitutaki's entrance channel is planned: With such a shallow channel the ship cannot come in, of course; instead, it waits outside in deep water and a small barge powered by two large outboards runs back and forth, exchanging empty containers for full ones. When the tide goes out they have to stop and wait; at low tide there’s as little as 4.5 feet of water over a shoal area in the channel. Common knowledge says you can get a 6 foot draft in here at high tide, but boats with 5’3” drafts have gone aground, and you already read about our adventures with Bob and Ann aboard Charisma.
According to a friendly Aitutakian named Paul whom we met at a local pub called the Game Fishing Club, 1200 boats a year give the island a miss because the channel’s too shallow, and they want to capture that market, with the intent of making this a better harbor than the one at Rarotonga. This would mean big changes afoot for the island, of course, but the exodus of young people due to no jobs and low wages is a big concern, and the New Zealand government is willing to put up several million dollars over the next couple of years to make this project happen. Dredging the channel is being planned, to a depth of 6 meters but only 15 meters wide, narrow for the purpose of minimizing impacts to the lagoon ecosystem. Still, there will be impacts.
They don’t intend to have big ships come in; this channel will be primarily to attract yachts and allow easier access to their container wharf for the offloading barge. They plan to build a marina in the spot where we are anchored now and deepen the basin where larger boats anchor. At first they’ll put in moorings, but later on they’ll build a dock for med-mooring. And this is important: all overboard discharge of black water will be prohibited; instead, a small pumpout tank-boat (similar to Roche Harbor’s Phecal Phreak in Washington’s San Juan Islands) is being considered to be available on demand. Since leaving Mexico we have encountered zero waste pumpout facilities. You either wait until you get offshore to pump out your holding tank, or you pump waste directly into the water. On more than one island we’ve seen cliffside dumping spots for waste; there’s not enough infrastructure to handle it.
Other changes afoot: Another thing that will eventually change, according to Mike Henry, Chairman of Ports for the Cook Islands, is to better regulate the yacht traffic going to the island of Suvarov (also called Suwarrow). Apparently there has been enough abuse such as anchoring in protected areas and damaging coral, even in a couple of cases planting marijuana crops with the intent of returning to harvest them, that the government is going to eventually require a check-in with Customs before proceeding to Suvarov. It’s not clear yet how that will be done, whether a stop in Penrhyn will be needed first or some other way of checking in will be established, but there will be change in the next few years, says Mike.
We admit to loving the solitude that being a member of the shallow draft club affords us (no more than 5 boats have been here at one time since we arrived) and are glad to be able to visit before things change. As if emphasis was needed, Moana, an Ericson 36-foot sailboat from Sweden, went aground in the channel, but by piling onto the main boom and heeling her over we managed to help this affable crowd of young Swedes get anchored (at which point they went aground again. Oh well.) But that didn’t stop us from all toasting to Jim’s birthday at the Game Fishing Club, a little drinking establishment with a fishing problem. He had a big chocolate cake, which disappeared very quickly.
The Cooks have interesting coins. On the right are the front and back side of a $2 coin, currency pegged to the NZ dollar. On the left are NZ coins. Both currencies are used here.
Haulouts: While the crane was working on cargo containers, it also hauled a non-sailing vaka for a general sprucing-up. A work crew descended on it and made it look gorgeous, for very good reason which will be explained later.
From Sockdolager this is the view ashore. You can see a golden vaka (traditional Polynesian double canoe) behind the trees. Her name is Te Au O Tonga. This is the mother of all vakas, from which the measurements of the other seven currently sailing throughout the Pacific were taken.
Jim has been volunteering his time and carpentry skills on the restoration. Here he is with Ken, an Aitutakian in charge of the physical part of the restoration, just before she was launched. We are very fond of Ken.
I finally got to swing a paintbrush to help get this sail training vaka ready, too. Look closely at the sign next to Jim to see what the mast and sails will look like.
Work reached a feverish pitch… at least as much as that’s possible on island time. All ages helped. Here’s young Lucas and his friend Rupi, getting the masts ready for painting. We hope Lucas is one of the young people who goes sailing on this vaka and learn traditional ways of navigation. Judging from the way he swings a paintbrush, it's a safe bet.
Here’s a detail of the bows. More carvings await re-attachment to the boat until later. This vaka is 74 feet long.
This is one of the lashings used to tie the hulls and deck together.
Here’s a row of lashed deck beams.
And the view from astern. An enormous steering oar will be lashed on a crossbeam which will also be lashed between the hulls.
Launchings: We finished antifouling the starboard hull last Friday (a week ago), and spent the rest of the day working on various other projects. Both the tourist vaka and Te Au O Tonga were launched on Monday. Here she is in the slings. That’s Ken pulling a line to steady her.
The crane truck picked her up and set her down several times, repositioning itself to advance her a little further toward the water. It was a very windy day, so ropes and plenty of hands were needed to keep her from swinging, and to guide her past obstacles such as trees and poles.
It was a celebration! Here a girl flies a homemade kite.
Here’s the final part of the launch. It was a brilliant operation from start to finish, considering how often the crane truck had to reposition itself.
Yippee! She comes alive!
Te Au O Tonga’s rig was installed on Monday and Tuesday. Preparations continued into Wednesday. Yesterday a crew of ten took her sailing, and we were part of it! We sailed her for several hours across the Aitutaki lagoon, one of the most beautiful lagoons in the word, but this wasn't just an ordinary sail. Meeting at a retreat on the non-sailing vaka beached at a small cay called One Foot Island were the Prime Ministers and Presidents of every Pacific nation, including Australia, New Zealand, and every island nation all the way to Kiribati. The main meeting is in Rarotonga, (an island about 170 miles south of Aitutaki) with more than 500 delegates and their support teams from around the world.
Tahiti (French Polynesia) is making a bid for independence, and its President is holding up the Cooks as an example on how to do it right when it comes to self-governance as an independent nation with strong ties to the country (NZ) to which it once was a colony. Yesterday a man in a limo with a police escort stopped at the wharf where we were getting the vaka ready to sail. I didn't know who he was, so I continued loading lifejackets and other items, but we smiled at each other. Turns out he is the President of Tahiti.
Hillary Clinton landed in Rarotonga yesterday to attend the 43rd Pacific Leaders Forum, which this year is being hosted by the Cook Islands. Today she is enjoying the Cook Islands, which means it's likely she's quietly over here. Tomorrow a delegation of Chinese leaders comes to the wharf near where we are anchored. They are quite involved in Pacific Island nations lately. The military has also come--the Cook Islands has its own naval ship patrolling the Aitutaki perimeter, and rumor has it that several US Navy ships including the USS Missouri with jump jets aboard, are stationed just offshore out of sight.
Google the Cook Islands News for the latest on the Forum--and it's a darned good little newspaper, too. Apparently several dozen media were at the Prime Ministers' retreat, and their cameras were snapping as we sailed by at 8 or 10 knots, so look for photos in Australian or New Zealand or Chinese papers today. Google "vaka sails Aitutaki lagoon at retreat for Pacific Islands Forum," or something like that. The internet's too slow here for me to find photos for you; I tried.
Climate change is one of the subjects being discussed at the Forum (let’s hope for more than platitudes), along with regional trade, the strategic value of these islands as stepping-stones across the vast Pacific, and something called The Pacific Plan. Some of the political parleying may also be over potential seabed mining, which in this region of two- to five-mile depths and unexplored abyssal habitats scares more than a few people. In fact, there’s a petition with more than 8000 signatures circulating at the Forum, asking for a moratorium on deep seabed mining until gaps in research have been filled. The deep-sea bottom is a largely unexplored world full of new species no one has ever seen, and nobody can say what long-term impacts will be. The area being marked off for exploration of mining potential is twice the size of the combined land mass of all Pacific nations.
Sailing a 74-foot vaka was pure magic, and we will post photos and a description as soon as we can.
It’s been good to be able to stay in one place long enough to get to know some of the people. This has been the most wonderful break from constant movement for us.