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Suwarrow: An Island NOT to oneself

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Achorgee Island Suwarrow
Anchorage Island, Suwarrow

After The Societies, the next destination to the west are the Cook Islands. Unlike the Societies, which you can visit one after the other (time permitting), the Cook Islands are spread out at approximately the same longtitude but 1000nm apart north to south. You could sail south west towards the capital, Raratonga, or north west to Penrhyn. But sailing from Raratonga to Penrhyn would not be easy. Therefore, you need to pick the 'Cook' island you wish to visit.

We chose a west, north west route to Suwarrow.

Originally named Suvarov after the Russian Count who discovered the island, it was renamed Suwarrow as it was easier for the Maoris to pronounce. A New Zealander, Tom Neale, lived there alone for a total of fifteen years in the 1960's and 70's. With the help of a ghost writer, he published a book describing his hermit life on Suwarrow, "An island to oneself". Thanks to the book, the island is now relatively well known.

Tom Neale cabin Suwarrow
Tom Neale's cabin

This cabin was constructed during the second World War. There was concern that Japan would attempt to take control of the Pacific so one soldier spent his war living here, looking out to sea every day. Tom Neale spent fifteen years living here (in two sessions). It is now used as a store room.

The island also attracted someone else who preferred his own company. In the very first single-handed, non-stop, round the world sailing race (Golden globe, 1968) Bernard Moitessier was leading comfortably as he rounded Cape Horn. He should have turned left and sailed north to Plymouth to take the honours. Instead, he decided to continue straight on and do a second 'lap', sailing past South Africa and Australia again to reach the Pacific. His journey brought him to Suwarrow where he and Tom Neale became great friends. Although, I do wonder how many words would have been exchanged over dinner!

Monument Tom Neale Suwarrow (erected by Bernard Moitissier)
Monument Tom Neale Suwarrow (erected by Bernard Moitissier)

The island is now a nature reserve, with two friendly wardens, Harry and Tina, to complete formalities and to ensure visitors respect the island and the regulations.

Why did we choose Suwarrow? Firstly, it is almost on the direct route to Samoa, which we intend to visit next. Secondly, it is easy to sail to as it lies in the middle of the southern trade winds. Although I had been following forecasts the week before our intended departure, we left the day we planned and had a pleasant, gentle, five day downwind sail in 9-15 knots. By comparison, sailing to Raratonga or the other southern Cook Islands requires more patience as they lie in the 'South Pacific Convergence zone' (an area of variable winds south of the southern trades) and weather windows are less obvious.

Predictwind SPCZ
PredictWind weather routing and SPCZ . (Green, orange indicate wind, blue is no wind)

(As we left, friends heading south west were waiting for a good window which they tentatively thought might arrive in about ten days time. I admire their patience!)

Then there are the treats in store on Suwarrow.

For the 'twitchers' (bird watchers) Suwarrow is home to multiple rare birds. Sheila, my sister, provided a list of birds to spot, including Sooty terns, red-tailed tropic birds, frigate birds and lots of boobies – although it was probably the wrong time of year for the bristle-thighed curlews. Unfortunately, to protect the birds, cruisers are only allowed to go ashore on Anchorage Island, and not the other motus where they nest. Anyway, these motus were several miles away and we did not feel safe taking the dinghy. So the only bird watching we could do was on Anchorage island. With over one million sea birds living there, if we walked around the island then we ought to be able to take some bird pics for Sheila to identify.

red footed booby chick suwarrow
Red footed Booby chick calling for more food!

Close to the anchorage is a manta ray cleaning station. The rays, when they come, typically arrive early morning and cruise above a 4-6m deep reef, making it relatively easy to free dive down in clear waters and swim with them. We tried three mornings. The first, nothing. The second we saw a large eagle ray which circled us for five minutes being 'serviced' by two fish. But no mantas. The third day we went with friends to try in a different spot, close to the pass. Again nothing. Then Helen and Steve suggested snorkelling the pass. But the tide was going out and the wind would be pushing us onto the reef. So we declined and headed over to the recommended 'manta spot' for another fruitless snorkel. Later, as Steve and Helen returned to their boat I called, "Any mantas?". Steve smiled, shook his head and replied, "No, but we can trump that". They had seen a huge whale swim past them fairly close. We should learn to follow the expert's lead!

We had tried in vain to find coconut crabs in the Tuamotus. Since then we had learned that they are most active at night. They are everywhere on Suwarrow. Imagine a crab that hates the sea and climbs palm trees to pick coconuts.

coconut crab suwarrow
Coconut crab, active at night
We also used the opportunity to stock up on coconuts. On Bora Bora, Mika had shown us how to select coconuts with the best milk, those with the best white flesh, etc. On Suwarrow there were handy spikes set out to make husking the coconuts easy. The wardens would not let us take down coconuts for milk. It is an El Nino year and, as they rely on rain water, if it does not rain then they may have to live off the coconut milk.
inside coconut
inside of a coconut where the milk has turned into a sweet, spongy substance

When a coconut is green and on the tree, the coconut milk makes a great drink. Once the coconut has fallen from the tree the white 'flesh' we are familiar with is thicker but he milk is no longer drinkable. After the nut has been on the ground a while the milk solidifies into a sweet, spongy substance which makes great eating. We had never seen this before coming to the Pacific

On our fourth day an Oyster 56 (bigger yacht) arrived. They were the 26th boat and the anchorage was full. So they anchored just the wrong side of a protecting reef, in relatively deep water (but still inside the atoll and protected by Anchorage Island). We watched them come in and felt sorry for them having to anchor in such a poor position. Then we settled down to eat breakfast. Suddenly, I noticed a lot of people standing up in the boats next to us. I had my back to the direction of their gaze so, jokingly, asked Annick (opposite me, facing the right way), " What is it they are looking at, a whale?". Annick looked up and simply answered, "Yes!" I spun around and a whale, with her calf had surfaced right next to the Oyster. Now, suddenly, everybody wished they had taken that anchoring spot! ( With three boats between us and the whales there are, sadly, no photos).

Our final reason to visit will appeal to those who enjoy a touch of irony. Suwarrow was made famous by a hermit who could not enjoy company and people. Yet it has become THE social meeting place on the South Pacific 'coconut run' (name given to this leg of the RTW as it hops from one palm tree lined island to another). When we arrived there were already 20+ boats in the anchorage. This is definitely no longer 'an island to oneself'.

There are regular 'pot luck' barbecues on the beach. Not since the PAYS barbecues in Dominica has there been such an opportunity to meet fellow cruisers at a regular, ongoing venue.

Suwarrow pot luck barbecue
'Pot luck' barbecue on the beach at Suwarrow

The large number of boats does present a problem as the anchorage has many coral bommies. With a few boats you can pick the larger sandy areas and hopefully not wrap the chain around coral. But, with so many boats, selection is limited and many boats have problems with their chain when leaving. Even Matt and Amy (from our favourite Youtube sailing channel, "Sailing Florence") got their anchor stuck and needed help. Fortunately, the cruising community is great at helping each other out when needed.

I am pleased to report that, when our anchor came up as we left for Samoa, it came up without issue. We are learning!

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