Connecting the Dots in the South Pacific

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The author and her family find paradise on the South Pacific island of Suwarrow  (published July 2015)

Cruising can be a game of connect the dots, and for most of the Coconut Milk Run, sailors choices are fairly straightforward. The Marquesas can be cruised from windward to leeward in a more or less logical series of hops and from there, the trade winds usher you straight toward the northern end of the Tuamotus. The atolls, in turn, practically spill over into Tahiti, gateway to the Society Islands. And once you’ve cruised on to Bora Bora (and its little sister, Maupiti), the next logical destination is Tonga, 1,400 miles west.

Drying out after a squall, underway from Maupiti to Suwarrow
Drying out after a squall, underway from Maupiti to Suwarrow

But between the two, lie the Cook Islands, and that’s where the choices multiply—sort of. We quickly discovered that the stepping-stone route that seemed so logical on a chart (from Aitutaki to Palmerston, Beveridge Reef and Niue) was full of disclaimers. Aitutaki’s shallow pass means only boats that draw five feet or less can call there—and even some of those scrape their way in. Palmerston gets mixed reviews due to the open roadstead anchorage, as well as the possessive manner in which island families claim and coddle visiting sailors. Meanwhile, Rarotonga’s harbor was undergoing dredging, or so rumor said. Beveridge Reef sounds like paradise afloat, but then we realized there would be nowhere for our eight-year-old to stretch his legs. Suwarrow lies closest to the rhumb line to Samoa, but that lonely paradise was threatening to draw a crowd.

So which would it be? The cruising fleet that formed an agreeable little community throughout French Polynesia suddenly splintered into several cliques. A few hardy crews decided to zig and zag, determined to try and see it all. Most, however, were of the pick-and-choose mindset, not quite willing to wander a hundred miles off the rhumb line or sail too hard on the wind. As for us, well, we succumbed to peer pressure and followed the kiddie contingent to Suwarrow. Five blustery days out of the Society Islands, we eyed the horizon in anticipation. Was our decision the right one?

In Suwarrow there's just enough to do to make doing nothing at all an attractive option
In Suwarrow there’s just enough to do to make doing nothing at all an attractive option

Let’s just say that even when we finally pried ourselves away seventeen days later, it was only under the cracking whip of an all-too-short cruising season. Because time moves differently in Suwarrow—even more so than in the most bucolic of South Pacific islands. Sea and sky, day and night melt into each other so seamlessly that before we knew it, our first week had zipped by. Mornings were perfect for a dip in crystal-clear water or snorkeling with manta rays. Afternoon was the time to relax in one of the fishnet hammocks strung up among the palms. Those who felt ambitious, could join the accommodating rangers of this otherwise uninhabited National Park on an excursion to the far side of the atoll, and the sailors left behind could amble on foot over one of the most vivid reefs to be found along the Coconut Milk Run. Evenings were a time for beach potlucks or simply counting the stars. In fact, there’s just enough to do on Suwarrow to make not doing anything an attractive choice.

In Suwarrow we all had space to stretch our legs
In Suwarrow we all had space to stretch our legs

Every sailing cohort, it seems, sets its own trends. Crews who preceded us by three years reported that Palmerston had been all the rage at the time. In our year, Beveridge Reef seemed to be garnering the popular vote until almost everyone headed to Suwarrow instead. Did that detract from our experience? Not at all, at least for the families: 14 kids from seven boats and seven nations at the time of our stay. Other crews, well, they might have had a different definition of paradise.

London: 9500 nm, Sydney: 2800 nm, Paradise: right here in Suwarrow
London: 9500 nm, Sydney: 2800 nm, Paradise: right here in Suwarrow

Of course, the party had to break up sometime. When it did, the fleet headed off in various directions. Some ventured west to Samoa, others on a more southerly bearing to Niue. But in this neck of the ocean, all roads lead to the Tonga’s Vava’u island group, where we were happily reunited for another sweet sailing sojourn. And that’s the South Pacific for you—one highlight after another, no matter where you linger along the way.

Author: Nadine Slavinski

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