The vast Pacific contains some of the most remote pockets of humanity on earth. With many islands hundreds or even a thousand miles from their nearest neighbors, the small communities we have found during our off-the-beaten track sailing contain a decidedly self-sufficient outlook. In many of these places, one or two very special individuals are to be found (published November 2015)
Take for example Fanning Island: Fanning is a small outpost of civilization located at three degrees north by 165 degrees west and is a true atoll with only one navigable pass which allows access to a sheltered anchorage within its large lagoon. The island is part of the nation of Kiribati (pronounced Keerabaas) which is administered on the island of Tarawa, over 1,700 miles to the west. From a population in the 1990s of less than 300, thanks to a relocation project undertaken by the Kiribati government to ease overcrowding on some of the islands far to the west, Fanning atoll now boasts nearly 3,000 people.
While the vast majority of the population is Micronesian, there were three people from other places which we encountered there on our recent visit: a Kiwi fellow who ran a Kava bar, a Chinese shopkeeper and a lone Frenchman who had been living on Fanning, more or less, for nearly 30 years. This strong, wiry French fellow arrived for the first time in the early 1980s as crew on a cruising sailboat. He liked the place so much that he stayed on when the boat left. Bruno threw tremendous energy into making his environment better, and within a short time, became an important part of the community. Fast forward to the present and he has managed to marry a beautiful local woman, have three lovely children and has built with his own hands a most amazing compound with guest cottages, a sturdy two story main house with outbuildings that contain a workshop, a generator and even an elaborate tree-house for the children. As the only guest house on the Fanning atoll, visiting dignitaries have stayed with him and even the President of Kiribati has spent time in Bruno’s compound.
With continued hard work and high energy, Bruno has made a piece of paradise that we found quite enchanting and amazing. Fruit trees and vegetables grow everywhere and his happy, healthy children play causally by the seas’ edge, or within the grounds, helping with chores and providing laughter and joy for the few guests that occasionally come by. Because Fanning has no airport, the only people that visit typically are from the occasional yacht, or are adventurers who stop in on the sole freight ship that services these islands. The Kwai is an old Baltic style trading ship that has been re-rigged as a ketch and sails out of Honolulu about every three months. It makes the rounds of the Northern Line Islands of Washington, Fanning and Christmas, and then makes it’s way down to the Northern Cook islands of Manihiki, Puka Puka and Penrhyn islands, sometimes going even farther south before returning to Christmas and Fanning on their way home to Honolulu. Visitors sometimes ride down from Honolulu, stay a few months at Fanning and then sail back to Hawaii on the Kwai. Bruno had just such a small group with him while we were there including a filmmaker from France with his cameraman who later made their way back to Christmas Island on the Kwai to fly home to France. If not for Bruno and his small, well-built guest huts, there would have been no place for them to stay.
Bruno claims to be a sailor and certainly comes off as one. And alas, he did eventually buy a boat of his own at nearby Christmas Island which he brought back to Fanning a number of years back and kept anchored in the lagoon for some time. When we asked where his boat was now he waved his hand dismissively towards the coral infested lagoon and said in his heavy French accent, “She is out there in the lagoon, somewhere… the coral has claimed her.”
Nearly 900 miles to the south on the atoll of Penrhyn located in the rarely visited Northern Cook Islands, we met a local man named Rio who has made a huge difference in life in his small village of 200 or so people on the windward side of the atoll. By convincing government authorities in the far away capitol of Rarotonga to help with funding, he organized the bulkheading of the shoreline fronting the houses on the lagoon side of the village to eliminate a problem with rats and has instituted an island cleanup campaign that is undertaken every month and involves the whole village. By clearing the palm fronds, filling in depressions in the soil and eliminating underbrush, the local fly and mosquito population has been kept in check. He instituted a taboo that prohibits pigs or dogs from roaming free on the island and this has helped with the overall heath of the islanders.
By staying in contact with the government officials in far away Rarotonga, he has brought about many positive improvements to sanitation and education for the islanders. The latest of these projects is to include a sizable solar array that, once completed, will cut down the village’s dependence on their diesel powered generator. Rumor has it that he will run for Mayor next year and we thought that with all of his great ideas and high energy, he would perhaps one day make a great president for the whole island group. Time will tell what comes about. Along with his enterprising wife Kula and their delightful, polite children, he is a model citizen and a most important voice in the Island Council. By allowing us to participate in one of the island cleanups, we met many of the locals and began to feel like a part of the community. A stop to Penrhyn Island would not be complete without paying your respects to Rio, Kula and their children in the village of Te Tautua.
Suwarrow is a unique place; 400 miles from Penrhyn and 450 miles from American Samoa, the atoll’s remoteness and few islets of any substantial size have kept this place mostly uninhabited for many centuries. However, starting with Australian coast watchers who were stationed there during World War II, the island has had at least one semi permanent resident. From 1952 to 1977 a man named Tom Neale lived the hermit’s life on tiny Anchorage Island, just inside the pass. Since that time, a succession of caretakers have attempted to stay year round, but today the island is only inhabited by two people, six months of the year. Under the protective auspices of the Cook Island Government these people act as wardens for what has become Suwarrow National Park. The only way to reach this park is by a cruising sailboat or chartered freighter. A supply boat arrives everyone six months to either drop off or pick up the park ranger and his assistant. The ranger’s only contact with the outside world is via Sat Phone (in an emergency) or with a marine SSB which we helped him install during our visit.
For the last three years this Ranger has been Harry, a New Zealand educated Cook Islander from Manahiki who, along with this wife Vahine, are the sole inhabitants of that jewel of an atoll in the vast Pacific. During our visit we saw Harry and his hard working wife transform the overgrown compound into an inviting and relaxing place to visit. He maintains what is labeled as “The Suwarrow Yacht Club”. With its open air feel the “yacht club” became a favorite hangout during our visit. Festooned with flags from the yachts that have visited in recent years, Harry told us that the number of cruising boats that come through has gone down since he started his job. We are not sure of the reason for this, but indeed, few vessels seem to come his way these days.
Harry arrives each year to find that the jungle has once again taken over this dwelling and it takes a lot of hard work over the first few weeks to bring things back into order. Weeding, clearing bush and cleaning and painting among other things are the first order of business and once these things are all done, a series of scientific experiments and observations on the various out-islands are undertaken for the remainder of the season.
The only visitors that Harry and his wife generally get are cruisers who sail here on their way, generally, to the west. He graciously welcomes these new groups ashore and gives them more or less free run of the main island, but cautions them to respect this clean, undisturbed environment. Given nearly total authority over this private kingdom by the Cook Islands government, Harry rules with a firm but fair hand with his only concerns being that of protecting the environment from poaching, damage or abuse.
It does take a very special type of person to live alone in such a wild, remote place as Suwarrow, or to be the only person of your nationality living amongst a larger village in a remote island for decades, and in the case of Rio and his family, to be a model citizen and bring about changes and improvements to life for all around them. But meeting these special people has been a high point of our Pacific cruise to date.
As we have always said, it is not just the places we go that make cruising special, but it is the people we meet that seal these places in our hearts forever. Voyaging always has its merits, but when you encounter people who have made their stand in such remote islands and have made such a huge difference to all who visit, it makes it an honor to know them and provides a huge positive influence for those who have spent time in their presence.
After returning to Panama, Todd Duff and Gayle Suhich sold their schooner One World, bought a 42’ Westsail ketch, Small World and currently own Small World II, a 50′ Flying Dutchman.