Thursday, September 02, 2004

Suwarrow - Northern Cooks

8/23/04 – 9/2/04

This week in Suwarrow has been a whirlwind of activities – easily one of the best times in my short cruising experience.  Just the idea of where we are makes me smile, as we our truly in the middle of absolutely nowhere!  This tiny atoll is hundreds of miles from any populated lands, and has a whopping part time population of three, sometimes four!  The caretakers, Papa Joanne (pronounced John) along with his cousin Baker and grandson Totoo (aka Peter) live here for six months out of the year (returning home to Raratonga for hurricane season).  Papa Joanne plays host and tour guide with an abundance of contagious energy and a sense of pride in his home and lifestyle that one can’t help but admire (especially since he is 72).

Before we even arrived in Suwarrow we had heard (via SSB Radio) about Papa Joanne and family, and their hospitality.  As tons of boats had visited Suwarrow ahead of us, I figured that by the time we arrived the appeal of visiting with yachters would have diminished and Papa Joanne would more or less ignore us.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Papa Joanne, Baker, and Totoo have made Suwarrow an outstanding place for us.

We arrived on Monday, August 23rd, after a six-day passage from Bora Bora.  The pass was easily wide enough and deep enough, but with gusty 25+ knot winds on our nose and decent chop, keeping up our speed was a challenge.  As we were powering through, Papa Joanne & Totoo zoomed by us in their aluminum fishing boat, waving wildly and smiling from ear to ear.  As we drifted over to the anchorage we made contact with Emerald, Stardust, and Equanimity – it was great to hear everyone again.

Anchoring was a challenge.  The shallow waters (where we would prefer to anchor) were littered with coral bommies and a number of boats.  The deeper waters where free of obstacles, but a bit choppier and, ‘er … deep.  To top it off it was blowing about twenty knots which means boat control would be difficult.  We first attempted a narrow spot in the shallow waters.  The wind blew us all over the place making it difficult to get us centered between two boats … after three attempts at centering ourselves we still felt we were to close to the catamaran, Koncerto. We hung there for about twenty minutes debating what to do.  Dragonfly had anchored out a bit, on a sand shelf at about thirty feet.  Although we had attempted the shallow waters, we were still anchoring in 55 feet.  This is madness we thought, who cares about the chop … let’s go anchor out there.

Shortly after (finally) getting settled, a Potluck/BBQ (hosted by Papa Joanne) was announced.  We spent the remainder of the day resting up, and then headed ashore at 6pm.  The only real problem with anchoring farther out was that in the wind/chop it was a wet dinghy ride to shore.  Papa Joanne & Totoo had caught a huge Tuna and Barracuda earlier that morning.  They cooked the tuna in a cement fire oven and made Poisson Cru with the Barracuda.  They had also caught at least ten HUGE coconut crabs.  Baker had made fried coconut cream patties.  In addition, all of the cruisers brought in some type of dish or another.  It was an outstanding feast.  It was also a social night, with fifteen boats in attendance … we caught up with those we hadn’t seen in a while and made a number of new friends.   Papa Joanne & Baker also provided musical entertainment.  What a way to make landfall!


This morning Dragonfly invited Danseuse de La Mer and us over for crepes.  We talked the morning away; all of sudden realizing it was noon (isn’t cruising great).  We decided to motivate and do some exploring.  Chris & I ran over to Emerald to get the scoop on the area, and then met the gang in the shallows for some easy snorkeling.  The water was warm and clear.  We had heard these waters were very sharky, but we only saw one black tip.  Even though there didn’t seem to be a lot of live coral there were tons of fish, especially baby fish (must be that time of the year).  These tiny fish were a hoot … our favorite thing was to swim right at them and watch them instantly scatter and disappear into the coral.

We left the water to do a bit of beach exploring.  We found Papa Joanne in the “Yacht club” (you can join for $10 … the money goes to the upkeep & maintenance of the island as well as health care for Papa Joanne).  It was a blast talking with him.  We chatted for quite a bit, thoroughly enjoying his humor and smile.  Although Papa Joanne spoke English, it was difficult to understand him, which made for some interesting conversation.  There were many times when all of us smiled, laughed, and nodded, thinking surely someone else understood, only to learn later on that NONE of us really got what he was saying!  Papa Joanne told us that they would be going out to Bird Island (a small motu about three miles away) tomorrow for a BBQ/picnic, where the main entrée would be baby Frigate birds!  It’s not often that one gets to learn how to kill, skin, and cook baby birds, so even as awful as it sounded we all enthusiastically accepted the invitation.  As there was one vegetarian in the group and we were all a bit hesitant about eating these birds, we also made plans for Graeme (Dragonfly) and Michael (de La Mer) to go fishing beforehand with Papa Joanne.

We left Papa Joanne to do a bit of beach exploring.  We walked around half the island, picking up the odd shell here and there.  As we returned to our dinghies we realized that the day was almost over.  We quickly threw together a dinner-potluck aboard Billabong with de La Mer bringing spicy tuna rolls, Dragonfly bringing a fresh cabbage salad, and Billabong cooking up the fish we caught prior to our landfall … it’s no wonder we can’t loose weight!    Then we headed over to Stardust for girls versus boys Cranium match (where the girls kicked booty … although we did let the boys win a game, ending in a 1-1 tie).


We headed over to Birds Island around 11a.m.  We gave de La Mer & Stardust a ride on Billabong, Dragonfly hitched a ride with Claire, and Papa Joanne, Baker, and Totoo got a ride aboard a third sailboat who was joining us.  It was an easy motor over, with some interesting anchoring near coral in decent winds.  By the time we got ashore Papa Joanne and gang had already set up “camp” … and to our astonishment two baby Frigate birds were right in the center of it, but for whatever reason they wouldn’t run (even with all of us foreign folk telling them to run for their lives!).  By the time we caught up with Totoo (who was doing the bird hunting/killing) he had already killed about ten birds … I’m quite happy to have missed that part, seeing him with the poor dead guys was enough for me to loose my appetite.

We watched on as Totoo demonstrated how to skin the Frigates (apparently with this type of bird plucking is not required).  I think that Papa Joanne, Baker and Totoo bring along the cruisers because they enjoy taunting us and love to watch our shocked reactions as the birds are prepared.  Baker especially got into the spirit as he pretended to eat a raw (whole) bird!  Janna (Dragonfly) got right in and helped … I think she was desperate, while Graeme is a vegetarian, she isn’t, which means she doesn’t get a chance to eat a lot of meat, and man was she excited to be getting some!

Tiffany (Claire) and I were talking, sitting next to the two (still alive) baby Frigates, when Baker came up from behind and grabbed them both by their necks … BAAAAAWCKKK … we both jumped.  Baker laughed at us.  He was just getting ready to kill them (gulp) when Dick convinced him that we already had enough to eat and did we really need two more?  “Plus,” Dick said, “the girls had made friends with them!”  Hooray, somehow Baker was convinced and the birds were spared!

After the killing and skinning, the whole birds (w/out heads) were thrown into a huge pot over the fire.  Baker and Papa Joanne went to work grating coconuts … we offered to help a number of times, but were always refused.

Finally it was time to eat!  The birds and fish were both served with curry and coconut cream (made from the grated coconuts).  The cruisers had brought a few side dishes, so it was once again a huge feast.  I don’t think any of us were really impressed by the birds.  Even Totoo only eats the fish.  For all the work (and the sad deaths) we could only get a few good bites of meat.  The meat itself was a bit oily.  On the other hand Papa Joanne and Baker devoured the birds, practically sucking the bones dry!  Chris also noticed that both Papa Joanne & Baker mixed the coconut cream with crackers to make a gummy mush - this they ate instead of the other foods provided.  Our best guess is that the mush (or soggy bird) is all they can "chew" (given as they have little or no (in Baker's case) teeth).

The experience itself was worth the trip and the hot day sitting in the sun (there was hardly any shade) on the hard coral (there were no sandy beaches).  It’s definitely something that I would have never guessed I’d participate in.  However, when asked if it was “fun” … well I’m just not sure how to answer that … “fun” is not the first word that comes to mind!  Oh yeah, and those two spared Frigate birds, Baker took them home with him (Totoo swears they are “pets” now and that they aren’t going to eat them, but we aren’t buying it).

After returning to the anchorage, resting, and showering we joined de La Mer and Stardust aboard Dragonfly for some more food (it seems Suwarrow is all about eating) and card playing.

Another very full day!


Today took on a much slower pace then the previous three.  We slept in, lounged around reading, and then rode over to the South reef for a bit of snorkeling.  Afterwards it was back to Billabong for a night of relaxing.  We needed the night off … Chris commented that he couldn’t keep up with all the “young people”, but neither could I, and I’m almost one of the youngest!


Earlier in the week when some of us had asked how they catch lobsters and coconut crabs, Papa Joanne responded by inviting us on another expedition.  At 11am this morning we met up with Papa Joanne, Totoo, and a number of cruisers to head over the one of the motus for some hunting.  All of us had thought that the outing would take a few hours max … oh how naïve we were!

We were all under the impression that one lobster hunts at night, during low tide, using a flashlight to draw the lobsters out.  We quickly learned that with a mask and snorkel (and low tide) you can “easily” grab them during the day.  We followed Papa Joanne & Totoo for what felt like miles along the rocky exposed coral (as it was low tide).   It was great fun to watch Totoo run and jump along the coral with grace and speed … it was hard to keep up.  We decided that left to our own skills we would starve (we being the white folk); however Papa Joanne and Totoo easily speared at least ten fish, and caught over twelve lobsters.  I personally wasn’t even quick enough to ever see a fish or lobster, let alone spear/catch one!  Totoo also snagged shells for the girls.

Next we waded across to the motu where we gathered dried coconut shells, branches, and rocks to build up a fire.  The coral rocks are placed on the top of the fire, where they will eventually break apart, leaving perfectly hot coals to cook food.  While the rocks were heating, we followed Totoo inland to hunt for coconut crabs.

I guess you can smoke out the coconut crabs, but that was not the approach we used today.  Totoo showed us how to find their homes – holes dug under the trees and usually covered with branches and coconut husks.  You dig into the hole and then bring out the crab.  Sounds easy, right?  The problem is their two large front pinchers – strong enough to easily crunch threw bone, or cut off a finger.  The ‘concept’ is that you grab a side leg and start to pull; the crab will dig its pinchers into the sand trying to prevent you from pulling it out.  You pull hard, and out comes the crab – but be careful, once it realizes that it’s losing the battle the pinchers/claws will give up on the holding and attack!  Once the crab is out you drop it to the ground (on its back) and stab it (with your handy dandy machete) through the throat, where a bunch of gross liquid stuff drips out (apparently it is coconut milk).  You stab it again through the heart.  Totoo demonstrated their strength by holding a branch near one of their claws, the crab crabbed it with a pincher and snapped through it!

Some primitive gene clicked in Chris and he was off.  He was digging into hole after hole yelling out “Here’s one!” “Here’s another!” “I got it! I got it!”  Chris had no machete, so he would pull them out and then yell out for Totoo.  He was all man and insanely fueled by some untapped testosterone force within.  I, of course, did the typical woman thing, “Honey be careful!” “Ooh, watch out for the pincher!”  “Don’t hurt yourself!”  By the time we headed back to the fire with our catch (about eight extremely large crabs) Chris was covered head to toe with dirt … I love his spirit!

During the day we had somehow nicknamed Totoo “Hunter”, and Michael received a less manly nickname of “Fafafini” – I’m not too sure how Fafafini came about, but it gave us all a good laugh.  A Fafafini is a male son raised as a girl.  This isn’t as common today (although it still happens), but in the past if the family didn’t have any girl children they would raise their youngest son as a girl – it is our understanding that it is considered an honor by the culture to be a Fafafini.

Papa Joanne had caught a few of his own crabs while we were off with Totoo.  However he was catching them for the next evening’s BBQ, and therefore wasn’t killing them. (I guess if you kill them you have to eat them right away, they wouldn’t last the night).  Instead he keeps them alive by tying them from the branches of the trees, where they swung lightly in the breeze, like Japanese “crab lanterns”.  They didn’t seem too thrilled by this, and if you got to close they would spread their claws towards you just hoping you would get close enough to grab!

Papa Joanne threw the fish and crabs onto the hot coals of the fire.  While they cooked we gathered coconuts (for drinking).  Chris came upon a small black bird that was struggling as it had flown into some type of tar-like sticky bush.  He was unable to fly and could barely hop along.  Hunter-man turns protector – he brought the bird back to camp where he, Bob, and Mary went to work cleaning it.  He returned the frightened bird back to where he found him, and after checking up on him periodically reported that it looked like the bird would make it – My hero!!!

Papa Joanne went to work weaving “plates” out of palm branches.  Janna and I went to work learning, and after a few tries we were zooming right along with Papa Joanne.  Papa Joanne said to me, “Stay here a month – I show you how to live off the land!”

And so five hours into our “short” outing we feasted on fish, crab, and coconut juice.  It had a very “native” feeling – with no utensils, napkins, plates, etc, and eating off of woven palm plates.  All this food was prepared with one spear, one machete and a single match!

We made the long walk back to our dinghies, Chris bringing along a number of good sticks that he planned on turning into coconut “tools”.  The wind had picked up a bit, so it was a rough dinghy ride (up-wind) back … I ended up with a huge charlie-horse that turned into an ugly bruise about the size of my hand!

I don’t know how we motivated, but after a brief rest we (Stardust, Dragonfly, Billabong) met on de La Mer for ... if you can believe it … more eating!  Danseuse de La Mer BBQ’ed the lobster tails and we brought over Poisson Cru made with a Barracuda Chris had caught earlier that morning.  Conversation turned “heavy-duty” as we discussed the issues with the American education system, parenting, and traditional man-women roles – as if we could change the world!

This was an absolutely fantastic day!


Still exhausted from the day before, we spent most of the day aboard Billabong.  I worked on the computer (picture organization and journal writing) while Chris worked on his new “tools”.  I had no idea what he was up to, just noticed that he was doing quite a bit of running around.  I kept hearing various power tools going off, saw him sanding and sawing at wood, and he was sweating profusely, so I assumed he had some major boat project going.  Later in the afternoon he excitedly did show-and-tell.  He had made at least three coconut “spears” and two graters.  The spears are for peeling away the outer husks; you then use the grater to scrape away the inner meat.  He also made a perfect hand shaped scraping tool that allowed him to easily ‘spoon’ out the coconut meat.  He rushed ashore to gather some coconuts to test out his new tools!  Impressively, they all worked rather well.  I remember looking up through the companionway as Chris stood shirtless looking out into the distance, a coconut in one hand, his eating/scraping tool in the other, just scooping away, looking extremely satisfied!  White-man turned native!!!

As if we hadn’t been feasting enough, Papa Joanne threw another BBQ/Potluck ashore.  More fish, more crab, more coconut patties, more, more, more!!!  I’m not sure how we can stand up straight with these huge potbellies!


Chris went off fishing again this morning.  He caught another Barracuda.   He is now quite interested in the ironwood lures that Papa Joanne carves – coconut tools mastered, this will be his next project!

Mary and I went for another swim (we had being doing “swim team” occasionally, trying to work off all the food we’ve been consuming).  We spotted some weird mushroom things growing on the side of a coral wall, a beautiful turtle, and this large coral bommie that had so many blue florescent fish hovering around, that the coral itself looked blue!  During ‘swim team’ yesterday, Totoo swam out (on his surfboard) and tried to sneak up on us.  We think he was looking to play … I imagine he gets a bit bored sometimes, especially given that he has no one his age around to hang out with.

We joined de La Mer, Dragonfly, and Nahanni aboard Stardust for dinner and the tie-braking Cranium match.  After enjoying sesame seared tuna (Michael and Graeme’s catch of the previous morning) and curry rice-filled wraps, the competition began!  The games were close, but by the end of the night the girls were up one – hooray!


I joined the girls (Becky-Stardust, Janna-Dragonfly, Mary-de La Mer, Lisa-Nahanni), ashore for shell hunting (I don’t really collect shells, but was excited to get some all-girl time).  Chris and Mark (Nahanni) went ashore to see if they could fix Papa Joanne's generator.  The police boat had arrived yesterday bringing supplies to help Papa Joanne and family get through the next three months (after which they would return home to Raratonga).  They brought him a “new” generator, along with some gas, and canned food.  They brought minimal supplies (i.e. only three or four cans of veggies), expecting that Papa Joanne would make do (as he does so well) with what was available on land/sea.  Turns out that the “new” generator was in pieces, but between Mark and Chris and parts from a second, non-working generator they were able to get it running.  Chris was now nicknamed “Mechanic”, and in celebration of having a working generator Papa Joanne announced ANOTHER BBQ/potluck for tomorrow!

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing aboard Billabong.  There was absolutely no wind, turning the anchorage into a serene pond.  With not so much as a ripple across the water we could easily see to the bottom of the anchorage.  Billabong had swung so that her stern was aligned perfectly near a huge coral bommie.  Fish and sharks swarmed around, providing Chris and I with our own private aquarium.  We had some leftover pasta that we threw overboard to attract even more fish.  Chris had some fun by hooking pieces onto our lure and dipping it into the water – while the fish were attracted we never actually hooked anything.

Meanwhile, Michael (de La Mer) decided to do some adventurous spear fishing inside the anchorage.  We had spotted a large fish in “our aquarium” so we called him over.  Of course we also had five or six sharks (one white-tip, the others all black-tip) swimming around as well!  Graeme was in a dinghy near Michael ready to pull him in if he made a catch (hoping to get him in before the sharks came … nobody ever said cruisers were overly intelligent!).  Sure enough Michael speared the big guy, and quickly came up yelling, “Get me in, Get me in!!!”  All went well, the sharks didn’t attack and Michael donated the fish to Papa Joanne for tomorrow’s potluck.

Chris and I BBQ’ed our own fish (a Barracuda) and enjoyed a quiet evening watching DVDs.


After a week in Suwarrow we decided that it was time to start moving.  We spent the day doing our typical boat preparations for our next passage (to Tonga).

Although we were tired from a full days work, there was no way we would miss our last BBQ with Papa Joanne, Baker, and Totoo.  It was another outstanding feast.  Baker was even more enthusiastic then normal.  He had gotten out his boom box (hooray for the generator) and was happily dancing around.  The day before I had asked him if he and Papa Joanne were going to play and sing for us (they play the ukulele and drums), Baker responded, “If you bring the medicine!”  The “medicine”, if you haven’t guessed, is alcohol.  Apparently Baker got his medicine because he was lit!  Through the entire week we had never seen Baker with teeth … one of the things that we enjoyed so much was his toothless smile.  During the evening Mary came over saying, “Did you see Baker?” “Why?” I asked.  “Check out his teeth!”  And there he was with this straight-toothed white politician smile!  A few minutes later Chris and I happened to be watching as Baker removed his teeth to safely store in his front breast pocket!  I am unable to put into words the difference in his appearance.  As a matter-of-fact I am unable to accurately capture Bakers essence on paper.  I would love to repeat sentences and sayings to you, but as just words they wouldn’t seem special – I couldn’t capture the tone, the fluctuations, the smile behind the words, the accent, and more.  Chris and I will always remember Baker and smile at the thought of him yelling “BBQuuuuuuuue Tonight!!!” over the VHF radio, smiling ear-to-ear on Bird Island while wearing a yellow hard-hat (we still aren’t sure what the hat was for), gyrating his hips side-to-side as he got his groove on, and pounding proudly on his Tupperware drum while Papa Joanne played the ukulele.

It was sad to say goodbye to Papa Joanne … he had given us so much.  I doubt we will ever forget his generosity and energy.  We joked with him that perhaps someday we would return with our kids and we hoped that he would still be there for them to meet.  We gave him thank you gifts of canned-meat, took hundreds of pictures, and said our goodbyes.  It’s surprising that in one week a person can touch you so deeply.

Our final goodbye was to Totoo.  At fourteen he had so much to teach, and I hope we sucked it all in. A huge part of me wanted to kidnap Totoo and bring him along!


As typical, we are ready to go, but for one reason or another we are ‘stuck’.  This time it is due to weather.  The wind picked up, bringing along with it an uncomfortable and choppy anchorage.  We weren’t in the mood to battle through it in order to pick up our anchor or to battle through the seas that were surely building outside the atoll.  We also didn’t get much sleep last night because we were constantly up checking the anchor gear.

The wind stayed high and steady throughout the day, so we hung out on the boat.  Chris is still trying to perfect our chafe protection for the anchor gear, and so worked on that throughout the day.  I mostly read and napped.

Dragonfly decided to leave.  They are heading up to Samoa and then maybe to Tonga before they head off on their Northern track.  Having only met them in Raiatea a few weeks ago, our time with them has been short but tons of fun.  We wish they were headed on the same track, but by now are getting more used to the idea making friends only to possibly never see them again.

Luckily the wind calmed a bit by 11pm or so, allowing us to get some sleep.


The winds calmed down just enough that we decided to go for it.  We lifted anchor around 11:30am and headed out.  Apparently we weren’t the only boat with this idea, five of us left, leaving the anchorage empty (three boats headed towards Samoa while de La Mer and us headed to Tonga).  We were just exiting the pass, having said that it was too bad we couldn’t say one more goodbye to Papa Joanne andFamily, when Papa Joanne and Totoo came zooming by in their fishing boat.  They were waving wildly yelling out “Mechanic … Chris … Billabong”.  We smiled and laughed at the site of them and waved frantically back yelling, “Goodbye, we’ll miss you”.  It brought tears to my eyes as I watched Totoo getting smaller and smaller, yet still waving madly.

A few minutes later we heard Totoo on the VHF, “Fafafini Fafafini, this is Hunter”.  We listened as de La Mer said some more goodbyes to Totoo and then got on and said our own goodbyes.  Totoo’s uncle in Raratonga has email access, and so we are very hopefully that he will write to us.

With exception of leaving home (Ventura), this has been the hardest departure of our trip!

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