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Apsara's Log: Halfway Around the World

Halfway @round

Sometime on Nancy's dog watch last week, we crossed the 157th meridian west of Greenwich and are officially halfway around the world from where we began our little voyage in north Finland at longitude 23° E. Over 15,000 nautical miles have slipped by Apsara's keel. The journey has taken us fourteen and a half months and from literally freezing temperatures to the sublime winter tropics of 80° F. We have cleared in and out of seventeen countries, crossed from the seas of Polaris to the ocean of the Southern Cross. We have now about another 3,000 miles to New Zealand, equivalent to crossing the Atlantic Ocean one more time (only in shorter hops).

Suvarov Atoll

We are now anchored with a few other boats in a small atoll in the Northern Cook Islands, Suwarrow or Suvarov (Latitude: 13° 14' South; Longitude: 163° 06.5' West). Not formally discovered until 1814 by a Russian ship named "Suvarov", the atoll still has a little interesting history.   In 1855 a box was dug up containing $15,000 in gold coins, likely left by the crew of a Spanish galleon that wrecked here in 1742. In 1942, with a hurricane approaching, the twenty inhabitants at the time saved their lives by lashing themselves to the branches of the tallest two trees before the entire island disappeared under twelve-foot seas. The island's paradise was captured in the book, "An Island to Oneself" written by Tom Neale, a kiwi who lived here as a hermit, and searched for more buried gold, for a total of 16 years until his death in 1977.

Today it is a Marine Park and is inhabited by only a caretaker Papa John, his brother Baker, and this season his 15 yr. old nephew Peter, all Cook Islanders who are forced to spend the hurricane season in Rarotonga, the capital island 500 miles south. Once in the fall and once in the spring, a government ship visits to drop off or pick up the caretakers, otherwise the only visitors are sailing yachts. Today there are a dozen of us here. To find us on the map, look about 830 nautical miles west-northwest of Tahiti, and 440 miles east-northeast of American Samoa.

Coconut crab hunting and fish feasting

Suvarov is a wonderful, magical place.  Anchorage Island, where Tom Neal lived and where Papa John lives now, has a Gilligan's Island ambiance and is thick with palm trees and other deciduous trees broken by numerous small paths. The beaches are white sand, the water is 82 ° F, clear to 60 or 70 feet and is all the shades of blue. Papa John and yachties have strung hammocks made from old fishing nets between palm trees, and there is also a volleyball net on the beach. The caretaker's main living quarters are a wooden building on eight-foot high stilts, underneath is the "Suvarov Yacht Club" which is a large picnic table and small open kitchen open on three sides.  There is, of course, no phone service or electricity.  Papa John and family throw weekly barbeques for the yachts where they supply fresh wahoo, tuna, and mahi-mahi baked in a traditional coconut husk fired kiln-type oven, fried coconut bread, fresh clams marinated in lime juice, and boiled coconut crabs in a theme that seems to be the bounty of island.

I photo-documented our coconut crab hunt the day after we arrived (we'll get the pictures on the website as soon as possible). The crabs are enormous, twice the size of San Francisco's dungeness crabs, bright blue or purple in color, they live on the ground in holes. A small group of us, led by the 15 year-old nephew Peter, trudged off through the palm tree jungle with a machete and a flashlight, searching out occupied crab holes and then wrestling for half an hour or more to get the devils out. These crabs live on coconuts and use their strong claws to remove the two-inch thick husk, then poke a small hole in one of the three coconut "eyes" and slowly crack the whole shell open and eat the meat. An "island legend", no doubt, is the story that Peter tells us of his other uncle who one day while hunting stuck both hands into a deep hole to pull out a crab that he had killed only to feel the claws of two other crabs lock onto a finger of each hand, trapping his hands in the hole. Story goes he had to wait there for two days before both crabs had released their grips. In total, we caught six large crabs and lost zero fingers.

Shark Report

Because this is a Marine Park and the atoll is mostly uninhabited, the marine life is active and virile; these are code words for saying that the shark population is quite healthy. It is healthy enough that the first day here we saw nephew Peter whiling away the afternoon with a hand line, a four-inch hook, and a fish head, catching gray sharks about 20 feet from the shore, hauling them in, and then killing them with his machete. (Ahhh, teenage summertime on a Polynesian atoll.)

By the time we'd left the Tuamotus, a month ago, we'd increased our accumulated time swimming in shark-infested waters by an order of magnitude and we now admit that some sharks are nicer than other sharks. The nicest sharks are black-tipped reef sharks, which are fairly numerous and will often "welcome" us into each new anchorage. Usually these little four or five-foot puppies pose only a small threat, although it is very difficult to still one's pounding heart when they catch your eye, and with a flick of their bodies go from drifting on the bottom to swimming 10 knots directly at you for a closer look. If we toss fish trimmings overboard, they will appear in a heartbeat to eat and then maintain a permanent watch for the next feeding. (We learned this in the Tuamotus, when one day Nancy threw small pieces of fresh tuna overboard, while calling, "Here, sharkie, sharkie! Here sharkie sharkie!" Several black tips appeared in an instant, and stayed for the entire day.) White tips are more dangerous, but there are few reported problems and with enormous bravery Nancy will now stay in the water for up to 120 seconds when we see these friends cruising on the bottom. Grey sharks have a worse reputation, and this is the first place we have seen them in numbers. At the most scary end of the "South Pacific Terror Scale" are bull sharks, lemon sharks, and tiger sharks, which can be aggressive.  We have seen a few lemons.  Papa John was attacked by a tiger shark in the lagoon in 1992.

Thus, like the Tuamotus, shark sightings are an integral part of snorkeling and scuba diving, but here we have also seen many other very large fish, including groupers and wrasses that are up to three feet long. We also swam with a medium-sized manta ray and a school of four-foot barracudas. So we continue to be a bit in awe of the wildlife here. We are respectful of the sharks, but they no longer keep us out of the water (unless we notice them circling the boat!)
Next stops

We plan to leave here tomorrow, having spent over a week here in Suvarov, and make our three night passage to Pago Pago in American Samoa to pick up badly needed spare parts (broken toilet and watermaker) and then on to Western Samoa, a very traditional island.

Sorry for the long message but we are having too good a time not to prattle on a bit!

We miss all of you. Thanks for all the messages, and continue to keep the news from home coming.

The faithful crew of Apsara

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s/v Apsara
www.svapsara.com

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