Cook Islands

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The Cook Islands are an independent nation in free association with New Zealand

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Description & main attractions

Palmerston map World Cruising DestinationsThe Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands, spread over a large area of the South Pacific Ocean.

The Southern Group, of which Rarotonga is the main island, also comprises Aitutaki, Atiu, Mitiaro, Mauke and Mangaia. These are high and fertile, and most of the inhabitants live there. Also part of the Southern Cooks are the atolls of Manuae, Takutea and Palmerston.

The Northern Group are the low coral atolls of Penrhyn, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Pukapuka, Nassau and Suwarrow.

The affection that cruising sailors have for the Cooks goes back to two legendary figures who both spent a great deal of their lives on these islands.

Tom Neale, a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, chose to maroon himself on Suwarrow Atoll and welcomed any sailor who called during the quarter- century he spent there. Father George Kester also ran away to the Cooks, but not in search of solitude, for his motives were altruistic. As a missionary he dedicated his life to the spiritual wellbeing of the islanders as well as the material wellbeing of all cruising sailors who happened to call at his island – first Rarotonga and then Aitutaki. Tom Neale died in 1977; Father George in the mid-1980s.

As most yachts arrive in the Cook Islands from the east, a good time to plan a passage is after the end of the annual Heiva celebrations that are held all over French Polynesia in late June and early July, a time of various events and performances that should not be missed.

Leaving after Heiva is perfect timing as the first week of August is when the Cooks put on their own festivities around Independence Day. Most of the action is in Rarotonga, but the other islands can easily be visited afterwards. Aitutaki is a popular stop, and yachts are always assured of a warm welcome there. This is the case in all of the Cook Islands and, as elsewhere in the Pacific, the more remote the island the more enthusiastic the welcome.

This is true of Penrhyn, or Tongareva, which lies 740 miles north of Rarotonga and whose isolated community is rarely visited by outsiders.

This is even more true of Palmerston; this is an atoll without a pass into its lagoon, so visiting boats must anchor outside the reef. The 60 inhabitants are all descendants of William Marsters, an English carpenter who landed here with his two Polynesian wives in 1863 and started a dynasty that now numbers well over a thousand members, many of whom now live in New Zealand.

Another atoll much favoured by sailors is uninhabited Suwarrow, which has been declared a nature reserve and has a caretaker posted there during the cruising season (June to October).

A cyclone shelter was built on Anchorage Island to house the caretakers during their stay. The first floor serves as the living and eating area, and is referred to as the Suwarrow Yacht Club, as visiting sailors often use it for meetings and pot luck dinners, the latter usually being organised by the caretaker and his family.

An opening into the reef on the northern side of the atoll gives access to the lagoon. It should only be attempted in daylight and good visibility. The anchorage is in the NW side of the lagoon, and is relatively sheltered under normal conditions but in strong SE winds it can become uncomfortable. If a depression or front are expected to pass over, the safest course of action is to put to sea immediately.

According to new rules introduced in 2014 it is only possible to stay only in that anchorage and land on nearby Anchorage Island. Other anchorages are off limits due to several shipwrecks and a rat eradication programme. In August 2014 a yacht was driven on the reef when its anchor chain broke – a reminder of how exposed this anchorage can be in bad weather.

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