The Elusive Coconut Crabs of Suwarrow Atoll

We were fortunate to be able to spend a week at Suwarrow Atoll, a Cook Islands National Park, in the northern Cooks. We had originally planned to sail south to Rarotonga, but the weather had other plans for us. Instead, we sailed west with most of other boats leaving French Polynesia in July. After checking out in Bora Bora, the last official port where you can do so, we made stops at Maupiti and Maupihaa to break up the over 600 nm trip. Our buddy boat Manna with Curtis and Julie had left a week earlier and were still there when we arrived, and other buddy boat Muskoka with Scott and Laurie followed a day behind us. As a National Park, Suwarrow has only a resident staff of two rangers from June to October. A boat drops them off with all the supplies they need for their entire stay and picks them back up at the end of the season. They get to choose their provisions, “except beer and wine,” laments John, assistant ranger. Along with head ranger Harry, they check in and out visiting boats, give tours of the tiny Anchorange Island, tell stories about Suwarrow, and enjoy the inevitable cruiser pot lucks on the beach for some different foods and their only source of beer and wine during their stay. The atoll has a long history. Discovered by Russians in 1814 and named after general Alexander Suvorov, it now bears his Anglocized name. Apparently, Robert Louis Stevenson visited in 1890, but as far as we can tell, the only treasure here is as many free coconuts as you can carry. Camille wowed the rangers with her quick and expert shucking shortly after we arrived. It takes a special touch to spear the husk on the strong shucking stick followed by just the right twist to pul it apart. The most famous resident of Suwarrow was New Zealander Tom Neal who lived on Anchorage Island on and off for 16 years from 1952 to 1977. There is a small statue/memorial to him on the island near the ranger’s quarters. He wrote a book about his experiences which we’ll have to track down and read. Despite the strange weather ofconstantly shifting winds accompanied by seemingly random periods of sun and rain, we had a great week in the atoll. Three more boats showed up the day after we arrived, bringing to total to 16, which is not uncommon in the summer. We had to hunt around a little to find a good anchorage spot due to coral reefs that drop off quickly, but our patience paid off. As in the Tuamotus, we had to attach floats to our anchor chain to prevent getting wrapped around multiple heads of coral, as did other boats who didn’t take this prudent precaution. Several boats had to reanchor after wrapping around multiple coral and one boat even broke a bow sprit. During our “busy” week, we had a potluck on the shore, a movie night with Muskoka, pizza and game night on shore, several snorkeling excursions, and hosted the three crew from boat Sea Casa for dinner the night before their departure for Pago Pago. Kyra, Camille, and kids from other boats enjoyed rounding up hermit crabs from the beach for crab races. They draw a large circle in the sand, everyone picks their crap and gingerly deposits them in the center. Then the excitement begins as we watch to see whose crab with be the first to leave the ring. Several always stay put in the center, much to the chagrin of their “handlers.” We had also heard of the coconut crabs who inhabit the islands. Once prized for their tasty meat, the are now protected on most South Pacific Islands, and Suwarrow is no exception. Ranger Harry explained that they can live to over 60 years old and grow very slowly. They are the largest land-based crabs and eat primarily coconuts and from time to time even climb the trees to claim their feast. Having not seen any in French Polynesia, we were naturally eager to see them. Harry explained that they like to hide out in the heat of the day and only usually come out at night or during rain storms. He invited the cruisers back after dark to show us. It was the same night as our pizza/gaming get-together on the beach. There’s a very nice setup with hammocks, a few tables, benches which the rangers and helpful cruisers nicely maintain. Just after dark, Harry and John came padding over with the largest coconut crab we’ll probably ever see. They’ve named him “George” and see him frequently around the ranger house. Visiting biologists estimated his age at 40 years old, not surprisingly dating him to just after Tom Neal left the island. I’ll bet ‘ole Tom ate a lot of coconut crab. Many others came scuttling out of the underbrush looking for food. They look a little menacing with the large front claws and long second set of legs, with which they’ll swipe at you with if you get too close, but like most crabs they’re shy and generally retreat when people approach. It’s great to see how these giant crabs have thrived with the National Park protection. With the weather window to Niue opening, it was nearly time for us to leave. One group of boats planned to head off to Pago Pago on American Samoa for either repairs or a stop on the way to Tonga. We’ve heard good things about Niue (pronounced “new way”) and have been eager to make it there. Manna and Muskoka also decided to head there. Based on the forecasts, we decided to leave on Friday, August 10th (after stocking up on 10 more coconuts for the voyage). The prevailing winds were forecast to be NE to NW, which makes for a good reach (wind on the side) straight to Niue. Since then we’ve seen several shifts, but as of Sunday afternoon we’re sailing along at 8 kts with 17 kts of wind. It’s supposed to die down in the evening, so we’ll see if we can keep sailing or will have to motor a bit. Niue is one of the smallest self-governing countries in the world, although New Zealand provides significant support for them. There are no harbors or even anchorages, so we’ll be staying on mooring floats generously provided by the Niue Yacht Club. With tourism one of the few small income generators on the island (the others being fishing and farming), they had to do something to make it possible for passing cruisers to visit. We’ll share more about this interesting island in an upcoming post.

Avoiding some weather and diving

We’ve been struggling a bit with time and bandwidth to get more posts up and we know you are eager for more updates about our adventure. We’ll have more updates for our travels through the Society Islands, but I think you’ll like some fun dive photos first.

We made our way from Tahiti to Moorea to Huahine, when it looked like some strong winds and weather were headed our way. Take a look at the system from our PredictWind weather app:


We are just west of Papeete in the red area with 25+ knots of wind. We crossed from Huahine Saturday morning July 7th and tucked into Faaroa Bay on Raiatea. It looked well protected from the wind and has one of the few navigable rivers (really creek) in French Polynesia. As we set our anchor, a local man James paddled up in his kayak and encouraged us to come down the river and see his family plantation. Everyone was hungry for lunch, so we made some sandwiches and lowered the dinghy.

After lunch, we hopped in as James paddled over again and guided us through the shallow spots and twigs down the buggy river (oops, we forgot the bug spray again) to the plantation. At this point, we didn’t know if he was trying to sell us some fruit or something else, but he seemed friendly enough and knew the way. We passed several homes and arrived at a concrete ramp near another old boat and a pile of coconut husks.

James guided us up the hill, pointing out pineapples, guava, orange, and a particularly smelly noni fruit that is popular with some locals supposedly.  It looks enticing, but trust me it smells awful. We’re not sure if it was a bad specimen or this is normal. None of us were willing to try a bite after smelling it.


Anyhow, James continued the tour and told us the local legends of the islands and mountains and how they came to be while showing us the rest of the gardens spread across the hills of his family’s property. He even brought us a branch of some tiny red peppers that turned out to be very hot and very good in our Thai coconut fish dinner and picked some oranges from the trees for us. We returned to the river where he opened and shared several coconuts with us and thanked us for coming. We were very grateful for his generosity. He was a happy guy who likes to paddle around the bay and show visitors the land and how they live.

There wasn’t much else to do in the bay, it the wind was predicted to come around to the south-east and shoot straight up the bay so we eyed more protected anchorages in north Raiatea or Tahaa. Buddy boat Manna had tucked into Faaha Bay on Tahaa, but let us know the wind was coming straight in, so we decided to head around to the northeast side of Raiatea to Marina Apooiti for the best protection.

This turned out to be a great decision. While the water is 80+ feet deep around the marina, they had at least 8 moorings available for rent as well as space on the guest dock. We picked up a float as we didn’t want to worry about security or slapping water at the dock.  The marina is also home to the comings and goings of Tahiti Yacht Charters, Sunsail, and the Moorings. We have a feeling we’ll be back someday. They also have WiFi, a laundry room, and a dive operation, Hemisphere Sub. Things were looking up.

While the weather rolled in and we sat in our rainy, but protect anchorage we took care of laundry and email, all the while eyeing the dive boats heading out every morning and afternoon. I also pulled out the folding bike and rode two miles into town at Uturoa to get some fresh bread and investigate rental cars. Finally, with a few chores out of the way (they are never done), we decided to get a rental car for an island tour on Tuesday and book a dive for Wednesday. We’ll talk about the island in another post someday.

Kyra wasn’t interested in diving this time, so I, Satin and Camille signed up. Wednesday morning Camille had a bit of a cold so she decided not to go after all. We met at the office at 8 am to gear up and head to the western reef between Raiatea and Tahaa. Both islands are enclosed by a single reef system. Despite the stormy weather, the conditions were nice around the reef with good clarity.  We saw sharks, bright coral, coral fish, and many other cool sea critters.  Check it out:

After returning they let us know the next dive would be a wreck of the 3-masted schooner the Nordby around the corner from Uturoa. Satin decided not to go, but I can never turn down a wreck dive. It was directly off the bungalows from a shuttered resort and unfortunately, the visibility wasn’t so good.  But there was still plenty to see, and we got to swim through the hull and get close up views of more cool sea life.

Overall we had a great stay in Apooiti and fun diving to go with it.  We can’t believe our stay in French Polynesia will be over soon and we’ll try to catch up on posts during our passage to Rarotonga next week.


Departing for Papeete tonight

We are pulling up anchor from Rangiroa tonight and headed for Tahiti! We should arrive Monday, but might be facing some headwinds. We’ll have better Internet once we get there and promise to upload more pictures.  Here’s our wonderful anchorage for the past few days:


Anaho Bay Anchorage

We sailed up to the north side of Nuka Hiva two days ago to the calmest anchorage in the Marquesas. We met up with other boater friends and are enjoying a hike to the neighboring village/bay today. (Where there is some cell coverage!) It’s calm and beautiful in Anaho and we’ve been catching up on our sleep and baking.

Unfortunately the slow coverage keeps timing out when I try to upload a photo so I’ll try again later when we find WiFi again.

Day 19 Update: We made it!

Summary: We arrived at 2:30 am local time at Hanamoenoa Bay on Tahuata Island and are busy catching up on sleep and meeting up with Galapagos cruiser friends.
Position: 09 54.42 S 139 06.40 W at 09:00 UTC-9.5
Last Day Distance: 101 nm Total Distance: 3209 nm Total Time: 18 days 12 hours Total Average Speed: 7.23 kts
The evening before arriving we heard on the SSB net from that it was easier to arrive at Hanamoenoa Bay at night plus we had received news via email the several of the boats we had met in the Galapagos were headed there. It is only 7 miles past Atuona on Hiva Oa so we headed there instead. We anchored with no problems and immediately went to sleep relishing the limited boat motion and relatively peacefulness of finally being at anchor. Yesterday we spend time cleaning up around the boat and assessing the bottom growth (not too bad on both counts). Friends came over to say hello from their dinghies and planned to meet on the beach later so the kids could play. Of course we were eager to get our feet back on land too.
Unfortunately the boat work never seems to end, and the normally reliable Honda dingy engine wasn’t putting water out of the little tell-tale hole which indicates cooling is working properly. We tried rowing for the beach as the strong winds pushed us sideways to Counting Stars, a neighboring friend’s boat. He noticed our predicament and came out to give us a tow into the beach. Dave spend the remainder of the afternoon troubleshooting the engine, checking the impeller pump, and the drain hoses for trouble. Everything looked fine but water is still unfortunately only trickling out of the tell-tale so we still have a problem on our hands as the dinghy is our critical ship-to-shore transportation.
Everyone is doing well and we are grateful for finishing the longest passage of the trip, reconnecting with friends, and getting some much needed rest. Thank you to everyone for following along, posting comments, and sending words of encouragement our way. They really helped when we were bored and tired. We’ll have real Internet soon and will get your posted comments approved and upload some photos too.

Day 18 Update: Spinnaker Blow Out :-(

Summary: We had settled seas and a nice 12-14 kt breeze all day yesterday. Unfortunately it picked up quickly after sunset and we were too slow to get the spinnaker down before the wind took it down for us.
Position: 09 42.98 S 137 29.58 W at 12:00 UTC-7
COG: 258 degrees m
Distance: 171 nm (24 hr), 3,107 nm total
Average Speed : 7.125 kts (24 hr)
Distance to go to Hiva Oa: 93 nm
After seeing apparent gusts to 20 and dips in the water with the possibly higher winds coming, we had decided it was about time to take it down. Dave popped down below to stow a laptop when suddenly we heard a loud “bang!” He quickly returned to the cockpit followed by everyone to find the spinnaker down in the water. The top edge had torn out and then ripped along the sail tape on both sides almost all the way down to the foot. We carefully hauled the whole wet mess back onboard and rigged the genoa while we continued to sail at 3.5 kts under bare poles. No hardware or sail parts were lost, so we are hopeful it can be repaired in Tahiti. Although an errant line ripped the headlamp from Dave’s head and of course threw it immediately overboard to top off the evening. We waited too long to decide to take it down and paid the price. The mood onboard is low today, but we are fortunate that no one was hurt.
The spinnaker is made of 5 oz nylon panels sewed together in a large, semi-curved triangle. It’s made for light wind sailing when the genoa is too heavy to catch the light winds and propel us along. There are reinforcement points on the three corners – the head, the tack, and the clew – for connections to the lines. The overloaded sail ripped across the top just below the point where the panels all come together, this appears to be somewhat of a weak point.
Following this separation, the nylon ripped down both sides just inside the sail tape, which is thicker nylon folded over and sewn into this edge for reinforcement. We are hopeful that the top can be reconnected with sail tape or other material, and the existing sail tape from the edges can be reused and sewn back over the ripped edges. If this works, we’ll lose about 1″ of width on both sides. It’s not clear if the corners will still taper appropriately but we’ll find out soon as there are sail repair lofts in Nuka Hiva and Tahiti. Wish us luck in our repair efforts.
Today the wind has dropped, but we have swells from both the S and SE creating confused seas and very rocky conditions. We are disappointed in letting the spinnaker get ripped up and it doesn’t help that we again beleaguered by these rocky conditions. We made it almost the entire with no breakdowns or damage, so it is unfortunate to have let this happen on our second to last day. At least we shall arrive Hiva Oa early tomorrow morning and finally be done with this passage.
Wildlife Sightings: None

Day 17 Update: 2 am Sail Change

Summary: We had another fast day, which would have beat our record, if not for squalls in the night.
Position: 09 24.44 S 134 41.14 W at 12:00 UTC-8
COG: 250 degrees m
Distance: 188 nm (24 hr), 2,936 nm total
Average Speed : 7.8 kts (24 hr)
Distance to go to Hiva Oa: 240 nm
Yesterday was another nice sail right down the rhumb line under spinnaker alone. Winds picked up after dinner along with the seas. We continued to run with the spinnaker making good speed hitting a max of 11.5 knots! We were hoping to sail through the night again with the spinnaker, but approached squalls and rain at 2 am and felt it was safer to drop it and switch to the stronger genoa given unknown conditions. Although we don’t like doing the sail change at night, we thought we would all sleep better and not risk damage to the spinnaker. Fortunately the sail change went smoothly, but under less canvas we were subject to quite a bit more rolling again which has continued through today. We hoisted the spinnaker again at first light as the winds had diminished again, but the choppier, confused seas have continued with us.
Still it was our second fastest day of the trip and we remain on track for landfall at Hiva Oa by Saturday morning. We can’t wait.
Wildlife Sightings: none

Day 16 Update: Tuna Catch

Summary: Light winds continue, but we’ve got the spinnaker operation mostly down and are the perfect high rhumb line course for Hiva Oa. We caught a bluefin just after sunset, but released it.
Position: 09 11.87 S 131 34.11 W at 12:00 UTC-8
COG: 255 degrees m
Distance: 183 nm (24 hr), 2,748 nm total
Average Speed : 7.6 kts (24 hr)
Distance to go to Hiva Oa: 440 nm
Conditions today are much the same as the last two days. Lower seas, lower winds, and hotter. We headed up above the rhumb line yesterday again to avoid nighttime jibes. With the slight wind shift are heading is now just above the rhumb line to Hiva Oa which is great because it will be easy to turn more southward when needed. We continue to run under the spinnaker only with winds staying between 12-18 kts keeping our speed from 6.5-8.5 kts overall.
We caught about a 20 pound bluefin tuna just after sunset. We still have some tuna left from a fisherman’s trade for beer in the Galapagos and didn’t feel like bleeding and filleting it after dark so we let it go. We were also kind of hoping for another wahoo, but will keep the next catch even if a tuna.
This morning we picked up a Japanese fishing vessel, the “Kotoshiro Maru No. 8” on AIS and radar about 7 nm NE of our position. We heard them say something on the radio, but they didn’t respond when we called back. We expect to see more vessels as we get closer.
We are happy with our recent progress, everyone is doing well, and we are anticipating landfall by Saturday and getting some uninterrupted sleep for a change as well as meeting up with friends again. We met Curtis and Julie on S/V Manna on the way from Seattle to San Diego last September and out of lucky coincidence they expect to arrive Hiva Oa from San Diego on Saturday too.
Wildlife Sightings: fish, birds, and bluefin tuna caught

Day 15 Update: Dinghy Disaster Averted

Summary: We got the spinnaker dialed in yesterday and had do make only two jibes to maintain our course towards Hiva Oa. The seas and wind were similar to yesterday so we didn’t have to make many adjustments.
Position: 09 25.12 S 128 54.90 W at 12:00 UTC-7
COG: 255 degrees m
Distance: 178 nm (24 hr), 2,565 nm total
Average Speed : 7.4 kts (24 hr)
Distance to go to Hiva Oa: 615 nm
We spend yesterday setting up lines for spinnaker operations again and making it easy to switch tacks more quickly. The crew is getting good at snuffing the spinnaker, hauling around the front of the jib to the other side, pulling up the pole, swinging it to the other side, lowering the pole, and redeploying the spinnaker. The whole operation takes 20-30 minutes, but we are cruising and don’t want to have anyone hurt or break anything. After each step we carefully check that everything is set correctly and proceed to the next step.
Last night as Satin was settling into bed and Camille started her watch at 9 pm, we were annoyed and mildly concerned about some of the pulley noises from the pole fore guy (the line that keeps the pole from moving too far back). We decided to keep the spinnaker up through the night as we were expecting light winds. Dave applied some sail lube to the pulley, which helped. But he also decided to double check the rest of the line runs to insure no issues overnight.
It turned out on the return run to the cockpit, the fore guy line was rubbing on the bottom of the dinghy (which we secure upside-down on our bow for passages). It had rubbed through part of the aft starboard rubber handle, but fortunately hadn’t caused any other damage. The handle essentially saved the rest of the dinghy tube from getting damaged or torn. Camille and Dave re-secured the guy to the forward clean to take the load off the return pully system and the dinghy averting another disaster.
It’s felt hotter onboard with the following winds making apparent wind around 10 kts and not blowing through the boat due to forward facing hatches. We’re coping by keeping more water on ice in the freezer and spending more time in the cockpit behind the sun shades to get whatever breeze we can catch. We’re still hoping for a Saturday landfall in Hiva Oa if conditions stay the same, which is what the forecasts are predicting.
Wildlife Sightings: a bird or two, no flying fish this morning for a change, no fish caught yet

Day 14 Update: Lighter Winds

Summary: Winds continue to be light at 13 kts from the east. We made slow progress overnight and immediately hoisted the spinnaker at dawn. We’re off angle 20 degrees from Hiva Oa and expect to be jibing our way there with no break from the rolling.
Position: 09 16.18 S 125 44.509 W at 12:00 UTC-8 (new clock setting)
COG: 278 degrees m
Distance: 163 nm (24 hr), 2,387 nm total
Average Speed : 6.8 kts (24 hr)
Distance to go to Hiva Oa: 770 nm
The seas have also settled down, but with equally diminished wind speeds the side to side rolling doesn’t feel any better. We adjusted the sails for less noise and flapping last night which helped a bit with being able to sleep. With land looming ever closer the kids have renewed their efforts at schoolwork so they can participate in shore excursions and not be so far behind when we arrive.
Otherwise, it’s been business as usual onboard. Dave added some lubrication to the rudder shaft which started squeaking annoyingly a few days back. It will get a more substantial greasing when conditions allow. We’ve been paying close attention to line chafe and putting on protective line covers when necessary to avoid any problems. All other equipment onboard has been working well although we swear we keep hearing new noises. We hope it’s just things shifting around as we roll. Either way, we’re going to give Anila’s systems a thorough check through after we arrive as there’s definitely been a lot of wear and tear on the passage.
Interestingly and annoyingly, some screws on deck are getting some rust, but not all and not even some on the same fixtures right next to each other. Perhaps this is an indication of the quality of the stainless used on said screws. Were interested in any tips for cleaning up rusty screws. We’re certainly going to be busy polishing the rest of the stainless to remove salty rust marks before they can cause greater problems.
Our “haute cusine” dinner aboard last night was Texas-style chili (with beans) and honey cornbread. We were so full we didn’t have any kind of special dessert. Maybe tonight.
All is well onboard (aside from passage fatigue) and we’re looking forward to some landfall reports and hope to see many of you soon again.