Palmerston Island is a Cook Islands atoll West Northwest of Aitutaki just over 200 miles. It sits at 18 degrees South and 163 degrees West. It is home for just over 50 Marsters. It has been the highlight of our cruising experience so far and it has had the same impression on most of the visiting cruising boats we have asked. Plamerston has a tradition of welcoming cruising yachts going back to the late 60s. When you arrive you are met by a member of your host family who will show you where to anchor and give you lift to the island. Your host family will feed you, show you around the island and atoll and even offer to do your laundry. They say they want to think you are a part of the family but it feels more like you are an honored guest.
The island was settled by William Marsters in 1862. He brought his three wives he had collected from around western Polynesia and set them up on Palmerston Island. He built each wife a house and a house for himself. As each family grew he divided the land between the three families and set up rules for island government and inter-marriage.
Today the Island Council, made up of community elders, addresses island politics and the island mayor addresses day to day matters. Two additional governmental representatives on the island handle coordination with Rarotonga to ensure good relations and proper use of government resources. The Cook Island capital of Rarotonga has had financial trouble in recent years so there isnt a lot of help provided but Palmerston doesnt need much they weather these lean times OK.
There are some shared facilities on "Main Street" that are for the community. The famous driftwood church was damaged in the last hurricane and it has been replaced with an attractive modern church. William Marsters driftwood house is still behind the church and gives a feel for the early structures. They were built from the timbers of early shipwrecks and are quite heavily constructed. The water catchment is an open community area with 2 large tanks that collect rainwater from the roof for the community during droughts. Most homes have their own water catchments but after several months they run dry and the community system is used. A 2 room school is built on the land of one of the families. It currently sits idle because they dont have a teacher. If you are an accredited teacher wishing for a 1 year assignment in paradise this is your chance.
Palmerston Island is surprisingly civilized for such a remote island. All homes have electricity from 6 to 12 in the morning and the evening provided by a community generator supplied by the government. The island pays maintenance and fuel through a charge based on electric meters on each house. Many houses have TVs and VCRs and movies are a big hit with the locals. Almost every house has a freezer though few have refrigerators and some have automatic washing machines.
The freezers are important because the cash crop of Palmerston Island is Parrot fish. The Parrot Fish is plentiful and safe to eat at Palmerston. They sell the frozen Parrot fish fillets to Rarotonga for $14 NZ a kilo which is a little over $3 US a pound. It is a lucrative catch but they have a big problem getting the supply ship to call regularly and being as the ship doesnt have a freezer it must come on its way back to Rarotonga which it rarely does so they have a hard time getting their product to market. Though the Parrot fish seemed very plentiful to me they tell me that the population is depleting so there is also concern that they will over fish the reef.
The Government provides support in the form of direct aid like the generator, in public works projects like the community water tank and school, and in pay for the three government positions. An important form of support comes from visiting yachts. As the season progresses early visitors call by radio to their friends following with requests for items needed on the island. We brought a case of milk for a new born baby. Yachts bring food, clothing, toys, school supplies, tools and know how which greatly benefit the island community.
The day we arrived they were dividing up their monthly take of baby Boson Birds. They collect the birds to supplement their diet of primarily fish and coconuts. They collect the birds once a month taking only the full grown birds that have not yet grown their flight feathers. This ends up being about ¼ of the young birds so they dont deplete the population.
Everyone on the island gets a share so we received a share of the birds which our host family prepared for us on the second night. We didnt care for it that much but they love these birds and it is a big treat to eat them.
When you are preparing to go to Palmerston it is best to stop first at Aitutaki or Rarotonga. These are official ports of entry for the Cook Islands and they will provide you with official permission to visit Palmerston. Without this permission you may still stop at Palmerston but you may be asked to limit your stay to just a few days. You may call Palmerston radio ahead of time on sideband at 1830 utc on 4038 MHz. This is not quite an official marine frequency but it is what they use to talk to Rarotonga so jump in and tell them you are coming. It is best to do this before you leave Aitutaki or Rarotonga so they may request needed items or ask you to carry mail or even people if you dont mind. We arranged for our friends Buddy and Ruth on Annapurna to carry someone from Rarotonga and, though we didnt know it at the time, he was the mayor of Palmerston and they were treated to a big feast when they arrived.
It is a good idea to bring things for the people on the island. Once there you will be so overwhelmed with their hospitality that you will be happy you have a lot of stuff to give them in return. The best things are clothes, staple foods like rice and flour, gasoline (as much as you can carry), VHS movies and educational tapes and toys for the children. Dont bring alcohol, firearms or ammunition but do bring fishing tackle and line. As you get close to Palmerston call on VHF 16 any time of the day or night and they will come out to meet you and show you where to anchor.
A final plea for a teacher. This could be the greatest experience of your life. A year in paradise where you could teach children of all ages. The children were very intelligent and the native language of the island in English
It is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled places on earth.
The community is friendly and fascinating. There are some tensions between individuals but if 50 members of my family lived on an island together it would no doubt be worse. If you think you might be interested you may write the mayor of Palmerston at:
Be patient for a reply because the ship doesnt run very often.