Small atoll, big community

August 2016

Splashing alongside Red Thread’s hull raises my attention, and I pop up to investigate. A most colorful fish swims alongside our boat, a grin spread across its face. “Hi there! I’m Betty-Ann. You can call me B-A, as in bad ass.”

“I like her already,” I thought to myself.

Every morning, B-A climbed from her canoe-stern sailboat, s/v Confidence, and swam around the anchorage. Bad ass was a fitting nickname for her. Given that dozens of sharks patrol the anchorage, B-A seemed pretty brave to me, especially after our close encounter with grey sharks during our scuba dive at Perfect Reef.

Suwarrow was arguably the most remote destination of our voyage, not in distance from other land masses, but in access to services and amenities. Rapa Nui (Easter Island) was separated from land by nearly 2,000 nm in any direction, but there were shops and an airport and a couple thousand inhabitants. Suwarrow, on the other hand, fluctuates from a resident human population of zero to a whopping two, depending on the season, and is only boosted by the yachties who call on the atoll for a few days or weeks outside cyclone season.Building community afloat
One of the great ironies of traveling is the sense of community that blooms among wanderers during brief and unexpected rendezvous. I had discovered the phenomenon while backpacking by myself across Europe and India during my twenties. I learned that it was easy to spot other solo travelers, all of whom held the potential to become a new friend, or at least a comrade who might share a beer. I commonly shifted plans to spend more time with new people who were strangers just days or even hours earlier, making physical and psychological aloneness rare.

Most unexpectedly, we had discovered that cruising is not so different.

Every boat whose anchor drops nearby holds the potential for friendship, a fellow traveler whose route might be similar to ours (or whose plans are yet to be solidified) and whose company we might enjoy. Interpersonal chemistry between crews does not always materialize, but the willingness of cruisers to try to connect exceeds that of land life tenfold (I’ve lived for years in apartment buildings where I literally felt connected to no one).

In contrast to backpacking, however, we spend a great deal of physical time alone with our boat sailing between ports. Perhaps surprisingly, our isolation is almost exclusively physical. In our experience, when genuine bonds form among sailors, they build quickly and to last. Neil and I may have been crossing the world’s largest ocean alone, but emotionally we were enveloped within a tightly knit community of other boaters, and the sense of community buoyed us during struggles and kept loneliness at bay. There was always at least one other boat somewhere in the world that was listening out for our position updates on the single sideband radio or following our DeLorme inReach track. We were connected to something bigger than ourselves, no matter how tiny our boat felt as it bobbed about the big ole ocean.

And this brings me back to our new friend, B-A.A birthday celebration Suwarrow style
B-A was to celebrate her birthday on Suwarrow with a gaggle of fellow cruisers, most of whom she had just met, and two park rangers. Plans for a potluck beach party commenced. We hung the FELIZ CUMPLEAÑOS banner we’d been toting since Mexico between two palm trees and outfitted B-A with the birthday tiara and sash I’d held onto since my 30th in Seattle. The crews of six boats—Confidence, Sarita, Miss Catana, Prince Diamond, Morning Light, and us—joined the celebration. We all brought a nibble to share, and Jude from s/v Sarita won the award for best dish hands down. She prepared a divine hor d’oeuvre from the two lobsters that Neil and Richard had harvested from the reef during a moonlight spearing expedition the night prior. Deeeeeliiiiisssssh! I baked a birthday cake and used homemade frosting to create a colorful image depicting the atoll and the sea, which looked very much like a kindergarten art project.

A BBQ grill was ferried ashore by dinghy and music played while we chatted, watched the sunset, and sipped rum cocktails and beer, thankful for a wonderful reason to celebrate and settled weather to enjoy the occasion. As the night grew long and the buzz of tropical bliss and booze hummed across our gathering, Harry, Pae, and Richard played their guitars as we sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road” beautifully offkey, out of sync, and with improvised words. It was truly magical night, topped off with Harry and Pae singing Cook Islander songs in their native tongue. Making the most of fleeting days
A weather window to sail for Niue was beginning to materialize. Our days on Suwarrow were numbered, so we did our best to make them count. Mornings were spent working on boat projects, our afternoons were for lounging ashore and snorkeling, and our evenings were for singing around a campfire and prowling for coconut crabs.

After our disconcerting experience at Perfect Reef, though, snorkeling made me an edgy and unpleasant buddy. No less, I was persuadable, and Neil and I swam the short distance from our boat—beneath which a herd of blacktip sharks had taken up residence—to a reef beyond the anchorage. Angelfish and Achilles tangs poked along the small, shallow reef and a school of black fish hovered around the remnants of a boat that lie in a watery grave.Another morning, we dinghied to an area where manta rays sometimes congregate. The water was so clear that it was easy to spot dark telltale wings gliding below us. We flung ourselves overboard, letting our eagerness to be in the company of the majestic animal supersede our trepidation about grey sharks (which we spotted soon after we got in the water…). Unlike the mantas we saw in Bora Bora and Maupiti, we managed to capture an image of this one’s underbelly, which is essential for identification, like a fingerprint. We submitted it to the Manta Trust and were thrilled to learn that we had sighted a young female who had never before been documented! We were granted the honor of naming her. Given that manta rays are viewed as spirit guardians in Polynesian culture, we called her “Denise Dawn Ann” in tribute to three beloved women in our life who have been confronted with very difficult challenges in recent years. During our last afternoon on the island, Pae treated us with lessons in opening coconuts and, much to our amusement, a crash course in self-defense. Without question, it was Katya’s performance that was most impressive. Barely 13, s/v Sarita’s youngest crew member managed to flip her father onto the sand like a pancake, repeatedly! I was rather chuffed with myself when Neil met the same fate.

Our verdict on Suwarrow
Despite our initial reservations, Suwarrow won a precious place in our hearts and memories and was absolutely worth the trek. Many, many months later, after we were settled in Australia, we rendezvoused again with David and B-A during their visit from Canada. This time, for dinner at a restaurant in one of Melbourne’s chic laneways. And for a couple of hours, we were transported from a city of millions to a special little atoll in the South Pacific, where B-A was a tropical fish, giant crabs roamed the night, sharks were a little too curious, and a small community of near-strangers celebrated like old friends.

Even today, years later, when I think of Suwarrow, the first face I see is B-A.Cruising commentary
The anchorage at Suwarrow is riddled with bommies and half of our fellow cruisers grappled with being snagged, though most of us were able to motor off. The exception was Scott on s/v Morning Light. He had anchored further southeast, as he’d read about the bommies in the main anchorage area. Unfortunately, there were bommies below him as well, but he was anchored in 75-feet (23 meters) of water, whereas the rest of us were in 40 to 50. Neil and Richard from s/v Sarita bravely saved the day by diving deep into the shark-infested waters to manually disentangle his chain.

Suwarrow anchorage waypoint: To be added after we confirm on our chartplotter.

4 thoughts on “Small atoll, big community

  1. Thank you for the memories. When we reflect back on our offshore adventures we often say that this place topped the list – for the natural wonder of the place and the frienships we made! BA & David are alive and well, sailing in the Pacific Northwest on a new boat – Moonshadow VI. Confidence has a new owner and is in the Mediterranian on her way to Scotland!

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    • A special place indeed!!! We love trying to keep track of you as you continue your adventures. The PNW will always hold a precious place in our hearts and one day, we will find ourselves again in those waters!! It LOVE to hear that Confidence is continue to voyage as she was made to do. I imagine that feels really good to the two of you as well. Hugs to you both! -Jessie & Neil

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    • Thanks for following and for your kind words 🙂 it means a lot. Someday, probably many years from now, we hope to get back that way and explore Baja, too!! Perhaps our paths will one day cross! All the best in your adventures! -Jessie

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