The Big Marsters Family and Other Extraordinary Encounters in Palmerston

Palmerston

Palmerston

Early in the morning we exit the narrow pass of our last French Polynesian atoll Maupihaa (or Mopelia, as the French renamed it). It is one of the places I leave with a heavy hearth. I wish we could stay longer, a lot longer- at least a month more. To make copra together with Hina, to hunt for coconut crabs in the coconut forest with Bowie and Kevin and for lobsters in the reefs at night with Io and the other guys, to cook our catch on the fire, drink homemade beer and share stories. But we have overstayed our visa in French Polynesia already, and if we want to visit all the other places on our list of Places-to-Visit and get to New Zealand before the beginning of cyclone season, we better hurry up. I wish there was no cyclone seasons, no visa limitations and life was endless, so that we could spend as much time as we like in all those places we love.

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We have another long passage of 540 nautical miles ahead of us to our next destination- Palmerston. It is another small Polynesian atoll part of the Cook Islands. The weather is good with light winds behind us and 1-2-meter swell. But nothing is ever perfect; we get a few hours of no wind and a few hours of squalls. Nothing severe, the winds reach only up to 25-27 knots. We fly the spinnaker 90% of the time in 10-15 kt East-Southeast winds.

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Shortly after sunset on the second day Ivo lands a nice tuna, which I marinade with soy sauce and black pepper and roast on the BBQ. Maya no longer refuses to eat fish, but she still doesn’t enjoy its taste the way Ivo and I do. Yet, she is now old enough to realize the benefits of fish: low-fat high quality protein filled with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins D and B2 (riboflavin), rich in calcium and phosphorus and a great source of minerals, such as iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium. But most of all- it’s free food and we save a lot by eating free fish instead of our food reserves.

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In the afternoon on the fourth day we spot a lone big whale. Or rather- he spots us and starts circling the boat, passing way to close and too fast under the hulls to investigate. It is not the first time a whale decides to play around with Fata, but so far, they have never touched the boat.

We approach our destination just as the wind picks up and turns from northwest. Our friends aboard Amelie IV – an awesome family we met in the Caribbean- advised us not to miss Palmerston and thanks to them we decided to visit the place.

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They also told us about the very particular procedure we have to follow when we get there, so we are prepared. We call on the VHF radio channel 16 and wait to see who will answer. There are three options- either Bob Marsters, Edward Marsters or Simon Marsters will answer our call. Whoever does, becomes our host and adoptive family for the entire duration of our visit. Edward Marsters answers first and directs us to one of the mooring balls near the reef. The sea is choppy with big waves crashing on the reef just a few meters away from the boat, so it’s really hard to catch the mooring. There are three other boats on the other moorings not too far away and everyone is rocking and rolling with nothing to stop the wind and break the waves, as we are outside Palmerston’s barrier reef on the west side protected only in east and southeast winds, but not in the northwest winds we are getting. We have been told that this atoll doesn’t have a pass big enough for sailboats, so visiting yachts have to remain outside.

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Upon arrival in Palmerston, which is part of the Cook Islands and New Zealand protectorate, we are supposed to check-in with customs and immigration. Before there wasn’t such an options and yachts were required to go to Rarotonga – the capital of the Cooks first and check-in there before sailing to Palmerston.

The officials are supposed to come aboard in a fishing boat, to bring all the forms we have to fill, and to stamp our passports. But the waves are so big that it is impossible for the officials or anyone to get out of the atoll. So for the first day and the first night of our visit to Palmerston we remain on the boat backing broncos in extremely choppy conditions, waiting for the wind to change direction.

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Moorings outside the atoll

The sea calms down on the second day and we are able to do all the checking-in formalities with three friendly officials native of the island: customs, immigration and health and bio control. The formalities include filling forms, getting our passports stamped, paying the fees (less than if you check-in anywhere else in the Cook Islands) and getting the boat inspected and sprayed for bugs.

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After this our host Edward takes us to the island for the first time. Navigating through the narrow shallow pass, we enter the blue lagoon full with coral heads and rocks and head for a long white sandy beach fringed with coconut palms. Another postcard-perfect beach. Fishermen are just returning from a night of fishing, bringing a load of parrot fish, jacks and some other bigger fish; unloading the boat and cleaning the fish guts right there on the beach.

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  • These are my two sons and this is my brother. -Edward introduces us to the fishermen.

Later, they let us “help” them filleting the fish under a big old tree in Edward’s backyard.

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Fishing is a great part of life in Palmerston and the local’s main source of income.

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In the past, they used to produce copra (dried coconut used in the cosmetic industry) like most of the other Polynesian islands, but today fishing is their primary activity. They are the biggest exporter of parrot fish in the area. Thanks to the arrival of electricity on the island, they can now keep their catch frozen for months until the ship-buyer comes.

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Palmerston is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world with only 57 people living there today, surrounded by miles and miles of nothing but ocean. Their nearest neighbors are 500 nautical miles away, in Rarotonga- the capital of the Cook Islands. There is no airport and the only regular transportation to and from the island is a supply ship, which comes every 6 or 8 months, if the weather is good. So the 57 inhabitants can sell their fish and order pots and pans, furniture, clothes, even basic things like sugar, flour and rice only once or twice a year.

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We head for Edward’s house. It’s a five-minute walk on a path covered with sand and broken coral in the shade of palm trees. The property is big with a few buildings; there is all sorts of stuff all over the place, laundry hanging to dry, chickens and pigs running around or sleeping in the shade.

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Edward’s house is not very big, with tin roof and plywood walls.

  • It is used as prison, if ever someone commits a crime. – explains Edward, who is also the policeman and occasionally the mayor of Palmerston.
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  • Is there crime in Palmerston? – I ask in astonishment.
  • You will be surprised.

But they- the locals- don’t like to talk about this stuff, it’s none of our business. They prefer telling the visitors about the beauty of their island and its interesting, incredible, unique history.

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Edward Marsters

In 1863 an English carpenter sailing on a wailing ship through the area decided to stay behind and live on this small uninhabited Polynesian island, less than a square mile in territory, leaving forever the civilized world. He built a house using wooden planks from shipwrecks he found on the barrier reef of the atoll, married not one but three women from another Polynesian island to keep him company and started a family on Palmerston. His name was William Marsters.

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He had a total of 23 children with his three wives and divided the island in three equal parts for each of his three wives and their descendants. His children grew up and brought wives from other islands or married their third cousins, and thus the Marsters family kept growing. Some left the island, some came back, some never left.

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Today, there are over fifteen hundred descendants of William Marsters scattered around the world. Many live in New Zealand and Australia. Of them, only 57 remain on the island, divided in three families descendants of the three Marsters wives, forming one of the most bizarre and isolated island communities in the world. All Palmerstonians are related- brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts. Everyone on the island- dead or alive- have the same family name- Marsters.

The original house built by William Marsters is still standing in the middle of the island, next to the church. He made it with the wood from ships wrecked on the reef as well as materials given to him by the passing boats who stopped in Palmerston to trade. He gave them fish and coconuts in exchange for whatever he could get.

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This practice of trading with the passing boats still continues today. We give our host many old ropes that we no longer need, some supplies, and the old kayak Agent Orange, which we no longer use, as we got a new three-seat one from our friends KayakShop.BG. Agent Orange is a 15-years-old veteran of a kayak, bent, with a big crack, which Ivo managed to fix with life seal, so he doesn’t leak, but he’s not a pretty new think either. Yet, he still floats well and still has some adventure left in him. For Edward, Agent Orange is the best thing in the world and he sings us many songs in gratitude. We also get to use his mooring ball for free and for as long as we like and we have tasty lunch at his house every day. We are also very happy to have found the ideal retirement home for a worthy old kayak, who has been with us halfway around the world, on many epic adventures. Knowing that Agent Orange is in Palmerston makes us feel really good.

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Similarly, we are happy to bestow my books to the local school. We have been sailing for nearly four years with an old small less than 11-meter catamaran full of books. A catamaran has to be light to sail well and fast. Ours is two times heavier than it should be, full with all sorts of stuff accumulated through the years. So it’s not surprising that Fat Fata is moving rather slow, with 4-5 kts average speed (especially considering that we don’t use engines a lot). When we left Galapagos for the long Pacific Ocean crossing, we noticed the boat is leaning slightly forward, which means too heavy on the bow. This can be very dangerous in bad weather and can cause the catamaran to dig in the water after surfing a big wave and flip over. So we hoped for good weather and we prepared some improvised drogues (beer crates on long ropes) to deploy from the stern in case of surfing. We also decided it’s time to dig up all the books located in the hulls of the boat and get rid of them, no matter how tragic this seams for me. I love my books. They are a good selection of classics; my favorite authors in English, Spanish and French. I nearly cry as we load on a wheelbarrow and head for the school my Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, Steinbeck and William Warton, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vergas LLosa, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Emile Zola, Marvin Harris, Gore Vidal, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Plato and Thoreau. I hope that someday, when I live in a house somewhere on land- whenever and wherever- I will find my favorite books again and keep them. I also hope the local kids will enjoy Mother India, Big Fish, and Life of Pi…

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The school principle, a New Zealand very friendly lady, and the two young teachers Joshua and Mellissa Simon who came to teach here on a two-year open contract, after teaching English in Korea and Malaysia, are very grateful for our contribution to the school. They actually can’t wait to go through my books and read some of them, as they have already read all the books in Palmerston.

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The school itself is nothing but a roof with individual desks lined up along the wall, with no windows and doors, as the temperature in Palmerston is always the same perfect 26-28 degrees all-year-round and so the windows and doors (which in other places of the world keep the heat in and the cold out or the cold in and the heat out, depending on the situation) are useless here.

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There is a football field in front of the school where Ivo and Maya play football with the kids. There are many kids in Palmerston. Half of the total population (57) or more are under 18-years-old and they are all cousins. The rest of the population are mostly older people (the grandparents). The young Palmerstonians, after graduating high school on the island, usually leave to continue their studies or look for work in Rarotonga, New Zealand or Australia. Some of them return on the island with their families, or later, when they retire. The two teenage boys I interview tell me, they are planning to continue their studies in Rarotonga, work, and return on Palmerston in their old age.

Behind the old grey house of William Marsters is the graveyard where the pioneer, his three wives, children and everyone else who died on the island in the last 150 years are buried. It is the most surreal graveyard with all gravestones bearing the same family name- Marsters.

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However, there is a division on the island, separating the three families descendants of the three Marsters wives. Each family owns equal share of land and property, including the mooring balls. Palmerston is a very special place with some very particulars rules and laws. For example, the mayor of the island changes every year rotating between the eldest person of the three families. If the eldest person steps down or dies, the next eldest person becomes the mayor, taking all the important decisions, and representing Palmerston in the Cook Islands or New Zealand.

Another local law is: strictly on immigration. No foreigner can come and live in Palmerston, bringing a strange family name among the Marsters. Except the school teachers and director, who are only temporarily here. And an Australian guy named Will.

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Will is a pale-skinned bearded guy who we mistakenly take for a fellow cruiser from one of the other sailboats the first time we meet him.

  • No, I am not a cruiser, I live here. -he explains.

Will arrived in Palmerston two years ago on a ship sailing through the area and decided to stay behind, while the ship went on, very much like William Marsters.

Escaping the complications of society and the civilized world back in Australia, and falling in love with this beautiful atoll and its peaceful people, Will started helping the locals, fixing stuff that needed fixing and living among them as one of them. This has caused a bit of a controversy, as some Palmerstonians want him to leave, while others want him to stay. But in order to stay, he figured he has to marry a Marsters girl and change his name to Will Marsters. The problem is, there are only little girls and old ladies presently available on the island, so for now he is still single with a bit of an uncertain faith. You can follow his adventures and read some thrilling updates from his daily life in Palmerston on his Facebook page Will in Paradise.

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Another unexpected meeting and an event comparable to a miracle, is with two other Bulgarians, on two of the three other boats visiting Palmerston at the same time like us. One is a guy named Patrick aboard S/V Ostrica, whose mother was from Bulgaria, and the other is Silvia Petrova sailing aboard S/V Aislado together with her New Zealand husband Vaughn and their 6-years-old daughter Zara. What are the chances three sailboats with Bulgarian sailors aboard to meet- not French, not American, not German or Australian, but Bulgarians! On the opposite side of the globe, in one of the most remote inaccessible islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Not two, but three boats, at the same time! Suddenly, the Bulgarians in Palmerston are about 10% of the entire total population on the island 🙂

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Silvia, Mira and Maya

Besides the school, the Palmerstonians also have a library, a field with solar panels and a room for batteries to store the electricity, as well as a phone and internet station. Edward told me, that if they wanted to, they could have an airport on one of the smaller islands of the atoll (there has been a project and it has been approved, ready to be financed and built by the Cook Islands and New Zealand’s governments), but the locals don’t want it. An airport might make travel easier for the people of Palmerston and it would greatly facilitate the arrival of goods on the island, but it will also bring too many unwanted complications. Like tourists and other people who aren’t Marsters. Maybe they will build a hotel next and the famous little community will become a tourist attraction. Which is something the Palmerstonians don’t want. They want to preserve their way of life the way it is and to keep their pristine lagoon and secluded island clean and beautiful for the next Marsters generation.

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  • I’ll tell you a secret- says Edward as he is bringing us back to Fata Morgana with his fishing boat, zigzagging between shallow corals on his way out of the lagoon’s barrier reef.

I wonder what kind of secret it is. The one thing missing in Palmerston where everyone knows everything about everyone, is secrets. We, the cruisers, bringing something new- a thing or a story- are the creators of short-lived secrets.

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  • So what is the secret?- I ask.
  • Well, there is a way to enter the lagoon with your sailboat and park it right in front of the beach there. There is another cut through the reef on the other side. But we don’t want the yachts anchoring in our lagoon, in front of our homes, throwing their bottles and banana peels in our clean blue waters. Same like the airport. That’s why we prefer to keep the boats on the moorings outside the lagoon where they cannot stay too long. We welcome sailors, and want to show them the best hospitality in the world; we love trading with them, like good old William Marsters and we are very spoiled, because they always bring us and give us things. But we also want to keep our island and our way of life as it is for as long as we can, do you understand?
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Watch the short video from Palmerston with interviews with the locals and the Bulgarians we met Alone on an Island With His Three Wives

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