Palmerston Island – Cook Islands

Land Ho! Palmerston Island! Refuge of the tired mariner and oasis in the vast desert of the South Pacific! We weren’t planning on stopping at Palmerston, but the captain’s analysis of the previous day’s GRIBs had him desperately looking for sanctuary from the storm we were sailing directly towards. Out came the dusty maps of the South Pacific and the decision was made, we would take our chances trying to snag one of the seven mooring balls at Palmerston.

We knew very little of Palmerston Island. We knew it was discovered by Captain Cook in the 18th century, colonized by an English sailor with three Polynesian wives in the 19th century, turned over to the descendants of William Marsters in the 20th century and was a refuge in the middle of nowhere for yachties like ourselves in the 21st century.

We also knew it was surrounded by an extremely treacherous coral reef on all sides and that at our present range of speeds, we would inescapably arrive before dawn. At about 4am we noticed a few masthead lights in the distance. The entire crew woke up to vigilantly creep towards them. The captain didn’t dare sail too close, and the decision was made to parallel the masthead lights back and forth until dawn. At about 5am, an unexpected voice with a distinct accent came crackling through the VHF, “Sailing Vessel off Palmerston Island, this is Bob Marsters on channel 16, please identify yourself….”. Two emotions that were felt by everyone on board. Surprise and relief. Surprise that someone sees us in the middle of the darkness and relief to hear a voice at the other end. The captain joyously responded, curiously asking, “what are you doing up this early to spot us in the distance?”. Bob proudly responded that the entire village was waking up to attend their daily church services and once the sun is up, we should make for buoy #4 and wait for him to come greet us after breakfast.

The captain’s original caution was well warranted when the sun finally came up. The entire island was completely surrounded by shallow reefs, and the seven mooring balls were only a few boat lengths away from calamity. We didn’t even dare take the dinghy to shore without the guidance of Mayor Bob Marsters. There is a good reason the ancient name for this island was Avarau, meaning “two hundred harbour entrances”. Pick the wrong one, however, and you are fish food.

All of a sudden, it hits you. You are on one of the most geographically remote islands in the world. You are greeted by the Mayor and taken into his home as an honored guest. You are a curiosity and a reason to celebrate, an honorary member of the family. As soon as you sit down in their home, you are served something to eat and drink. The hosts wait until you’ve had your fill before they eat, per their custom. Only about 50 boats visit this island every year, you are as much of a novelty to your hosts as they are to you. They invite you as guests of honor to a birthday party thrown for one of the island’s children. They give you a tour of the island and every door is open to you. Is this a dream?

Then you realize they have Wi-Fi and are more aware of the most recent European terror attack than you are. They have electricity, they have a school, a medical clinic, an administration building complete with polling place. The few teenagers left on the island are all checking their Facebook on their smartphones. They have a policeman (We asked what he does all day since the entire island’s 56-person population consists of blood relatives? He wakes up, goes to church, eats breakfast, goes fishing, takes a nap, watches the news, eats lunch, goes fishing again before Judge Judy comes on a 2pm and then it’s time to call it a day. Another day being the law…). Bob laments at how the kids these days would rather open up the chest freezer for pre-packaged pork chops than go fishing like their predecessors did.

By the time we left Palmerston two days later, I had very mixed emotions. Gratefulness for the incredible hospitality and yet sadness that even in a world so far away, the banes of modernity still held firm.


Sailing Bora-Tonga-Fiji

Sometimes all you need to do to realize a dream is simply work up the courage to ask

It all started with an email. A blind stab in the dark describing my newfound love of sailing and my desire to experience the world from the perspective of the sea. My selling point was that even though I wasn’t an experienced sailor, I’m a quick learner and can peel potatoes as well. I wasn’t expecting a response. Two days later when the response came, I had two very profound realizations. First, sometimes all you need to do to realize a dream is simply work up the courage to ask. Second, what the hell did I just get myself into? 1,850 nautical miles on board a 56 foot sailing yacht. Across the South Pacific. Sometimes a little bit of ignorance is required to overcome the logical risk aversion that has been ingrained in me both professionally and personally all my life. I had no time to talk myself out of it. I had three days at home to pack and work out all the logistics to get to the Bora Bora Yacht Club.

What do I bring? What do I need to buy? Do I need to bring long pants? Would my snorkel gear all fit in my duffel bag? Are there life jackets on the boat? What do I do once I land? One pair of sunglasses or two? Eventually I just threw some gear in my duffel bag, dusted off my passport and headed for the airport.

The trip out was long and tedious. It involved an unexpected stop at In-N-Out Burger and some unpleasantries involving Air Tahiti Nui, but after 24 hours of traveling I finally stepped foot on Bora Bora, a place I’ve only read about in National Geographic magazines.

My stay in Bora Bora was short. Two nights of expensive dinners at the Bora Bora Yacht Club, a day spent provisioning the boat for 12 days at sea and a day spent sitting in the Gendarmerie office, watching the locals curiously inspect posters illustrating the benefits of seatbelt usage while I learned valuable lessons in patience courtesy of the French bureaucratic machine (they seemed to drag it out even more once they realized I had an American passport).

After a few days in French Polynesia, the weather started chasing us and Tonga was still 1,500nm away. So we drank a toast to Poseidon and set sail with the prevailing winds.

About an hour after leaving Bora Bora it was pretty obvious that the open Pacific Ocean was a lot different than the reservoirs I was used to sailing in Colorado. The waves got bigger and bigger, longer and longer. The prevailing winds got stronger. The first thing I noticed once we lost sight of land was the color of the seemingly endless ocean. It was the most beautiful deep blue I have ever seen.

Once the initial excitement of setting sail wore off, the routine reality of passage making set in. Three hours on watch, six hours off. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Twenty four seven, three hours on watch at the helm followed six hours spent cooking, cleaning and sleeping. I pretty quickly came to the realization that passage making sucks.

Day one, excitement. You’re new to the boat, you’re new to the crew. You’re learning how the captain likes the guy lines rigged and how the rest of the crew like their baguettes sliced. Being tossed around as the boat succumbs to the waves is part of the adventure.

Day two, annoyance. You didn’t sleep well last night. It’s hot because all the portholes are closed while underway. Due to the heat, you didn’t put your lee cloth up when you went to bed and, therefore, you spent the night experiencing a falling sensation every five seconds. Some stray frying pan was flying back and forth in a cupboard somewhere making noise all night. Simple tasks like putting jam on a piece of bread can take minutes instead of seconds. You start wondering what you got yourself into.

Day three, you want to quit. Except you can’t quit because by now you are 300 miles from the nearest shore. You are committed whether you like it or not. There is no pause button. In your mind, you say “fuck this” about eight times a minute. You have seen nothing but water and waves for three days now. Fuck this. You realize you haven’t even completed a quarter of your passage yet. Fuck this. It’s hot. Fuck this. You are hanging on for dear life trying not to fall off the toilet. Fuck this. You’ve had scrambled eggs for breakfast for three days straight now. Fuck this.

Day four, five and six, routine sets in. You solved the rattling frying pan from day two. You’ve learned to sleep in the heat and the motion. You have a system for getting ready for your next watch. Without needing to discuss, the crew knows who gets the next round of dishes. You’ve figured out you actually like scrambled eggs if you season them with a little bit of Tabasco. You still would like to reach land soon, but you once again start to find beauty in being completely surrounded by water. At night, you notice the bioluminescent plankton glowing when the water hits the boat. You’re enchanted by the clear views of Jupiter and the Milky Way. For the first time in your life you see the magnificent and mythical Southern Cross which has guided mariners in the southern hemisphere for centuries. You’re in the zone and you can keep this going for days. Life is good once again.








The sunrise greeted me at the gate in Fort Lauderdale. While exhausted from the red eye flight that preceded it, it felt like I was getting closer and closer to the Caribbean. I spent my 6-hour layover walking up and down the terminal, drinking repeated café Cubanos. I killed time sitting at the Port Au Prince departure gate and soaking in the Haitian Creole French spoken by old ladies dressed in their Sunday best and guys looking like Congolese sapeurs.

Eventually, it was my turn to board a flight to Oranjestad and after 14 hours of cumulative travel I touched down in Aruba, greeted by a steel drum jam session and huge line at the duty-free store.

Frugal Traveler Tip:

While I typically don’t buy booze at duty free stores, alcohol on Aruba is very expensive. A 1L bottle of Grey Goose was $78 USD at the local grocery but only $40 USD at the duty-free store at the airport. If you are like me and make your own libations for the beach, definitely stop by the duty-free store.

Aruba made some strange first impressions on me. For one, I always assumed Aruba was a tropical island (it is 12o north of the equator after all), but the climate more closely resembled summer in the Colorado foothills than anything else. Instead of tropical jungle, the island is predominantly cacti and divi trees that look like they belong in the Utah desert or the African savannah. I guess the Andes make their own rules. Second, my brain had a tough time processing the cultural melting pot that makes up the people of Aruba. It probably didn’t help that on my first day on this Dutch island, I wound up at a Chinese joint where the predominantly Venezuelan clientele was cheering on an Argentinian magician (Lionel Messi), playing for a Catalonian club, who just won the Spanish Copa del Rey.

Not bad chow mein for the middle of the Caribbean

I booked this trip on IHG points, so the de facto hotel for this trip was the Holiday Inn in Palm Beach. The first night they didn’t have vacancy, though, so I stayed at the Coconut Inn in Noord. The Coconut Inn was a great little hotel, though nothing luxurious and about 2 miles away from the beach. This brings up the fundamental catch 22 of Aruba when traveling on a budget. If you are staying on the beach (like the Holiday Inn), the hotels and restaurants are going to be very expensive. If I wasn’t booking on points, the Holiday Inn runs $230 USD/night and most restaurants don’t have menu items under $18 USD (there are a few exceptions). Cheaper options exist for both food and lodging inland, but if you want to go to the beach, you need a car because the buses only run down the coast and taxis are expensive. Whoever can solve the transportation paradox can definitely travel Aruba on the cheap.

Frugal Traveler Tip:

For those staying around the Palm Beach/Eagle Beach area, if you have a means of transport, the Super Food Supermarket is a significantly nicer and cheaper alternative than any of the little markets closer to the beaches. The prices rival that of a normal U.S. supermarket and it also has a really delicious food court that serves daily specials for around $5 USD/plate. On the day I was there the special was grilled snapper with rice and carrots.

By day two, the confusion of the first day started to fade and the turquoise waters, pure white sands and palm trees I’ve imagined started to show themselves.

Not even an office with a hammock could beat this view.

My recent goal in life is to visit as many coral reefs and glaciers as I can before they suffer the same fate as the Truffula trees, and while Aruba isn’t known as a scuba diving destination, I predominantly came to this island for the diving. It’s strange how an island with such beautiful coral reefs spends so much effort promoting their ship and airplane wrecks as the main dive attractions. Don’t get me wrong, the wrecks are very cool in their own right, but reefs like these are becoming pretty rare.

There are only 10 or 11 dive operators on Aruba. I spent the week with Clive from Dive Aruba and I couldn’t be more grateful to him for showing me his beautiful island. I saw a healthy balance of reefs and wrecks and logged a little over 8 hours of cumulative bottom time.

Most of the wrecks on Aruba were intentionally sunk to create tourist attractions. The main exception to this is the SS Antilla, an actual casualty of WW2. It was a 400 ft German cargo ship which happened to be in the Caribbean when WW2 broke out. The Dutch navy was going to seize the ship but the German crew scuttled it as they were surrendering. In the end, it’s about as much of a happy ending as WW2 stories get. No one died (the captured Germans rode out the war in a tropical paradise internment camp in Bonaire) and today dive and snorkel tour operators profit from the wreck and coral reef a few hundred yards offshore.

About a 100 yards from the edge of airport runway, Aruban officials intentionally sunk two airplanes as dive attractions (either someone on the Aruban tourism committee had a very strange sense of humor or no one wanted to deal with the logistics). Legend has it the Convair 400 was confiscated from Pablo Escobar and the YS-11 was a casualty of airline bankruptcy.

The beaches on Aruba are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Arashi Beach on the northwestern tip of the island is a bit wilder, with what appears to be decent snorkeling and first come, first serve palapas. Palm Beach is where most of the high rise hotels are. It’s a bit more active with bars/restaurants, music and activities. My personal favorites were Eagle Beach and Manchebo Beach. They are a lot quieter and offer long stretches of pristine shoreline.

The windward (east side) side of Aruba has a completely different feel to it. It’s wilder and rougher with a landscape that more closely resembles the desert of Utah than anything else. A good part of the windward side of the island is inaccessible by a 2WD car, except for parts of Arikok National Park which has one paved road.