Palmyra or Bust!
Silver Heels was so delighted to be free from anchor chains and moorings that held her captive in Hawaii; it was time to go sailing again!
We went from not a breath of wind as we powered away from the fuel dock and had to stay under power until we found some wind. Well, it was feast or famine! We went from two hours of flat calm to 25 to 35 knots of wind. It was going to be a wet and wild ride to Palmyra.
Bill and I never needed words at hurried moments of decision. Soon we had the reacher down and were sailing with the yankee and double-reefed main.
The seas were running 10 to 12 feet. Oh how we love those short and choppy wind waves! Not much we can do now but strap ourselves in our bunks and hang on.
Well, Silver Heels, you’ve got your strong ocean breeze and a good rollin’ sea! She just stood up to the wind and put her rail in the water. She seemed very content with her speed of 6 to 7.5 knots. Whenever we came off the top of one of those monster waves and we crashed down, shook and shuddered, I’d reach out and pat her insides and say, “I love you, Silver Heels!”
I couldn’t let us do a crossing without baking the traditional pizza pie! Somehow I managed with the help of my harness to get another masterpiece in our oven. All was going well, every olive in place, until the captain decided I needed his helpful hands. He removed the bubbling delight from the oven and placed it on top of the stove. We had just sat down to enjoy our first slice when we came crashing down off of a wave. Much to our horror we saw the pizza disappear down the back of the stove. What a gooey mess . . . so much for tradition.
It seemed as if I barely had time to pout before we sighted land. We caught our first glimpse of Palmyra through a rain squall. All of a sudden the sky opened up for us and the sun came out. Our first signs of life were a fleet of Booby Birds that descended on us and our fishing lure we had trolling behind the boat.
Bill had to pull our line in several times and detach the silly birds that tried to swallow the lure. “Booby” is certainly an appropriate name for these foolish feathered friends! We thought we should just pull in our line and spare the Boobies and save our lure, when wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am! We had a large tuna on the hook; it’ll be fresh sashimi tonight, baby!
We were shocked to hear that Palmyra had seven other boats in the anchorage. As we approached the long narrow channel that cuts the reef, we saw a red flag coming over the horizon. It was the self-appointed Sheik of Palmyra and his entourage to escort us through the pass.
What a beautiful sight to our tired eyes. Any earlier negative thought totally evaporated. What a lovely bunch of people with their welcoming smiles and embracing warmth. I was so happy to get here . . . I thought I would pop like a bottle of champagne!
As soon as we got the hook down, the captains and first mates off the good ships Oriana and Mystic were on their way to introduce themselves and welcome us with fresh fish and hearts of palm, freshly cut that day! Following close behind was Army, one of the three dogs who live on this uninhabited island. He swam out to the boat, and after asking permission to come aboard, he greeted us with a big, juicy lick!
Everyone was suddenly on fire with happiness! Happy, happy, happy months of cruising together; soon Oriana, Mystic, and Silver Heels would be known as the Three Musketeers and at other times the Three Blind Mice.
It was a rough trip, but at least it was quick. Our dear Silver Heels broke the record time to Palmyra. We had expected to be under sail for 8 to10 days, but it only took 6 days, in which time we logged 998 miles.
Until a year ago I had never heard of Palmyra. What a discovery. There are only a few tropical islands in the world capable of habitation in which no one lives. Palmyra is one of them and is the most northern of the Line Islands. The US claimed possession of Palmyra in 1859, formally annexing it in 1912. Today it is privately owned by Fullard Leo, who lives in Honolulu.
Most people know of Palmyra because of a pair of bizarre murders that occurred in 1974. Just recently a gal from California was tried for her involvement in the murders. Sorry to say she was released. “Boo! Guilty, I say, guilty!”
There is a more romantic part of the island’s history, including tales of buried treasure. Spanish pirates discovered Palmyra the hard way—by running aground on its reef in 1816. The pirate ship was full of Inca treasure and it is still buried somewhere on this sunny atoll. When we have gone snorkeling, I keep one eye out, looking for the twinkle of gold; I’ve yet to find it.
During World War II and for many years afterwards, the atoll was occupied by US armed forces that made improvements to it. Then in 1979 there was an attempt to establish a copra plantation. Copra is dried coconut meat from which oil is extracted. The whole project was doomed because of the low prices of copra. There certainly are a lot of coconut palms—the tree of life on Palmyra. The coconut palm is essential in every Polynesian’s life. It is used as their most important food source, as fuel, building material, medicine, basket and rope making, and even dishes and utensils.
About the same time as the copra venture, a small shellfish industry was given a try. A refrigeration ship was brought in along with traps, a fishing crew, and three dogs. It was short lived, and when the fisherman departed, the ship sank, and the three dogs were left on a deserted island to fend for themselves.
These three dogs welcomed us to Palmyra. I’m not sure when or how these delightful mongrels got their names—Army, Navy, and Palmyra. The dogs have existed all these years through their own resourcefulness, living off bird eggs and meat from coconuts, which are opened by crab and rats. They love catching and killing sharks but are unable to eat through the tough shark’s skin. They are all loves, well-mannered, and gentle.
I wish I had the time and energy to describe all the buildings and skeletons of the past that still remain on the island. A day rarely passed that we didn’t set out to explore with our machetes in hand to cut through all the heavy undergrowth. As we hacked our way through this jungle, we uncovered such finds as bunker, a crashed plane, or more abandoned equipment. There are still many dark places on the island; this is certainly a place for undiscovered secrets.
Not all of our exploring was done by land but also by sea. One particular morning we filled our backpacks with dive gear, machetes, a hardy lunch, and our camera (which unknowingly was filmless.) We invited the dog, Palmyra, to be our tour guide. The tide was very low, so we were able to walk out to the reef in ankle-deep water. We had a super time. We soon discovered that lurking under every rock was an eel. I was the rock flipper, Bill the spearer, and Palmyra was the eel herder. The rock flipper’s timing was usually off, and the spearer would be off running and leaping in chase of his prey. With all the screaming, yelling, and barking going on, I was surprised the eels did not die of fright! They were quick little buggers, but Palmyra and I eventually would get one cornered so the Great Hunter could spear it. Boy, did I get a tongue lashing from Palmyra when I let one particular eel escape. So where did it go, Dead Eye? The mystery was solved when I bent down to get my gear—the lost eel came rushing out of one of the fins and slithered up my body. Bill’s war yelps turned into uncontrollable laughter as I ran off to nail the slimy beast!
My pal, Palmyra, grew tired of this circus and went off on his own to do some serious shark hunting. We had heard stories about these dogs killing sharks twice their size.
We were about to witness this phenomenal sight. Palmyra was running tirelessly for about ten minutes after a black-tip shark before the barking caught our attention. His prey was trying to swim out to the deeper water and safety, but our wonder dog managed to control it back to shallow water where he played the game of Mongoose and Cobra until he was able to catch the shark by its dorsal fin. Then he flipped the shark up onto the beach and proceeded to chew on the shark’s gills until it could no longer breathe.
Palmyra sat so proudly next to his trophy. He barked at us impatiently to hurry up and get over there to deliver his well-deserved praise. What a heart rending experience.
The very dead shark was over five feet long and weighed somewhere between fifty and sixty pounds. Dr. Billdare said he would like to operate on the mother. Much to Palmyra’s dismay he saw his prize being cut open with a machete. We were happy to find the shark’s belly didn’t contain anyone we knew. What it did contain was six fetus sharks ready to be born. The doctor removed the first baby, which appeared to be dead from the sack. When he so professionally held it by the tail and gave it a whack, it jumped out of his hands and swam away. After giving Bill a look of disgust, Palmyra was ready to retrieve the baby shark. He soon returned with it in his mouth. Holding it up to Bill as if to say, “Here, butterfingers, don’t flub it up again.”
We bagged the sharks and invited our hero, Palmyra, to join us for a picnic lunch. Bill climbed a tree to get us some drinking coconuts. I toasted our canine friend and the doctor’s first cesarean.
These island dogs are so unbelievably well mannered; they would never think to beg for food. Palmyra sat patiently waiting for a handout. When I gave him a beef stick, he held it in his mouth for a moment before dropping in on the ground and saying to me with his eyes, “Who you trying to shuck and jive girl? That’s not fit for a dog; pass me some of that coconut!” So that’s what our dear friend gobbled up for his lunch.
The shark was indescribably tasty! You find the black tips are the ones you see a lot of around the dingy dock and on the reef. The big grays usually hang out around the outer reef.
If one feels intimidated by these voracious fish, one would never get in the water since they always seem to know where lunch is. Bill has had more than one race with a shark for the dink. Usually they never bother us until there is blood in the water from the speared fish. Although I am sure they just want to take our dinner, they make you feel that the fish is only a tasty morsel, and the person serving it is the main course!
I am happy to report there is a lot more than just fish to harvest from the seas. Here at Palmyra we really got a chance to improve our skills at amphibian farming. We were pressed in the morning trying to decide what we wanted to go diving for—giant sea clams, pen shells, or scallops. Oh, we also extended our diet from everything from periwinkles (a species of small edible sea snails) to turtle testicles.
Such sea adventures! I don’t know when I’ve ever had so much consistent excitement. What a thrill to find my first giant sea clam. The largest clam we took was about a foot and a half long, but they do get as large as four feet wide and weigh up to five hundred pounds!
We enjoyed at least a dozen meals all prepared in different ways with these sea monsters. My favorite evenings were around a campfire, indulging in one of our culinary delights, with all the dogs content to snuggle up to a friendly knee and patting hand rather than their usual evening of chasing manta rays that come in to entertain us for the evening. This was the setting of many memorable evenings, sharing salty old tales while creating new ones to come.
Life at Palmyra was usually at a trot. I always welcomed a good night’s sleep not only to rest my weary bones after a full day of diving or hiking, but also because sleep would bring tomorrow, another exciting day, that much sooner.
Before our arrival to Palmyra, we had heard wild tales about a coconut crab so large and abundant that one had to be careful that they did not get carried away by one of the crabs while sleeping at night. Three weeks had clipped by, and we had yet to see a coconut crab.
Our friends off of Ontario claimed to know where the granddaddy of coconut crabs lived. Machetes in hand we all headed to the old hospital. We hacked our way through lots of undergrowth until we came upon a small clearing with a huge grassy mound covered with ivy and rhododendrons. Unless you had a guide, such as Ed and Bernie, you would never know that the hospital was built under this cool cover. We were surrounded by an eerie quiet and a cool dampness that made me truly feel like the stranger in a strange land. Although the hospital was not visible, we could feel its presence.
As we stepped through the door, we were hit with total darkness. The flashlight came on and we could see that the building was all cement and shaped like a quonset hut. The air felt as if someone forgot to turn off the air conditioner forty years ago. The chairs and beds were stacked up as if the hospital would reopen after a summer vacation. This was a real scene for Twilight Zone.
Soon Bill, doing his imitation of Sherlock Holmes, slipped away with our flashlight, leaving his loved one to the creepy-crawlies. Bernie soon moved to my rescue. I found her hand every bit as comforting as her flashlight.
A shrill shout came from Sherlock in another room. Bernie and I found the fellows backing a bigger fella up against a wall. He had soon had enough, the tables turned, and he came right back at us with his claw extended. Coconut crabs have powerful front claws, which are used for opening the tough shells of the hard coconut. These crabs have red and blue shells and have curled tails, which make them look like a cross between a crab and a lobster. Their tails are full of a buttery coconut oil. Although the oil itself isn’t to our liking, many people consider it the best part of the crab.
Although we left the crab to continue his job as the hospital’s sentinel, we believed it was probably the biggest crab in existence. We soon discovered in the weeks to come that they get a whole lot bigger.
The Great White Hunter, Bill, wasn’t going to rest until he found a trophy crab for our table. Now that we knew the telltale signs of the coconut crab, we were finding them in abundance. I knew that Bill had discovered his prize crab when I made my way through the jungle mass of undergrowth to find him leaning up against a large boulder. We began the stupid game: “You’re hot—no you’re cold!” I was just at the point of total frustration when I let loose with a sonic scream. From under the rock came a huge claw that looked as if it could crunch my foot and spit out my toenail in one bite!
An hour later the area around the boulder looked as if we had called the air force bomber for reinforcements. It wasn’t easy but Mr. C.C. was in the bag and on his way to the pot, or so we thought!
I had quite a wrestling match—at times the crab seemed to be trying to eat me before we got a chance to eat him! He was in the pot and out again, at which time he chased me out of the galley. The Great White Hunter had to come to my rescue, and he soon had the situation under control.
The battle was won and we sat down to enjoy one of the many outrageous meals prepared from the meat of this one crab.
Although we knew it was time to be moving on, something seemed to be holding us here. We wanted to fill our freezer full of fish, perhaps some more crabs, and maybe some scallops. The weather seemed to be trying to keep us from attending to our parting pleasures. However we were happy to have the rain filling our water tanks, and it did clear long enough each day for us to go out fishing.
I don’t think I would have been quite as anxious to catch fish these last few days if I had known what was in store for us. One morning we were reeling in a nice Ulua (also known the giant Kingfish) when we saw a large grey shark of about seven feet chasing our catch. We had barely gotten the fish aboard when the shark came at us at a record speed and crashed into the dink. I didn’t even have time to faint when he came back and charged us again. He swam right into our spinning propeller. Bill, fearing he was going to spear the shear-pin, turned off the engine and raised it out of the water.
I looked at him as if I thought he had gone mad, “What are you doing, Bill? I am getting out of here!” Bill spoke to me in the mild tone of an unruffled father, “Oh ye of little faith; do you plan to walk on water?”
The shark came back for one more hit before he left in a huff. Today we felt that our decision to buy a hard fiberglass dink rather than an inflatable was probably one of the best decisions we had ever made.
The next time we went out fishing, we really didn’t think our freak shark incident would reoccur. Wrong! This time while we were reeling in our fish, the same shark caught up with it and took a big bite of it, leaving us with only half a fish! Still he wasn’t satisfied and came back twice to do his crash and burn number on us. Although the dink held up fine, I was springing leaks all over as if the shark had punctured my bladder.
Now you think this story would end there! We were down to our last day in Palmyra and wanted to spend some time trolling with a light spinning rig in an area far away from our friend “Mack the Knife.”
No sooner did we get a lure into the water when a booby bird would sweep down and hook itself. Bill, in total frustration, was yelling at the birds while standing up in the dink. He suddenly hurled the tiller extension into the water like a tomahawk. We spent the next hour swimming about without a dive mask looking for it. We finally found his weapon, and we were back underway. We wondered if we should risk trolling out through the pass and hope our shark friend was out of town.
Our decision was easily made when we noticed the dark clouds rolling our way. We were on our way back to Silver Heels when we slowed the dink down to see two large turtles that were slowly going through their mating routine on top of the water. We were so completely wrapped up in this intriguing sight that we didn’t notice the shark coming at us. Bam! he hit us so hard that he almost knocked Bill, who was standing at the time, out of the dink.
It was a total shock to us to be attacked again without any provocation, since we didn’t have any blood or fishing lines in the water. It became obvious that the shark had tuned into the sound of our dink engine and planned to follow us everywhere until he could do us in!
We took this as an omen. Samoa awaits—it’s time to depart Palmyra!
P.S. Some stories never end . . . a new and even wilder shark tale to come in my next journal.