A YOUNG ADVENTURER ON PENRHYN

Falling in love with Penrhyn...while aiming to be the youngest person to row single-handed across the Pacific

24 year old Tom Robinson from Brisbane, Australia was rowing alone across the South Pacific when he landed by chance on Penrhyn (aka Tongareva). He had been swept off course during his voyage from Peru to Australia missing the Marquesas in French Polynesia and instead discovering one of the most remote places on the planet. His was the first international boat arrival at the island since 2019.  

A DREAM CUT SHORT...BUT MEMORIES TO LAST A LIFETIME
Tom was aiming to become the youngest person to complete the voyage of 8.500 nautical miles single-handed spending 12 months on  his boat 'Maiwar' that he designed and built himself. Sadly, his dream came to an end when his tiny craft was overturned by a huge wave near Vanuatu as he was on the final leg of his voyage and he had to be rescued. But he has​ memories to last a lifetime from his time on Penrhyn. These are extracts from his blog which provide a unique outsider's insight.
Extracts reproduced with Tom's permission. Photos are his copyright

ARRIVING IN "A  SPECIAL PLACE"

When I finally neared Penrhyn Island and could make out the green tops of the coconut palms, I was met by the island work barge (a large aluminium punt with two great outboard motors), and a boat full of jolly people.  With my biggest smile, I threw them my heaviest line (purchased specifically for this eventuality), and was towed through the dangerous Takuua pass on the eastern side; this was my first taste of land in over five months.  I greedily feasted my eyes and imagination on what was a sensory overload of natural beauty:  vegetation, sandy beaches and shallow, crystal-clear water.  Truly breathtaking.  We passed a family heading the other way in their aluminium dinghy, bamboo fishing rods hanging over the stern.  They waved at me with enthusiasm and grace.  The tow continued past the eastern village, Tetautua, where many of the locals came out of their houses to wave as we went past; instantly I realised that this was going to be a special place.
I felt a strong sense of trepidation as I stepped ashore ...“I hope they’re a friendly bunch”, I thought to myself. Well, friendly, or any other complimentary adjective, would be a terrible understatement for the people of Penrhyn. Despite entering abruptly into an isolated and tightly-knit community, never once have I felt like an outsider, or been made to feel so. Nor is there any outsider-admiration; of course, my arrival helped to endear me to the people here, but I don’t believe I am perceived as being any different. The people of Penrhyn know, perhaps better than anybody, that we are all brothers and sisters on this earth

Upon my arrival I was given my Penrhyn name, Mahutahoehoeasanga, 'the warrior that has paddled from afar'

LIFE AMONG THE LOCALS

Penrhyn cyclone shelter

"I have very kindly been accommodated in the brand new ‘Tarakore’ cyclone centre. This building is the largest on the island, save for the Church, and was officially opened less than 12 months ago. It serves as the administration centre for the village of Omoka, as well as being a rather well fitted shelter in the case of a natural disaster...This is where the 180 or so inhabitants of Omoka will stay if a cyclone ever approaches; a small but serious risk..The Cyclone Centre’s central location means that I really am in the heart of the hustle and bustle of downtown Omoka, sometimes I even have to look left and right before crossing the gravel road, and the mornings when the bank is open, sometimes as many as six bikes can be seen parked in its vicinity.

Penrhyn home

Just about every home here was built by the man who occupies it. There seems to be a rather continuous cycle of new construction as the older homes crumble. In fact, there are currently five new houses under construction in Omoka, not bad for a town with a population of less than 180. Of course, due to the isolation here, it can take a very long time to get the required materials to finish a house, as everything has to be imported. The homes here would be considered small by western suburban standards, but, as much of the living here is done outside, they are plenty large enough. Many families will set up a table under the frangipani tree in the front yard, lay down some mats, and while away the afternoon hours, sometimes sleeping outside under the stars, as perhaps we all should be

Inside a Penrhyn home

Walking into a Penrhyn home is always a delight. The louvres are constantly funnelling the cool breeze, and everywhere you look, there’s evidence of creativity and self sufficiency. All the curtains, cushions, bedding and much of the clothing is sewn on the island, the more colour the better! Most of the furniture is handmade as well, and exudes a spartan simplicity that I have come to really appreciate. Nobody, the world over, needs a couch comfier than a Penrhyn one. These lounges are all constructed from packing case timber and offcuts. I think it’s wonderful that just about every Penrhyn man knows how to build a lounge and an adirondack chair, he knows how to enjoy them as well, to properly relax.

Simple living on Penrhyn

What strikes one most about Penrhyn living, and a Penrhyn home, is the lack of excess. For sure everyone here could build bigger homes, fill them with more things, then claim to be better off. But thankfully, armed with a certain level of serenity, life here is good and simple. It’s oh so easy to forget that beyond the horizon, on the other side of the Pacific, lies a world of competition, greed, and luxury for luxury's sake. I hear it often, the people of Penrhyn appreciate what they have. 'Life is good here, everything is free; the fish, the coconuts and the land.'
We could all learn a thing or two from Penrhyn life."

"​Perhaps you may wonder, and you could be forgiven for doing so, how on earth one staves off the boredom in such a small place. Alas, boredom! No chance here. The people are experts at maintaining a strict calendar of activities throughout the year, all of which are centred around the church. I have taken a rather zealous approach to my involvement in these activities. During the Christmas and New Year period it was easy, everything was new and exciting and I was caught up in a whirlwind of church, singing, camping, eating and exploring.

" Things have now settled down and I’m still as busy as ever. Work has re-commenced on the reverend's new house and I’m part of the building team. I started my first day on the job site as the assistant to the plaster mixer, I've now graduated to independent plaster mixer! Work starts at nine and finishes about four, with a top notch kai kai (lunch) prepared by the mamas each day

NO TIME FOR BOREDOM

"​Perhaps you may wonder, and you could be forgiven for doing so, how on earth one staves off the boredom in such a small place. Alas, boredom! No chance here. The people are experts at maintaining a strict calendar of activities throughout the year, all of which are centred around the church. I have taken a rather zealous approach to my involvement in these activities. During the Christmas and New Year period it was easy, everything was new and exciting and I was caught up in a whirlwind of church, singing, camping, eating and exploring.

" Things have now settled down and I’m still as busy as ever. Work has re-commenced on the reverend's new house and I’m part of the building team. I started my first day on the job site as the assistant to the plaster mixer, I've now graduated to independent plaster mixer! Work starts at nine and finishes about four, with a top notch kai kai (lunch) prepared by the mamas each day...Filleting fish. Ironing my shirt for Sunday. Swimming with the kids. Sailing my new little dinghy on the lagoon. Singing in Sunday school. Attending two funerals. Even sitting through a three hour Penrhyn Māori church service. It’s all part of the fun here. There’s also time to just sit, chat and drink a coconut under the shade of a tree. 

NO TIME FOR BOREDOM

Singing the night away

Twice during the working week we have church at 6am and every night practice is on. You see, on Gospel Day later this month, the two teams in Omoka, ‘Old Town’ and ‘ New Town’, will be going head to head in singing, drumming and traditional dancing. The girls must learn their new dance routines, the young men their drumming, and everyone else the new songs that have been composed especially for the event. So, five nights a week from 8 until 10 I sit with my group, New Town, and we sing the night away. On the weekends I have Saturday to do some writing, reading or bicycling, then Sunday is perhaps the busiest day. Church is three times and Sunday school is twice, often there is also an entire village biblical debate, or a parade for the boys brigade, girls brigade and girl guides"

"A PERFECT SLICE OF PARADISE"

Remarkable seems an inadequate way to describe Tom's voyage.  And Penrhyn clearly left a deep impression on this young adventurer

"​Each morning I rise, open the front door, the trade winds bowl in and the curtains start to dance. I look out over the blue lagoon and appreciate just how lucky I am to have ended up here, although, as I am often told, and am slowly learning, it wasn’t luck at all that set me ashore on Penrhyn Island. A more perfect slice of paradise may not exist".

But Tom was also keen to explain that his journey was not just about him.

"​I see my voyage as a great opportunity to encourage other people, young and old, to live a more adventurous life. I want to promote a more grassroots approach to voyaging than current societal norms dictate, demonstrating that anyone with the right attitude can build a simple boat, and with this they can pursue their own adventure"

These are just a few extracts from Tom's voyaging blog. It's fascinating and engaging. You can read all of it here

LISTEN TO TOM TALKING ABOUT HIS TIME ON PENRHYN

Kukicast is the podcast all about the Cook Islands. In this episode, Tom Robinson talks about his welcome on Penrhyn, the islanders who made his stay so memorable and reflects on how it's all impacted him

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