Shipping services have had a colourful history in the Cooks: companies have come and gone, ships have run onto reefs, and fortunes have been made, but more often lost. Despite the increasing use of air services, shipping is still vital to the islands for supplies. Most of the Northern Group islands are only served by ship, and throughout the islands, ships are necessary to bring in commodities and export produce.
The major obstacle for ships in the Cooks is the fact that most of the islands have such terrible harbours. The Northern Group islands' reef passages are generally too narrow or shallow to allow large ships to enter, and on the Southern Group islands (apart from Rarotonga) the passages through the fringing reefs are too small. Ships have to anchor outside the reef and transfer passengers and freight to shore by barge. At some of the islands it's not even possible to anchor offshore, because the ocean is too deep, so freighters have to keep their engines running while loading and unloading.
If you plan to explore the outer islands by ship, you need to be flexible and hardy. Schedules are hard to pinpoint and unlikely to be kept to - weather, breakdowns and unexpected delays can all put a kink in the plans. Just ask any outer islander waiting for supplies to arrive and you'll hear how unreliable the inter-island ships are. It's not unknown for a passenger's one-month stay on one of the Northern Group islands to stretch out to two months or longer - so be prepared.
Bear in mind, too, that these are cargo boats, definitely not luxury cruise liners. The berths are basic, the ships are cramped and the seas are often rough - if you're at all prone to seasickness you'll definitely spend a bit of time hanging your head over the side.
At each island, the ship usually stays just long enough to load and unload cargo. Travellers get the chance to spend a few hours visiting each island before taking off again - or you can jump off and stay for a month (or more) until the next ship. Alternatively you could buy a one-way passage and catch a flight back. Outside of Rarotonga, only the northernmost island of Pen-rhyn has a wharf; at all the others, you have to go ashore by barge.
Despite the discomforts, travelling by ship through the Cook Islands does have its romantic aspects. This may be one of the last places in the world where you can sleep out on the deck of a South Pacific island freighter, savouring the wide horizon, chatting with your fellow passengers and the captain and crew, watching the moon rise up out of the ocean and the stars above you in the velvety-warm air. Just hold onto that thought when the weather turns rough!
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