Pacific Islands, Vol. III, Sailing Directions

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Pacific Islands, Vol. III, Sailing Directions


For much of maritime history, sailors relied on their first hand experience, and hand drawn charts to plot their course across the oceans. Volumes like this, Sailing Directions for Pacific Islands, helped them not only find or avoid islands, but know their history, what they might find there, how to enter their lagoons and bays safely, and the nations who owned or occupied them.

It's interesting also to see the sources cited in documents like this, showing just how much work would have gone into a volume like this.


British Hydrographic Office



Eyre and Spottiswoode




Public Domain



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PALMYRA ISLAND* is an atoll, discovered by Captain Sawle of the American ship Palmyra in 1802, and formally annexed to Great Britain by Commander Nichols, H.M.S. Cormorant, on the 28th of May, 1889. It lies about 120 miles N.W. by W. £ W. from Washington island, and consists of many small islets occupying a space 5\ miles East and West by 1 £ miles North and South.

The atoll encloses three distinct lagoons, each having 20 fathoms water and upwards; but without openings or passes, even for boats. The islets are low, the highest being only 6 feet above the sea, and covered with bush and cocoanut trees ; the latter being from 60 to 100 feet high, render them visible from a ship's deck at from 12 to 15 miles. From a distance, the islets appear to form a group surrounding a single lagoon.

The coral reef extends l\ miles eastward of Portsmouth point, the eastern extreme of the group of islets, and at its termination it is broken up into a number of detached patches. The bank, however, extends fully 3 miles E. \ S. from Portsmouth point, with apparently from 4 to 6 fathoms, but the heavy blind rollers, breaking occasionally, renders it impossible to do more than define the edge of this bank, which falls down very steeply to upwards of 100 fathoms, the lead giving no warning of approach to danger. With Portsmouth point bearing W. £ N. 1*6 miles, H.M.S. Cormorant found less than 3 fathoms.

Strong and variable currents may be expected, and should be guarded against.

There were no inhabitants when visited by H.M.S. Penguin in 1897; but traces of former inhabitants, who occupied Strawn island, are said to exist, and such traces were also found by the officers of H.M.S. Penguin on Observatory islet, the south-western islet of the group. The observation spot, on the North point of Observatory islet, is in lat, 5° 52£' N., long. 162° 6’ W.

West bank and reefs.— Westward of the islets, a bank nearly 2 miles wide in the centre extends westward nearly 4$ miles ; it has a ridge with from 6 to 8 fathoms on its southern side, from 7 to 10 fathoms around its western end and northern side, and from 7 and 8 to U and 15 fathoms in the centre. Outside the ridge, the soundings everywhere descend with a steep gradient to depths of 100 fathoms and upwards.

The drying reef at the western end of Palmyra island is fronted for a distance of one mile by such a mass of small coral heads, some awash some with a foot over them at low water, that it is almost impossible for even a skiff to find her way amongst them. Westward of this mass of rocks, the water suddenly deepens to from 4 to 8 fathoms and offers excellent anchorage.

Anchorage.— "I* is dangerous to approach the anchorage at Palmyra island either from the northward or southward, on account of the shoal water extending nearly 2 miles westward from Sawle point on the northern side, and nearly the same distance from Palm point on the southern side.
The safest approach is from the westward. The best anchorage, for a ship drawing 18 feet water or more, is in 8 fathoms, sand and coral, with Sawle point bearing N.E. by E. £ E. and Palm point E. £ S.

Landing is bad at low water on account of the innumerable coral heads. The best landing is on the northern side of Penguin spit. At high water, a skiff can just manage to float over the reef into the western lagoon.

Wind and weather— Mr. Strawn, formerly a resident, stated that during the five months he had been on the island the rain was almost constant, four days of dry weather being the longest interval on any one occasion. There is no evidence that the island is visited by storms, but strong squalls sometimes blow from East and S.E. During the stay of H.M.S Penguin in the latter half of May, the wind was generally from N.E. to E.S.E light to moderate. Not much rain fell during that time, nor up to the middle of June whilst the ship was still in that vicinity.

Supplies. — Fish are abundant and in great variety ; turtle scarce ; curlew, snipe, and plover were found, and land crabs abound. On one of the eastern islets is a small pool which generally contains rain water.

Tides.— It is high water, full and change, at 5 h. 5 m. ; springs rise 3 feet, neaps range \\ feet.

* See chart, No. 3,045, No. 782 and plan of Palmyra island, on sheet of plans, No. 2,867.


British Hydrographic Office, “Pacific Islands, Vol. III, Sailing Directions,” Palmyra Archive, accessed July 6, 2020,