What You Need to Know About Sailing in the Cook Islands
Located between French Polynesia and Tonga, the atolls of the Cook Islands offer a welcoming stop on the Transpacific journey for yachties. With the country’s main hub, Rarotonga, clearing 150 yachts per year during the sailing season between May and October, the Cook Islands is a little less visited than other South Pacific Islands, but that’s what makes the country all the more enticing – especially it’s far-flung lagoons with minuscule populations. So, find out about the atolls to visit, the clearance procedures and more in this complete sailing guide to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands.
5 Quick Tips for Sailing in the Cook Islands
- Yachts are not encouraged to sail or remain in the Cook Islands during the cyclone season, between November and April.
- Note that fees are more expensive than you might be prepared for: approximately NZ$2.30 per metre per day for single-hull and NZ$3.30 per metre for multi-hull plus departure tax of NZ$71.77 per person.
- Some of the islands take Sunday restrictions very seriously, especially in the Northern Group. Respect local customs by not operating dinghies or arriving/departing on a Sunday
- You need to seek clearance for each island you visit; not just your initial port of entry
- Suwarrow is a popular yachting destination but not an official port of entry: you need to submit an alternative form to Customs plus obtain permission from National Environment Services – more details on all of that are in the guide below.
Where to Sail in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is made up of 15 islands split into two island groups, the Northern Group and the Southern Group. Islands are quite dispersed compared to other island groups in the South Pacific, for example, Penrhyn (locally known as Tongareva) is 1,365km (848 miles) northeast of the nation’s capital, Rarotonga. Find out more about the different islands in What are the 15 Islands in the Cook Islands?
The Cook Islands can be included in Transpacific sailing itineraries, where most yachts approach from the east from Bora Bora or Tahiti in French Polynesia. The journey between Bora Bora to either Rarotonga or Suwarrow is approximately four days – see sailing times in How Long Does it Take to Sail to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands?.
Sailing Routes in the Cook Islands
Popular sailing routes in the Cook Islands include:
- The Southern Group – Start in Rarotonga and sail to either or both Aitutaki and Palmerston
- The Northern Group – Starting in French Polynesia, possible stops would be Penrhyn, Manihiki, Suwarrow and possibly Pukapuka
- Northern and Southern Groups – Start in Rarotonga and continue to Palmerston, Suwarrow and then Pukapuka.
Sailing to Penrhyn (Tongareva)
As one of the remotest atolls in the Cook Islands, the locals of Penrhyn are extremely welcoming to visiting yachts. Just remember to respect Sunday customs of not using dingies at all. Make sure that you also get permission before visiting other “motu” (islets) around the lagoon. There is a dock at the village of Omoka where you can anchor in calm weather and go through clearance.
Learn more about visiting Penrhyn in The Complete Travel Guide to Penrhyn.
Sailing to Suwarrow
Suwarrow is the Cook Islands’ only national park and offers a gorgeous anchoring point at the aptly named Anchorage Island. This is the only anchorage here permitted for visiting yachts. The atoll can only be visited between June 1 and November 1 each year. Bringing supplies to the park rangers/caretakers of the national park would be greatly appreciated.
Find out more about visiting Suwarrow in The Complete Travel Guide to Suwarrow.
Sailing to Palmerston
With a population of only 30-60 people, the community of Palmerston are extremely welcoming to visiting yachts, as their island is otherwise difficult to get to for visitors.
There are moorings on the lee side of the island where a small passage allows the island’s small boats to come and pick you up. You need to call Palmerston Island Administration on VHF Ch.16 with your approximate time of arrival.
Learn more about the pristine atoll in The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston.
Sailing to Rarotonga
Rarotonga is the most populated island in the Cook Islands and the main service centre. Repair facilities and yacht services are limited to this island, so it’s a good place to start and stock up before long voyages – check out the Information, Shops & Services on Rarotonga for services that might be helpful.
Berthing instructions for the Avatiu Harbour can be obtained from the Harbour Master on VHF Ch.16 or through the Coast Station Radio Rarotonga (Call sign E5R). As for experiencing Rarotonga as a visitor, the island has a vibrant tourism industry with resorts, villas, plenty of places to eat, guided tours, hiking trails, dive shops and much more. Head to The Complete Travel Guide to Rarotonga to start planning your visit.
More Islands to Sail to in the Cook Islands
While those are our top picks for islands to sail to in the Cook Islands, be sure to compare all of your options in The Best Islands to Visit in the Cook Islands.
Clearing Customs for Yachts in the Cook Islands
Cook Islands Customs requires that all yachts arriving in the Cook Islands from overseas must submit an Advance Notice Advice (ANA) form at least 48 hours prior to their ETA. This form is available at the Cook Islands Ministry of Finance & Economic Management website and must be returned to firstname.lastname@example.org using the file name format [ANA, name of craft, voyage or sail number if available, estimated time of arrival into the Cook Islands]. Failure to provide an ANA is a criminal offence.
Note that if you’re visiting Suwarrow before you’ve cleared at an official Cook Islands port of entry, then you are technically still allowed to anchor if you have provided a “Cook Island border agencies application for marine craft to arrive at or depart from a place outside of a designated Customs port” application via the same email above. You will still go through a clearance process and pay the appropriate fees.
Ports of Entry in the Cook Islands
The ports of entry in the Cook Islands are as follows:
- Rarotonga: Avatiu Harbour – 21o 12′ South, 159o 47′ West
- Aitutaki: Arutanga – 18o 51 South, 159o 49′ West
- Penrhyn: Omoka 08o 51′ South, 158o 03′ West
- Pukapuka: 10o 50′ South, 165o 50′ West
- Manihiki: Tauhunu – 10o 25′ South, 161o 03′ West
- Manihiki: Tukao – 10o 22′ South, 161o 02′ West
- Atiu: Taunganui – 19o 59′ South, 158o 08′ West
Yacht Clearance Process
On arrival to any port of entry in the Cook Islands, yachts must fly the yellow Q flag and report to Customs immediately. The skipper must present the passports, clearance from the last port, crew list, as well as a general declaration and details of the yacht: all paperwork that needs to be presented can be found in the Cook Islands Customs Service (CICS) Fact Sheet 2. All crew must remain on board until the boat is cleared.
For typical biosecurity restrictions, check out What to Declare When Arriving in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Visitors get a free 31-day visa upon entry into the Cook Islands. Visas can be extended on a monthly basis up to a maximum of three months. Visa extensions must be applied for at least 14 days before the visa expires. Extensions can only be obtained on Rarotonga.
Find out more about the visitor visa in our guide to the Cook Islands Tourist Visa and How Long Can You Stay in the Cook Islands on a Visitor Visa?.
All yachts are required to provide clearance papers for each island visited in the Cook Islands. Even if you have cleared immigration with the Ports Authority on Aitutaki or Rarotonga, you will need to go through an immigration, health, biosecurity and landing process (with fees) via the relevant Island Administration. Yachts may not visit any islands in the Cooks other than ports of entry without permission from Customs and Immigration.
For visiting Suwarrow, you should also obtain permission from the resident Park Administrator (National Environment Services), as well as complete the alternative Customs form mentioned above.
Yachts are required to inform Customs of clearance at least 72 hours before intended departure. CICS Fact Sheet 3 provides details on the forms that should be completed on departure. Once you have been issued a Certification of Clearance, you must leave immediately and not sail to another island in the Cook Islands.
More About Sailing in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
That’s it for our complete guide to sailing in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. More tips for travellers arriving by yacht can be found in the following guides:
- The Duty-Free Allowances for Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- Taking Food to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: What You Need to Know
- Information, Shops & Services in the Cook Islands
Finally, plan your whole trip to the Cook Islands using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide and the 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.