The Wayback Machine -
Kingman Reef

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Kingman Reef lies 382 nautical miles north of the equator. It is about 33 miles northwestward of Palmyra Island and 925 miles south by west of Honolulu.

It is a triangular, atoll-like reef and shoal about 9.1/2 miles east and west by 5 miles north and south, of which all but the eastern end is now submerged. This leaves exposed a V-shaped bit of reef, with shoals to the westward. Within the line of reef and shoals is a triangular lagoon, about 7 by 4 miles, with depths up to 270 feet.

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Much of the reef is awash at low tide, and there are places, especially toward the eastern end, where it dries. The highest elevation is a low pile of bare brown coral, northwest of the eastern point, which varies in size and height, as storms pile up or wash away material. At the western end of the shoal is a patch with less than 25 feet of water over it, on which waves break occasionally. Outside this submerged atoll the slopes drop steeply to 2,000 feet or more.

The area supports a rich marine fauna, including large numbers of fish. There is no land flora. Some coconut palms, planted in 1924, were still alive in 1926, but it is not known if they have survived.

As described under Palmyra, the first recorded discovery of Kingman Reef was made by Captain Edmund Fanning, in the American ship Betsy, June 14, 1798. In his entertaining "Voyages and Travels," Fanning relates how, after his discoveries of Fanning and Washington Islands, during the night of June 13-14, he had a premonition of danger, and going on deck, he had the ship heaveto. Daylight showed them close to a reef, upon which undoubtedly they would have struck had he not stopped the ship. 

He described it as a "coral reef or shoal, in the form of a crescent, about six leagues in extent from north to south; under its lee, and within the compass of the crescent, there appeared to be white and shoal water. We did not discover a foot of ground, rock, or sand, above water, where a boat might have been hauled up ..."

Kingman Reef was named for Captain W. E. Kingman, who discovered it in the American ship Shooting Star, of Boston, on November 29, 1853. He reported this discovery in The Friend (Honolulu) for September, 1855, page 69. He said that it was near the spot assigned to "Danger rock" on some charts, and added that it would be "very dangerous to approach in the night, particularly with a light wind and smooth sea, as such there would be no breakers visible until a ship was so near as to be in considerable danger."

Under the name of "Danger" it was among the islands listed as claimed by Americans under the Guano Act of 1856.

It was visited in 1859 by the ship Alice Thorndike, and in some accounts is called by that name.

A report regarding the reef is given in The Friend for October 1872, by Commander Nathaniel Green of the U.S.S. Resaca, which visited it August 31, 1872. He says, "It is certainly a dangerous reef, the discoloured water being observed to extend eight or nine miles, the sea combing over the ridge of the reef for a space of about three miles in an E.N.E., and W.S.W. direction. Several patches of white sand and coral were observed from the top, even with the water's edge."

June 22, 1874, the British steamship Tarta, Captain J. S. Ferries, on the Australian-Americana run, struck the reef. After two days she got off, and arrived at Honolulu June 28, 1874.

On April 16, 1888, the British iron barque Henry James, Captain Ralph Lattimore, was wrecked on this reef. The eleven passengers and crew, thirty in all, were safely transported in small boats to Palmyra Island. From here the first mate, Donald McDonald, the boatswain, and three seamen made their way to Apia, Samoa, 1300 miles in 19 days, arriving in an exhausted condition. Here they chartered the schooner Vindex to make the rescue. Learning of the wreck, Captain H.M. Hayward took the S.S. Mariposa out of her course and rescued passengers and crew on May 29. The Vindex arrived thirteen days later. Despite their experiences, all enjoyed good health. Full accounts of wreck and rescue are given in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser for June 2, and the Gazette for June 5, 1888.

January 16, 1893, the Hawaiian barque Lady Lampson struck the reef. A careful survey of this region in 1897 by the British naval vessel Penguin showed that it must be the same as Caldew Reef, and Maria or Crane Shoal, reported in 1863 by Captain Crane of the schooner Maria. These names appeared on charts of this region, but have been removed.

The American flag was hoisted over Kingman Reef, May 10, 1922, by the late Lorrin A. Thurston, at the request of Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo. He took formal possession by reading a proclamation of annexation, and leaving a record of the proceedings, a certificate of possession the flag, and copies of the Honolulu Advertiser and Star-Bulletin of May 3, 1922, in a glass jar, deposited at the base of a cairn of coral slabs about four feet high. The party consisted of Captain Herman Charles Lemmel, John L. Padgett, L.A. Thurston, D. D. Thaanum, Ted Dranga, Manuel Vasconcellos, and a crew of six. At the time of annexation, the land was described as "a pancake of dead coral" about 90 feet wide, 120 feet long, and 5 or 6 feet high at low water.

The proclamation, which now is preserved in he Archives of Hawaii reads: "Be it known to all people: That on the tenth of May, A.D. 1922, the undersigned agent of the Island of Palmyra Copra Co., Ltd., landed from the motorship Palmyra doth, on this tenth day of May, A.D. 1922, take formal possession of this island, called Kingman Reef, situated in longitude 162 degrees 18' west and 6 degrees 23' north, on behalf of the United States of America and claim the same for said company."

In June, 1926, the U.S. Navy sent the U.S.S. Whippoorwill to visit Kingman Reef, with L.A. Thurston, and W. G. Anderson, who visited the reef in 1924. They arrived June 25, and spent ten days in making surveys.

December 29, 1934, Executive Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed Kingman Reef under the control and jurisdiction of the U.S. Navy, in immediate charge of the 14th Naval District.

In September, 1935, William T. Miller, representing the U.S. Bureau of Air Commodore, visited the reef on the U.S.C.G. cutter Itasca. He is reported as saying that Kingman Reef had an important place on the Pacific aviation picture.

Early in 1937, the schooner Trade Wind, chartered by Pan-American Airways, took up a position at Kingman Reef. During March and April it served as a base for the trial flight of the Sikorsky Clipper, piloted by Captain Edwin C. Musick, between Honolulu and Pago Pago. The clipper touched on the way south, March 24, and on the return, April 8, 11 hours 46 minutes from Pago Pago.

The Trade Wind also was stationed at Kingman Reef for the trial flights of the ill-fated Samoan Clipper, also under command of Captain Musick. It reached the reef December 23, 1937, on the way south, and January 3, 1938, on the return. On its next flight, the clipper reached Kingman Reef on January 9. It was lost near Tutuila when it took off for Auckland from Pago Pango on the 11th.

Naval vessels occasionally pass the reef. The writer saw it, August 13, 1938, en route from Palmyra to Honolulu, on the U.S.C.G. cutter Taney.

Kingman Reef has been made a U.S. national defense area by Executive Order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, dated February 14, 1941, and foreign planes and surface craft are prohibited.

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The following photographs are extremely rare and are possibly the only low altitude aerial photographs available of Kingman Reef. At the time the photographs were taken, the reef was entirely under water with the exception of two sandbars.  

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Breakers on Kingman Reef can be seen from a distance but
at night  were a considerable hazard particularly to the old ships

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A distant aerial view of Kingman Reef

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The breakers and the sandbars

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The above two images show the rare
beauty of the underwater coral at Kingman Reef

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Different aerial views showing the breakers at Kingman Reef

The Man Who Has Been Everywhere

By Michael McCarthy


“A more extreme form of psychological problem associated with traveling is dromomania, also known as vagabond neurosis. In the accepted listing of psychiatric problems in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the vagabond neurosis is classified with the impulse control disorders. Sufferers have an abnormal impulse to travel; they are prepared to spend beyond their means, sacrifice jobs, lovers and security in their lust for new experiences.”

- from the pages of the Travelers Century Club newsletter

Quick now, pick the right answer: Marco Polo, Captain Cook, Christopher Columbus, Phineas Fogg. Who is the world’s greatest explorer? The correct answer is (wait for it now)…. none of the above.

Even though you’ve never heard of him, the world’s greatest explorer is officially Charles Veley, and if you could ever locate Charles he’d easily prove it to you. Trouble is, Vanishing Veley is a very hard man to find. Today he is off Antarctica aboard a South African polar research ship, sailing to the South Orkneys for a bit of rest and relaxation before returning to port in Cape Town and then flying home to San Francisco. Tomorrow the South China seas? Micronesia again?

Charles Veley is, according to the fine folks at the Guinness Book of World Records who keep track of such amazing feats, The World’s Most Traveled Person. Marco Polo doesn’t hold a camel’s nose next to Sir Charles. This is the man who has been everywhere.

Since Charles is such a damned difficult man to interview it took some time for me to track him down. I finally met him on a park bench not far from his home in Pacific Heights, an upscale hilltop neighborhood in San Francisco. The park bench on the beach was a compromise; his lovely wife Kimberly scuttled our first meeting in the lobby of their apartment building.

“Charles isn’t feeling too well,” she said.

“I guess not,” I replied. “If I’d been bouncing around Micronesia like a ping pong ball in an open boat for the last several months I’d feel a little seasick myself.”

“No, its not that,” she said. Kimberly had just given birth to her first child a few days before and was not in top shape herself. “He’s come down with a bad cold and doesn’t want to give it to you.”

I had been trying to set up this interview for months, but it turns out that - global village or not - it can be difficult to have a conversation with someone on an atoll in Micronesia. But we rescheduled and finally got together.

Charles seemed a normal looking person, soft-spoken and composed although he did have something of a faraway look in his eyes. He’d just returned home to celebrate the greatest adventure of all, the birth of his daughter, but it was clear his mind was elsewhere. Two weeks later I found out why, but in the meantime he told me his story.

Charles started his journeys early; at two his parents would often find their kitchen door open and their toddler missing. At six he would prop himself behind the wheel of the family car with a map in his hand and dreams of the open road.

At 22 he explored Europe for three months. Then at the height of the dot-com boom in San Francisco in 2000, Charles cashed in his job and shares as an executive of a booming software company and made millions. As millionaires do, it was off to the continent. One day aboard an airplane in the skies over Paris he heard about TCC, the Travelers Century Club, and the rest is history.

The Century Club is to “extreme travel” what a Maserati is to a Ford Pinto. Rich, famous, talented, good-looking, well connected? Sorry, you can’t just buy or bribe your way in. No, the only way to get into the TCC is to have visited at least 100 countries. This would take most of us up to 50 years, even if you spent every vacation in your whole life doing nothing but travel to strange countries. That’s why most TCC members are rather elderly. (The current Guinness World record Holder is Mr. John Clouse of Evansville Indiana, who has held the title for the last 15 years but is nearly 80.)

At age 34 Charles immediately threw himself into the challenge of nailing 100 countries with the same determination to “complete the task” that made him a millionaire. After all, travel is like designing software; it’s just a matter of logistics. Switzerland, Swaziland, Sarawak, St. Helena … poof! In no time Charles had bagged his 100 countries. That’s when he heard about ultimate goal hidden within the club’s rarified upper echelons, to become “the World’s Most Traveled Person.”

The first step is to complete the TCC list of 317 places. Why 317, when the United Nations lists only 192 countries in the world? Aah, you’re forgetting all those territories and protectorates and far-flung atolls, aren’t you? French Polynesia, for example, is a huge territory ruled by France. Greenland is administered by Denmark, and Antarctica doesn’t really belong to anybody but several countries have in the past claimed sovereign right to certain sections. And so it goes.

“There are some people - not many, just a few - who have visited all 317 places on the list, but they are all over 60 years old. I completed the list this past April, after nearly 4 years, at age 37,” Charles explains. But wait, the journey has only begun.

“The second step,” says Charles, “is to complete the Guinness 14, or the 14 other items which happen to be on Guinness's Secret Internal List. Of course, I didn't even find out about this secret list until October of last year, which made for all kinds of consternation and inefficiencies in trying to pursue it.”

Nobody has ever completed the Secret Guinness 14. The current world record holder is the inestimable Mr. John Clouse, who has nailed twelve. But Charles has given it a fierce run and already has knocked off 12, including such impossible-to-get-to places such as the Coral Sea Island Territory; Heard and McDonald Islands; and Kingman Reef. The Kingman Reef escapade actually put him off travel for a while.

“Have you ever dreamed that you were falling? Most people have,” says Charles. “Perhaps you are pushed, against your will, out of a perfectly good airplane. As the ground approaches, you say to yourself: ‘Wow. There's no way out of this. I'm really going to die. I wonder what it's going to feel like?’ I have recently had that very sensation. Thousands of times, in fact, and continuously.”

“Imagine, if you will, a 37-foot boat, capable of making only 7 knots, crossing vast stretches of choppy ocean, directly into the current and wind over 1000 miles in a 10-day period,” he continues. “I was able to enjoy it all, face first. As I attempted to cling to my bed, the boat would repeatedly drop away a good 5 to 10 feet, leaving me to free fall. The negative G's at the crest of each wave left me temporarily suspended, before falling to meet the mattress. And that went on for 1000 miles.”

Kingman Reef is nothing more than a tiny pile of coral about 1000 miles southwest of Hawaii near the Equator. It rises a few feet out of the water in two spots about a quarter-mile long, varying in width from zero to about 50 feet. The reef is covered with bleached coral and plastic ocean detritus, but nevertheless it’s on the list and therefore Charles had to set foot on it. But, as it turns out, Kingman Reef was just an intermission for an adventure that may have no end.

“I have discovered and decided to pursue yet a third list, which I have determined to be an even more difficult list to accomplish,” explains Charles with nonchalance, as we watch two joggers bounce by our bench on their own little journey. “In fact, none of the world’s top extreme travelers has even attempted to complete this list. It is virgin territory. This list is compiled by the leading ham radio operator organization in the world, the ARRL. It contains 53 items that are so obscure as to be outside of both the TCC and Guinness lists. So, in my spare time, I have been pursuing these additional items in case of a Guinness tie. It serves as an excellent tiebreaker, and if someone else is crazy enough to pursue the Guinness record they'll have to chase me down this extra list too. So far, of the Obscure 53, I have managed to visit 19.”

It was starting to get a little chilly on the beach, and Charles had a newborn baby and wife he was eager to see again, so we parted ways promising to keep in touch. Two weeks later I received an email message, apparently from the captain’s cabin of the SA Agulhas sailing out of Cape Town, South Africa.

“At the 11th hour, the South African National Antarctic Program, as well as the Norwegian Polar Institute, have agreed to let me land on Bouvet Island with a small group of technicians. Such permission is not normally given. In fact, it is nearly unheard of. If I do successfully land on Bouvet, I should gain the Guinness World Record for Most Traveled Man. John Clouse has twice gone to Bouvet, but was unable to land either time due to the terrible weather conditions. The sailing will last for 72 days, with no possibility of earlier transfer. So while this is a unique and exciting opportunity, it means leaving Kimberly and the baby for over 2 months. I am renting a satellite phone and data link for the trip, so I think that I will be able to write to you from the ship.”

Bouvet, as we all know, is located in the sub-Antarctic, a mere 1500 miles southwest of the Cape of Good Hope and about 1000 miles north of Queen Maud Land in Antarctica.

It is the most remote place on earth, according to the Guinness Book of Records, and weather-wise is a very nasty place indeed, nothing more 23 square miles of black lava surrounded by several miles of frozen sea. Thick clouds usually obscure the island, snowfalls are frequent and the temperature rarely rises above freezing.

Given that Charles would be sailing the Antarctica seas for 72 days, I set aside my world atlas and went about my own business, only to be surprised a few days later by yet another email.

“I am pleased to announce that, at roughly 0515 Greenwich Mean Time the morning of December 16 a group of 9 people landed on Bouvet Island. Bouvet was incredibly stark and foreboding, but the seas were relatively calm and visibility was good. Even so, I was very cold and windblown after 2 hours on the island. The entire beach and rocky upslope was covered with penguins and seals. With this landing on Bouvet, I have now visited all but 2 items on the Guinness list, a record matched only by John Clouse. I have also now visited 300 of the 335 items on the Ham Radio list, which is several more than anyone has ever done. Therefore, I will be claiming the title of Most Traveled Man from Guinness.”

What’s left for the World’s Most Traveled Man? Apparently Charles still has a few rocky islets and inaccessible atolls left to visit. A few have the added charm of being defended by large weapons.

“Well, there’s the Paracel Islands. This tropical island group is about as far from Antarctica as you can get, but strangely enough has the same seasonality issue. Last year I spent several days in Sanya, the nearest Chinese city, having a look around. A salty old fishing boat captain told me that the winds and current are most suitable to approach these islands in December and January, and that he couldn't even consider stowing me away and taking me there until then. Of course, the bigger issue with the Paracels is that they are occupied by the Chinese navy, which firmly prohibits all foreigners from landing.”

The question that begs to be answered, however, is not so much the logistical where next as the more mysterious why? As in, why are you doing this strange and crazy thing, spending over a million of your hard-earned dollars when you have a lovely wife and newborn baby at home?

"Well," said Charles, "first you have to realize that Kimberly and I have been traveling together for most of the last four years. She enjoys it, and has been to over 200 countries and territories in her own right. And one of the reasons I have been running around so intensely of late has been to try to earn the record before the baby arrived, so that I could in fact feel 'done' and stay home for a while. The timing of this Bouvet trip could not have been worse, but what can you do? It was a 'never-before, never-again' opportunity for the record. Now I can address the remaining 36 places in a more relaxed fashion.

Believe it or not, I have been craving domesticity for a while now."

“But as to your question why I do this? My motivation is a classic overachiever’s response to a quota: You want me to do 100? I’ll do better than that; I’ll do 200. But by the time I got to 200 I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop until I had completed the whole thing. The world is the ultimate jigsaw puzzle. Every new encounter, every new interaction is a tiny piece. Joined together, they give me a privileged glimpse of the common face of humanity. Can you imagine? A total global perspective built entirely by first-hand information. And that grows just by the act of trying to get from one place to another. Sometimes, especially because of it.”

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