French Polynesia Sailing Trip – 1999
Figure 1: French Polynesia - area that we sailed
We left on Sunday afternoon from Phoenix and everyone met in Los Angeles where we would be flying Air New Zealand to Papeete, Tahiti – French Polynesia. It is a 9 hour flight from Los Angeles to Papeete and we arrived at 2:00 in the morning. But, my and Pete’s luggage did not arrive! So I arrived in hot and humid Tahiti wearing long black jeans with no spare clothes and no toothpaste! The Air New Zealand lady told us that the next flight would not be until Wednesday, she was sorry, and gave us an emergency kit. Well, at least we now have a toothbrush and toothpaste.
The airline said they could deliver our luggage to the sailboat base in three days. Except, by then, we would all be out on some remote island so this really does not help at all. Oh well, fortunately it was warm. I decided to buy a swim suit, a couple of shirts, and not worry about it.
We would catch the next inter-island air flight out of Papeete at 7:30 am and would then check out our sailboat, raise the sails and go!
So we all drank coffee and slept on airport benches or played cards the rest of the night. The main lobby of the main airport in French Polynesia is an experience in itself. The terminal is roofed but it only has three walls. One wall is completely missing and we woke up the next morning looking at an outside of lush greenery; including palm trees, flowers, and the sound of roosters crowing across the road! But this was the first day of what would become a common experience. Every morning, at every anchorage, starting before sunrise, we would hear the roosters start to crow back and forth on the shore. There were a couple of mornings when the raucous calling of the roosters was almost scary. Anchored in a remote secluded bay, the roosters on shore would be so numerous and loud that we would start making jokes about rowing in to shore to discover that there were no more people left alive; and the roosters would all be gathered around us, glaring, like some eerie Alfred Hitchcock movie – The Birds.
Figure 2: Hinano beer from Tahiti
At 7:30 am we boarded our small plane destined for the Moorings sailboat base on the island of Raiatea. This airport on Raiatea is just a single strip of asphalt on a flat piece of the island and the airport terminal consists of a small building with 5 ladies selling shell necklaces. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But the Moorings arrived to pick us up and shuttle us over to their harbor. As everybody else packed the boat with ice, food, drink, and their belongings; Pete and I got a lift into a nearby town and shopped for clothes. It is a stressful experience to have only an hour to buy extremely overpriced shirts and shorts that you do not even like. But we finally got what we needed and then it was back to the boat.
Figure 3: Islands with sailing trip route
After everything was stored away on the boat and we had been thoroughly briefed by the Moorings staff, we motored out of the base, hoisted the sails, and set off for the nearby island of Tahaa where we could pick up a mooring next to the recommended restaurant of Marini Iti, which means small marina. This restaurant was roofed but it was also completely open on three sides and we could walk up to our table from the beach and never lose the view. This was the first of many small French restaurants with excellent cuisine that we would discover on our trip. Most of us ordered the Mahi Mahi fish with creamy vanilla sauce. We were discovering that the islands are known for their vanilla sauces – and we were not disappointed. Every restaurant was fantastic. Expensive, but on the islands this is to be expected.
Figure 4: Approaching Marina Iti on the island of Tahaa. Our anchorage and dinner restaurant for the evening.
Figure 5: The group gathered before our dinner at Marina Iti on the island of Tahaa. Karen, Eileen, Michelle, Alex, Wim, Paula, Pete and Rod – Brad is taking the picture.
Figure 6: Raiatea and Tahaa
The next morning we were up at dawn, breakfasted, and sailed out through the Passe Paipai opening in the reef toward the next island of Bora Bora. We would be open ocean sailing between islands, but the islands themselves were always almost completely encircled with outer reefs. By studying our charts, we could find the passageway through the reef into the islands and then have much more sheltered waters to drop anchor and sleep during the nights.
Figure 7: Brad sailing the boat. We have cleared the passage in the reef and are on our way to the island of Bora Bora. In the background you can see the island of Tahaa and at the right of the picture you can see the start of the island of Raiatea.
Figure 8: Sailing toward the island of Bora Bora in the distance.
Figure 9: Brad steering the boat on our way around to the reef opening into Bora Bora. You can see the waves breaking over the reef that surrounds Bora Bora and the peak of the island in the background.
It was about a 6 hour sail to Bora Bora. As you get close to Bora Bora you can tell where the reef is by the sudden change in color from dark blue deeper water to light blue shallower water. We found our opening through the reef into the island, threaded our way through a narrow deep water channel to the backside of a small outer island, and dropped anchor. That night we hooked up the barbeque grill to the back of the boat and grilled hamburgers and fish. We also did our first snorkeling. In front of our anchorage was a narrow cut between two small islets and the shallow water there was the temperature of bath water. All of our anchorages were beautiful, but this one had the added beauty of viewing the magnificent peaks of Bora Bora through the coconut palm tree framed shores of these two small islets.
Figure 10: Bora Bora and our sailed route.
Figure 11: Our first nights anchorage inside the reef at Bora Bora. Looking through a couple of small reef islands towards the main peak of Bora Bora.
Figure 12: Relaxing in the back of the boat. Rod, Pete, Karen and Wim.
Washing dishes and evening baths were both done in the same place – off the back of the boat. Fresh water was precious to us. We had three 40 gallon tanks. For a group of 9, our water would be gone quickly if we were not careful – I speak from experience. So we always washed the dishes from the back steps of the boat followed by a brief fresh water rinse. Baths were always off the back of the boat with Lemon Joy suds and a jump into the ocean. Once clean, you poured your gallon (amount of water generally dictated by the pitcher found on the boat) of fresh water over you to wash the salt water off. This actually works quite well once you become used to it.
Figure 13: Wim grilling on the back of the boat.
The steep mountain jungle islands and the white sand coral reefs surrounding them are just like in the pictures. Once inside the surrounding island reefs you must carefully watch the boat’s depth meter, the color of the water, and look for coral heads. You always try to stay in the darker water because this indicates depth. The lighter blue water indicates that it is getting shallow.
Figure 14: Another catamaran passing us.
Figure 15: Vacation bungalows built on stilts inside the reef.
Figure 16Vacation bungalows built on stilts inside the reef.
Figure 17: Rod on the back of the boat with the peaks of Bora Bora in the background.
The next day we dropped off most of the crew for a walk on shore while Brad and I motored the boat around the island to the next anchorage. There is only one reef opening to Bora Bora from the open ocean. Once inside the reef, to move around the island, you must thread your way between the island and the surrounding reef. This was a day of tricky motoring. We payed close attention to our charts and to the channel markers in the water. In many places there are coral heads rising up to within a few feet of the surface. They show up as dark patches under the water – and you do not want to run into one of these! The recommendation is to only attempt these passages during the middle part of the day because you need the sun overhead to better pick out the submerged coral heads scattered about. Brad and I circumnavigated about three quarters of the island, took the dingy in to pick up the rest of the crew, and then picked out an anchorage close to the outer reef where thee was supposed to be great snorkeling in the “coral gardens”.
Figure 18: Eileen on the boat.
Figure 19: Rod has been cut loose in the dingy by the prankster Brad.
It is difficult to capture the different variations of colored water on film but everywhere you looked there was white sand, green vegetation, and many different shades of blue clear water. I did not have an underwater camera so all the pictures of coral, sharks, etc. are not available. But, using your imagination, you are swimming along in a lagoon that has an area about 200 yards by 400 yards separated from the rest of the ocean by what appears to be some sort of chain link fence. You have just swam out of some smaller pens where you were mobbed by countless smaller multi colored tropical fish and even a sea turtle or two. You can see about 20-30 yards and there is nothing in sight so you are starting to wonder if the experience has been overrated. Slowly a feeling of being stalked starts to build… Still, you can see nothing in front or to either side. On a sudden impulse you turn your head to look behind. There is a wall of 7 or 8 sharks trailing just behind seeming to be sizing you up for a mid-morning snack. The sharks are black and white tipped reef sharks and another which may have been a lemon shark. They range in size from 5 to 8 feet in length. Even though you have been told that they are well fed, your heart starts beating faster as you turn to confront your pursuers. The wall of sharks part and swim around you; then turn to circle the new addition to their domain, seeming to assess you as either a possible danger or a potential food source. Reaching out, you try to stroke one as it passes. Somehow it senses your action and with a flip of its tail it disappears into the distance. Some of the other sharks remain, trying to look nonchalant, but you know they are just waiting to see how you will react. You continue to float letting the tidal current carry you across the lagoon. There is a tiger ray with part of its long tail missing, maybe one of those sharks was not fed as well as you had been told? There are rocks and coral heads which are covered with multi colored tropical fish. As you dive down for a closer look you see more and more sea creatures hiding in the cracks and crevices and a moral eel looks wickedly evil sitting coiled and entwined in a coral head. You contemplate moving in for a closer look, but not too close; this little guy has hundreds of tiny very sharp looking teeth and from his cold black eyes it looks like he is not afraid to use them. Ever since the first encounter with the sharks you are constantly casting your gaze around in a 360 degree arc determined to not get caught unaware again. As you glance around you see the far end of the fence quickly getting nearer so you make your way to shore with all limbs still attached. What else is there to do but hike up to the top of the enclosure and do it all again. Maybe this time you can get close enough to touch one of the sharks.
Figure 20: Dinner on the boat. Karen, Rod, Alex, Wim, Pete and Michelle.
Figure 21: Brad finishing off something from the saucepan.
Figure 22: Dinner on the boat. Wim, Pete, Karen, Rod, and Michelle.
Figure 23: Eileen on the boat.
Figure 24: Michelle with a bottle of wine in the boat.
Figure 25: Pete taking a drink of wine as Rod and Michelle watch.
Figure 26: Michelle and Wim having a drink on the boat.
Figure 27: Paula cutting up fruit on the boat.
The whole crew gathered in the dingy and we made a trip out to the coral gardens. It was great snorkeling. Many others must also snorkel there because there were many fish and they were very friendly. Alex brought along hand fulls of bread and this provoked a feeding frenzy among all the tropical fish. They would gather around in a mob and actually be grabbing bread from between the fingers of your tightly closed fist. We all drifted along, riding the slight current that filtered in from the ocean through the coral formations. As each one of us made an amazing discovery, we would gesture frantically to get everyone over to see this or that piece of amazement.
Figure 28: Brad and Paula on the back of the boat.
Figure 29: Pete reading a book and relaxing in the cockpit of our boat.
Figure 30: Wim and Paula caught in the act!
The next day it was back around the island to pick up a mooring off the dock at Bloody Mary’s – our eat-out restaurant for the night. This was our biggest and fanciest restaurant of the trip, although the floors were sand and the walls thatched. It was very good food, and we each got to pick out our fish or meat selection from a colorful display of iced entries. The friendly owner found out we were cruising on a sail boat and gave us lots of extra ice to replenish our supply.
Figure 31: A dingy ride from the restaurant of Bloody Marys.
Figure 32: Our boat moored in front of Bloody Marys.
Figure 33: Our boat moored in front of Bloody Marys. Rod on the deck.
Figure 34: Our boat moored in front of Bloody Marys. Rod on deck striking the pose.
Figure 35: Alex and Wim get all dressed up in their Tahitian garb for a dinner ashore.
Figure 36: Paula, Michelle and Karen all dressed up for a dinner on shore.
Figure 37: Dinner at Bloody Marys. Rod, Alex, Pete, Paula, Wim, Michelle, and Karen.
Figure 38: Dinner at Bloody Marys. Trying to turn on the ceiling fan. Paula, Michelle, and Rod.
On our trip back around the island this day we also stopped at the Bora Bora Yacht Club for a round of drinks. It seemed like the mandatory thing to do. We drank our drinks and watched the turtles, puffer fish, rays, and small sharks in a wire screened ocean pen off the docks. Every place claims to have the best Mai Tais in Tahiti. In order to not insult them, you had to order the drink and agree that it was the best you had ever tasted!
Figure 39: Alex at the Bora Bora Yacht Club.
Figure 40: Our group at the Bora Bora Yacht Club. Pete, Michelle, Brad, Alex, Eileen, Wim, Paula, Karen and Rod.
Figure 41: Our group at the Bora Bora Yacht Club. Rod, Michelle, Brad, Karen, Eileen, Wim, Paula, and Pete.
Figure 42: Alex, a little island girl, Wim, Karen and Rod on the dock in front of the Bora Bora Yacht Club.
We also had an adventure trying to buy supplies here. The owner said there was a store just a little ways down the road. Pete and Paula went off to find it and buy some ice, baguettes of bread, and other things. After some time Wim, Michelle, and Brad decided to walk up the road to find them. They must have walked a couple of miles which took over half an hour before they found a store, but still Pete and Paula were nowhere to be seen. They bought the supplies and started back. It was quickly evident that the ice was not up to that kind of a trip as it was already starting to melt in the store parking lot. Using limited French they were able to hitch a ride back to the yacht club where Pete and Paula were getting the dingy ready to go back to the boat. It appears that the owner of the yacht club had told Pete and Paula to go left on the road and told the other group to go right. We ended up with quite a few baguettes but not much ice. Tahiti was an old French colony and there are still strong ties back to France. That is why the bread on the islands is so good. It is very much like the baguettes you buy in France and they are served with everything.
The next morning we were up early to leave Bora Bora and do a stiff up-wind sail back to Raiatea and Tahaa. The winds were brisk and the seas high. Many of the crew took turns sitting on the pulpit seats at the front tips of the hulls. This was a wild roller coaster ride. As a wave was crested they would point high over the ocean and then plunge in a free fall down the backside of the wave to dip their legs in the ocean below. Spray would fly and many times the seas would sweep the trampoline decks up front. An occasional flying fish would jump from the ocean and skim the ocean surface in front of us. Of course, this is not recommended sailing procedure!
Figure 43: Brad in his foul weather gear as we near the reef opening approaching Tahaa/Raiatea.
Figure 44: Paula takes a turn steering the boat in the storm.
Figure 45: Rod piloting the boat in a storm.
On this brisk sail, listening to the pulleys, lines, and sails groaning and creaking under the terrific stresses of the wind and ocean, was an unnerving experience. Brad, at the helm, finally decided that his bladder could stand it no longer and he needed to visit the head below decks. Using the head in 7 foot seas is another adventure which Brad can relate in a different story! As we neared Raiatea the outhaul main sail line suddenly snapped. This was quickly followed by frantic pounding on the door of the head to tell Brad that he better quickly get his butt on deck because “something had snapped and things were flapping all around”. This rope that failed was the diameter of three of my fingers held together and it was snapped in half from the forces of wind and water. As the main sail flailed wildly in the wind we turned on the motor, doused the sails and brought everything under control. We were near the reef entrance to Raiatea and as Brad motored the final distance a storm blew over from the mountain top to drench him with stinging bullets of sideways rain. At one point, inside the reef, the rain was so dense and hard that neither the reef nor the island could be seen even though both were only a couple hundred yards on either side of the yacht. Fortunately this only lasted a short time; otherwise it would have been hard to keep the boat in the channel. There was more than one person who lost their lunch over the side of the boat that day.
Since we were close to the Moorings base on Raiatea, we made a straight line for it to affect repairs. We radioed in and they would be ready to repair our main line. We could pick up more ice, towels, a little extra food and my and Pete’s luggage. Yea, our luggage! The trip was more than half over and I had only needed the swim trunks and three shirts I had bought. I guess I really didn’t need all those clothes I brought. But I was happy to have my brand new snorkeling equipment.
Figure 46: The Pearl Farm.
After our repairs we sailed up the cost of Tahaa to a pearl farm. We picked up a mooring in front of a small house, hoping this was the pearl farm place, and talked Junior into stopping work on his car long enough to give us the pearl farm tourist talk. It was very interesting. Junior explained all about how they make their black pearls, the competition with the Japanese pearl farmers, the life cycle of the oyster, implanting the pearl seed, harvesting, care of the oyster beds, and tried to answer all our stupid tourist questions. Poor guy – I think he only understood half of what we asked him. Pete would ask, “Are the world market pearl prices controlled in the same way that the Boers of Amsterdam artificially regulate the price of diamonds?” Junior would answer with something like, “Yes, we scrub the seaweed from the oyster shells once a week.”
Figure 47: The Hibiscus where we picked up a mooring for the night and dingied in to have Mai Tais with Leo.
Figure 48: Rod inside the Hibiscus in front of a wall hanging.
Figure 49: Rod gets a pen from Leo, owner of the Hibiscus, to sign the guestbook.
After this we sailed over to the next bay and picked up a mooring in front of the Hibiscus, run by Leo the expatriate Frenchman. We dingied in for drinks to pay for the privilege of using his moorings for the night and were warmly welcomed. We were ushered in to his open air library just off the docks and sat in large overstuffed chairs around tables filled with weathered books and stacks of old mildewy smelling journals. The journals were filled with many entries from other sailors from around the world who had stopped here before us. Leo served us his own special brand of Mai Tais made with passion fruit. Unfortunately passion fruit is very seedy, and all the seeds were still in our drinks. And all the seeds were still surrounded with a thick gelatinous pod of fruit. Leo was very proud of his Mai Tais, but I think most of us could have done without the large slugs of seedy passion fruit that we kept finding in our drinks.
Leo also ran a “save the turtle operation”. He bought turtles from fishermen in town who had caught them. He would pay more than the going price for turtle stew, so they would sell to him, and he would sell them to tourists who wished to take them back out to sea and turn them loose.
The next day we left Tahaa and began our last upwind sail of the trip – to Huahine – pronounced Wha-hee-nay. As in our previous upwind sail, we needed to go directly east and of course the wind was coming from directly east. It was 7 hours of tacking, but the winds were not as strong as the previous day. Once we passed through the protective reef surrounding Huahine we motored around to the far side and dropped anchor in a beautiful bay. It had been a long hot day and we hopped in the dingy and motored out to the inner side of the surrounding reef for some great snorkeling. The fish here were not as friendly or numerous as in the coral gardens, but the reef system was prettier and more pristine.
Figure 50: Alex sailing the boat.
Figure 51: The hull of a beached boat along the shoreline.
Figure 52: The group watching the shoreline pass by. Rod, Michelle, Pete, Wim, Paula and Karen.
Figure 53: Exploring a small bay in the filtered sunlight through the clouds.
Figure 54: Karen performing a balancing act on the front of the boat as we cruise down the coastline of Huahine.
Figure 55: Rod and Eileen.
Figure 56: Wim and Paula on the front of the boat.
Figure 57: Sunset.
The next morning we had free time so some of us went snorkeling on the reef and others dingied in to shore and walked to the closest town. This turned out to be a Sunday. We did not know that until we stopped at a small resort and ordered a Mai Tai. They told us that they didn’t serve alcohol before 10:00 am on a Sunday. Hmmm, not only was it a Sunday but we were drinking before 10:00 am! Well, our day did start early – up at 5:00 am every morning with the sunrise listening to the roosters and making our coffee. We thought it must be at least afternoon by now. In town we walked past one church filled with people singing - beautiful voices and great harmonies. The town itself was small and rather poor but it was nice to be off the boat and stretching our legs for a change. After everybody was back on the boat we did a leisurely cruise up the side of the island, exploring a large inlet bay on the way, and finally dropped anchor in front of the Bali Hai restaurant and resort. Although I had looked forward to the Bali Hai on Huahine all trip (I think this must have been a childhood pinball machine game name), this turned out to be permanently closed. We ended up at a small restaurant in the town of Fare and I thought this was the best food of the whole trip.
Figure 58: Brad hanging from the back of the boat.
Figure 59: Karen hanging from the back of the boat.
Figure 60: Rod hanging from the back of the boat.
Figure 61: Karen, Michelle and Pete on the boat.
Figure 62: Rod and Pete competing for Paula's attention.
Figure 63: Karen and Michelle - night time at anchorage.
Figure 64: Rod, Wim and Michelle.
Figure 65: Rod sleeping in the cockpit.
During the day Wim had ventured off on his own to see the sights of the island and practice his French. He ended up hitchhiking back and forth across the island with the locals and their families and eventually met us in Fare before dinner. He had caught a ride into town, discovered that nothing was really happening, convinced some locals to drive him back to the boat site, but we had already left, so he convinced them to drive him back to Fare. I don’t think they were too happy with him but he got to see the island as none of the rest of us did. Since Wim is from the Netherlands and speaks some French, he was our interpreter for the trip. He did pretty well. But we had to laugh when we would say, Wim, talk to these guys in French and figure this out, and the first thing he would say was “parley vous English?”
Figure 66: The small town of Fare, where the inter-island Ferry docks and where we will have dinner for the night.
As we were relaxing on our boat waiting for dinner time, an inter-island ferry came into the dock at Fare. I guess that these ferries are the life blood of the islands. Just about all the commerce in and out of the islands travels by them. As the ferry was starting to pull out of the docks, we could see all the local brown skinned kids jumping off the docks into the water to swim and wave to people on the ferry. I understand that the arrival of these ferries, a couple of times a week, is an exciting event in the outer islands.
The next day was the downwind sail back to Raiatea. We left under the threat of a rainstorm but once at sea the weather was the best and most mild of the trip. We threw the sails out wide and rode the following ocean swells all the way. That is until a rainstorm caught up with us near Raiatea, and the wind turned intense and started blowing spray from the tops of the whitecaps, and something popped in the steering. The boat was being driven hard and Brad and Wim felt something pop in the steering wheel/cable system. We never figured out what it was and the boat seemed to behave ok, but we took down the main sail and went under motor and jib sheet alone through the reef pass and into Raiatea.
There were occasional storms throughout each day of sailing. But they didn’t usually last more than about 15 minutes. A hard rain and then they would pass over. This would happen frequently at night also. Myself, Wim and Paula were usually sleeping in the cockpit area and we would often find ourselves jumping up in the middle of the night and rushing inside to crash someplace else. Just part of the south pacific experience I guess.
Our last night was spent in a large bay on the island of Raiatea. This cove was significant because, at its end, it had the only navigable river in all the islands. Of course we had to take dingy rides up it. To avoid overcrowding the dingy, we did two different rides. This was a fascinating trip. The mouth of the river was very silted and shallow so the motor on the dingy was frequently churning mud and bounding wildly off the bottom. But once in the river, the water got deeper. We motored slowly up the small twisting river surrounded on all sides by dense vegetation and an occasional overhanging tree. In some places we would have to pull up the motor and row for a while before we could keep motoring onward. The other group passed a native on the bank who waved them over and then proceeded to hack open a coconut and gave them a bunch of bananas. He didn’t want anything in return – just friendly. Typically all the islanders were like this – very friendly people.
Brad and I took the dingy in to shore to try and find some batteries for the CD player. This was looking like a hopeless task in a very rural area. Finally we found a couple of locals sitting alongside the road, and by means of the usual pointing, head shaking, blank stares, and laughter we managed to understand that there was a town about 5 km away and a bus would be arriving shortly. Brad and I kept saying – no thanks – we didn’t want to end up on a bus going to a small town at 5:00 in the afternoon with no sure way of getting back to the boat before sunset. Brad and I kept saying – no thanks – and they kept gesturing for us to just sit down and wait for the bus. Eventually, while we were talking about it, the bus came. Now we finally understood what they had been trying to tell us. The bus was a traveling store! The locals bought their bread and milk and we bought our batteries. Wal-Mart on wheels!
Also, while we were anchored in this bay, a group of school kids, all in open kayaks, paddled out to visit us. They surrounded our boat showing off their skills and waving at us. Eventually some of them got out of their kayaks and let us take rides in them. They would jump off the back of our boat into the water and we would paddle around the boat in their kayaks. Great fun for all!
The next day we were up early, as always, listening to the din of the roosters on shore. Then sailing back to the Mooring base, and then a flight back to the big island of Tahiti. In Tahiti we had about 7 hours to kill so we all caught “Le Truck” into town. Tahiti was by far the most populated of all the islands we visited. It made me appreciate what a remote and unspoiled trip we had just had. Tahiti is bustling and commercial. In town we happened upon some native dancers practicing the traditional dances in what appeared to be a group dance class. What a lucky experience! It did not seem possible that the women could actually be doing such fast, hula dance, hip motions that I was watching. And the men were shouting and acting out an exaggerated dance routine that looked to me like paddling outriggers and sticking spears into an enemy.
We also walked around through the many food vendors down by the dock front area. Eventually we got back to the airport and caught our flight out at 2:00 that next morning.