Twelve hundred years ago, voyaging Polynesians discovered the tranquil lagoons and towering peaks of Tahiti by boat and called it paradise. They got it right.
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ears ago, when I was part of the community of California cruisers – an arguably nutty subculture who forsake the comforts of land to seek adventure at sea in small boats – there was a saying about the skills needed to cruise the South Pacific. It was uttered in the placid anchorages of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, usually in the first months of the year, when couples planned their 2,800-mile trip across the Pacific to the romanticized islands of the South Seas: “Going from Mexico to the South Pacific is like going straight from grade school ball to the pros.” The point is that everything is tougher and more critical in the coral reef-lined lagoons of the isolated Tahitian islands, and on the fourth night of my Moorings chartered yacht vacation in the pristine waters of Raiatea, I was reminded of the truth of that statement.
It was a little after 10 p.m. and my wife Gayl and daughter Leila were asleep in our forward cabin. I, my friend Phil and Captain Alain, the skipper of our luxurious 47-foot catamaran, Atoti, sat in the spacious cockpit working on my French, Alain’s English and the boat’s cognac. The wind whistled through the rigging above, and the star-encrusted sky that christened our first drink had been clouded over with night-time showers.
When Alain frowned, put down his drink and peered into the darkness that surrounded our boat, my first thought was that my high school French had landed me in trouble again – perhaps I had not in fact complimented Alain’s mother a sentence before.
Alain stood. “I think that we are moving,” he said in a calm voice that belied the situation.
Phil and I looked around. Visibility was about five feet beyond the rails of the boat, which was the only one in Tuatau Bay, a deep water sanctuary on Raiatea’s sparsely inhabited south coast. “How can he tell?” I said.
“The wind, she is over the beam, not the bow,” Alain answered as he started the engines.
He was right. Basically, we were in the middle of the scenario – short of hurricanes and lightening bolts – that occupies every cruiser’s worst nightmares: we were dragging anchor in the middle of the night, toward shore, with no lights to provide reference, and a coral reef blocking any escape route. I had been through this scenario before, once, in my own boat in Tahiti. And while it later made for interesting cocktail party chat, it was the longest night of my life.
“What do you want us to do?” I asked the captain.
He turned and smiled. “Finish your cognac, mes amis.”
Hearing the engines start up, our cook/crew, a petite French woman named Sylvie, appeared from below, sleepy-eyed and unalarmed. She shot Alain an I’ll-deal-with-you-in-the-morning look and went forward to retrieve the anchor.
Twenty minutes later, after using the depth sounder to feel his way across the bay as wind and rain pelted the decks, Captain Alain re-anchored Atoti out of harm’s way. But his work was not done; in the fray the dinghy painter had wrapped around one of the catamaran’s propellers and needed to be cut away. So in dove Alain, cursing through his snorkel and gripping a knife.
When Alain climbed back aboard, I offered him a cognac, and though he was shivering from the wind on his wet skin (he actually had the nerve to call this winter), he refused the drink. I knew why. He had a long, sleepless night ahead: he would be on anchor watch until light, making sure that the anchor held through the blow.
I felt bad for him; I had been in his deck shoes before. Of course, I still went to bed – someone had to play the role of pampered guest – and dreamt not of some far off land, but the very place I was.
I had fallen in love with the Society Islands – commonly referred to as Tahiti, which is in fact the main island – as a young man, fresh out of college. I bought a backpack and a plane ticket, but instead of taking the typical European summer adventure, I headed south, to New Zealand and Australia. Tahiti was a short stop on the way, a token two-week layover, if you will.
But it only took those 14 days for the pure magic of the place to overwhelm me. I wondered at its towering verdant peaks and its calm, crystal clear lagoons and the beauty of a people who still manifest the passionate power and playfulness of the ocean. I understood how this place could capture the hearts of great artists from London and Melville to Gauguin, or drive the men of the Bounty to mutiny and a life of self-exile.
In a way, Tahiti was as destructive – or redeeming – to me as it was to those cursed men of the Bounty. It took me a decade, but, with visions of paradise in my head, I sold everything I had – home, cars, TV remote – bought an old cruising boat and pointed her bow south. I had somehow convinced my wife to go along with the scheme and we spent a year sailing in paradise, until pregnancy and the French’s reluctance to extend our visas forced us back home.
It was enough time to learn that Tahiti is best discovered by boat, as it was over a thousand years ago around 800 A.D. by voyaging Polynesians from Samoa. Travelling by boat puts you in direct contact with what the Polynesian people have held sacred for centuries: the beautiful, lifegiving, sometimes tempestuous but always passionate ocean. Plus the elbow room is much better in the lagoon than on land. And in many respects Tahiti, especially the Leeward Islands of Raiatea and Taha’a, remains as primitive and unspoiled as it was for the first settlers. The skyscraping peaks defy development and the islands’ desolate spot in the vast southern Pacific ensure a natural mystique. It’s a place that will grab you in one moment and seduce you in the next.
So it was that the morning after nature’s winds had grabbed our boat and reminded us of her power, we rose to the same perfect sunrise and blue sky promise with which she had seduced us every other morning of the trip. Sylvie had coffee waiting and breakfast brewing, Captain Alain was below, catching up on a few Zs, and as I watched the new day come on, I was reminded of another saying of the cruising world: The lows are lower and the highs are higher. True, but now I knew that with a crewed charter, the saying is slightly altered: The lows are only slightly lower than the highs – and the highs are out of sight. And with a crew, the highs are available to all. Phil, his pregnant wife Annette and their toddler Ryder were proving that. With no sailing experience, they’d be hard-pressed to describe the difference between a main sheet and a bed sheet, yet they were enjoying the cruise as much as veteran yachties.
I have to say, the veteran yachties – Gayl and I – were probably enjoying it even more. That’s because we knew what really goes on aboard those dreamy cruising boats idling at anchor in tropical paradise: work, a lot of it. Even with a bareboat vacation charter, there’s provisioning, navigation, anchoring, line-pulling, and worst of all, cooking and cleaning. With captain and crew, we only pulled a line if we felt the urge: surveyed charts for good waves or snorkeling, not good holding; and never, ever went near that torture chamber known as the galley. All this and the benefit of the crew’s local knowledge, which ensures maximizing time in the best, most remote spots and going where bareboaters aren’t allowed. Basically, we were on a moveable over-the-water bungalow with a chauffeur, butler, cook, and different view of the sunset every night.
Captain Alain appeared in the cockpit as we were finishing off the scrambled eggs, cereal, and fruit buffet that had become our normal day’s start. He had his characteristic easy smile, an expression that matched his affable attitude and probably went a long way toward making his 47 years look more like 30.
He was tired, I could tell, but he’d never admit to it; especially since today was a big day on our adventure. We were sailing to a small pearl farm on the east side of Raiatea, owned by one of Alain’s friends, George. One of the year’s three harvests was underway and George had agreed to allow us to visit his one-room production house, located half a mile off land atop a spec of reef in the lagoon. After that, we would visit one of the South Pacific’s most sacred maraes, where chiefs held court, making decisions of life and death. “Then perhaps a snorkel, yes?” said Alain, wiping sleep from his eyes and letting out his playfully boyish laugh. Nothing, I had learned, could keep Alain from getting in his daily dive with the “little fishes.”
To get to George’s pearl farm, we sailed up Raiatea’s southeast and eastern shores, pushed along by a southeast trade wind. And though we were clipping along nicely at six knots, the cockpit was steady enough that my two year old could navigate it on foot. This was the result of what has lured sailors to the Society Islands for centuries: the barrier reefs. They’re the reason Tahiti and paradise often occupy the same sentence: the quiet sails in flat water, the picturesque pearl farms, the relaxed but vibrant snorkeling, even the over-the-water bungalows. They all owe their existence to the barrier reef.
Unlike fringing reefs, which extend from shore (Hawaii is a good example), a barrier reef grows from the portion of island that lies deep below the ocean surface. Barrier reefs start their lives as fringe reefs, however, over time, as the island sinks into the sea, a lagoon is formed between land and reef, anywhere from a few hundred yards to a few miles wide. Along with the lagoon’s stunning beauty, the barrier reef also provides protection from the open ocean swells.
Barrier reef systems are not common, and the Society Islands’ Leeward Islands – Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, and Bora Bora – boast some of the most spectacular in the world. While Moorings has their base on Raiatea, which shares the same reef system with Taha’a, the three islands are close enough to visit all in one week-long charter. This was our original plan, but after a few days in the relaxing, warm tropical trades, we decided to let the tourists keep Bora Bora and let Huahine remain the secret island. We were glad we did, as we found that the lagoon that rings both Raiatea and Taha’a offers everything we could want, from the desolate southern portion of Raiatea to the luxurious Le Taha’a Private Island and Spa on a motu off Taha’a’s western shore. We saw few other boats, no jet skis and all the natural wonders we could handle.
An hour into our sail, George’s pearl farm came into sight – a few tiny houses on stilts in the center of the lagoon. George welcomed us into one, where the harvest was taking place. Two Tahitian teens worked in one end of the structure, pulling strings of giant blacklipped oysters from the lagoon and wedging small pieces of plastic between the lips. Filling trays of a dozen, they turned them over to two men armed with what looked like dental tools. They dug in and scooped out the black pearls and tossed them into one of two bins: high-grades were separated from low-grades. The high-grade box was noticeably short. This, George told us with a grimace, was because a good pearl came along perhaps once in a hundred openings.
“In one harvest,” Alain said, acting as interpreter, “he opens 10,000 of his 40,000 oysters. So maybe 100 very good pearls.”
Only a portion of the farm can be harvested, due to the 16 months to three years it takes an oyster to form a pearl. But, like fields in a Midwestern farm, the oysters can be replanted. By placing a synthetic ball as irritant to replace the pearl harvested, a single oyster can produce three pearls before it is “retired” and its silvery shell is used to make shirt buttons or ash trays for tourists.
We left the harvest house and played tourist in George’s lagoon-side yard, picking out pearls from a tray on a dilapidated wooden table while chickens pecked the dirt nearby. It was about as far from the glass-cased black pearl boutiques of downtown Papeete as you could get, but best of all, like most family treasures, our pearls came with a story. George gave us a good deal on the pearls, which was nice, since at that point he could have charged full retail for all we cared.
Leaving George’s, we walked a kilometer down the empty single-lane road to Marae Taputapuatea, which is even harder to say than read. I have visited many maraes in my day, and frankly, my excitement for them has slid with every visit. Many seem no more than a bunch of lava rocks strewn in haphazard patterns, worn and forgotten with time. But I was assured Marae T. was different and well worth the eight-minute walk I was investing.
The marae did turn out to be the best I’ve seen, and with good reason. Its ahu, a lava rock courtyard where chiefs ordered everything from human sacrifices to sacred decrees, measures 150 feet by 25 feet. There are even lava rock backrests against which high chiefs reclined while tribesmen pleaded their cases. Another bonus is that it comes with zero tourists. We hung around for an hour and the only visitors we saw were a group of local school children on a field trip. Wonder if the teachers mentioned the cannibalism?
Having gotten our fix of land for the week, we returned to the boat, where Alain was busy filling up his two “aqua scooters” for the afternoon snorkel. These small, gas-powered machines buzzed around the reef at up to five knots, towing a white-knuckled vibrating snorkler behind them. Like all vessels on the sea, they offered a trade-off: they made it possible to see more coral and fishes in one hour than a flipper-powered snorkler could take in in a week, but their constant noise killed that feeling of serenity that is the highlight of any dive. Still, they were great for reconnaissance missions for dive spots. Besides, Alain was absolutely giddy for them and we were his test pilots for a business venture he was toying with.
“I am developing an ocean safari, yes?” he told me. “I can take anyone outside the reef, to see the big fishes, the shark, barracuda, the sea turtle, maybe even the tuna.”
In fact, this was less crazy than it sounded. For before the week was out, Alain had showed us all of those fish and more. We saw three different kinds of sharks, we buzzed along with a barracuda – until it decided to turn toward us – glided with sea turtles and even got a flash of a dogtooth tuna. Number of other snorklers or divers spotted: zero.
I must admit I was a bit suspicious of Alain’s motives the first time he took us outside the reef passes and into open ocean, however. It was the third day of the trip, but this was a carefree sailor trapped aboard a boat with a pregnant woman and two toddlers. My daughter Leila had already taken to the habit of rising before dawn, going to the cockpit – right above Alain’s cabin – and banging on his hatch while yelling, “Captain Alain, go snorkeling?” So I could picture Captain Alain returning to the Moorings center with a Jack Nicholson smile and an empty boat, saying, “What Americans? I just went out for petrol.”
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. In his early years he had captained his own boat in Europe and – for reasons that did not fully survive translation – became involved in a French government-sponsored rehabilitation program for drug addicts. Instead of jail, or hospital, the government would send them to sea to learn self-restraint. So there was Alain battling not only the elements but a half dozen jonesing, seasick detoxers. “It was dificile,” Alain told me, one night as we sipped Kalua. “But not as dangereux as the mental patients.”
That’s right. Captain Alain, who I’m guessing must have been absolutely desperate for money, also signed up for a program for the emotionally disturbed and schizophrenic. “They were very crazy,” he said matter-of-factly. “But they were so great, I really liked them.” Alain liked to pull up to ritzy yacht clubs and crash parties with his group, he said. He’d set them loose on brass-buttoned commodores and see how many rum punches he could down before the inevitable “incident” took place. “It was very fun,” Alain assured me. Right up until the night at sea when a large and disturbed man pulled a galley knife on him. “I tried everything to calm him,” said Alain, standing to recount the story, arms waving. “Finally, I had to hit him over the head with a, how you say…” He pointed at the galley.
“Frying pan,” I helped.
“Oui, merci. Very hard, he was very big man. After that, it was not the same.” No, I guess it wouldn’t be.
The next morning, I moved Leila away from Alain’s hatch and checked the galley. Yes, all the frying pans were there.
That day, we decided we needed a little extra pampering; we’d sail for a resort. We had been up the east coast of Taha’a and circumnavigated Raiatea, spending most of our time in the southern portion of the lagoon, where we had not seen another boat and Alain’s “little fishes” outnumbered people about a million to one – and that was inside the lagoon.
But part of the fun of stepping into the wild – if you can call a million dollar catamaran the wild – is returning to pampered civilization. Raiatea and Taha’a are not known for their resorts or tourist trade, not the way Bora Bora is (there are jet ski tours around Bora Bora now – talk about paradise lost), but there is one, Le Taha’a Private Island and Spa, built in the last few years, that stands out among the islands. Located on a private motu – an islet on the reef – over a mile off Taha’a’s western shore, it has only over-the-water bungalows, private beach and easy access to some of the area’s best coral gardens. It also has a great patch of sand for anchoring, and by mid-morning we had a better view of Bora Bora than the resort’s best suite – which goes for over a grand a night.
We piled in the dinghy and headed for the nearest beachhead, certain to meet resistance. I had done the same thing at the ritzy Palmilla in Mexico years before and been greeted by an armed security guard 10 feet off the beach. Here, I was hoping that a giddy Frenchman, a pregnant woman and two toddlers would soften up any resistance. I was almost disappointed when we landed on the beach without incident and casually made our way to the pool.
The pool was a tranquil spot, a few couples at the bar enjoying quiet drinks and a few more studying cheap paperbacks. That is, until we arrived. Pools and kids equal splashing, laughing, noise. So when a man approached us, I cursed myself for not shaving and started looking for escape routes back to the boat.
“Sir,” he said, leaning over the water.
“Who, me?” I said, holding Leila close.
“Oui. Would you like me to take a picture?” He motioned to our camera. Hmm, maybe the French are all right after all.
After a top-rate SCUBA dive the next morning through Blue Nui Dive, which has a location at Le Taha’a, it was time to move closer to the Moorings base for an early disembarking the next morning. A slight pall descended on us as we sailed south along the reef, the lush island of Taha’a to our port, Bora Bora floating on the horizon to our starboard. The week had been filled with everything I left land to find – discovery, adventure and a little relaxation. But it had gone by so fast; it felt as if civilization were a looming squall, one we were forced to take head on.
I looked toward Bora Bora and the open ocean, readily accessible via Taha’a’s Paipai Pass, and a hint of desperate madness hit me, the same desperation that must have hit Christian Fletcher centuries before. I looked at Captain Alain and saw Captain Bligh, forcing me back to cold civilization...
But it was Captain Alain himself who saved the day, again. A child’s smile curled across his lips and he checked the time.
“One more snorkel with the little fishes, yes?” he said.
I didn’t say anything. I just went to unpack my dive gear as Alain turned the wheel.
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