A Society Islands Sojourn
Round-the-world ralliers join international sailors and charter guests in Raiatea for the five-day movable feast that is the Tahiti Pearl Regatta.
Everything begins at Taputapuatea. It was from the nearby pass through the fringing reef that the legendary voyages of a millennium ago were launched, the voyages of migration that populated the Austral Islands, the Hawai’ian Islands, even New Zealand. It’s the mythical birthplace of the god Oro, and still today you’ll find stones from this marae in the most sacred sites all across Oceania. This is the center of the Polynesian world. The wide Pacific itself pivots here, its tides rising and falling with a metronomic regularity, 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock, 12 and 6, every day of every year.
“Regarde,” says Pauline, who’s showing me through the outdoor temple on an afternoon of warm tropical rain. “Tu sais ce que c’est? C’est l’arbre à pain.”
Struggling through my schoolboy French to keep up with her, I’m a little slow on the uptake. But a moment later, it dawns on me what she’s just said.
With that word in my ears and the broad leaf in my hand, all 30-odd years of reading and dreaming about this place come flooding in: James Cook plotting the transit of Venus; the navigator-priest Tupaia drawing accurate maps of the islands hundreds of miles out; Roger Byam and Fletcher Christian shaking hands on the beach before the Bounty sailed off forever; Bernard Moitessier abandoning Europe and publicity to save his soul; Paul Gaugin; Alberto Torroba; Jacques Brel—the list goes on. For, truly, in a lifetime of traveling and imagining places, no other spot on the planet has had the same pull on me as this one.
Here it was: Tahiti.
The Lay of the Land
I’ve come this week to sail in the seventh running of the Tahiti Pearl Regatta, an annual five-day tour of the Society Islands whose spirit, in the words of its organizers, “is to blend sport, culture, and entertainment.” And how. This May 2010 event coincides with the arrival of the World ARC, two dozen international boats engaged in a 15-month circumnavigation. Together with the other 50-some boats in the regatta—mostly local sailors, but also charterers who, like me, have flown in—the World ARC crews gather each night on the beach to listen to the ecstatic harmonies of the local singers, dance the tamure, and feast on chicken and fish and all manner of local fare roasted underground in banana leaves and coconut milk. It’s almost too good.
I’m sailing aboard the crewed charter yacht Milena, a Lagoon 570 catamaran, with hosts Didier Alphen and Pauline Barbat, as well as a film crew from Time Warner Cable who come to be known throughout the fleet as “the CNN guys.” They’re not sailors, the CNN guys, but they’re absolutely game. Their on-air reporter, Ben McCain, is a big-hearted and gregarious West Texan who greets all comers with a loud “Buongiorno!” and who spends much of his off-camera time scripting the South Seas sequel to his campy thriller Killer Tumbleweeds. It’s quickly clear that we’re going to have a fine time together. Plus, any initial cultural differences among us are quickly swept away as Didier brings up the one cultural ambassador we all hold in common. Yes, just a few weeks before our arrival, Jimmy Buffett came to play a fundraiser at Bloody Mary’s on Bora-Bora—reportedly his first show there since recording One Particular Harbour 28 years ago. Buffett is an avid fly fisherman, and in these parts Didier is known as the master of that art. And so it was that Buffett and his entourage had spent their downtime aboard the boat we were now sailing. And so it was that we now spent an idyllic afternoon passage to Bora-Bora listening to music from a CD warmly inscribed to Didier and Pauline by the Head Parrothead himself.
When Didier Alphen came to these islands from France, he thought he’d stay a year. Twelve years later, he doesn’t look like a man who’s about to leave soon. He’s sailed in plenty of other places: the Caribbean, the Med, elsewhere in the Pacific. But this place clearly has a hold on him. “You have a big mix of everything here,” he says. “The safety is fantastic—no pirates—and the people are so welcoming and warm. The sun is there all the time. Pristine waters. I mean, it could be worse!” I very quickly come to appreciate his and Pauline’s deep knowledge and love for these islands and their people.