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.
Speaking of these islands, we should take a moment to say what we mean when we say Tahiti—a name that’s used in both a diffused and a particular sense. Strictly speaking, Tahiti is one island in the Îles du Vent, or windward, chain of French Polynesia’s Society Islands archipelago. Its capital, Papeete (pronounced pa-peh-AY-tay), is the commercial and political hub for all of French Polynesia, which stretches across 100,000 square miles of ocean from the Marquesas and the Tuamotus north of us all the way to Easter Island to the south. Papeete, with its urban population of more than 130,000 and a network of highways, businesses, and billboards, feels like a modern European city with palm trees.
Most of us, when we think of Tahiti, are thinking of something different, something we’re more likely to find about 120 miles west of Papeete in the Society Islands’ Îles Sous le Vent, or leeward chain. These islands are Raiatea, Tahaa, Huahine, and Bora-Bora. Raiatea (pronounced rah-ee-ah-TAY-ah) is the de facto sailing capital of Tahiti. The principle boatyards, chandleries, and charter bases are all concentrated here. And it’s among these slower-paced islands that the Tahiti Pearl Regatta sails. Our itinerary—from Raiatea to Bora-Bora and back, then once around Tahaa—gives us a fine introduction to the Polynesian leeward islands.
An Amphidromic Point
We aboard Milena are observers of the racing, not participants, and so we have the leisure on the first day of racing to pull out ahead and watch the lagoon billow with spinnakers of yellow, pink, blue, and green by the dozens under the brooding backdrop of Raiatea’s Mount Tapioi. The fleet meanders across the lagoon toward Tahaa on a morning of light southeasterlies, then aims north toward Passe Papai and out into the open Pacific.
It leaves us plenty of time to talk. Ben asks why these islands hold such a particular allure with sailors.
“The Societies are middle-aged,” Didier says. Pressed, he replies that by contrast, the Marquesas are young islands. “They’re volcanic,” he says, “but they have no reef.” The Tuamotus? “They’re old. They have only a reef but no volcanic island.” What the Societies offer is the perfect moderate blend of high mountains and fringing reef with a wide lagoon in which to fish and sail and anchor safely. To hear Didier tell it, you get the sense that the islands themselves are growing and aging and dying—even voyaging across the Pacific. “They sink and drift three centimeters every year,” he says. “It’s a lot.”
An earlier conversation with regatta organizer Stephanie Betz touched on another of the local charms for sailors. “In the Society Islands, we have something very particular. We’re sitting at an amphidromic point.”