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.
“Donnes-moi une bouteille,” she says to Didier. Stephanie invites us to imagine that the half-filled water bottle is the whole South Pacific Ocean, with Australia at one end and South America at the other. She holds the bottle on its side, then gently tips it back and forth. “When the tide is high in Australia, it’s low in South America, and so on,” she says. “We’re exactly in the middle. It means that we aren’t affected by the moon tide. The tide here in the Society Islands is always high at midnight and noon, and low at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Every day of the year.” Whereas powerful tidal currents run through the Tuamotus and other archipelagos, here there’s just a gentle rise and fall of several inches at the same time every day and very little current.
But mere geology and tides don’t explain the magic of the place. “I speak a lot of Tahitian,” Didier says, “but it’s very difficult to translate Tahitian into French. Tahitians speak in pictures.”
Didier tells of waking up in the wee hours and seeing all the Tahitian men going out in their boats, and even now, after a decade of living among them, he still has no idea what compels them into their boats on one day and not another. Hours later, they come back loaded down with fish. “They can teach you many things,” says the master fisherman, recognizing full well that he still has an awful lot of things to learn about fish and the sea.
These are the things we talk about as we reach across the long and gentle north-running Pacific swells between Tahaa and Bora-Bora. And later that night on a motu out near the reef, we taste for ourselves the overwhelming hospitality of the people among whom Didier has spent the last happy decade.
Score One for the Good Guys
“We haven’t tacked this much since we left the Caribbean,” says Rosemary Thomas from Crazy Horse, a Sundeer 60 out of Maryland that’s sailing in the World ARC.
Her husband, Bill, chuckles. “It’s true,” he says. “We’ve been on port tack ever since we left Ecuador.”
I’ve joined Rosemary and Bill and their 26-year-old son, Matt, for the second day of racing, Bora-Bora back to Tahaa. Ahead of us is the pass back into the lagoon and the finish line for the day’s course. We have a 51-foot Beneteau in our sights—it’s the charter boat Napé. And we’re pretty sure we’ve got them. We’re making trees, as they say. Banana trees. Pandanus trees.
But what we aboard Crazy Horse lack—three American sailors halfway toward becoming circumnavigators, plus me just in from New England—is a local rock pilot: someone who understands how water moves around these islands. And so we place our bet on the inshore course, right in alongside the reef, where it seems the boats out in front are doing better. Napé splits from us, heading offshore. We sail in as close as we’re comfortable, then tack back out.
Alas, when we cross, Napé’s wake demonstrates just how poor our bet was. Both boats harden up for the final leg with half a mile to go. Still, there’s hope for us. We seem to be reeling them back in. And so it goes for several minutes, as the surf begins to thunder on the reef on both sides around us, but then—what’s this?—the orange racing buoy disappears. With one eye on the frothing reef to leeward and one eye on the committee boat, we struggle to figure out what’s happening. I go for the racing rules.
Under time limits, I find this helpful note: DO = (D/VT X 1.2) – TR.
Then I recall something Stephanie said at the outset about the president of the Tahitian Sailing Federation. “If the wind is particular, he could change the rules.”
Indeed, it seems the wind today was particular. Yes, after a full day of racing and just moments before entering the pass, that’s it. Race over.
It wasn’t a terrible result in the end—just squishy enough to admit multiple good-natured arguments that night at the party at a motu off Tahaa’s eastern shore. Mostly, it was fun to talk to Napé’s John and Jan Cook about all the places they’d chartered in the five years they’ve owned a Moorings charter boat in the Caribbean. As part of the yacht-ownership agreement, owners can exchange time on their own boat for similar boats in other Moorings locations. For this French Polynesia charter, with their sons and a couple of friends, the Cooks stayed for two weeks, the first of which coincided with the regatta. For the second week, they spent a more leisurely time exploring Huahine and Tahaa.
I spoke to Jan again last February. “We loved chartering in Polynesia,” she said. “And our time in the regatta was so much fun. It was a great way to see and experience the culture of the various islands and to just meet other people. And with all those ARC people that were sailing around the world, it really opened our eyes to a whole different thing that we don’t usually get on a charter.”
Opened their eyes? It sure seems that way. Their boat is about to come out of charter. And as Jan told me: “Just this weekend, John even said, ‘I’d like to sail over to Tahiti.’”
As for the rest of us cruisers, our kind was vindicated when the overall winners of the 2010 Tahiti Pearl Regata were announced on the event’s final day. When all was said and done, who won? Was it one of the crackerjack local members of the Tahitian Sailing Federation? Was it one of the two fully outfitted crews who flew in from St. Tropez?
Nope and nope. The overall winners of the 2010 Tahiti Pearl Regatta were the cruisers Srecko and Olga Pust of Slovenia, a husband and a wife sailing their Sweden Yacht 45 Ciao in full cruising trim. They were just passing through these lovely islands on their way to Tonga and Bali and South Africa and Brazil and, finally, St. Lucia at the conclusion of the 2010-2011 World ARC rally.
In the meantime, we all came away feeling lucky to have shared each other’s company for a brief sojourn among the beautiful, the moderate, the magic Society Islands.
Tim Murphy, a Cruising World editor at large, is an independent writer and editor based in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.