When the organizers of the annual Tahiti Pearl Regatta contacted us in Hawaii to ask if we’d like to photograph their event between the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia, my wife, Kyoko, and I were so overjoyed that we couldn’t resist telling a few friends. Their response was pretty much uniform: “You suck.”
Tahiti has the reputation of a South Pacific paradise, even among those of us based in Hawaii. Since the late 1700s, when Adm. Bougainville and Capts. Wallis and Cook first visited, stories of these lush islands and their gorgeous people have circulated in popular culture. One even feels a certain sympathy for Fletcher Christian and his fellow Bounty mutineers for dumping mean old Capt. Bligh in a longboat so they could make a U-turn right back to their girlfriends in Tahiti.
Raiatea, French Polynesia’s charter base, has a long history of Polynesian navigation. A priest and navigator named Tupaia, who trained at the great navigation temple Taputapuatea (“most sacred to the gods”) on Raiatea’s east coast, sailed with Cook. He drew Cook a chart detailing more than 200 Pacific islands, including Hawaii, all from memory. Many voyages of exploration in Polynesia began at Taputapuatea, and its ruins are a must-see for anyone remotely interested in history or sailing.
The Leeward Islands of Raiatea, Huahine and Bora Bora are truly a paradise for cruisers. Only a day’s sail apart, they lie about a hundred miles leeward of Tahiti. All of the islands are surrounded by extensive lagoons, with crystal-clear water and hundreds of possible anchorages, many without a single yacht. Raiatea itself is joined to its neighbor island, Taha’a, by an immense lagoon, so it’s actually possible to sail to the next island without even going to sea.
It’s common, and even preferable, here to anchor over sandbars near the outer reefs and islets. Holding is excellent in these shallow anchorages, as are the diving, cool breezes and amazing scenery, and unlike the deep bays close in to the islands, there are few insects.
Tides in Tahiti are so small as to be almost negligible due to its charmed location on what is called an “amphidromic point,” or tidal node. Tides here are influenced mostly by the sun rather than the stronger gravitational attraction of the moon, so the tide is generally slightly higher (by about a foot) at noon and lower in the evenings.
The climate is typically hot and humid here, and there are periods of strong trade winds and frontal systems, so it’s important to keep an eye on the weather. In general the Northern Hemisphere winter is Tahiti’s summer (November through April), and brings a greater chance of rain, frontal winds and hot, muggy weather. It is also the cyclone season, although hurricane-force winds are rare.
We had the full charter experience with a bareboat before the regatta, and crewed charters during and after. Our bareboat was a Sunsail 404 catamaran, build by Robertson and Caine in South Africa. As a lifelong monohull sailor, I was reluctant to charter a catamaran, but it took only one look aboard our Sunsail 404 to see the benefits: absurd amounts of space and comfort on a shallow-draft cat that’s rock-solid at anchor. It was like having an overwater bungalow that sailed. And the sailing was surprisingly good. The anchorages were uncrowded and jaw-droppingly stunning, and the diving superb.
One near miss of an uncharted coral bank reminded us of the cardinal rule here: Sail only in good light—especially when you are within the reefs—and trust your eyes, not just your chart plotter.
For the weeklong festival of sailing and parties that is the Tahiti Pearl Regatta, we boarded a spacious Lagoon 52 from Tahiti Yacht Charter. Despite a deep loathing of group travel, it didn’t take me long to adjust to having Fred, a capable captain, navigate us to neighboring Huahine, while Heeniti, our five-star chef, created raw tuna masterpieces and divinely inspired fresh-baked desserts.
After the spectacular race, Kyoko and I boarded another Lagoon 52 from Dream Yacht Charter. Once again amazed at an enormous, new, well-run vessel, and ridiculously well-fed, we visited a fascinating pearl farm, and a phenomenal snorkeling area called the Coral Garden, where we were swarmed by hundreds of bold exotic fish as we floated gently in the current along a coral reef.
Hard as it is for a salty, bluewater monohull sailor to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed cruising the lagoons on Sunsail’s catamaran, and being feted like royalty on the crewed charters with Dream and Tahiti Yacht Charter was splendid. I recommend Raiatea as one of the world’s best charter locations—with one last word of caution: Don’t tell your friends you’re going. They’ll only hate you for it. —Tor Johnson