Sinning & Grinning Through French Polynesia

From our January 2006 issue

DestPolynesia368

The narrow pass on the south side of Maupiti is one of the more remote jewels of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.Elaine Lembo

The sins of man. Sure, the topic is bound to come up at any sermon, but when bells rang out one Sunday morning last May from the tower of the church in Vaiea, on Maupiti, a crowd of American sailors gathered there didn't know quite what to make of the scene. With a palm-fringed lagoon all around us, gentle breezes soothing us, and not a boat in sight except those in our eight-strong fleet, the impending act of solemn worship seemed as incongruous to us as it must have seemed to the Polynesians when members of the London Missionary Society in 1797 first brought the Word to these islands.

But incongruous or no, we were going to church. So it was that three-quarters of the 41 charterers on the May 2005 Cruising World Adventure Charter flotilla, while taking care of our fancy duds-floppy hats, delicate skirts, still uncreased khaki pants-got into our dinghies and putt-putted in.

True enough, we'd partied and sinned pretty damn well the night before. Vouching for the fun part was easy. On Motu Tuanai, we feasted and danced at Pension Marau with its owner, Linda Dehahe, and local guide and pilot Richard Tefaatau. Richard, as enormous as he is jolly, had guided us through the tiny island's shallow, roiling pass.

Over beers shortly after our arrival, Richard assured the men in the crew there'd be plenty of women for them at the feast.

"What about men for the women?" I asked.

He poked me with a pointy fingernail. "Too skinny," he grunted.

As for what might have transpired in the wee hours that Saturday night at Le Snack, the hub of village nightlife, we stuck to a don't-ask/don't-tell policy. I suspect there wasn't much we could've done that would've surprised our hosts, anyway.

By Sunday morning, we looked respectful enough for a bunch of barflies on vacation. Still, we repentant pilgrims were no match for the locals, who easily outdid us not just in dress but also in fervor and in song. In the shade of a large tree outside the church stood several beautiful women wearing straw hats bedecked with flowers; their dresses were of pressed fabric dyed red, blue, green, and lapis lazuli, edged in ruffles and lace, and made lively with prints of breadfuit, tiare, and bougainvillea. They practiced hymns one last time before going inside the white church, which from a distance looked like it had been plucked from beneath a Christmas tree.

We guests were led to the first few of the heavy mahogany pews at the head of the congregation. Over the next hour, my ears followed the a cappella polyphony of the men's and women's choirs, whose Tahitian rounds seemed to alternately question and answer one another. I had no idea what sentiments were being expressed, but somehow, no matter where you are in the world, when you're in a church, you can understand nothing and everything at the same time.

During a pause between the singing, the minister, a serious man with a thick gardenia headdress, relinquished the podium to the deacon, who spoke to us in English.

"We welcome you to our service this morning," he said. "It doesn't matter if you are white, black, red, or yellow, if you believe in God. We hope you have a good trip."

We already were. Halfway through our 10-day charter, our sins amounted to a few groundings, one keel's kiss of the coral, a flipped dinghy and outboard, a few missed radio checks, the usual shipboard rotting tomatoes, and several mild indecent-exposure infractions from the vicinity of the swim platforms.

When the last hymn ended, my focus had shifted from sin to sweat, specifically, to the challenge of putting my calling card-Cruising World's Adventure Charter pink burgee-at the top of Mount Teurufaatiu, at 1,280 feet the island's summit.

Why French Polynesia?
When we sailed into the pass at Maupiti, about 25 miles west of Bora-Bora, the far more famous home to honeymoon resorts, Richard Tefaatau said his island had seen fewer than 20 cruising boats since the new year. Carol King, who organized this charter with her husband, Peter, said that French Polynesia receives as many tourists in a whole year as Hawaii receives every 10 days. Nonetheless, Maupiti and Bora-Bora are in chartering territory that Americans recognize; Sunsail and The Moorings are located in Raiatea, so their clients sail mostly in the Îles Sous le Vent, or Leewards, about 100 miles northwest of Tahiti.

If sailing in French Polynesia was once a distant dream to the Kings, by now they've come to see it as a familiar neighborhood. For this and every Adventure Charter, the couple scopes out the cruising grounds and land-based amenities in advance of their clients. The chance to mix with locals in such a remote destination as Maupiti, in addition to long, satisfying sails, is but one of the results of their painstaking efforts. This trip, part of a decade-long collaboration between the magazine and King Yacht Charters, was their fifth in French Polynesia.

"Of all the places you can sail, Tahiti is the only place where you can truly get an open-water, ocean-sailing experience," Peter says. "We've sailed all over the world, and there's just no place like it. Distances between islands is 25 to 30 miles, and you've got to do it."

Experiencing for the first time the long rollers, the big distances between islands, and the deep blue of the Pacific was certainly the dream of many of the charterers, a large number of whom own cruising boats.

"I knew I'd never take my boat to the Pacific," attorney Jim Doran of Nashville explained to me during our Air Tahiti Nui flight into Papeete, Tahiti. "This was my chance."

Jim, who came with his wife, Ramsey, races his Northstar 500 in Nashville and cruises a Tartan 40 in Florida. He told me he'd pored over many sailors' Pacific accounts, especially those of Bernard Moi-tessier. He spied my borrowed copy of The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux, a cynical yet vivid account based on the author's kayaking adventure throughout the South Pacific islands, and it kicked off a lively discussion. The book is a brutal assessment in which Theroux blames many of Tahiti's chronic troubles on colonization and present-day control by France.

The Dorans, who like the outdoors and favor bicycling trips, were eager to get on the water again, though Ramsey struggled with bouts of seasickness. On this charter, Jim would captain Melissa, a Fountaine Pajot Bahia 46 catamaran, assisted by backup skipper John Moody of Westport, Connecticut, who sails a Sabre 38 Mark II along the New England coast.

Overall, the group represented an impressive range of sailboat ownership. Cherished, but left home-along with kids and grandkids-were a Hallberg-Rassy 40, a Moody 40, an Ericson 35, a Bristol 38, a Brewer 44, a Passport 42, and a San Juan 21 trailer-sailer. One couple was planning to buy an Oyster and hire a captain; others reeled off bareboat destinations, either with the Adventure Charter program or directly with charter companies, sailing programs, and sailing schools. Cruising grounds ranged from the Caribbean to the Galapagos, the Mediterranean, and Seychelles. Yet another subset of this group was singles, which on this trip included six women and three men-a new record, according to the Kings. All in all, whether Tahiti was a last-minute leap into vacation, a relaxing reward, a fling, the chance to flex some sailing muscle, or simply the culmination of a long-held dream, one thing was certain: Most were here to relax and shed inhibitions.

Lush Beginnings
At a chart briefing, it fell to Sunsail's Patricia Hubbard, customer-service manager, to convert our notions of the South Pacific into reality. The Sunsail base is tucked inside Baie de Faaroa, a deep, sheltered recess on Raiatea's eastern coast. Her mission was to demystify what many of us understood only on paper.

In short form, our itinerary went like this: Depart Sunsail base in Raiatea. Head for Tahaa. STOP. Sail from Tahaa to Huahine. STOP. Head south inside lagoon for an overnight. STOP. Sail back to Raiatea, then overnight off Tahaa. STOP. Sail early a.m. to Bora-Bora. STOP. Motor around the lagoon, STOP, then early a.m. sail to Maupiti. STOP. Overnight, then sail back to Bora-Bora. STOP. From Bora-Bora sail to Tahaa, finish in Raiatea. Over 10 sailing days, with distances between these islands from 20 to 30 miles, we were in for some nautical exercise.

But Patricia low-keyed it all. "In general, the sailing is very easy," she told us. We faced prevailing easterlies, swells mostly from the southwest, and the international Uniform System of Maritime Buoyage, in which green markers lie toward the mainland of the islands, red markers lie closer to the coral reefs, and cardinal markers indicate reefs or other sailing hazards.

I did the math: Given the east-west orientation from Raiatea of the other leeward islands, sailing on a schedule plus prevailing easterlies equaled good reaches some of the time, and motorsailing closehauled at least a couple of times. That was at least how we began, after loading our gear and provisions onto the boats and sorting through last-minute questions and problems. But Peter's magic schedule prevailed, and soon enough we departed Baie de Faaroa and had our first views, by water, of the magical South Pacific island scenery.

Sweet Analogies
Picture a bowl of mint chocolate-chip ice cream with the works, slightly melted. I know this imagery won't work for every sailor, but it's the best way I can think of to explain how plate tectonics is causing the islands to gradually, slowly, drift westward while sinking in minuscule increments.

As we motorsailed along, getting settled in and acquainted with our surroundings, I pictured how an island with a steep peak of lush tropical foliage, permeated by the sweet fragrance of gardenia, is surrounded by a coral reef, topped off in places by islets called motus. The beautiful, multihued blue lagoon is the melted ice cream (which gets bigger as the island sinks and shrinks); the rim of the bowl is the reef and motus; and at the center is the main attraction, a volcanic convergence of flora, fauna, and French, Polynesian, and Chinese culture. Sweet! It's hardly an expert assessment, but for a rank beginner, it worked; maybe it was a sign that what I really needed was a serving of the rich French version of the frozen confection, part of the fare at so many waterfront cafes in the island villages we visited.

In other places, I'd seen elements of this kind of tropical scenery-as if St. Vincent's volcanic peaks, say, were surrounded by palm-fringed, reef-guarded cays like those behind Belize' great barrier reef. Here, the components made a perfect whole. At first, it seemed odd to anchor in the places we did. One night, as we listened to the ocean pounding through the coral reef and stared up at the stars, our crewmate Linda Martin, who'd had years of experience bareboating in the Caribbean and the Med, said, "It's strange to think of these places as anchorages because you don't see the reef. You feel like you're in the middle of the ocean."

Sailing and Socializing
As active as the sailing itinerary of an Adventure Charter is, it's also very much a social itinerary. The Kings get a kick out of providing the setting for people to meet; they spend a lot of time between trips keeping the connections alive with a newsletter. So there's method to some of the joyful madness of the stream of brunches and dinners, cocktail parties, and tours over which they enthusiastically preside.

So yes, parties are on a par with the sailing on Adventure Charters, and one highpoint for us was the welcome party and traditional feast at the Hibiscus, on Tahaa. It didn't end before a lot of our crew wound up doing a line dance, in grass skirts and coconut-husk bikini tops, per the instructions of Tanireka Hibiscus, a trio of young island women.

Nearly everyone in our group jumped into the line dance; at one point, I noticed Ramsey Doran, scopolamine patch behind her ear, being led up to the dance floor. "Thank God for the rum punch, that's all I can say!" she blurted. Then she was off, shuffling forward, back, left, and right, as the trio shamed us modern women for losing touch with our midsections, which they rightly knew had more gyrations left in them than we suspected.

And so our flotilla sailed onward, closehauled in squally weather, from Tahaa to Huahine, where we swapped stories at the New Temarara in Fare and took a jeep tour of the island in pouring rain. Skies cleared in time for a grand cocktail party on the beach at Baie d'Avea. Ron Coburn, whom we'd dubbed Captain Ron after our repeated attempts to hail him on the VHF failed, showed up wearing a sailing cap bedecked with a variety of lawn furniture, no doubt purloined from many fruity cocktails.

Much is choreographed on an Adventure Charter, but there's plenty of room for spontaneity, too. This, I suspect, must have been a contributing factor during our last big night.

Big Blue, Big Wind
Patricia Hubbard and all the trusty guidebooks in print about French Polynesia were right about the direction of the prevailing winds. Throughout the charter, we sailed mainly in easterlies, among big swells, and, mostly, reaching in winds of more than 20 knots. As for Patricia's comment that the sailing is easy, I bet some of the charterers would say it all depends on the national flag you fly from the rigging. Given the reputation of the French for lean, mean sailing adventure, the average U.S. East Coast sailor's definition of "easy" is a healthy few notches lower. I learned, when I asked, that some of the first-time Pacific Ocean sailors felt that if they were back home, some of these winds were the kind that'd keep them home, safe in port.

On the last night of the trip, we anchored behind Serran, a motu on the southeast side of Tahaa, near where our festive trip had officially begun at Hibiscus. The idea of winding down such a great charter near its kickoff felt right. Cheeriness and an onward, ho! attitude prevailed. Meanwhile, a healthy, building southeast wind sent waves washing over Tahaa's reef. We bedded down that night with plenty of whistling in the rigging.
At 0130, a message came over the VHF: "Jaspe, Jaspe. This is Tourmaline. Anyone got their ears on? This is Tourmaline. Our anchor broke, and we're drifting!"

And so we jumped up out of our bunks, into the cockpit, and watched as the Sun Odyssey 43 made revolutions around the fleet before coming to rest in the distance. The next day, after we returned to the base, I encountered many sleepy sailors, for the distress of a windy anchorage, I learned, was spread liberally throughout our little fleet.

Tourmaline wasn't the only boat with a tale. When I dinghied over to Almandin, JJ Jacob proudly held up a blue-green tangle of fishing net about as big as a large laundry basket.

"This is what we were anchored to!" he said. "We didn't stop to have dinner at any of the houses we passed on shore, but we could practically see into their dining rooms!"

Captain Ron fleshed out the sea story. They thought they'd anchored on the bottom, but as the wind built through the night, their real holding-the net-wasn't holding after all. "We raised our anchor, motored forward, reset it, and stood anchor watch," Ron said. "Pacific sailing is certainly adventure sailing."

Almandin's skipper, Dick Muenow, was glad for the anchor-watch feature on his GPS. He set it to go off if the boat moved more than 60 feet, and when the primary's rode and chain parted and the boat took off, the alarm served its purpose. "There were gusts up to 38 knots," he said. "That's just part of sailing. We figured out what to do." Indeed, with the boat's secondary anchor set, they made it through the night just fine.

"Hey, it's adventure cruising," Ron said. "What do you want, to sit in a lounge chair?"