CAPTAIN’S LOG The Society Islands
Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora
June 29 to August 6, 2014
The September issue of PassageMaker magazine has been published and includes a feature article and pictures of our passage through the Panama Canal. We are very complimented that PassageMaker syndicates our newsletter letter The Argonaut and publishes it on their website. http://www.passagemaker.com/category/destinations/cruiser-blogs/the-argonaut/
Rebecca and I have been accepted as members of the Ocean Cruising Club, which isn’t an honor of any sort except that you have to log of miles on the high seas. It’s just fun to be part of a group of people who have made long open ocean passages. Members often display their burgees in port so we can identify them and learn of their adventures.
So far we have traveled 10,500 miles on this Pacific trip.
The Society Islands
Tahiti: We enjoyed a lovely 22 hour cruise down to Papeete from Tikehau. The sea was calm, we cruised before a light 5 knot breeze, and the sky was blue and clear. It couldn’t have been more beautiful; perfect for deploying our fishing gear and Father Neptune gave us two Mahi-Mahis and one huge Skip Jack for our effort. The skip jacks are a type of tuna, and in these waters they grow to twenty-five or thirty pounds. It was a picturesque passage in every way.
Geography: Tahiti is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about 3,300 miles due south of Hawaii and 2,000 miles northeast of New Zealand. It is an island formed about two million years ago by ancient volcanos. Tahiti is made up of two mountains joined by an isthmus to form Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti. Mt. Orohena is the highest peak at about 7,000 ft. above sea level, but it began its ascent over 11,000 ft. below the sea’s surface on the ocean floor. Its peaks are often surrounded by clouds, and its rugged mountain tops encircle what used to be the volcano’s crater. Mt. Orohena is composed of basaltic rock, which is soft and has eroded over the centuries into spires and carved edges that delight the eye and the imagination. Its mountain tops yield to valleys that are covered by jungle vegetation of every description. Papeete sprawls around the northwest edge of the island and flows down the lava slopes. As we approached the island, we could see lovely homes perched precariously on the hillsides, and the town itself nestled inside the lagoon at the harbor. The island is surrounded by a coral reef. Large rollers meet the coral with thunderous roars and white surf. The coral ring is easily seen as a pale blue circle of water around the island punctuated by rocks that pierce the surface and then submerge on the inside of the lagoon to form a dark blue navigable waterway between the island and the reef. Every so often there is an opening that permits passage over the reef and into the lagoon.
Shortly after we arrived, Rebecca arranged a tour of the island by car; other than in Papeete there is essentially one road around the island. The island is very steep, so most of the homes and gardens are located near the lagoon that surrounds the island. It is very lush and verdant providing a high standard of living for Tahitians. At the southeast end of Tahiti Nui is an isthmus that joins the bigger portion of the island to the smaller Tahiti Iti. We drove up the side of the mountain on Tahiti Iti to see the view of the isthmus and its surrounding lagoon. This was one of the most beautiful geographic sights I have ever seen. Tahiti is also a world renowned surfing location.
Arriving at Papeete: Papeete was a welcomed sight to us because we hadn’t been to a town bigger than a few thousand people for several months. We were looking forward to provisioning and other benefits of civilization. We entered the lagoon at Passe de Taapuna, about seven miles south of Papeete. The pass was a little tricky as it is shallow, subject to the effects of the surf and requires several turns in the shallow area, but we negotiated it with only a slightly elevated pulse. We proceeded north up the lagoon’s channel to Marina Tiana, the largest marina in French Polynesia and home to several hundred boats. We stern tied to the so-called super yacht wharf and within a few hours we had rented a car, dined at the restaurant on the pier, and began shopping.
Shopping in Papeete was relatively easy. French is the national language, but English is taught in school and most people are happy to converse in English. A half mile walk from the marina was a shopping center that was stocked with virtually everything on our provisioning list. Argo was in need of some oil filters and a couple of extra impellers, and this proved a bit of an adventure to find a heavy equipment parts supplier on the wharf at Papeete. Driving in alleys and around ships being broken apart for scrap was interesting, and the supplier we found was staffed by knowledgeable and friendly people who were very excited and interested to learn of our adventure.
The downtown area of Papeete is not particularly memorable from an architectural point of view. Most of its buildings are of a 60’s vintage that surround a busy, working harbor, but to us it was a welcome respite of civilization after several months in places with few people. Papeete is the capitol of French Polynesia, which is a protectorate of France. The French support the country by paying for most of the cost of government (teachers’ salaries, the Gendarmeries, customs and immigration services, and many other government functions – $18 billion), yet there is an active, if ill-advised political movement to separate from France. Without French subsidies, however, the Confederation of French Polynesia would not enjoy its relatively high standard of living, so I cannot imagine that the majority of Polynesians would be willing to give up French support. Economic activity here peaked in the 1990’s, with cheap airfares appealing to tourists and black pearls fetching a very high premium. Today however, the Chinese are selling black pearls cheaper than they can be produced here, and the tourist industry has not recovered from the Great Recession; tourist revenue is below 1997 values. Papeete is home to the CFP government and offices of the French government. Students over the age of fifteen from all the seven archipelagoes that make up the CFP come here for high school. There are universities and a sophisticated medical center here. Papeete is the main distribution center for all the islands.
The money here is the CFP franc. Its conversion value varies from day to day; on some days we received as little as $1 equals 0.83 francs less a commission of 1% plus a fixed charge of $17.50. Only some bank offices convert dollars, and their hours of operation are hard to predict what with holidays, the equivalent of a siesta in the afternoon, and local factors. Banks will only convert $500 at a time, netting us considerably less when all is said and done. Prices are generally higher than we pay in the U.S., particularly for food and restaurants. These factors have us relying on our credit cards. The CFP government waives its tax on fuel and parts purchased by transient yachts, making things more affordable for yachters. We purchased fuel here for $4.53 a gallon (which I didn’t think was too bad); a hamburger with fries, on the other hand, costs about $20 (which I thought was pretty expensive).
Local Customs: In talking with our guide, she told us that people in Polynesia do not find it necessary to get married in order to live together or raise a family. Instead they move in with each other and maintain separate financial dealings and ownership of property. Women maintain their own name and are free to leave the man or vice versa without legal squabbling. Sometimes they marry in the church, but often this is done later in life. I assumed wrongly that people were free to be promiscuous, but she told me that if her partner went wondering, that would be the end of their relationship. If there is a breakup, the children go with whom they wish, and there are often children from many liaisons living under one roof. So what’s new?
One thing that is apparent here is that life is slower paced. The climate is so agreeable and the temperature is never cold, so the cost of housing and clothing is much lower than in the northern hemisphere. A lot of fruits and vegetables are grown in family gardens, and fish is cheap and plentiful. People don’t seem to be in much of a hurry, cars are available and expensive, but with only ten miles of road are not the status symbol that they are elsewhere. Many people live on an island their entire life and are buried with their ancestors on the family homestead. There is a rich connection to the ancient past. Land ownership here can be tricky since much of the land is subject to tribal-family claims (requiring perhaps tens if not hundreds of people to approve the sale of their rights), while at the same time the same piece of land may be subject to ownership under subsequent colonial and church claims. The legal system, particular where property ownership is concerned, favors those who look Polynesian.
Europeans here are primarily from France, and from what I can gather, are people who have opted out of the rat race. Many own small businesses, shops, or restaurants here.
Heiva: French Polynesians celebrate the “Festival of Life” or Heiva each year in July. All the islands that we visited had something going on such as out-rigger canoe races, coconut husking competitions, cookouts, and above all dance and singing competitions. Canoe clubs are popular and easy for us to identify as an athletic event, but the dance groups are something entirely different. The biggest Heiva is held at Papeete, where dance and choral groups from all over the hundreds of Polynesian islands come to perform and compete.
Dance groups are formed as a social club in many villages or islands such as the Huahine Island group that we saw perform one evening. Dance groups have a membership of perhaps 150 people with about 20 of them being orchestra members and the rest being dancers. They practice for six or eight months before the Heiva begins each summer, readying themselves for the competition. The orchestra is predominately a percussion orchestra comprised of several different size drums, a ukulele chorus, and other unusual instruments. The performance begins when the orchestra creates a primitive, pulsating, loud, rhythmic sound that will soon send the dancers into an erotic frenzy. At other times during the performance they sound like a Kabuki orchestra, making it all the more exotic. A narrative in the Tahitian language is given by what appears to be a chief or shaman who relates a mythical story of how the islands were formed by Maui or Pele or some other god or goddess, or perhaps the story of a great battle between tribes in ancient times; the dancers then interpret the story in dance. When the narrative is over the dancers swing into action. The dance is viewed by the audience in an arena setting, so that they can appreciate the choreography and precision movements of this tribe of people. The dancers are dressed in costumes made of grass, leaves and flowers. They are quite beautiful and very colorful. The females move their hips with amazing rapidity that is clearly intended to be erotic, while the men move their thighs in a way that reminds me somehow of spawning or reproduction in the animal world. In any case, it is a spectacle to behold. The dance lasts about an hour and closes when the males and females pair off, all the while shaking and quivering as they and the audience reach a point of ecstasy as the drum beat intensifies. It seems to evoke ancient tribal customs, sometimes savage, sometimes erotic. If you allow yourself to get caught up in it, you can almost smell a missionary roasting on the spit!
The Credit Card Debacle: We have had a devil of a time with our VISA cards. We carried two of them from different banks as insurance against having one cancelled, but as fate would have it they were both canceled in the course of our travels because of fraud issues with participating stores. After literally hours and hours of phone time, repeatedly answering the same security questions over and over and talking with all levels of incompetence, having the phone blank out after talking to the third tier in their hierarchy and having to start all over at the bottom rung again, we sweated out having new cards sent to Marina Tiana. In the course of trying to track them and find out if they made it here, we discovered that the lame brain in the Bank of America’s VISA office sent it to “Tamiti”. Of course there is no such place. To make matters worse, the UPS form doesn’t have enough lines on the computerized address label to accommodate addresses here, so this increased our anxiety. As the days ticked off, we finally got a tracking number and learned that the cards actually got to Papeete. UPS uses a private vender here. The phone system here is adding two digits to all phone numbers, so once we found the right number, we contacted them and arranged to drive over to their offices and pick up our cards since they had no idea of the final address to which they should have been delivered. All’s well that ends well, I suppose, but our AT&T bill was over $1,400 largely due to calls to the credit card companies!
New Friends: One of the greatest pleasures of traveling on a yacht is meeting new and interesting people. In the Tiana Marina we met several couples that we really enjoyed. One was Don and Laurie aboard True Blue: he was a prominent plastic surgeon and she an interior designer. Don told me that last year they sold everything: the house in Sausalito, the helicopter, the motorcycle, the cars …everything, and bought their Oyster 66 and began their odyssey. They’re having a wonderful time and dealing with a few bumps here and there, like their captain and his girlfriend (the cook) getting into a terrible row leading to their departure and the emergency hiring of a replacement captain, and don’t forget the failed generator that took three weeks to get parts for.
Johnny and Veronica and their three kids moored next to us on Walkabout, a Nordhavn 62; they have been spending the three summer months when the kids are out of school sailing as far as possible. They leave their yacht in the last port they reach for nine months until next season. They have traveled up the west coast to Alaska, then across the Aleutian Islands and down to Japan, then to Korea, Shanghai, Vietnam, and other places including Borneo, where they sailed up a river and saw orangutans, pigmy elephants and other exotic creatures.
Julie and Mike: My sister and her husband, Mike, flew into Papeete for a two week visit with us. They are sharing all the experiences that I am describing, particularly the Heivai Dance festivals and snorkeling.
Moorea: After almost two weeks in Papeete we shoved off for Moorea, a gorgeous island just twelve miles away. Our passage was a little rough, as wind speeds reached around 25 knots and seas were in the six foot range. Julie gets sea sick easily and this little jaunt was no exception. She is a good sport and after getting sick she just came back up on deck for more.
The passage across the reef into Cook’s Bay was easy. We anchored in 60 ft. of water near boats that we had seen in other anchorages. Cook’s Bay is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Like other Polynesian ports of call, the bay is the remnant of an ancient volcano with the eroded sides of the crater forming the peaks of the mountains. Like Tahiti, Moorea is surrounded by a coral reef that is teeming with all types of colorful tropical fish. It wasn’t long before we arranged for a scuba dive on the reef, the big attraction of which was the sighting of a huge 9 ft. lemon shark. Unfortunately it was a rainy day, and underwater that didn’t make any difference except that it was rather low light and a little chilly after two dives
The next day we toured the island with our charming Polynesian guide, Paulina, and saw the vista from Belvidere, went to the local distillery, saw the ruins of her ancestors, and had lunch at Snack Mahana. The place occupied a beautiful waterfront location and served up gourmet fare known far and wide, including its featured dish, Poisson Cru lait coco Tahiti, a raw tuna salad in coconut milk that was simply delicious. It is made with slices of raw blue or yellow fin tuna marinated in coconut milk and lime and served with cucumber slices and onion.
Of course no tour would be complete without a little shopping, and Moorea had some very nice artisan shops that Julie and Mike took advantage of including the black pearl jeweler.
That afternoon Julie, Mike and I took the tender on a snorkeling expedition. This proved interesting in that we saw quit a few sting rays and managed to get stuck in shallow water in the labyrinth of the coral reef, but otherwise all was fine and it was a lot of fun.
Huahine: We decided to do a night cruise to Huahine so that Julie and Mike could see the ocean and sky at night. It was almost 100 miles from Moorea to Huahine and it was a lovely evening for a cruise. We left Moorea at 1700 and by the time we transited the pass into the open ocean the sun had nearly set. The cruise was everything I had hoped it would be for them: the sky was pitch black and the stars twinkled in the firmament with a brilliance of clarity and in numbers that bewitch the mind. The Milky Way appears as a cloud of star dust extending from one horizon to the other. The waves peeling back from ARGO’s bow revealed stars in the water – star light like bursts from the plankton rising from thousands of feet below.
We made Huahine the following morning and put in at the little village of Fare, and fair it was. We anchored in 90 feet of water and laid out 450 feet of chain; it’s a good thing I ordered 650 feet of chain on this boat! Tyler secured Argo and gave her a bath after our cruise. Everyone else but me went ashore for shopping and reconnoitering while I laid low with very bad cold. That evening I managed to join the family for a really great happy hour and dinner at the beach front restaurant, which we later found out is known to boaters far and wide. After dinner we went to the local Heiva, which was very provincial compared to the more professional performances in Papeete. We stayed overnight and the next day we cruised down the lagoon to another anchorage that was not only a visual knockout, but had some of the most beautiful coral formations we had seen. The troupe went snorkeling while I nursed my cold. After they returned and dined on one of Rebecca’s fabulous meals, we took the dingy through a passage to another bay that connected to the other side of the islands. There we found a little tavern. We enjoyed a libation in a very rural and authentic setting, and it gave Mike a chance to pick up the bill as I forgot my wallet.
Raiatea and Tahaa: The next morning we hoisted the anchor and departed for Raiatea, a couple of hours away. It was a beautiful day, but the fish weren’t at all interested in what we had to offer. We moored at the town dock at Uturoa and dined at the little French restaurant on the dock. We were all anxious to get to Bora Bora because of all we had heard about it. That evening Harry Smith, an Australian that we meet in Jamaica and who had made the crossing during the same time period that we had, came by for a visit. He offered us some advice on Tahaa, the next island, and reported a phenomenal coral garden there. He also helped me plan our 2016 trip down the coast of Australia to Tasmania. The next morning we left Raiatea and moved over to Tahaa, which was only a few miles away. After we anchored in a secluded bay, we launched the tender and spent two days floating in the fabulous wonder of its coral garden. It was located in a channel between two motus with the sea water from the outer reef flowing through rather briskly to keep things fresh for all sorts of fish, corals and other creatures. We anchored our tender at one end of the channel and walked up the motu to the head water about ¼ mile away, and then floated down the channel to our boat, all the while watching the fabulous aquatic scenery as we floated by. Among the hundreds of brightly colored tropical fish swimming about their business oblivious to us, were two particularly interesting creatures that I hadn’t seen before. One was a sea anemone that was a beautiful red color with sticky tan tentacles and beautiful little fish weaving in and out. The other were maxima clams or small giant clams with the curved edges that have beautifully blue, red or brown colored lips. It was so fabulous it can’t be described.
Bora Bora: We reluctantly left Tahaa but looked forward to coming into Bora Bora, which is a seminal experience for a captain; it’s like coming into New York or San Francisco harbors. The pass channel is wide and easily navigated, but the bay is full of coral heads and reefs. As we entered we saw the beautiful rollers breaking on the reef on both sides, the reef awash with turquoise water, and the deep blue lagoon inside the reef. Dominating the whole scene is a huge megalith of a receding mountain named Mt. Otemanu that was once a mighty volcano. The caldera beneath the volcano has cooled and the mountain has eroded and collapsed over the centuries; it sinks about a centimeter a year into the sea. Eventually it will be like the Tuamotus. i.e., a ring of motus surrounding a lagoon.
We expected a bustling island with lots to do and see, but in reality it is a small and quiet place with only a few restaurants. Most of the activity here is at the famous hotels and resorts scattered about the motus that surround the island. The room prices are an unbelievable $2- 3,000 per night. A friend of ours went to a cheap $1,200 place where they got the third night free. We have been told that the resorts are all full, yet you don’t see many tourists about as they are locked away behind the gates of their resort.
Julie and Mike had a few more days with us so we planned an island tour that proved to be fantastic. We were picked up by a four wheel drive open back Range Rover pickup truck with bench seats in the bed. I must say I wasn’t very enthusiastic at first, but in a few minutes I was having a lot of fun. This thing climbed 500 slopes: it was fantastic. We climbed all over the mountain including a place where the Americans had placed gun mounts during the Second World War. We examined the guns, which had a legend marked with the name of the manufacturer and the date of manufacture: 1907. I asked our guide about this and he told me that they were taken from ships that were sunk at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Later they were removed from the sunken ships and brought here as defensive weapons. They were probably part of the weaponry on the Battleship Texas or some other old ship that wasn’t salvaged after the attack. The guns looked like they were cut from the ship’s deck plate, moved here, and then cemented into position on the top of the hill, deck plate and all.
One of the interesting things we found on the tour aside from the fabulous views from the mountain peaks, was the fact that people here bury their dead next to their homes. As we drove up the mountain side we could see that almost all the homes had small, roofed tombs in the yard near the home with colorful plastic flowers to memorialize their ancestors who were buried there.
Life on the Dock: During the last few days Tyler, handsome and youthful as he is, has been the object of attention from at least two young women who have found themselves stranded on the dock here in Bora Bora. It seems they were crewing on sailboats that are crossing the Pacific. Usually these women offer to cook, clean, and perhaps stand watch in exchange for free passage across the ocean. As you can imagine, people often get annoyed with one another while being in close quarters over such a long time period, so it isn’t unusual to see people leave a boat and look for other arrangements. Sometimes they fall in love, dare I say? In the two cases this week, the captains put it to them bluntly. The ladies took great offense and in their righteous indignation immediately left their boats, penniless and without an apparent means of support. We fed one hungry young women (a 30 year old Chilean on her way to New Zealand for a job)) a healthy meal, and both found temporary accommodations on other sailboats until some stability in their lives could be arranged. After a brief period of time during which strangers rallied to extend a helping hand, both have now moved on to new arrangements and the dock has return to the its normal tranquil and bucolic state.
One of the sailors hold up in Bora Bora waiting on the weather reported that one of the men associated with the hassle with the ladies mentioned above, left port without the permission of the gendarmes and without a clearance to the next port. At his next port of call he could face a stiff fine, perhaps as much as $10,000 and/or be required to retrace his steps back to the last port and obtain a clearance there. He is now 800 miles out at sea, in seas of 14 ft. and winds over 30 knots, having lost his mainsail and his engine.
Getting Underway: After Julie and Mike left we planned to get underway for American Samoa. We found out from our fuel agent that American Samoa requires a customs agent for motor yachts (but not sailboats) to enter American Samoa. The agent’s fee is $500, plus a bunch of other government fees, so we decided to skip the islands and their hospitality. Instead we decided to move along to independent Samoa about 100 miles further west, which as far as I know is more reasonable. The passage is 1,200 miles that will take about six days. The weather will be less than ideal, but we are looking forward to the trip. In the course of preparing ARGO we discovered a few problems.
Mechanical Problems: In preparing for any long voyage we check the yacht thoroughly. This time Tyler found the unwelcomed presence of hydraulic fluid in our bilge, which is not a good sign. As you know the hydraulic system has been a repeated source of difficulties. We began to hunt around for the source of the leak and found that the actuator on our port stabilizer had begun to seep oil, but it was a small and slow leak, not enough to cause us to lose two gallons of oil. Up forward however, we found two more leaks at the manifolds of the windless and thruster. Apparently two seals had failed and oil under 3,400 lbs. of pressure was spraying everywhere. It was a mess and a very big concern.
Lucky for us we bought Argo from Nordhavn, which subcontracts the hydraulic system from American Bow Thruster, Inc. Once we notified them, parts were in the FEDX system within 24 hours and a technician in New Zealand was organized to come here. Despite the disappointment and concern over the failures, we are grateful for the fast and wonderful service we are getting from Nordhavn and ABT. However it will delay us by almost ten days.
Meeting Garrick Yrongi: We are staying at the Mai Kai Marina in Bora Bora. Here we are Med-moored or stern tied to a dock that is attached to the outside terrace of the restaurant. The main business of the marina is the restaurant and a small hotel that’s part of the little complex. The restaurant is quite good and is run by Teiva and his wife Jessica (she is a Californian). Teiva is not only the chef, but also runs the marina and everything else. He is a very energetic, happy Polynesian who has been extremely helpful to us
In the restaurant are hung several interesting paintings that I was immediately attracted to. Rebecca says, they “speak to us”. They are humorous, bright, and colorful pieces of modern art. I asked Teiva to introduce us to the artist, Garrick Yrongi. He is the fourth generation of his family to be artists and sculptures, and he is widely known. Garrick came by the marina and invited us to his Tuscan style villa, a sprawling compound built on the hillside overlooking the sapphire blue bay and Mt. Otemanu. On the living room terrace is a life size sculpture in bronze of a gorgeous, nude young woman sculpted by Garrick’s father. As we were looking at this beautiful woman, Garrick told us it was his mother. After he told us, I was a little embarrassed to continue looking at her, but she was so beautiful!
We had lunch at his home and he showed us his studio and collection of pottery, sculpture, and paintings. Our lunch was Poisson Cru accompanied by a fine bottle of Kistler Chardonnay that we brought along for the occasion. At lunch we discovered that we were both born on the same day, which made for a lovely coincidence and a lot of fun. The most interesting subject of our conversation evolved around his vision of the world and how he has developed his style of painting and sculpture to express it. He sees the Polynesians as people with a wonderful spontaneity unfiltered by the psychological defenses necessary in a more complex society. He sees them as people possessing an innocence of an earlier time. He loves the light here in Bora Bora, a light that is warm, but changing and pure. His paintings reflect the dominance of the sea and its creatures, but also the beauty of the flora as it meets the sea, all expressed with his intrinsic good humor and optimism.
Next Stop: We will be in Bora Bora until at least August 6. In the meantime, the nasty weather to our west will abate and we will hopefully be on our way soon. Next stop, Apia, Samoa about 1,200 miles of open ocean to the west.
I will try to [post new pictures on the website before we get underway.