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Society Islands
- French Polynesia -

text by Chrissi

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Papeete, on the island of Tahiti, is the government and business center of French Polynesia, also the central hub for tourism in the french islands. It is a busy and sprawling metropolis, complete with highways, traffic jams, crowded sidewalks, and McDonalds. The port is busy with both cargo and cruise ships, as well as many cruising yachts arriving from all over the world. After the peace and serenity of the Marquesas islands and Ahe, it was a little shocking to encounter all the trappings of modern society, like taxis, buses, shopping malls and supermarkets. Along the downtown waterfront we found shop after shop selling black pearl jewelry, resort wear, t-shirts, pareos and souvenirs. Restaurants and coffee shops charged outrageous prices, but we werent really surprised.

Our first days here were spent tracking down our wind generator, which was waiting for us at the airport, and tracking down our mail, which had vanished en route from Florida. Next order of business was finding an internet café where Jack could hook up his computer. Only after these important things were seen to did we indulge ourselves, and leisurely stroll through the big French hyper-marche, buying gourmet delicacies and culinary treats to stock our food lockers and fridge, trying hard to ignore the prices.

While in Papeete, I took advantage of the free health care system and got a check-up at one of the local clinics. The clinic was located on a back street, not too far from the bustling city center. While waiting to see the doctor, I was surprised to see so many homeless and destitute people, the clinic was right next to a sort of shelter for the poor, providing showers and laundry services, and a place for the old, crippled and desperate to rest themselves. Even here in paradise one finds poverty and suffering.

Along the downtown waterfront is a long quay, very picturesque, unfortunately noisy from the street traffic, but it is a convenient place for yachts to tie up for their stay in Tahiti. We chose to anchor our boat about ten miles from town, not because we didn’t want to be right in the heart of the city, but because the numerous episodes of theft and boardings was at an all-time high, and this plague of burglaries had all but emptied the quay of visiting yachts.

I was becoming very cynical about the commercialism of Tahiti and the spoiled beauty of the place, which was very unfair, because I realized later in our stay that there was more to Tahiti than traffic, resorts and urban commerce. We had anchored in front of a large marina that dominated our view to the east, but towering over the masts and mega-yachts packed like sardines in the marina slips, you could see the verdant green slopes of Tahiti’s interior mountains, and the perfumed air was a silent invitation to take a hike past the residences and businesses, hike up into the wild and uninhabited hills and see Tahiti from a different perspective. To our west was the breathtaking vista of Moorea and its skyscraping peaks just ten miles away. When the sun went down in the evenings, it set just behind the island of Moorea, and the sky, island and ocean transformed into a kaleidoscope of pinks, purples and oranges, too awesome in reality to ever be caught properly on camera. All around us was crystal clear water with its wide array of colorful coral and fish, rays and turtles, and on the weekends the Tahitians brought their skiffs, canoes, kayaks and boats out to anchor near the reef, turning the shallows into a great big floating picnic with music and laughter traveling far over the calm waters. The people I had met on the busses and in the shops were all very helpful and friendly, and very patient and understanding with my pathetic attempts with the French language.

Early one morning, my neighbor Christine on Taraipo nudged me out of my bad attitude, and invited me to take a walk with her. We took a walk up the hill, and just when I thought that those expensive gated residences would go on forever, we came upon a dirt road leading up into the forest. The view from up there was magnificent, and in a clearing far up the mountain we found an abandoned plantation, bananas and papayas fallen from their trees and rotting in the weeds. WHEE!! Free food! I carried back a small bunch of bananas and a few passion fruits too. A few days later I returned with Jack, and together we brought down a sack-full of papaya, sweet bananas and cooking bananas. Unfortunately I payed a high price for this delicious booty- I threw my back out carrying the heavy load down the hill.

We stayed in Tahiti about three weeks, but the other Society islands were out there waiting for us, calling out to us. Moorea in particular, with all her color and splendor, just a short sail downwind, pulled us from the sticky grasp of busy Tahiti and on to further adventures in Polynesia.


The mountains of Moorea rose dramatically from the seabed like ancient monoliths, the hillsides covered in deep rich greens. Our first anchorage was in Cook Bay where we anchored next to our friends on the Laura Bruce. It is a well protected harbor, and postcard perfect scenery surrounded us.

We encountered a very strange phenomena here in Moorea, and in Tahiti as well; raining trees! The sky will be perfectly clear with no clouds or anything, but you stand underneath certain trees, and you can feel raindrops! Its not just one type of tree, I don’t think it makes any difference what type of tree it is- just sometimes they rain! I’m sure it has something to do with humidity and evaporation or whatever, but standing under a tree on a perfectly sunny day and getting rained on- well, its really weird.

We stayed only one night in Cook Bay, just long enough to get rained on, do some food shopping, and “rescue” some pineapples from a nearby plantation (they were just laying in the road - honest!) We moved on to the next bay west, Opunohu Bay, where we found a small river deep enough to navigate in the kayak. Magical, mystical, marvelous, surpassing my wildest dreams of paradise.

While walking to the store for a loaf of bread one morning I passed over a small bridge, and I stopped to look at what seemed to be some large fish swimming in the river. They were the strangest looking creatures; their heads were like fish, and they had gills and fins, but they had blue eyes, and the rest of their bodies were long and snakelike, ending in a tail much like an eel. The largest of these odd creatures was about five feet long, perhaps six inches or so in diameter. They were slithering around in the shallow muddy water near the mouth of the river in brackish water. Later that day I brought Jack to take a look at them, he said they were nasty and evil looking, and they were biting each other. We found out later (but I’m not sure why ) the Polynesians call these weird creatures Sacred Eels. They are also found on Huahini.


We made a night passage to Huahini, and had great fun overtaking all the mono-hulls that left ahead of us. We had been told by a friend back in the Marquesas that Huahini was the best of the Society Islands, and after spending a short time there, we could see why he loved it so much. Although it doesnt have the spectacular high mountains of some of the other islands, it is rich and abundant in many other aspects.

There is a tubular surf most days out by the reef near town, and these are perfect waves for experienced surfers. Simply watching was great entertainment for those of us prone to reef-rash and who cant stay on the top side of a surf-board.

Huahini was the first time since arrival in the Pacific that I spent any time underwater with a mask and snorkel, fear of sharks had up till now kept me dry. We were assured that it was safe here, and the underwater scenery was stunning. We saw a strange sea cucumber-like critter, three feet long and with lumpy beige spikes draped over a coral head, we saw a bright yellow trumpet fish, tangs with sunburst patterns, and clownfish with amazing colors and patterns. Most of the reef fish looked familiar, but slightly different than their Caribbean cousins.

Huahini was a profitable place for me; I sold my entire stock of mola bags to a boutique on the waterfront, the owner thought they were beautiful. He marked them up over double what I had them priced at. He was sure he would have no trouble selling them to the cruise ship passengers that visited his shop daily. A neighbor needed a new U.V. cover sewn onto his genoa sail, so I was able to earn some good money for a couple days labor, and with all this $$$ burning a hole in my pocket, we decided to rent a car and see the island in style.

We visited a pearl farm, raided a carambola tree, and ate ice cream for lunch. We visited the historic remains of ancient Poynesian ceremonial “maraes” these being the places where all those cannibal feasts and such like took place. We rescued a 60+ pound bunch of bananas from the roadside, pissing off hundreds of happily feasting birds in the process. We even tripped over a big pumpkin while stopping to take pictures of the scenery. We traded some hair scrunchies for some giant grapefruits, hung out beneath a guava tree while children tossed us down some ripe fruit, and drove that little rental car up and down dirt roads a 4x4 would think twice about. Luckily we didn’t leave the transmission behind, but there were some close moments...

While driving around, we spotted some nice places to anchor, and the following day we moved the boat to a more secluded anchorage. On one of our kayak expeditions, we discovered the sad remains of a wrecked Wharram catamaran pulled up on a beach, we also discovered a beautiful but abandoned resort/spa with freshwater pools all clumped up with weeds and lilly pads.


Raiatea, land of the multihull mafia! We had a quick sail from Huahini to Raiatea, and were pleasantly surprised when we discovered that Raiatea was the home port of several sexy and fast multi-hull sailboats. We sailed onto a mooring in quite strong winds, impressing our neighbors with Naga’s close quarters maneuvering, and without too much delay, inflated the kayak and wandered ashore. There is a Moorings charter boat fleet in Raiatea for those who want to sail in French Polynesia but don’t want to or can’t bring their own boat. It must have been off season, because all the slips were full of identically painted red, white and blue sailboats, all lined up like dominoes.

We were unhappy with our first mooring spot, a boggy dead end bay, so the following day we moved out to a different bay just around the corner, and joined the fleet of multi-hulls moored in front of a busy boatyard. Our closest neighbor was a bright yellow Newick trimaran, longer and faster than Naga. ***(Jack beat this same boat back in 1982 during the Route to Rhum race)*** Just a few moorings down was a sleek and sexy Kelsall trimaran, and off our stern was a large ocean racing catamaran, slightly modified to accommodate a cruising family. Once ashore we met the owner of the boatyard, who was also the owner of the yellow Newick. He and Jack immediately started talking speed, and, perhaps because of Jacks famous exploits on the French racing scene, we were given several days free on the mooring as well as deep discounts on our chandlery purchases.

Our mooring was a long kayak paddle from the nearest grocery store, but it was a nice routine to paddle in every morning to get a fresh baguette and croissants. Most days I was able to use our makeshift sail for the downwind leg, and I think it must have been quite a sight seeing our patchwork kayak slowly sailing over the reef in 12 inches of water. Its much simpler with the both of us in the kayak, but sailing it alone, I use one paddle as the mast and hold it upright with my feet, sheet line brought back to a ring on the stern, then secured between my teeth, and the second paddle is used as the rudder. Jibing is awkward and sailing to windward impossible, but with a little ingenuity and perseverance even a graceless Sterns inflatable kayak can sail.

Getting to town from our anchorage was another adventure altogether. There is no public transportation on Raiatea, so unless we wanted to take an expensive private taxi or the Moorings shuttle taxi, we had to hitch-hike. The islanders were friendly and rarely did we have to wait long for a ride. Every time we got a ride, I would pass out small gifts like hair scrunchies or beaded bracelets, which always surprised the islanders, but it made me feel nice to be able to show my appreciation.

While visiting town, we sat in on a karate class, watched as daring kite surfers risked their skins, and watched a pétanque championship. Pétanque is also known as bacci ball, a game similar to horseshoes but using round steel balls instead of horseshoes. We discovered our first book swap since leaving Panama, found a great little local restaurant that we dined at several times, and were continuously amazed at all the fruit trees, plants and flowers along the roads. On the down side, we plotted ways to blow up the banks- the ATM machines were constantly on the blink, and after many long trips to town we were again and again frustrated in our attempts to get money. We also discovered a large crack under Naga’s wing deck that needed repairs, and to frustrate my attempts at earning some fun tickets, my sewing machine developed a terminal illness.

As much as Jack would have liked it, I did not throw the sewing machine overboard, but we did lighten the boat by giving away 60 feet of anchor chain that we had bought in Panama for use in deep anchorages. Up to this point we had never found the need for it, so we figured that it was likely we could do without it for the rest of our trip. We gave away some old line and miscellaneous other stuff too, lightening the boat considerably. Jack was challenged to join in on the weekend racing, the multi-hull mafia as well as some of the swifter mono-hulls were participating. Racing Naga and cruising in her are two different things, and with all our living-aboard gear, food stores, water and fuel, we just werent fit for a challenge. Also, things have a tendency to break when you push the boat, and we didn’t want the added problems just to prove ourselves. Sounds like we weenied out, right? Well...


We had decided it was time to move on, next stop, Tahaa. It developed into a very windy day, and while en route between the two islands, we could see the racing fleet. The mono-hulls heeled radically and the multi-hulls were flying rapidly over the waves. Aboard Naga, the sail to Haamene bay was a wet and wild one. Deep in the head of the bay, we found shelter from the seas but the wind was still very strong, making it an uncomfortable anchorage.

Rain, wind and clouds kept us aboard that first day, but the following day was a little dryer, so we paddled ashore and explored a bit of the island. There is a dirt track that goes north from Haamene bay all the way across the island to Patio, it is steep and rough, only a 4x4 vehicle could use this road. We walked along it for several miles, looking at the beautiful scenery and collecting bananas and papayas. The wind was still strong and coconuts were falling from the trees around and above us, so we covered our heads with our folded foul-weather jackets and hoped we wouldn’t get hit. We met some young men who were stowing their racing canoe, they had just been out practicing for a big race in Hawaii. They told us first they would beat the Hawaiian team, then the they would EAT the Hawaiian team, Ha Ha Ha!! We wished them luck and bon apatite.

On the west coast of Tahaa lies the town of Tiva. We hitched a ride there, and met a friendly old man who gave us some vanilla beans and let us raid his pomme citere tree. Although we were very happy to walk to the center of the town, he insisted on giving us a ride in his car. We found a cozy little waterfront restaurant called Chez Louise where we stopped for lunch. (The menu choices were fish, fish, or fish.) In front of Chez Louise there are a handful of moorings, Louise told us we could bring the boat around and pick up a mooring there, no charge if we ate at her restaurant. “You like fish?”

Haamene bay was a weather trap, because of the high mountains surrounding the bay it was always cloudy and windy, and we were very uncomfortable being anchored on a lee shore in such strong winds. Once we sailed around to the west coast and picked up one of Louise’s moorings, our weather improved 100%. The sun was out, the wind was down, and we could once more enjoy the clear water and coral life around us. We could see over the hills that Haamene bay was still shrouded in rain clouds.

Around the corner from Chez Louise is a shallow mangrove lagoon, barely deep enough to navigate in our kayak. Although we ran aground in the sticky mud several times, we were able to push through and make it to the hidden river at the head of the lagoon.

Bora Bora

We had a rapid sail west to Bora Bora in perfect weather and nice sea conditions. We sailed into the lagoon and picked up a mooring in front of the Bora Bora Yacht Club, covered the sails and kayaked ashore. Bora Bora is one of the most spectacular of the Society Islands with its twin peaks jutting up high above the rest of the island. It is surrounded by a necklace of coral reef, palm-studded motus and shallow waters colored in multiple shades of blue.

We were anxious to go ashore and see what treasures this little spot of paradise had in store for us, so when we were greeted at the dinghy dock by an angry and hostile young man, it really took the wind out of our sails. “The yacht club is closed” he told us, “and you cannot use the dinghy dock. You cannot walk through the property to the road, and you cannot use our moorings.” We couldn’t have come to a more unwelcome landing had we tried. Evidently this young man was the owner of the yacht club, and he had been sorely taken advantage of by some members of the cruising community, so his anger and frustration was taken out on us. Here is what we heard had happened;

Peter, the owner, had to go to the United States on some business, and he left his staff in charge of the club. His staff mutinied while Peter was gone, because they had not been paid. They evidently stole some things, then left the premises. Some of the sailors just kept on using the facilities, making themselves at home even though the club was now closed. When Peter returned from his trip to the States, he discovered locks broken, sailors cooking food in the yacht club kitchen, many missing and broken items, and even a woman in his apartment washing her clothes in his washing machine! When he asked her what the hell was going on, she told him, “oh, don’t worry about it, the owner is gone.” His homecoming was four days before we had arrived, so it’s little wonder he was so hostile and angry.

After his first outburst he became a little more human to us, and said it was ok to pass through the property, but rather than having to deal with his attitude we simply took the kayak to a nearby landing and avoided Peter all together. The islanders were all very friendly and we had no trouble hitch-hiking into town. We found a great little French café that sold delicious coffee and pastries, and also had the most expensive internet access we had yet encountered; $28 US Dollars per hour! We bought a couple souvenir T-shirts and wandered around town a little, but we didn’t climb any mountains or visit any waterfalls. We didn’t play in the fabulous turquoise waters and we didn’t visit any beaches or motus. We stayed only two nights here in Bora Bora, and after overstaying our visas in French Polynesia by one month, we finally set sail and headed out of these tropical treasures, the Society Islands.

Our sailing adventures in photos and textEvery kind of helpful resource for sailors and travelersWeather for sailorsMaking a living onboard or on the roadLinks to friends and related sites


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