Tall Ships and Traditional Life in Tahiti

James & Amelia Gould
Thu 31 Jul 2008 21:12

5 - 22 July 2008: Tahiti, French Polynesia


We had an uneventful sail to Tahiti from the Tuamotus, finally getting some proper Trade Wind weather which made the passage quick and easy.  Unfortunately Rahula was a little too quick and we had to slow down on the second night at sea to avoid entering Tahiti in the dark.  Though the channel looked easy and well lit on the chart we had learnt that the passes through reefs can be difficult to negotiate and we didn't want the added complication of not being able to see.  So we slowed down and at dawn motored through the main pass into Papeete, the capital of Tahiti.


On the way in to Papeete harbour we spotted the distinctive masts of the super yacht The Maltese Falcon.  We had read about the yacht and her innovative Dyna-Rig (a modern version of a square rigged tall ship) and were keen to see the impressive ship up close. So we went on a little tour of the harbour and admired the Maltese Falcon as she sat in a dry dock being painted.  The yacht is huge, and the rig is a fascinating update of a 1970s idea (you can read all about it and see pictures of the amazing interior at www.symaltesefalcon.com).  Later during our stay in Papeete the ship was launched and came alongside a jetty near Rahula.  We had a daily view of life onboard and the endless cleaning and maintenance carried out by her crew to keep her looking pristine and in working order.  However, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't wrangle a visit onboard…  We'll just have to save up the $350,000 it takes to charter her for a week! (I'll take two… J)


We had planned to go into the Marina Taina on the western side of the island and leave Rahula there while we stayed in a hotel with Malka and Barry (Amelia's mum and her husband).  But as we toured the harbour we spotted that the Yacht Quay mentioned in our book as a crowded and central place to moor was empty.  We decided to go alongside and investigate how their prices compared with the marina. We found out that the Quay was significantly cheaper than the marina (but still very expensive!), so decided to leave Rahula there.  The Quay uses stern-to Mediterranean style moorings, and the pontoons have power and water.  It is a great place to moor for a few days as it is right in the centre of town but is also on a main road with constant traffic noise and soot covering the boat.  The Quay also suffers badly from wash from passing ferries that causes all the moored boats to snatch on their lines and some monohulls to roll heavily.  Unfortunately we discovered the best place to leave a boat after we had been at the Quay for 6 days and paid the extortionate mooring charges.  We had heard from another cruiser about the Yacht Club de Tahiti which is to the east of Papeete, and headed there for our last few days on the island.  The yacht club is in a quiet little spot, and rents out its sheltered moorings for about £7 a night.  It is only a 20 minute bus ride or dinghy journey into town from the Yacht Club, there is a huge Carefour supermarket within easy walking distance and the club itself has a really nice atmosphere.  Highly recommended if you can get a mooring!


Enough advice for cruisers, and back to our journal…


Once Rahula was safely tied up at the Quay we locked her up and headed off to the hotel where we would be spending the next few days.  It felt strange leaving her all alone, and we both worried about her as soon as she was out of sight.  Once we had checked in to the hotel Rahula was forgotten and we settled in to enjoy all the luxuries the hotel had to offer and that we had missed while living on a boat.  I ran a hot bath with lots of bubbles and sat it in until my skin shriveled up, while James laid in bed and watched TV (I was a little disappointed as the only channel in English was CNN… J).  It was wonderfully relaxing and nice to be forced to do nothing, as on the boat we are always looking around and mentally going through all the jobs we have to do.  Our 5 night stay in the hotel was like a holiday within a holiday, and made us realise how much we think and worry while we are on Rahula.  For example, when at anchor overnight we are always subconsciously listening to changes in the weather and wake up if it becomes windy or starts to rain; at the hotel we could sleep straight through, knowing our bed would be in the same place in the morning.  Owning and living on a boat is like having a child, as you are constantly aware of the boat's needs, and always worry about it.  The deal is that if you look after the boat in harbour, she looks after you at sea (not sure what the deal is with kids… J).


In between enjoying the luxuries of a stationary hotel room, we did some sightseeing and had lots of fun with Malka and Barry.  We went for a drive around the island, stopping at the places of interest marked on a cartoon map we were given at the tourist office.  These included "the most beautiful golf course in the world" which turned out to be a grassy plain with a few sand dunes thrown in, and a run down clubhouse.  The steep and ragged volcanic island backdrop may have generated the golf course's grand description, but none of the golfers seemed interested in admiring the landscape.  Next up was the Gauguin Museum, which housed an interesting exhibition about the painter's life on Tahiti.  The museum did not have any original Gauguin paintings (they had all been sold to various Western museums) and had not been updated since it was built in the 1980s, but it was still interesting.  We both liked the beautiful bronze casts of a few of Gauguin's wood carvings, and the museum was set in lovely gardens overlooking the sea.  We found the Botanical Gardens a short drive beyond the Gauguin museum, and stopped for a pre-lunch stroll along the wooded footpaths.  A map at the entrance to the gardens warned us that a full circuit would take 2 hours, and we decided to follow that route and turn onto a shorter path back if we got bored.  About 40 minutes later we completed the "long" circuit, and that included stopping to take pictures and chatting!  The gardens were lovely, and full of beautiful flowers and huge trees.  The Banyan trees had strange long dangly roots that would hang from the branches high up in the tree, and when they touched the ground would take hold and develop into another big tree trunk.  There was even, rather randomly, a pair of Galapagos tortoises.  After lunch we continued along the road that circles the island, stopping to admire the views when steep valleys opened up, revealing craggy peaks.  The island of Tahiti is an odd figure of 8 shape, and we drove across the isthmus connecting the two parts into Little Tahiti which seemed a different world from its larger, more inhabited neighbour.  We went for a leg stretch at a series of 3 waterfalls, where again the first waterfall was near the car park and the next two were described as at the end of an "arduous 30 minute walk".  Ten minutes later we arrived at the middle waterfall, still wondering who these inflated walk times were aimed at.  The waterfalls were beautiful, cascading down a dramatic cliff face that went straight up as far as the eye could see.  The last stop was a pilgrimage to Venus Point, which is the place where Captain Cook observed the transit of Venus during his first voyage to the Pacific in the 18th century.  We have both read a lot about Cook, and having navigated through the same waters held a high level of regard for his skilful seamanship.  He was the first Briton to explore the South Pacific, and we felt proud to be following in his footsteps (though you couldn't get much for a rusty nail and trinkets in Polynesia these days!).  Point Venus is dominated by an imposing lighthouse designed by one of the famous 'Lighthouse Stevensons' and contains a number of monuments including one to Cook which had fallen into disrepair and a large monument to the first missionaries to land on the island.   The missionaries brought Christianity to the Pacific and changed the Polynesian culture for ever - the women now had to cover up, tattoos were banned, and the statues of the gods were no longer revered.  Thankfully all is not lost, as a revival of the old Polynesian culture has started recently, with the traditional tattoos and music being modernised and embraced by the locals.


We saw much of this cultural revival during our stay in Tahiti.  We arrived in time for the Bastille Day celebrations, which involved a lot of traditional songs, dance and games and not much parading through the streets as they do in Paris.  The highlight of the celebrations was the Heiva festival, which is the Polynesian version of the Eurovision Song Contest.  The competition takes place over three nights, and involves dance troupes from all over French Polynesia competing for a much coveted trophy.  We went to see the show on the opening night, when the lead male and female dancer from each group performed.  There were loud cheers from different parts of the audience as the representatives of each island came forward, and even louder cheering when the scantily clad girls managed a wild bum wiggle that had their sarong billowing in a continuous arc (douze pointe!) (I really appreciated the technical skill and cultural significance of this display, with the synergy of ancient tradition and modern interpretation.  The chicks also had great tits and bums! J).  The men also performed traditional dances to the beat of drums, performing moves that were reminiscent of battle or hunting, but managing to incorporate modern moves that reminded us of the Macarena.  The most amazing things were the costumes, which for the women consisted of a bikini and sarong, and for the men a sarong tied like a nappy (although I'm not sure how traditional the ski socks down the men's sarongs were… J).  These simple outfits were then embellished with hats, arm bands and leg decorations made from coconuts, flowers, feathers and palm or banana leaves.  It seemed the more extravagant the better, and they were all beautifully and intricately made.  On the second night the bands accompanying the dancers competed, and on the third night the whole group danced.  It was a great event, and seemed to captivate the island like X-Factor does at home.


During the day a sort of Highland Games competition went on as part of the July celebrations.  We went to watch the games taking place by the Tahiti Museum and after a pleasant stroll around the museum learning about Polynesian culture and traditions we sat on the grass outside to watch events unfold.  There were three tournaments going on: the first involved throwing homemade bamboo spears at a coconut raised 10m in the air on a large pole; the second was lifting large heavy volcanic rocks up onto the shoulder, and the third was climbing a palm tree.  The spear throwing was a male only sport, and the men lined up facing the coconut again dressed in colourful sarongs and decorated with beautiful head bands and tattoos.  There was a strong cross wind blowing, and initially many of the spears missed their mark by a long way, narrowly missing the audience crowded around the playing field.  The men soon got their eye in, and there was a large cheer from the crowd when the first spear carved its way into the coconut.  At the end of each round the spear covered coconut was lowered and points were awarded to those who managed to hit it.  (There was a fine selection of athletes and their dexterity was demonstrated by their ability to throw the spear with a fag hanging out of their mouths and a beer bottle swinging from their fingers… J).  Men and women competed in the stone lifting, and there was obviously some technique in using the leverage required to lift the large, smooth, egg-shaped rocks.  The stone lift was timed, and the person with the fastest time won.  The palm tree climb was a men only event again, and the men had to climb up and touch a rag tied around the tree about 10m up with nothing but their bare hands and feet, occasionally using a coconut rope binding to keep their feet together.  It was really impressing to watch them nimbly scale the tree, though the way down was not as elegant. The most interesting thing about the tournament that most of the competitors were not well honed athletes who had obviously spent months getting in shape; most of the men had well developed beer bellies, and the women needed some very large sarongs…  Everyone looked as though they were enjoying themselves, and it was great fun to watch while sitting on the grass chatting to the many cruising friends we bumped into.  In between the various rounds we were entertained by a dance group that performed traditional dances reminiscent of the New Zealand rugby team's Haka, complete with large tattooed powerful looking men surrounded by young nubile Polynesian girls in grass skirts dancing seductively.


The following night the sports competition continued in the middle of Papeete, and this time involved men and women racing up and down a street carrying large logs with bunches of bananas tied to either end.  The logs were obviously weighed and checked in advance, as some who did not meet the required weight had coconuts or yams tied on to add to the load.  The competitors ran along a tarmac'ed road barefoot in sarongs to the sound of the crowd cheering and drums beating.  Fire jugglers kept the spectators entertained when the runners were out of view.  The atmosphere was great, and again we got the impression this was very much a competition for the locals, rather than a display for the tourists.


All this display of manly ancient customs and scantily clad decorated bodies made James want a tattoo even more.  After talking to Charlie, a friend who is a tattoo enthusiast and had several new tattoos added in French Polynesia, James decided to go by recommendation and have a tattoo done in Tahiti.  We visited the Tattoo parlour Charlie recommended, and after a long discussion with the tattooist on possible designs he got his pen out and started to draw rough sketches on James' shoulder.  The original plan was for a turtle outline, incorporating many other traditional symbols linked with the sea inside the shell, but neither of us were happy with the design.  While idly flicking though the many design books I came across one that I knew James would prefer, and he instantly agreed.  The design was an outline of a Manta Ray, the Polynesian symbol for a voyager, with a turtle inside (symbol for longevity and wisdom), and a male and female Dolphin in the wings (symbolising friendship, love, and playfulness).  The drawing also includes a Tiki, which is the Polynesian image of god who looks after people, and a Frigate bird, symbol of freedom, voyage, imagination and dream. (It was an interesting experience and one I don't think I'll forget.  A tattoo is one of those things that I had always wanted but could never quite work out why or pluck up the courage to do.  It seemed that being in the south Pacific, where it all started with visiting sailors, was a good excuse.  I just hope my dad will still speak to me after he sees it!!.  It took about an hour to finish and wasn't that painful.  The worrying thing was when we stopped half way through for a cigarette break and the tattooist wouldn't let me look at what he had done so far but said he had a 'surprise' for me.  I said at the time that I didn't really want any @#$**ing surprises, I wanted what I  ^$# {CHANGE TO AT} y asked for!! But he insisted I would like the end result.  It turned out that he had incorporated the dolphins in the design, which Amelia had wanted but at first he said he couldn't do on a design that small, so all was well and I am really pleased with it.  It was also fun talking to the tattooist - he was married to a Canadian 'cruiser' so his English was really good.   He was originally from the Marquesas and did that style of tattooing, it is more intricate than the Tahitian style and Amelia and I had really liked the Marquesan carvings we had seen.  He had bought into the parlour by spending a year and a half working on a fishing boat without setting foot on land [pretty hard core if you ask me] but when he finished and had saved enough money, he found he couldn't tattoo for about six months because his hands had become so tough!)


Despite all the display of traditional Polynesian culture the French still managed to make their mark, and at times Tahiti seemed very European.  There were patisseries and cafes, everyone spoke French as well as Tahitian, and the French navy promenaded their patrols boats daily.  While sat in a coffee shop one day with my mum we got chatting to an old French guy who had married a Marquasian woman and moved to Tahiti (despite being about 70, he had a 12 year old son from this marriage!).  He told us a lot of interesting things about life on the islands, about the problems they have with alcohol and sexual abuse which is hidden from visitor who only see the smiling and friendly side of the Polynesian people.  He thought these problems started in the clash of culture between the free and easy Polynesian way and the Christian missionaries insisting on prim and proper behaviour.  In between dissecting serious social problems I discovered that Jean-Claude used to own Star Clippers, a company that runs tall ship sailing cruises in the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Pacific.  He seemed to still be heavily involved with the company, and I immediately asked if they were looking for Captains.  He said they were always looking for crews, and asked for our CVs, as he may have a placement for an engineer.  He also offered us a tour around the Star Flyer, the cruise ship that operates in French Polynesia.  I immediately jumped at the chance, offering a somewhat shorter and more modest tour around Rahula.


So a few days later, Jean-Claude met us at the Quay and we showed him around our modest little boat.  He seemed impressed that we had made it this far on something so small and enjoyed the strong Columbian coffee we brewed during his visit.  We then drove around the harbour to the Star Flyer and walked along the dock admiring her scale and beautiful lines.  For a modern ship (13 years old) she had been designed with the tall ships of old in mind, and certainly looked like a ship which takes passengers rather than a cruise liner that sails.  Once inside we were not disappointed, with brass gleaming from sunlight entering through round portholes in the ship's side.  The main dinning room was small and packed with tables and chairs and the bar area looked like many a wardroom.  On deck no effort was made to clear the decks of all the clutter associated with sailing - ropes and winches sat side by side with sun loungers and a small swimming pool.  We were shown around by the ship's Polish Captain, and James' eyes lit up when we went into the Bridge.  As soon as we got back to Rahula we started working on our CVs, as we would both relish the opportunity to work on such a ship.  Even though they do not employ "my sort" of engineers, I would happily hand out towels by the pool for the opportunity to sail onboard, while James acts as one of the deck officers.  At the time of writing this we had not heard anything back yet, but we are keeping our fingers crossed!


After the tour of the Star Flyer Jean-Claude took us back to his home to show us a traditional Polynesian house.  He lives in one of only 8 remaining traditional homes on the island as all the others have been knocked down to make way for pre-fabricated tin roof homes which became a popular sign of wealth.  His house has a high palm leaf thatched roof, woven together across stringers which keeps the house cool in the hot tropical weather.  The walls are made of intricately woven bamboo leave that cross each other in eye catching geometrical patterns.  The walls were adorned with beautiful traditional Marquasian carvings, copies of Gauguin paintings and lampshades made of shells and mother of pearl.  The whole ensemble was simply and tastefully done.  Outside the garden was filled with local flora, and a short footpath led to a sandy beach which was perfectly sheltered by the fringing reef.  Jean-Claude had every right to be proud of his home and show it off to visitors.  It seemed a shame that the locals no longer preferred to live in this way, but I supposed the maintenance costs are too high.


Tahiti wasn't all fun though.  As the first real civilised place we have visited in the Pacific, we had a long list of things to get done before we ventured back into the sparse surroundings of small remote islands.  James had to visit a dentist to fix a tooth he chipped while stripping wire with his teeth; it turned out he needed two fillings as well.  (I also got driven into by a bus on the way to the dentist, nearly writing off Barry and Malka's hire car!….J)  I had to go and see a doctor about my ear, as it still bothered me when I dive; turned out my diving career was over as I have weak eardrums, and when I burst my left ear I damaged it so that it can no longer take any pressure (I was quite disappointed, especially as I had bought my own diving gear!).  James also picked up a terrible man-flu that knocked him out for 24 hours and gave him such a high fever that at one point I thought he had malaria.  Luckily, he lived.  We also had to get our new autopilot fixed, and had to wait two weeks for parts to be shipped from the UK.  As usual the parts took longer to arrive than our patience held, and we were left hanging around waiting despite being ready to sail on to harbours new.  During this waiting time we met up with Mat and Rose, a great young Dutch couple we got to know in Panama.  We had a few fun nights with them that helped to pass the time.  Eventually the autopilot parts arrived, and as soon as we had George II back onboard we prepared to sail the next day.  Unfortunately we had missed a good weather window, so our plan was to make a short hop to Moorea, an island 20 miles from Tahiti, and then sail on to the Leeward Society Islands when the wind returned.