Whistle stop tour of the Society Islands
23 - 29 July 2008: Society Islands, French Polynesia
We had a pleasant sail from Tahiti to the near by island of Moorea, setting our anchor in Opunohu Bay by 2 pm. As we sailed around Moorea to the anchorage on the north side we marveled at the dramatic volcanic landscape of towering steep peaks covering in lush vegetation, separated by deep valleys and bays. In Tahiti buildings always obscured the view, but in Moorea we were treated to a sight not that different to that seen by Captain Cook when he visited the islands in the 18th century. The "Cook moment" was further enhanced when we spotted the Star Flyer, a tall ship cruise liner, anchored in Cook's Bay. As soon as the boat was tidied away we jumped in our dinghy and went around the anchorage to say hello to many cruising friends around us whom we had not seen for a while. It was good to catch up and exchange stories on the last few thousand miles across the Pacific. We then collected Mat and Rose, a young Dutch couple onboard a beautiful small boat called Delicate Dawn, and went for an explore in the dinghy. The channel between Opunohu Bay and Cook's Bay is very shallow and follows a torturous path through the reef separating the two islands. James initially thought he could cut straight across, but after a few groundings on coral decided to stick to the channel (Mat had warned me that a pal had tried to do the same thing but would I listen?… J). The channel was very narrow, and at one point we were overtaken by a series of jet skies ridden by tourists out for some fun. They steamed past us so fast that their wake flooded the dinghy and got us all wet. We were not very happy! (Jet skiers truly are at the bottom of the water sport food chain. I know that makes me seem old and I suppose I am getting that way but they are ignorant of everyone else around them and seem to think that other people on the water a purely there to get in the way. I'm sure there are exceptions and I know a few but I'm afraid the majority are gits….J). When we arrived in Cook's Bay we tried to walk along the coast, but found that the road had no pavement and the view of the bay was obscured by houses built along the edge of the water. We returned to the dinghy and watched the Star Flyer leave the bay, setting sail before she was out of the reef and looking very impressive.
That night we had a party on the beach with some friends. We met up with Charlie and Helen again (the couple of nautical hitchhikers we gave a lift to in the Caribbean) and they had brought along a fellow crew member, a young Swedish guy called Anton. We sat around a fire and chatted, and occasionally Anton got his guitar out and played a song, accompanied by Charlie on a homemade bass drum (made from a bucket, bit of string and a bilge pump handle). The coconut crabs obviously liked the music as they came to join the party, though they probably didn't expect to get captured by Anton and put on the fire to cook! They turned out to be pretty tasty, though you can only really eat the claws. That night Charlie, Helen and Anton explained that they were not happy with the boat they were crewing on, and were looking for another boat to continue across the Pacific. They had been around all the boats in the anchorage but none were looking for crew. James and I offered to take them to Raiatea, which is the next big yacht meeting point after Tahiti, though we could take them no further as we had a friend coming to visit. (The whole evening was very chilled and thoroughly enjoyable. Mat and Rose are great company and it was good to catch up with Charlie and Helen. Anton provided a lot of the entertainment both musical and otherwise, the BBQ coconut crab was only on the menu because it bit him and he needed revenge. J)
The following morning James and I explored Opunohu Bay in the dinghy and went in search of the tame Sting Rays we had been told about. We found the rays in some shallow water near a big hotel, and recognised the spot by the number of hired kayaks and tourist boats in the area. We joined them, and watched the rays swim right up to people to be fed, though we did not get in the water ourselves. The scenery was once again stunning, and the sight of a couple of traditional outrigger canoes under sail and paddle complemented the backdrop nicely. We were sad to have to head back to Rahula and leave after such a short time on the island. Back on Rahula we found that Charlie, Helen and Anton decided to take up our offer of a ride to Raiatea, and had started to move their stuff onboard. We made room in the various cabins for our new crew, prepared the boat, and set sail after just 24 hours on Moorea.
We sailed overnight to Huahine, hard on the wind almost the whole way which made the passage quite uncomfortable. As we approached the island and dawn broke the wind subsided so we started the engine and motored the last few miles. There are many passes through the surrounding reef and isolated anchorage spots in Huahine, but we decided to anchor near the main village of Fare as this was going to be another quick stop and we wanted to be near all the facilities. In the village we ended up renting a car for the afternoon, and so we set off to explore the island. On the north coast was a large Polynesian religious site, called a marea, with a stone altar for sacrifices and various ruins marking where buildings once stood. There were replica wooden statues to show how things would have looked and a museum that was unfortunately shut. Further around the coast was a Coral Garden which was supposed to be great for snorkeling. The others all piled in while I stayed on the beach to guard the towels (too cold for me to swim!) and reported that there wasn't much to see after all (apart from watching Anton with his hand spear trying to kill or maim another poor creature). Once everyone had dried off we continued around the island and visited the sight of the sacred eels. There was no real explanation as to why they were sacred, but there were hundreds of them crowded into a nearly dried up river bed, their unusual bright blue eyes glinting through the dark holes the eels had crowded into. Further down the road we saw a sight for a free visit to a pearl farm, and decided to stop as James and I had not visited a farm yet. We were taken out to the farm onboard an outrigger canoe powered by an outboard engine, and in a small shop set on stilts over the water were given a brief introduction to how pearls are farmed. It wasn't quite the full tour we expected, but interesting nonetheless. We only just managed to return the car in time before the office closed that evening, and the following day we sailed from Huahine, completing the short hop to Raiatea by late afternoon.
As we entered the pass at Raiatea we were pondering where to anchor the boat when Charlie heard a friend of theirs on the VHF radio. Charlie spoke to them, and found out that an alongside berth at the town quay was free. As we had to change crews here we decided it would be best to be alongside, rather than slog everyone's luggage in the dinghy. We tied up alongside between two big catamarans that dwarfed Rahula, and Charlie, Helen and Anton immediately went in search of another boat to take them on. Luckily, their friends on a Canadian boat agreed to take them as far as the Cook Islands, so once that was sorted they could relax and enjoy their last night on Rahula. The following day while our temporary crew moved out we tidied the boat and prepared for Steve Gilmore's visit. I joined the Navy with Steve, and we served together on HMS ARK ROYAL, so I was pleased when he suggested to come and visit. It is always nice to have contact with friends at home while we are so far away! We went to meet Steve at the tin shed which housed the airport that afternoon, and as there were no taxies to be had, made him walk the long road back to the boat…(only a mile or so, and James kindly carried the only heavy part of my baggage - my passage fee of 2 litres of gin and a hard drive packed with movies - as a wise man once said "Rahula doesn't run on thanks!". Steve)
We planned to take it easy during Steve's first few days onboard to let him get over the jet lag and long flight, but he was up at the crack of dawn and ready to go for a run with James. We were eager to leave the quayside and move to an anchorage with Internet access so we decided to sail around the island that afternoon to a bay on the other side. (An observation on the relentless reliance upon technology - it used to be the case that you could tell where the good holding ground in an anchorage was from the number of boats there. Now it doesn't seem to matter if the depth is 30m and the bottom is strewn with old cables, disused moorings and rocks - if it has WiFi that is where the yachties will be! J) We left the quay in the late morning (after fuelling the boat, which was a bit more of an effort than it should have been; we can get fuel duty free in French Polynesia and the fuel berth was only 20 yards away from where we had parked Rahula. However, the jobsworth pump attendant would not put duty free fuel in Jerry Cans as he said he had to put it in a boat's fuel tanks. I tried to explain that our main tank was already full and that if I moved the boat to the small fuel berth he would only be filling the same cans but in our cockpit locker, however this is what we had to do, ridiculous….rant over…J), and motored through the lagoon to the other side of the island, dodging coral heads and charter yachts along the way. On the other side we found two bays filled with yachts at anchor and on moorings. There were no free moorings, and the bay was very deep so we were reluctant to set the anchor. The area didn't look very nice, so we decided to hover around the bay long enough to pick up the wifi connection so that we could download emails and check the weather. Delicate Dawn joined us, and the two boats preformed a merry dance as we circled the bay while surfing the Internet. Web surfing complete, we headed north to the island of Tahaa that shares a surrounding reef with Raiatea.
In Tahaa we anchored at the mouth of a large bay in beautiful surroundings of lush vegetation, striking mountainsides, and plentiful marine life underneath. We positioned ourselves next to Delicate Dawn, but then discovered they had anchored in an emergency when they lost their propeller. As Mat put the boat into reverse it appears that the nut holding the prop on gave way and the propeller came clean off. Mat was distraught as it was an expensive folding propeller, so we all donned our snorkeling gear and looked for the propeller in the shallow water around the boat. Several hours later there was no sign of the propeller in the depths we could see and reach with just a snorkel, so Mat went to visit some of the other yachts anchored in the bay in search of some diving gear. He returned with an underwater snorkel set (a long breathing pipe connected to an air compressor on the boat) and the search continued at greater depths. The problem was that the water visibility was not great, and there were many coral heads under which the propeller could be hiding. As the sun set the search had to be abandoned, and we invited Mat and Rose onboard Rahula for some commiseration drinks and a few rounds of card games. That seemed to cheer them up and we all ended the evening in a more optimistic mood of finding the propeller the following day.
In the morning Steve went for a swim ashore and collected some coconuts and breadfruit. For a while all we could hear was a thumping noise coming from beneath the trees and we wandered what he was doing, until he appeared on the shoreline triumphantly holding up a couple of coconuts he had just opened. He swam back to the boat with some difficulty with the fruit, and we served up fresh coconut water with breakfast. By mid morning we had given up the search for the missing prop. It had obviously gone into deeper water, or is hiding under a coral head. We had to leave Tahaa before lunch in order to arrive in Bora Bora before dark, so we apologised to Delicate Dawn for not being able to help any more, and prepared the boat for sea. Mat and Rose also realised the search was futile and had decided to fit their spare propeller and sail to Bora Bora where they might be able to order a new one. We sailed in company, so that we could render assistance to Delicate Dawn if they had problems motoring through the pass in the reef. Their spare prop turned out to be far less efficient and they made slow progress. Outside the reef both boats set sails and headed north to Bora Bora. We planned to stay a few days in Bora Bora to end this whistle stop tour of the Society Islands, and then finally leave French Polynesia. However, the weather conspired against us, which meant our stay in Bora Bora was long enough to warrant its very own diary entry!