BIRW 2018

Cruising French Polynesia

Les Iles Sous le Vent

By Nancy G. Kaull & Dr. Paul F. Jacobs

Editor’s note: This article is an abridged excerpt from the authors’ excellent book, Voyages: Stories of ten Sunsail owner cruises.

Authors’ note: The following is based on Nancy’s detailed log entries and photographs. Where these are used directly they are shown in italics. General comments and discussions written by Paul are shown in regular font. The reader can thus directly discern our slightly different perspectives.

French Polynesia Sunsail BaseWhen Nancy and I were initially contemplating becoming members of the Sunsail ownership program back in 2009, we carefully scanned the long list of bases scattered around the world. Both of us quickly spied “French Polynesia” on the list and exclaimed, “Wouldn’t that be incredibly special?” Well, it was now late in 2012, and Nancy had carefully hoarded all available PPL time at her job with the American Mathematical Society in Providence. Thus, it was now possible for us to sail “Les Iles Sous le Vent” (the islands under the wind), not for two weeks, but three! 

The very lovely Sunsail base, located on the northwest corner of Raiatea   © Nancy G. Kaull

It seemed to us that the time and expense of air travel from Saunderstown, RI all the way to Raiatea in French Polynesia was best amortized by spending more time there. This voyage represented a quadruple bonus: (1) the lure of the exotic; (2) a completely different culture; (3) a chance for me to sail again in the Pacific for the first time in 17 years; and (4) the chance for Nancy to sail in the Pacific for her first time…ever! I called John Keyes at Sunsail, reserved a Jeanneau 36i, spent an hour on Expedia, and then secured travel reservations.

We flew to Papeete, Tahiti on Air Tahiti Nui, and while a long trip at about 8.5 hours, it was surprisingly comfortable. The seats were wider and also had a bit more legroom than those on many other airlines, and the food was very good, including an array of fresh pineapple, coconut and papaya. Wednesday, 10 April  occurred over the Pacific Ocean, and we finally landed at Papeete airport early that morning. Unfortunately, we had a long layover consumed primarily with reading, but also some inevitable people watching, as many of the local natives had incredibly long black hair and beautiful dark eyes. Our smaller inter-island aircraft departed for the short flight to the island of Raiatea, where we arrived around noon. As usual, a Sunsail shuttle kindly met us at the airport and transported us about three miles to the base.

French Polynesia SunsailOur home for the next three weeks was 5-year old Banana Man. We were told this was to be her last charter!  We both felt this would be an excellent opportunity to learn what condition a sailboat might be in upon leaving five years of charter service. Initially concerned that her aesthetics might look a bit worn, we were pleasantly surprised when we first saw her, and she looked terrific in the tropical sun.  Nancy and I then went below and found her to be in excellent condition, with just a few scratches evident after five years of substantial sailing. I was very impressed. 

Banana Man tied to the dock in Utaroa   © Nancy G. Kaull

Sophie, the assistant manager of the Sunsail base in Raiatea, gave us a very detailed and excellent chart briefing. As usual, Paul the navigator had previously done his homework.  Sunsail provided a nice guidebook for us, as well as a new set of paper charts. Sophie also told us that as experienced sailors we were free to sail to Maupiti, but that due to the potential for dangerously high breakers very near the narrow entrance to the pass through the encircling reef, she very strongly advised that we call Sunsail from Bora Bora before departing for Maupiti.

Getting off the dock against an 18-knot beam wind was tricky. It took full throttle to pull away and then make the turn before we got blown into the inner harbor where sailboats are prohibited. We then powered to the turn between the coral shoals, and headed off to nearby Tahaa. Evidently, in the Tahitian language every vowel is always sounded, hence Tahaa is pronounced “Ta-ha-ah” not “Ta-ha.” Once clear of intervening reefs between Raiatea and Tahaa, we raised the mainsail, unfurled the genoa and were now sailing on a little patch of the blue Pacific. 

Tahaa Lagoon

A “motu” or reef island in the Tahaa lagoon   © Nancy G. Kaull

It was an overcast day with gusts to 18 knots and many storm clouds. As a precaution, Paul put in a reef. We soon got to our destination just north of Passe Toahotu on the east side of Tahaa. There was only one other boat and they left soon after we arrived.  We were completely alone, and soon skinny dipped since there was absolutely nobody in sight, and the feeling of swimming without clinging cloth is wonderful. We then showered, shampooed, and shaved afterwards on the transom, feeling squeaky clean. Even when overcast, the waters were very beautiful, sparkling clear, and comfortably warm. After cleaning up we went to bed like farmers at 7 pm, still suffering some jet lag. 

It was soon the proverbial dark and stormy night, raining heavily on and off for many hours.   We estimated from its sound that the wind was mostly 25 – 30 knots with some gusts that probably hit 35 knots.  Banana Boat slewed like crazy on her anchor and I was very glad I had let out most of the chain. Rain, thunder, lightning, and much wind, ahh, Tahaa!  On the brighter side, I was now officially known as the “Tahiti Sweetie.” 

It was time to weigh anchor, which was then followed by a really tranquil sail down the relatively narrow channel between the western barrier reef and Huahine under mainsail only.  Broad reaching at about four knots, this was more than sufficient as the distance was not great, but the sights to see were many. We sailed down to, and then into Port Bourayne, which is well indented into the SW side of Huahine and is surrounded on three sides by tropical mountains. It is incredibly beautiful with a pearl farm in the NW corner identifiable by lots of clustered floats. We got perhaps just a bit too close to the floats (about 100 feet), and I suspect the owner got nervous and hence we were politely requested to stay away. 

Te Tiare Beach Resort HuahineAs we sailed further south along the southwestern side of Huahine, we found the perfect place for our bucket list when bareboating eventually gets to be too much for us. The lovely Te Tiare Beach Resort has about 20 thatched cottages over the water, each with individual steps leading down thereto. What a great place to hang out for a few weeks, read, eat at their restaurant, swim, and tour the island.

The Te Tiare Beach Resort, Huahine   © Nancy G. Kaull

Baie de Avea is as far as one can sail.  It is another beautiful and very isolated place.  There are a few small homes on the beach and what may be a resort at the tip of the distant point.  There are also two other boats on anchor pretty far from us.  Our anchor dug in the sand beautifully and the only close coral was 50 yards aft of our stern and to starboard.  The water was beautifully clear and the characteristic color of turquoise to lime green over white sand. Back in the USA people would spend a small fortune to own property on this beach.  Here, it was almost deserted!

We intended to anchor a bit NW of Passe Papai, Tahaa. A drenching rain prevented us from anchoring immediately and since we had arrived around 4:30 we had to figure this out relatively quickly. It was an extremely difficult anchorage, as water depth transitioned from 100 feet to 6 feet exceedingly abruptly. Our first attempt dropped us back too close to the shallows. Paul swam about to find the only spot where we could safely anchor. He was in the water for at least an hour. His eventual success in the diming light made him my hero once again!

We were up and moving early. After consulting the chart, we exited the reef surrounding Tahaa via the Passe Papai. It was a bit tricky. You definitely had to accurately line up the range markers.  This passage had reefs that curled in on both ends and it was difficult to actually see the opening until you were well into it. Breakers on the left and breakers on the right will most assuredly inspire you to stay down the middle.

Paul thought we might go directly to Maupiti given the easterly wind direction. He called, and the base said it was a very bad time to do that. The ideal time would be to depart Bora Bora this Friday and to return no later than Monday. A resident on Maupiti indicated that the swells were huge today, will die down for a few days, and resume next Tuesday. It is amazing how they know the weather patterns so well. So, we sailed to Bora Bora on a wonderful broad reach, and arrived at 1:30pm. Passe Teavanui, on the west side, is the only one in/out of Bora Bora. You must give a wide berth to the SW corner, as the reef sticks way out, and the currents pull you in.

Bora Bora Yacht ClubWe decided to explore a bit and went to the famous Bora Bora Yacht Club (BBYC). We muddled about trying to find a clean mooring ball. Evidently, only in the U.S. do people utilize pick-up wands. The wind was light so we could easily pick it up with the boat hook. Sadly, it had been in the water a long time and hence was very scuzzy. Rather than setting the loop over our bow cleat, we ran a dock line through the loop, so this kept the barnacled float off our deck.

The outer deck of the Bora Bora Yacht Club   © Nancy G. Kaull

Our dinner at the yacht club was delightful. Nancy wore her new blue pareo and I loved how it looked on her. Her hair was so soft from the rainwater wash and wavy from the humidity. She looked lovely.  She forgot her glasses, so I read the menu to her softly.  I can’t remember the word for how the fish were cooked – seared on the outside, cold in the middle.  She had red tuna again, and I had beef. I also conversed with our waiter for a while, mostly in French, which was great practice.

On Friday, April 19 we headed to “teeny weeny” Maupiti. We slipped the mooring at 7:20 am and were through the pass by 7:40.  This was a very easy wide pass. Huge cruise ships go in and out every day.  I just wouldn’t want to be sharing the pass with them.  We sailed on a course of 260° M, with 8-12 knot north winds.  North is NOT the usual trade wind! Our average boat speed was 5.4 knots.

JanFeb_18_web_page30_image2.jpgThe Maupiti pass is on the south side of the island and we approached it with extreme caution. Suddenly, we were in the passage with waves breaking on both sides and swells pushing us rapidly in. We anchored close to the town, but noted we were just inside the channel, so we moved south and west and anchored again on a sandy bottom. We did not see any boats coming or going to Maupiti.There were two catamarans way up in the shallows near the town. The entire passage from Bora Bora took 6 hours, and was excellent sailing on the very blue Pacific.

Nancy shot this remarkable photograph of the breakers adjacent to the pass through the reef at Maupiti while Paul was otherwise occupied.   © Nancy G. Kaull

Maupiti is without a doubt the most exotic, most remote, and most unique place to which we have ever sailed. Everywhere one hears the endless faint roar of the waves on the reefs. 

The whole shoreline had a pretty stone wall with numerous small private homes, many private boat docks, and a number of fences.  However, when we finally got up close the shoreline was not especially welcoming, so we circled back to the ferry dock in the dinghy.  It was interesting that we had not seen one other boat coming or going to the dock either yesterday or today.  We finally tied up near the ferry dock and had a chat with a nice young man, all of us speaking in broken French.  He agreed the passage would be best on Monday, but no later. 

The pass through the reef was very easy to navigate heading out.  We power sailed on a close reach in light air. It took us about five hours to reach the reef entrance to Bora Bora. This time we sailed to the north end of the lagoon. There, a narrow channel led to the East side of the lagoon, which then opened up to the SE. We anchored on a beautiful sandy bottom in 11 feet of water, well clear of any coral which was easy to see as the water looked like it was almost transparent. This spot was so sublimely beautiful we decided to stay two days. It was like anchoring in a gorgeous, aqua colored swimming pool near tall mountains!

Sophie had told us there was great snorkeling behind two nearby motus (small reef islands). On the way over in our dinghy, we talked with a kayaking couple who pointed us to the exact spot which was behind the second motu, where we soon found the best snorkeling we had seen in French Polynesia. 

Two small hotel-based powerboats were already there. Hotel guides will obviously try to take guests to the very best spots, so that provides a big hint if you are in the right place. Our snorkel adventure was very successful, with many colorful fish completely unbothered by us. I was particularly interested in the colorful items that were shaped like wrinkly mouths in shades of aqua, jade, and royal blue. They would slowly open, and then quickly close. Over 100 very white fish were ‘napping’ on the bottom, lined up like cord wood, forming a rather odd image.

That night I slept in the cockpit, with a gentle breeze, under a nearly full moon shining on Mt. Otemanu, with a cloud perched just above the peak like a silver chapeau. Far away was the distant sound of breakers on the reef. Otherwise, except for the soft sound of the wind in the rigging and the gurgle of wavelets on the hull, all was wonderfully silent. This was a beautiful experience that will likely remain frozen in the memory bank of my mind all the rest of my days.

Nancy Kaull and Dr. Paul F. JacobsNancy G. Kaull and Dr. Paul F. Jacobs live in Saunderstown, RI. Voyages: Stories of ten Sunsail owner cruises is available at Amazon.com, and you’ll find several excerpts at windcheckmagazine.com (search "Voyages: Stories of ten Sunsail Cruises". Look for Part II of this article in our March issue.


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