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Tahiti and French Polynesia - Lonely Planet Guide
Caribbean Passagemaking
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Tony Wheeler et al
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TCM's Tahiti Sailing / Catmaran Report

Here's a report about our charter boat sailing holiday on a catamaran in French Polynesia over Xmas and New Year 2005/2006.

French Polynesia is about the size of Europe, with furthest NW and SE islands in the group as far apart as northern Finland and southern Portugal. If you look at a map of the pacific, French Polynesia is the first main island group you would get to if you sailed from panama with easterly trade winds.

Tahiti is the main island, capital is Papeetee, pronounced "Pappy-Eighty". Captain Cook was first European to find the place 1780's but since 1850ish the whole place owned and run by France. Nobody told me about this at school- I vaguely assumed Tahiti was sort of still a bit British, what with the Bounty etc, but it isn't. The sneaky French seem to have blimmin pinched it whilst we Brits were all doing the Industrial Revolution with spinning gennies.

These days it says "Republique Francaise" on Polynesian currency notes and the local currency is actually fixed to the Euro. As well as the local lingo, people speak and are taught in French, so unlike real France it's fine if your French is a bit crap. They speak some English too, no problem. The restaurant food is like in a French restaurant, but there's er cheeseburgers too cos otherwise the American visitors would obviously starve. Credit cards work fine in shops and restaurants. Otherwise you need local currency, and outside banking hours there are currency conversion machines at airports (Tahiti certainly) that will spit out change for Euro notes or even for a £20 note. Like other French colonial outposts in the Caribbean, if your mobile phone works in France, it will work in French Polynesia too.

Several island groups make up 118 main islands of French Polynesia, including the Marquesas in the NW, which would be first landfall from Galapagos coming from east across Pacific. There's also Gambier and Tuamotu and Austral Islands. The Society Islands are the most populous, and include Tahiti. Within the Society Islands those islands to the east of Tahiti are upwind and hence Windward Islands, those to the west (where we went) are the Leeward Islands. Thus if anyone starts poshly referring to hols around "the windward islands" and "the leeward islands" you can ask them to be specific - do they mean Caribbean or Pacific?

Anyway that enough hist and geog, to get there from UK we flew Air New Zealand from Heathrow to los Angeles, then change planes but still air NZ to Tahiti. It's nearly 11hrs to LAX, then another 8-9 hours to Tahiti. You can sleep but I’m still writing this at 4:30 in the morning with jetlag - they are 10 hours behind.

We hired a Fontaine Pajot Bahia 46 from Tahiti yacht charter which I found by internet and which was very good. Although called "Tahiti yacht charter" the main base is on an island 100miles west called Raiatea ("rye-a-tier").

There are two main charter bases on Raiatea, one at Apooiti harbour just a mile from airport used by TYC and Moorings, and another which I didn't visit further down west coast of Raiatea, used by sunsail. Moorings seemed a bit dead customer-wise compared to TYC. The marina is quite small really; praps 150metres by 150metres max but seems safe enough to leave a boat long term.

Fontaine Pajot Bahia 46 from Tahiti yacht charter
Fontaine Pajot Bahia 46 from Tahiti Yacht Charter

The cruising area extends 25miles east to Hauhine island, 25miles n-s with Tahaa island and Raiatea islands which are in the same lagoon, and west at least 20 miles to Bora-Bora, though you could go further west another 20miles to Maupiti if you really wanted.

All the Society Islands are ex-volcanoes, hence mountainous and are v lush green. You sail between islands in open water, though not too swelly really - Pacific means "peaceful". Coral started to grow around the islands. Then the mountains got eroded somehow. So, coral (hard blimmin rocks, though v pretty) almost completely surrounds each island, and there's a swell-free v boaty lagoon sometimes 4 miles+ wide around each island which is up to 50 metres deep near each island proper, but trails off to zero depth at the reef. The swell/waves crash in from the open ocean onto the reef, visible as a white line in the distance. Hopefully, always quite a long way in the distance...

You get in and out of the lagoon of each island at a "pass" - a gap in the reef. Bora Bora frexample only has one useable pass. Some smaller Polynesian islands have no pass and hence presumably not many people living there either. Some islands have several passes, like Raiatea.

The lovely light blue water is where it's about 3 metres deep or less, and this is always further away from the main islands, after the deepwater bit, out toward the reef, with sandy bottom and there is hundreds or probly thousands of sq miles of it. Everywhere is beautifully marked with red bouyage near the islands, and shallow bits out at reef side with green. Further out from the island (any island) past the green markers the shallows might extend a mile or more to the reef. In the last 100metres or so before the actual reef itself (where the coral breaks the surface and the waves crash ashore) you can snorkel around in staggeringly pretty coral with millions of fish - we saw shoals of many thousands of fish of all colours. We did this every day with dinghy and it must be a shame for people in hotel who have to take a special trip only now and again - it's the main thing to do that you couldn't do anywhere else.

Sometimes, the coral has developed at the reef a lot, and then er presumably other stuff has collected there too, and then the reef turns from being just washed-over rocks into a low-lying flattish island. They call such an island a "motu". Mostly these are private. You can buy a motu, and I understand that some film stars have done so. However, they look a bit boring, just sand and flies and coconut trees, and not as nice as on a boat, unless they also had a generator and aircon, and they wd still need a boat to get there. Also I suspect these coral islands might be partly composed of nice white sands plus deeper down praps many thousands of years of poo from the islands and more recently from boats, but this is only a private theory, not official.

In Bora Bora, the ex-ww2 airport is built on a big motu, and they ferry you to the island as part of the ticket price. Bora Bora used to be the main entry to Polynesia before papeetee airport built in 1961, but that's still only a single strip.

We sailed around and had 3 days in Huahine, 4 days in Bora-Bora and rest the pootling about Tahaa and Raiatea. Every night cept final night was at anchor, and I tried to stay as far as poss. off island coasts where there could be lots of flies. So we hardly got bitten - certainly got bitten less than in BVI frinstance. Or even actually less than in Lake District in summer. But I did have a couple of pre-bedtime fights with aggressive mosquitoes which I won due to our massive aerosol, and the mosquitoes fortunately not having a similar arsenal.

Huahine is fairly undeveloped tourist-wise, though there is a hotel on stilts in usual French Polynesian fashion. These are the "over water hotels" where the main reception is a big shed-like affair with raffia roof, and each bedroom is built on stilts in the water also with raffia-looking roof so you can wake up and go swimming straightaway if you wanted, and then go back to bed or read a book and er well go swimming again I suppose. Very very quiet out of season though. The main town is just a few shops and a supermarket, though you can buy everything including deep-sea fishing gear, food and more. Each island seemed to have at least one store with the range of a small hypermarket.

Bora Bora has a v dramatic entrance from out at sea and in through the pass, a great sailing landfall, like Gibraltar, with 2000-foot mountain soaring up and visible from most places on and around the island. Good views of Bora are desirable even 20 miles away on tahaa and Raiatea islands. Lots of hotel development on the island, and on the motus around bora. But this is French, see, so development is not hi-rise like Spain or Hawaii- it is restricted to low-level "over water" hotels as above which look a bit like traditional huts on stilts used by pearl farmers (though I don't suppose they ever joined together fifty or more but anyway).

Ashore, there's quite a lot of people and hence lots of food and hence lots of flies, and the slower they clear tables in a hotel and the less they cover the cordial/grenadine bottles in the bar whilst not actually using them, the more flies there are around the place. It's ok for yotties to go ashore to most places and have lunch tho in season it mite get a bit full and swankier places after Christmas were full of people and hence didn't want us scruffy boat people along thanks.

In Bora-Bora, the main town is Vaitipe (vie-teepee) where the quayside has been recently fixed up nicely. TopDive Resort is recommended nice place, but as a place to stay wd only suit active types who don't mind the bar shutting all afternoon.

The fabulously named Bora Bora Yacht Club is nothing of the sort - the place may well have been originated by a yottie fan as open to all and "especially to all those who made their way to Bora Bora by boat" but these days it's changed hands a few times and is simply a restaurant and a bar charging £7.50ish for a cocktails. There are moorings for which they charge eight quid a night which seems a bit pointless since free anchorages only a mile away have no flies, and I nearly got arsey with them and said it was free to park cars outside and even free pickup for people from hotels but actually NOT free for yotties to moor and hence shopuold really be called the Bora Bora Get Stuffed Yotties Club. However, i had had 2 cocktails so I only thought this and didn't say it. Also they mostly spoke French which would've made it hard to say the above. Mainly though, I stayed nice about it cos the owner lives next door and breeds Doberman Pinchers which roamed around the back of the restaurant, erk.

Another time we had lunch at the Hotel Bora Bora on the south on the island which has French menu plus cheeseburgers, and lots of flies. We each fought about 12 flies each during lunchtime. It's nice enough, but better to be on a boat imho!

The motus on east side of bora bora has new hotels under construction in some volume. But again, all low-built overwater huts. I expect the overwater huts quite good cos you get a breeze thru at night. Except from the eastern motus you would have a view of the council tip, which seemed to be always smouldering. But the mountain above and sea view is fabulous, and it's all downwind i spose

Tahaa has cystal-clear water for better snorkelling than in Bora where it's more cloudy. Tahaa has one hotel better than most if not all on Bora-bora (the Pearl Beach) and a newly-opened French restaurant called the Maitai at the far end of Huamene bay run by a young chap from Rouen. We went three times.

Apparently the Hibiscus is a main yottie bar/restaurant but it was shut for lunch cos not in season.

But anyway with nice anchorages at least 2miles from shore but in only a few metres of water it was all fine. It would also be fine incidentally in monohull - provided you drew less than say 5metres in same anchorages, but biggish ships come in and out, and there was rarely if ever a time that we utterly needed the low draught of the cat.

Utiroa (Yewtie-Roe-er) is the capital of Raiatea, and we dropped in here a few times to stock up on shopping. There are three supermarkets, two restaurants and a few other shops, which makes this er the second biggest town in the whole of French polynesia but still a lot smaller place than Cowes. Much better food shopping tho - the supermarkets are real French thing with foie gras and loads of sorts of fish and meat and cheese etc for sale flown in from Fance.

We spent the last day at Tahiti. We hired a car and someone suggested going round the island 118km, but after an hour of driving and looking at stuff we thought nah it will take nearer 6 hours not 3, and came back. The suburbs of Papeetee are sort of broken and scruffy, but with plentiful lush palm trees. The place is expemnsive and the very poor live in shacks tho you need your shack to be faily airy, really: oddly, they all have a garden that wd cost over £25k in europe to have all those massive palm trees etc. From more than 10miles outside the city it's all quite beautiful coast, surfing etc, black sand beaches.

We stayed for the afternoon and evening at the Sofitel, which has had a refit. V relaxing, nice pool, five mins from the airport. Good place for a honeymoon i wd say.

The city of Papeetee is biggish and bustling and a bit busted, container port all visible from the "marina" which is really the town quay with two-lane main road right behind, then the city centre behind that. Most of the town seems to have been built in the sixties with some faceless blocks tho none too hi-rise all less than 4 stories high i suppose. The Retrobar is one of many real French-style caffs in the town, very pleasant on the front. The marina quay was almsot empty when we visited. The car drivers have the nicest manners i have ever seen - someone wants to cross the road anywhere all the cars stop no question.

If I arrived by boat in Papeetee, I would stay only a short time and push on to Raiatea for a longer stay there, cos as it says in the guidebooks Papeetee is the "colourful hub" of French polynesia which means it's sunny and you can buy stuff but otherwise it's a bit of a dump. However, the market is interesting, mainly cos of lots of florists making flower chains like the ones they put around you when you land (yep, every arrival at tahiti airport gets a flower necklace regardles day or night, plus tahitian music) or like the more colourful deluxe headbands and deluxe flower necklaces like in Fantasy Island.

One really fab aspect of the hol was the crew Jerome, originally from Rennes in France. I tried to hire this specific boat (which had genny and aircon and watermaker so no need to come ashore xcept for food ) without crew and at first they insisted on skipper. I said hm nah cos we won't be sailing that much and anyway i can drive and sail it (badly) mostly. So they said ok how bout having a chef who also knows the ropes? So i sed ok. Turns out Jerome was crew on the delivery trip all the way from France which er they did with no radar and the radar refelctor fixed horizontally, erk. But he was a fab chef, used to work in michelin-starred restaurants and it showed. First day the kids came rushing out on deck saying er Dad he's just made Tarte Tatin, it's in the oven! On other days he made choclate soufflé, tiramisu from scratch, and poisson cru and loads of other things. And breakfast as well. Very nice guy indeed. Nobody was allowed to help set the table or tidy up or wash up or even get drinks cos it seems that would offend his frenchified sensibilities as being all-powerful super-chef so we only ever had to open the fridge if he was asleep, which was only twice. Jerome understood immediately and helped with our successful decision (once) to yottily sail onto a mooring which is very unneccesary and hence very much appreciated by French saily types.

The boat was pretty good. Being a catarmaran, it wdn't sail much more than 50degrees towards the wind, and when headed to the wind at all there's lots of leeway (sideways slithering offcourse due to not having deep keel) praps 10 degrees. Downwind it can do 8+knots under gentle twin diesels motoring, probly more but i didn't test it, praps 10knots tops. All this means catamarans are excellent for lazy thrashy motorboaters cos it's only worth putting the sails up in 12knots of wind or more, and only if from more than 70 degrees off the direction you are headed. Swmbo loved it! Often, puting a headsail alone wins another knot or two. The motion on a cat is like a motorboat all sort of activity all the time lolloping along. Cept at anchor when all very calm and flat, so no prob sleeping through the night, even fairly stable with wash too. Under sail, i got 11 knots out of it on broad reach which was quite fun.

As other posters point out, important thing is to have a high bridge deck to avoid waves slamming underneath: fontaine pajot do have this, whereas Moorings Leopard boats are much lower on the water is nice for living on but less good at sea.

Once, one of the engines wouldn't start and jerome got all panicky and said he wasn't authorised to do things to the machinery. Altho not really a conflict i said well hm i am skipper and hence authorised to rip engines apart if i fancy it, so he got out and i had a look, and found a loose starter motor connector. Another time the stbd engine space was found to have a foot of water in, and I found a leaky primary hose under the jubilee clip at motor end, so cut it back to beyond the crack and refitted. Jerome was amazed at boatsd being fixed by amateur and asked my occupation and i told him that mainly i fix busted things on boats.

Overall, i wd say i am a convert to cats and if i bought another boat it wd probly be a biggish catarmaran, definitely. Well ok, more than likely a Fontaine Pajot Eleuthera 60 which wd be quite fab and masive inside with aircon and nice sofas with nice view out yet also praps just small enuf to do the ARC (or at least sit on caribee moorings that say "max 60 feet") with lots of spinaker things plus kitesails flying off the foredeck for gigantic speed even if the mast snapped off.

One thing that it's impossible to miss in French Polynesia is that some of the women seem to be blokes. That's cos they actually are blokes. For some reason, some say to avoid war, some male children (often the firstborn) are raised as girls, and stay as girls. These are called "Mahu", and perfectly accepted in Polynesian society. I don't think they are gay, and I have no idea of their sex life at all. The culture is also a bit weirdly open with regards to kids it seems, with some families passing around kids to other family members to raise and suchlike. Some polynesians are quite beutiful, tho quite a lot are overweight with too much good food and unfortuantely as some are descended from strong but stumpyish south americans, some of the older people look like trolls. Sorry.

I was worried about the weather - we weren't in main tourist dry season (may- september i spose) and decemebr can be wet. It did rain, buit it tends to be squalls with downpour for 30 mins max, followed by clear blue skies. You get tanned v quickly and my nose burnt.

The guidebooks were all out of date with regards to hotels and restaurants, and it showed that this is an expensive place to gather information to make a five quid guidebook. But the guides do say that the weather shouldn't put you off having a hol there any time of year, and that's probably right. The water temp is never les than 27degrees so you can doze whilst floating in the water with feet clamped round anchor and self in the shade between the hulls and only wake up when you actually fall asleep in the water which i did once.

We were also worried about sharks but didn't see a single one despite snorkelling an hour or more every day. However, I did see a big leopard ray which woke up off the seabed five metres in front of me, about the size of a car bonnet with big thrashy tail and then it zoomed off, thankfully.

Overall and in detail a fab hol, and i wd defintely like to go again tho it's too far for every year of course.

TCM - January 2006