Tahiti! We’re Here!

Jul 23, 2010| 0 Comment

Tahiti! Even though we have had to cut short our stay in the Tuomotu Islands in order to arrive in Tahiti ahead of an extremely calm weather system, both of us feel an excitement about setting our sails for this particular Polynesian island. We are now embarking on the final leg of this passage of ours which began on March 21, 2010, the day we set sail from Puerto Vallarta, New Mexico.

Tahiti! The Polynesian island of beauty and romance! It is believed that Tahiti was first settled by ancient mariners hailing from the islands of Samoa and Tonga. This occurred sometime during the 1st millennium AD, and for hundreds of years, Tahiti and the Tahitians flourished quite nicely. Then in the 1600’s, Spanish and Dutch explorers stumbled upon her shores. Initially, these early explorers were greeted by island war parties, but after a volley of rifle shots mysteriously felled a few natives, the Tahitians decided that attacking their uninvited visitors, who clearly possessed strange powers, was not a good idea. In the 1700‘s, English and French ships made their appearance on the horizon, but other than claiming the land in the name of their various monarchs, Tahiti was left relatively alone by all these early explorers and their countrymen. The island remained unremarked and of little interest until Captain James Cook arrived and finally put Tahiti on everyone’s radar. He visited Tahiti on 4 separate occasions from 1769 to 1777, and on each trip, he had with him some of the most eminent scientists and artists of that time. The findings, descriptions and drawings of these men as well as the writings of Captain Cook and other members of ship’s company opened the eyes of Europe to the wonders of Polynesia. Tahiti was described as a perfection, a lush tropical paradise, an island of fertile soil surrounded by a bountiful sea. Fact and fantasy merged, and fables flourished of an island filled with ignorant, but noble, savages whose strange pagan rites included a sexual freedom absolutely unheard of in Europe at the time. A land of beautiful, willing and available women … can’t you just hear the tales those bug-eyed sailors carried home? Then in 1788, Lt. William Bligh anchored the HMS Bounty for 5 months in Tahiti and unwillingly garnered the island a ship-load of dramatic interest. His mission was to collect young breadfruit plants to transport to the West Indies in hopes that breadfruit would become a cheap and abundant food stable for the slave population. Though the actual mutiny of Fletcher Christian and many of ship’s company did not happen on Tahiti, the story of the mutiny and the mystique of the island were entwined, and to this day, they remain so thanks to various Hollywood interpretations of the events. Today, Tahiti is a far different place from that lush tropical island first described; yet the name — Tahiti — still holds a magical appeal. “What,” wonders The First Mate, “is in store for ship’s company onboard the S/V Avante?”

Friday, June 4th – Offshore and headed to Tahiti. As expected, the forecasted calm weather catches up with us. Winds begin to die as we close in on Tahiti, and for the last 8 hours, we motor on in piston-thumping monotony.  

In our voyaging thus far across the Pacific, Avante has visited the “young” islands of the Marquesas with their sharp volcanic peaks rising steeply from a shoreline that has yet to see coral reef growth. We have also visited the “ancient” islands of the Tuomotu chain where now only a broken ring of reefs and motus remain where once mighty volcanic islands rose. Geologically speaking, the island of Tahiti might be referred to as “adolescent”, for this island is a combination of sinking volcano and emerging reef. Tahiti itself looks roughly like a figure 8 with two somewhat circular land masses connected by a narrow isthmus.  Tahiti-nui is the larger mass where the city of Papeete is located and where most of the people live, and Tahiti-iti is the smaller one with sparse population and limited access.

Sunday, June 6th – 0500 – Land ho! We can see a faint outline of the island in the waning moonlight. With a few extra days on our schedule, we have decided to explore the southern coast of Tahiti before heading into Papeete. Most cruisers by-pass this side of Tahiti in their rush to reach Papeete. Our first anchorage is through Passe Vaiau off the coast of Tahiti-iti. With no road access, this is a sparsely settled area, roughly natural and peacefully quiet. As we enter the anchorage, we count 4 waterfalls cascading down from the steep verdantly green mountain sides. We anchor not far from a stream flowing into the lagoon from one of those waterfalls. There are a few scattered homes along the shore.  Initially, we are the only boat in the basin between reef and land until later in the afternoon when a Danish couple and their 2 sons sail through the pass and anchor not far from us. 

As a quiet Sunday passes, we are surprised to see several groups of people along the shoreline. They look a little fancier than the usual inhabitants we are used to seeing in such isolated places. Several are enjoying a swim in a sheltered area where the fresh water from the mountain stream meets the sea water. This is an unusual sight, for though we often see local children playing in the water, seldom do we see adults doing so. A few small power boats are motoring up and down the bay. None of this mars the natural beauty of the place, but we are just surprised at the amount of activity and wonder how, without road access, these people arrive here and what they are doing here. Looking closer at our charts, we note that the road from Tahiti-nui to Tahiti-iti ends about 5 miles up the coast. We surmise that this is a rural, undeveloped area used by Tahitians as a weekend retreat. They arrive here in small motorboats. Though we are hardly aware of their departures, when we awake on Monday morning, no one is around but a few poor local islanders who appear to be caretakers for some of the homes along the shore. For those Tahitians who probably work and live around Papeete, this is certainly a wonderful weekend get-away, and we hope for them that the road does not get developed any further than it is now.

Monday, June 7th – We are beginning to appreciate why Tahiti is so green and why we saw 4 waterfalls as we entered this anchorage.  Rain, lots of rain! Though we had expected frequent fast-moving cloud bursts, these, we thought, would only add a bit of variety to endless days of sunshine. To our surprise, the weather pattern is one of over-cast skies breaking into squalls of rain. It rained all last night, and today is grey and drizzly with only an occasional break-through of the sun. This just isn’t what we had expected in these tropical isles, but at the moment, there is no reason to let a little bit of rain ruin our activities. It is still warm, and we dry fast!

There is supposed to be a trail paralleling the stream leading to Vaipoiri Grotto, a large water-filled cave. Our interest tweaked, we decide to visit this grotto. There is a trail of sorts on shore, and we follow a muddy path into the dank woods. It is obvious that this grotto is not visited very often. To get into the grotto itself requires one to climb down a precarious stairway of slippery stone steps into a very dark hole. Having left flashlight securely on the boat, The First Mate declines such an adventure, but The Captain carries on to the bottom. Was it worth the effort? No, but it was what we came to do so he did it. The First Mate has no such goal-oriented requirements.

Our next venture is an attempt to follow the stream inland to the pool at the base of the waterfall. We ask an elderly couple about the trail that is supposed to wander up to this waterfall. They are incredulous that anyone would want to do such a thing, but yes, there is a trail or there used to be a trail. It may be hard to find.  Follow the river up that way and then somehow somewhere we are to bear left. Oh, make sure you bring plenty of food and water. (We have neither.) It’s a long way. We wave and carry on, leaving them shaking their heads at our naivety. At first, we tromp along in the river, but we soon tire of slippery stones threatening to twist ankles and oozing primordial slime. When the way is clear enough to walk on the river’s edge, we do so. Though it may not sound like it, The First Mate is enjoying this hike. There are birds, butterflies and wild flowers. As we move further inland away from the coast, the valley narrows as steep mountain walls press down on us. We cannot see the waterfall, and though we try to pick out which ridge it could be cascading from, we cannot, for each bend we round brings more mountain ridges into view. We walk on for about an hour. The going is slow, for we are often forced to thread our way though the overgrowth. The stream forks. We bear left since the couple did mention something about a left turn. It soon becomes obvious to The Captain that we are not going to reach any waterfall today or any day, but The First Mate loves the wildness and aloneness of their surroundings. She would like to continue partly because as untamed as the area is, she feels quite secure knowing that all they have to do is about face and follow the stream back to where they started. The Captain, however, declares an end to the endeavor showing that he is not always as goal-oriented as some claim. He also has an inspiration. Shortly before the stream split, we had walked by an area where the stream had widened and deepened. We return to that spot and upon further investigation discover a deep pool of cool fresh water. Swimming in that pool is such a treat after weeks of salt water! We may not have found the pool at the end of the waterfall, but we did find a pool at the end of our hike.

Tuesday, June 8th – Though this southern side of the island is quieter and more protected from winds and surf, there is still plenty of watery tumult upon the reefs. In the afternoons, island boys paddle out on surf boards to enjoy the waves. We had not seen this much energy on and around the few reefs we had visited in the Tuomotus, and The First Mate cannot stop watching the white foam rise and spew across the horizon. She knows she is out here getting nearer the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, and this striking water display brings that ring to mind, only this is water gushing forth and not hot, molten lava

This morning, the ocean swell appears to have changed direction, for the surf crashing over the west side of the reef pass we are planning to soon exit is truly impressive. The Captain decides to first dinghy over to check out the conditions before attempting to cross it on Avante. Nothing looks unmanageable, so in a light drizzle, we head out. Other than a bit of bucking bronco action as we cross the rough seas at the entrance, we have no issues. The First Mate is surprised that on such a still day with almost no wind, there is such tremendous wave and surf action. Where does it all come from? Ocean swell. Amazing!

Steering west along the coast toward Papeete, our thoughts are to anchor in Baie Phaeton, the inlet between Tahiti-nui and Tahiti-iti.  From our charts, it looks like an interesting area to explore, but within 5 miles of leaving our rural, isolated anchorage, we find ourselves looking inland at a growing sprawl of civilization. Tahiti is the most populated island in French Polynesia, and the many buildings crawling along the coast and up the hillsides wherever possible certainly attest to that. Baie Phaeton looks unappealingly crowded, and from the distance, we can see many large industrial-looking buildings. We continue up the coast.

We re-enter Tahiti’s lagoon thru Passe Rautiare and follow a well-marked narrow channel into a basin called Mouillage de Atehiti. It proves to be a very calm, sheltered anchorage but not a very interesting one. With only the busy coast road and a few homes marching along the shore, we forego any idea of exploring on land. Anyway, The First Mate much prefers to look seaward away from land. There is a wide arc of reef sweeping across the horizon. Of course, no reef itself is visible, but its presence is boldly obvious in the waves crashing and foaming all along its border. We are anchored far enough from the reef that we cannot hear the bounding surf, but the foaming wave action is impressive. It does not seem possible that we cannot hear the roar of all that ocean crashing onto the reef. There is such a white, frothing explosion of water. Again, the image of the Ring of Fire comes to mind, only with bursting plumes of water, not molten lava.


Wednesday, June 9th – Papeete is our destination today. As we continue up the coast closer to the city, there is no doubt that Tahiti has become a far different island than those early explorers first sighted. We wonder what it will be like once we are tied up at the downtown marina of Papeete and are able to explore the city.


As we near, the Passe de Papeete, The Captain hails Harbour Control to obtain permission to enter. Boats entering or leaving the harbor through the pass have to cross the flight path of planes landing and taking off at Faa’a International Airport and must obtain clearance before doing so. (Note: each of those 3 a’s in Faa’a is pronounced!) We are cleared. We cross the pass and proceed to the Quay des Yachts in downtown Papeete where we stern tie to the dock, Mediterranean style. That done, we hug and congratulate ourselves. We are here. Tahiti!


Captain’s Log:   “Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to Papeete, Tahiti:  6,136 nautical miles!”


Though we had checked into French Polynesia, as required, when we first arrived in the Marquesas, we have to do so again, officially, here in Papeete. That task completed, we set out to explore our surroundings. There are several other boats docked along the quay. One is Sula, a sailboat from Tacoma, Washington.  Her owners, Betty & Herb Weston, have not experienced the Pacific crossing of their dreams. On the way to the Marquesas from Mexico, they lost the use of their engine. They checked into the Marquesas where, as expected, nothing could be done to help them. Without an engine, they did not feel comfortable touring the islands and certainly did not want to venture anywhere near the reefs of the Tuomotus. They opted for a non-stop passage to Papeete, the first possible spot to have any work done. They had already been in Papeete for several weeks by the time we arrived and expected to be there at least another 3 weeks before they could pick up the pieces of their dream Pacific Cruise.


We explore the Papeete Market where The First Mate is delighted to find all kinds of vegetables and fruits in abundance. A chain grocery store called Champion is also well stocked with items they will need when they continue on across the Pacific.


 We sample several of the restaurants and otherwise enjoy ourselves in the first city we have been in since Puerto Vallarta. After a few days, however, the excitement of being in a city wears off, and we are confronted with the problems of most cities, especially poor ones in struggling countries. It is crowded with people going about their business and with far too many milling around contributing nothing. Traffic is congested. Sirens blare day and night. It is noisy, dirty and very tired around the edges. The First Mate insists upon smiling a “bonjour” to all, but her greetings are not returned as they have been, and with chores completed, both The Captain and The First Mate are ready to leave.

Friday, June 11th – And leave we do! Today, we are heading to the island of Moorea, a short 12nm from Tahiti. Though we claimed Papeete to be the end destination of this passage, we are actually going to leave Avante in a marina on Moorea Island while we return to the States for two months. With a few more cruising days left on our schedule, we decide to explore several bays along the coast of Moorea.


We first go to Baie de Cook which is renowned for its beauty and grandeur, but after the spectacular scenery we had seen in the Marquesas Islands, we are a bit jaded, however, we still find the jagged mountains impressive!


On Saturday, we head ashore to walk the coast road. To The First Mate’s surprise, we discover a store selling fine Marquesasian woodcarvings. She and The Captain are intrigued by an intricately carved fish, but it is too big to hang anywhere on Avante. We are told that the artisan can make one smaller. He just needs time to do so. We can give him slightly over 2 months. Will that do? More than adequate, we are told. We place a deposit to commission our fish. We will return in September to pick it up. The First Mate is delighted, for she has been on this carving quest since the Marguesas. 

We continue our tour along the coast and are dismayed at the dismal look of the things. From well out on the water, we saw interesting resorts, but up close on land, many are run down and in dire need of repair. Several are closed and locked up tight. The feeling is of a resort area that the world has now passed by in favor of something new and different further on down the line. “What a shame”, thinks The First Mate and hopes her Marquesasian store will still be in business when they return.

Sunday, June 13th – Rain! Rain all day, in fact. We stay put onboard Avante in Cook’s Bay, Moorea.

Monday, June 14th – We motor the few miles to Baie Opunohu, another bay known for its beauty, but it leaves us with the same disappointeded impression that we had of Cook’s Bay. The scenery is not quite as inspiring as that of the Marquesas and here, too, once flourishing establishments are foundering. Fortune has changed out here in Moorea, and it sadly shows.

Tuesday, June 15th – We leave Opunohu Bay and continue along the coast. Crossing Passe Matauvau, we anchor below the town of Haapiti. There are many trails cut through the high mountains above us, and we note that the start of the trail up to the Col de Trois Cocotiers is not far. On Wednesday, we set out to find and hike this trail. Following a fertile, well-tended valley inland, we soon find ourselves struggling upward along a narrow track muddied by the recent rains. There are no trail markings, yet the path is initially easy to discern. With the thick tropical vegetation, it is impossible to deviate off the route. Our little hike has become tricky with oozing mud, slippery rocks and tangled roots. The trail is increasingly more difficult to follow, but we make it to the top. There the cool breeze refreshes us as we take in a glorious view of the island and ocean. The island of Tahiti is visible in the distance. We continue along the sharp, jagged ridge connecting one col to another. Although not shown on the map, we find several other trails up here, none of them marked. Since we do not want to descend into the wrong valley, The Captain is being very careful about our trail selection. We start down one path but then retrace our steps when it changes direction toward the wrong valley. Finally we find a trail that appears to head in the right direction and start down. The First Mate is very relieved when The Captain declares, partway down the trail, that he is certain that this trail will take us back to where we started. Hot, tired and muddy, back on level ground, we duck into the first little store we find for soda and an ice cream. Re-energized, we return to Avante for a much-needed mud-washing swim.

Thursday, June 17th – Marina Vaiare is where we are going to leave Avante for 2 months while we return to the States. It is more of a local’s marina and to call it “basic” may be overstating the case, but our agent lives nearby. He will be able to check on Avante while we are gone, the price is right, and it fits our needs in that it is a safe, secure spot for the boat. It does not have the amenities we would normally seek in a marina, but we are not planning to be on Avante anyway. She will survive our absence.

The Captain hails the marina as we near. No answer, but then none was really expected. Closing in on the marina, we look for vacant spots. The fairways are narrow, and with no one to tell us about depths, we do not want to head down them. Fortunately, there is a vacant spot on the end of the first pier. Perfect. We are docked. Clean up begins. 

Wednesday, June 23rd – We schlep ourselves and our luggage to the Moorea/Papeete ferry. In Papeete, we have a nice early dinner and then grab a taxi to the Faa’a International Airport for our flight home.

It will be good to be home and resume our activities and interests there, but what an adventure we have had! Tahiti! We made it. We arrived on your shores together and in one piece, just as we had planned and dreamed. Though neither The First Mate nor The Captain found the Tahiti of today to be the fabled Tahiti of old, we honestly had known not to expect that plush tropical paradise of mythical charms and splendor. For us, however, it was the arrival in Tahiti that filled our imaginations. Navigating across that 6,135nm of Pacific Ocean to finally arrive in Papeete, that was the dream for us. That was our Tahiti!

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