Raiatea and Tahaa, two more of French Polynesia's Society Islands
11 September 2007
RAIATEA AND TAHAA, Aug 23-30, 2007 - in which we learn to anchor in very deep water, learn all about vanilla beans and other tropical botanica, run into several old friends, and discover the beauty of another few paradisical islands.
An easy 4 or 5 hour passage took us downwind to Raiatea from Huahine, with good sailing winds at times, almost no wind at others. We entered through the Teavapaiti Pass on the northeastern corner of Raiatea, and then anchored in the lee of an island in the middle of the pass.
We snorkeled to check the anchor and discovered one of our worst fears was realized - the anchor was just in front of a 4-5'diameter coral head, and the chain led underneath an overhang of the coral head on its way back to the boat. This meant we could have a problem picking it up - pulling up on it would make it catch on the coral head, and possibly require a diver to free it. On its way from the boat to the anchor, the chain lay neatly on the bottom passing through two narrow grooves between other sets of coral heads, which was good news and bad news. The good news was it meant we were unlikely to swing wildly during the night which could cause the chain near the anchor to wrap itself around the first coral head, the bad news was that the chain could get wedged under one of these other coral heads and mean additional obstruction(s) when picking the anchor up.
The next morning we launched the dinghy and put its engine on, and then I went snorkeling to see if the anchor and chain were still in the same place. They were. The chain through the grooves had kept us from swinging completely around our anchor with the current, and had prevented any extra backward pressure on the anchor which could have pulled it underneath the coral head. I then pushed the boat around a bit while snorkeling (it has amazed me how easy it is to move it while pushing on the chain as it comes off the boat while I am in the water) while directing Bryan when to start picking up chain. This enabled us to get the chain up out of the grooves, and then Bryan had to run back to the helm, put the boat in gear, and make a sharp sudden turn to starboard with the chain now close to vertical to pull the anchor out from underneath the coral head without catching the coral head, while I hovered in the water watching and directing. It all worked beautifully, he pulled up the rest of the chain and the anchor, and I swam back to climb on the boat.
We then proceeded around the northern point of Raiatea to pick up a mooring off the Apooiti Marina, where the Moorings bareboat fleet is based. We had read in a book that we could have our mail forwarded here, so were eager to pick it up as well as a package from Tahiti forwarding a cable for our sat phone that had not arrived in Tahiti before we left. We eventually found the package with our after trying first the Moorings office, then the marina office, and then the Moorings office where it had been all the time. The package from Tahiti had not arrived, but the marina manager called around and found that it was at the airline office at the airport and we had to go pick it up. Luckily the airport was only a 20 minute walk away. We had a big surprise just after we picked up the mooring here - our friends Claudia and Erich on the catamaran Tahaa who we had last seen in Nuku Hiva were just leaving the marina and passed right by us on their way to exit Raiatea and leave for the Cook Islands. We had thought they were now far ahead of us, they had planned on leaving French Polynesia much earlier, but their new crew, Herbert from Switzerland, developed a hernia and they had to hang out a bit longer while he had surgery. Although we didn't have a chance to get together and swap stories, it was still very nice to see them however briefly.
Our friends on Volker and Michelle on La Gitana were hauled out at the boatyard just a ways up from the marina, so we dinghied up and had lunch with them at the Snack Mimosa, a simple local restaurant with pretty good food for a relatively reasonable price. During lunch we were entertained by the future boxing champ of Raiatea - a 3 or 4 year old boy with huge red boxing gloves that were almost bigger than he was. La Gitana was in the yard for repairs to their keel from when they struck a whale as they were leaving Galapagos an hour ahead of us, and they were painting the bottom.
After picking up our cable at the airport, we hitched into town for a bit of exploration and to buy some steak and potatoes for a dinner treat. We got a ride from a young French dentist who has a pretty good life - he works two months, then travels two months, off and on through the year, so is getting in 6 months of travel a year to all kinds of exotic places. The following morning, Saturday, we did a bit more provisioning at a store near the marina (beer and baguettes), then took off for the island of Tahaa, after which our friends' boat is named. Tahaa and Raiatea are very unusual islands in that they are both within the same large fringing reef, Tahaa just a few miles north of Raiatea, so journeying from one to the other doesn't necessitate going out into the big rough ocean, but rather navigating between lots of reefs and shoals inside the fringing reef. On our way north we saw sailing by our friends on Do It, whom we hadn't seen since Kauehi, and had a brief chat with them on the radio. We continued north about 2/3 of the way up Tahaa's west coast to anchor off a resort of thatched bungalows over the water called the Tahaa Private Island Resort and Spa which is situated on a few small motus off the main island. We anchored in about 25' amongst but not upon scattered coral heads, just off the large area of shallows that extends outward to the fringing reef. We did a delightful pass snorkel here, in a small shallow pass between a few of resort motus - not at all as fabulous as the Fakarava pass, but quite pleasant with lots of healthy corals and a variety of beautiful fish.
The weather got a bit nasty Saturday night - rainy and gusty and squally, making the protected waters of the lagoon somewhat bouncy and us a bit nervous with a lot of very shallow water just behind us, so we moved over to anchor in Tapuanua Bay on Tahaa, where we traded a nice shallow anchorage for one 75' deep but at least the bay was far more protected from the wind. We did a bit of exploring on shore, where there was a small, laid back settlement with not much going on - and they were out of baguettes already at 9 in the morning!
On Monday, we moved south to Herepiti Bay where we had signed up to do a tour with Vanilla Tours at 8 a.m. on Tuesday. On our way down, we anchored for a snorkel on the flats inside the reef, where we didn't find much coral or many fish, but did see a huge eel sticking out of one of the few coral heads, and a shark swimming by. We picked up one of Vanilla Tours' moorings (nice to have when the bottom is 75-100' deep and you can't tell if you're anchoring in sand, mud or coral) and went ashore to meet Alain who is Vanilla Tours. He is a Frenchman who has lived here over 20 years after sailing in on a small yacht. Over the years he has built a fascinating home of several thatched and bamboo buildings set in a lush property with dozens of fruit and flower plants and trees, as well as several vanilla vines. He gives "botanical tours", in French and English, starting with his own property, then covering quite a bit of the island in a 4 wheel drive Range Rover. He is extremely knowledgeable about the plants on Tahaa, both indigenous and introduced, and does an excellent job sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm. He showed us how the vanilla flowers must be hand pollinated, as there are no insects here which will do them, then took us through the whole process of growing and readying vanilla beans for market. It takes nine months from flower being pollinated, to the bean starting to grow and maturing enough to be picked - and then several more while it is alternately heated in the sun then wrapped up and left to sweat while its moisture content is continuously reduced without rotting the bean. Once its moisture level is down to 38%, it is massaged and sorted before packaging. It's amazing that they are not much more expensive than they are given the amount of labor required to bring them to market. He also showed us numerous other fruits and vegetables, shared with us the many other uses of various plants including making ropes, roofs, clothing, and on and on. We also stopped at a "belvedere" - a high point on the island with magnificent views all around, where Alain provided us with a snack of fresh coconut water in the shell, starfruit and pamplemousse, which looks like a grapefruit but is much sweeter.
After the tour we headed to Apu Bay where the Taravana Yacht Club (a resort which appeared to have no guests, only a highly priced restaurant and several empty bungalows) offered moorings and internet wi-fi. Unfortunately, the 3 or 4 empty moorings were all "reserved" (even though most weren't used that night) and we had to anchor in 95' of water, just off the shore and too far from the Yacht Club to get wi-fi. One very amazing thing about many of these Society Islands is how deep much of the water in the lagoons is, and how shallow much of the rest of the water is. The shore in this bay, as in many others, is ringed by very shallow corally flats, only inches deep in many places so even getting a dinghy ashore can be a problem, and this flat then drops off suddenly and dramatically to 80-100'. This makes anchoring very difficult - we prefer to anchor in water less than 50', and really prefer water 20' deep or less where we can see exactly what we're putting our anchor into and don't have to put out very much chain to hold us. In the Virgins we almost never anchored in over 50', and rarely that deep. Here we have had to anchor in 75-100' several times now, and are gradually feeling more comfortable about it, but still dreading the day when we find ourselves wrapped around an unseen coral head on the bottom, or dragging anchor in a big wind because when we can't put out any more chain.
Wednesday morning we upped anchor successfully and headed back to Raiatea, getting caught in a squall as we were passing a big coral reefs and shoal known as" Grand Central" between Tahaa and Raiatea. The squall produced 30 knot winds, driving rain and white-out conditions for several minutes, making us a bit nervous, but we made it through fine. We had planned to stop at the fuel dock in the town of Otorua, but the strong winds blowing on the dock there discouraged us, so we headed back around to the western side and visited La Gitana on their last day in the boatyard. Had lunch with them again at Snack Mimosa, then had them aboard for dinner knowing how beat they were from several days in the boatyard. Once again we hitched into town to provision, taking a $20 5-minute taxi ride back to the boat with our groceries.
On Thursday morning, August 30, we picked up the anchor and headed through the pass to sail to Bora Bora.