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Tahiti and Moorea

July 2002

When last heard from, Raven was leaving the Tuamotus headed for the southern coast of Tahiti. We made another overnight passage to get there and had good winds, but probably the biggest seas of the trip so far. Jan thinks the swells were about 8 feet high, and I say they were at least 10 feet. When the boat went down into a swell, I couldn’t see out, so you can visualize that for yourselves. They were also coming from abeam (the side) so it was kind of rolly and uncomfortable. Luckily it was only one night.

Tahiti Iti

At our first sight of Tahiti Iti, which is the smaller, southeast lobe of the island, all we could see was mist covered mountains and big surf crashing on the shore. Later we found out that this is a surfing area where people fly in from all over the world to try for the perfect wave. For all you surfers, or wannabes, it’s called Teahupu.

There were several possible passes into the lagoon behind the reef,

 but with the big swells running, they were very difficult to spot. In our Charlie’s Charts of Polynesia (one of the huge shelf of reference books we have for anchorages and navigating) there was one pass that was so wide that a French aircraft carrier had used it. We decided that was just our speed. Even then, we couldn’t see the calm water until we were right in the pass, with huge rollers and surfers on either side of us. Mercifully, the French have put very good navigation markers in all the passes and channels, so once we found the right series of markers and a range to follow, we knew we would be OK.

We went from misty rain and rollers to total calm in the lagoon behind the reef, with no other cruising boats in sight, just a couple local fishing boats. It is quite incredible how much the land is protected from the violence of the sea by the coral reef. The down side is that there are few natural beaches on Tahiti, but we didn’t really come for the beach life anyway.

We stayed anchored there in Vairao for two nights and made some very brief excursions ashore since it was still raining. There was a small market where we could get the first tomatoes we’d had in a month, some baguettes and ice cream bars! Life was good!

We stayed in the lagoon and followed the navigational markers through a tortuous channel marking the coral reefs (to be avoided at all costs!) to the hurricane hole called Port Phaeton. It was a beautiful calm anchorage with restaurants and even supermarkets in the town of Taravao, about half a mile away. You may find this hard to believe, but after shopping in the poorly stocked stores of the Marquesas and Tuamotus, we spent hours just admiring all the stuff in the supermarkets. There were also street stalls selling vegetables, fruit, and roasted chickens. Never did we think that fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and even pineapples would seem such a luxury. And what a treat it was to have lunch in restaurants several days in a row.

Gauguin was here

We slowly moved along the southern coast enjoying the peacefulness and access to stores. It usually meant going out into the ocean via one pass and into the next, since there are many coral reefs along the way. It was all so well marked that our patented Signe-as-bow-lookout/buoy-spotter-and-Jan-as-helmsman system worked very well.

Our next anchorage was next to Tahiti’s Botanical Gardens and the Gauguin Museum. It had been a long time since we had had access to a museum of any kind, so we were really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, there is very little of substance, only leftover displays from Gauguin exhibits in other parts of the world. The gift shop had more of interest than the museum itself. It was all a bit sad, especially in such a beautiful location. We were happily anchored off of lovely gardens with Tahitian families picnicking and swimming for Father’s Day. Children were jumping off of a curvy palm tree temptingly hanging over the water. The restaurant next to the Museum was doing a huge business and didn’t have room for us, but we enjoyed the Polynesian music all afternoon from our own cockpit. It was quite a sublime experience thinking about Gauguin and his lovely paintings, which still portray the colors, people and flowers of Polynesia without too much difference between the 1800’s and today. Well, maybe there is a little less topless exposure, but the women are still beautiful, they still wear pareos and flowers in their long black hair, and it is all set against a lush green background.

This is a very rural part of Tahiti where very few cruising boats ever explore, so we felt like we were breaking new ground. In a week spent on the southern coast, we met one other cruising boat, a German couple who had sailed northeast from New Zealand to spend another season in paradise.


It was so idyllic that we would still be anchored there except for the approaching Puddle Jump Reunion on Moorea. About 25 of the boats that left Mexico with us were anchored in Cook’s Bay - every cruiser's dream destination - so we just had to be there to see old friends, and new ones too, since everyone in an anchorage is invited to any parties.

We had three days of comparing passages, anchorages, and adventures. Then we had three more days of talking about what broke, what was scary, and what we would do differently the next time. Interspersed with all of this was a fabulous dinner with music and singing. One night we had a dinghy raft up cocktail party a la Mexicana when we saw the most magnificent, vivid green flash at sunset. That one convinced the many skeptics in the fleet who thought this green flash stuff was just a big myth. (What’s a green flash? Click here. )

The Official Puddle Jump Reunion Party was held on June 26th at a restaurant over the water. We all dressed in pareos (men too!), and the women had flower crowns, worn here for festive occasions. After a great buffet dinner we were entertained by more of our cruiser musicians and a hula dance demonstration. Mary of Avventura grew up in Hawaii and learned to dance the hula there. She also taught a very comely foursome of men to hula to “Ukelele Lady.” Picture Jan and three bare-chested cohorts in pareos and flower crowns. Only the videos can do it all justice. For a small fee to the Admiral of Raven, you too can have blackmail material.

One day we rented a car and circumnavigated Moorea. It is a magnificent island with steep green mountains and turquoise water below. There are lush, jungly gardens along the way with only occasional groups of shops to mar the beauty. We visited Moorea sixteen years ago (on a business trip, believe it or not!) and expected huge developments of tourist hotels and shops, but happily the island has kept its Polynesian flavor. The hotels have adopted the format of thatched roof cottages over the lagoon, rather than high-rise hotel buildings. They have definitely done it right.


Finally it was time to head for Papeete, the Big City with a population of 125,000, fully half the people in all of French Polynesia. We had heard some pretty sad tales of the noise, the dirt, the crime, etc. We will admit that it was quite a shock to get back into the middle of it all, but didn’t find it too horrible. We decided not to do the classic thing and anchor in the middle of town, stern to the quay. It was noisy and dirty sixteen years ago and hasn’t improved with age.

We are anchored in the lagoon about five miles from the center of town, off of the Maeva Beach hotel, just inside the barrier reef. We can swim and snorkel right off the boat and have a fantastic view of Moorea across the channel. The sun sets gorgeously between two of Moorea’s peaks. We take a bus called le truck into town if we want to shop at the open-air market, have dinner on the waterfront, or visit the innumerable pearl shops. The best supermarket on the island is within walking distance of our anchorage with an incredible selection of French cheeses, wines, vegetables and fruits and almost anything we could ever want – at breathtaking prices, of course. My first cart (that’s one, singular) of groceries cost $557 (not a misprint), and I bought just the basics. But I’m thrilled just to have access to it all!


The main reason for being in Papeete in July is to attend the events of Heiva, which is a month-long celebration of the arts and culture of Polynesia. Most of the islands have their own Heiva competitions, but Papeete’s is the biggest. We saw two of the six evenings of magnificent Polynesian song and dance performances. Each night there was one group of amateur dancers, one group of singers, and one professional group of dancers.

Each singing or dancing group has well over a hundred members, coached by professionals, with major investments of time and money in costuming, music, choreography, etc. The amateur dance groups were “amateur” in a very different sense from our word. There are certain traditional elements and rules that are part of each dance, a bit like the compulsory figures in ice-skating. As we watched more performances, we became aware of these subtleties and could begin to compare. The dancers were mostly in their teens and were full of energy and enthusiasm. They were obviously having a great time with their friends and were thrilled at the honor of performing on the big outdoor stage.

We were not sure what to expect of the singing groups, but were very pleasantly surprised. Again, the songs have traditional forms and elements. Most songs are newly composed but have the rhythms of various kinds of work: hauling nets, pounding taro, or making copra. The harmonies are quite different from our music, but fascinating combinations of male bass rhythms and female verse, almost like a round. Each group had about a hundred singers, all dressed in the same Polynesian fabric, vibrantly colorful and in an infinite variety of floral patterns. Plain colors are never going to cut it in these islands!

The professional dance groups were incredible. We’ve seen two now, and I can’t wait to hear whether my favorite has won the Grand Prize. The groups have three changes of costume: pareos or fabric costumes, vegetal or natural costumes (flowers, ferns, leaves, etc.), and The Grand Costume, which evokes traditional Polynesian garb. The creativity of my favorite group was quite breathtaking. For example, the traditional male costume of green leaves was augmented by leis and headdresses made of real fruit and vegetables – pineapples, oranges, bananas, etc. Their music was also beyond any of the other groups.

Then there is the dance itself. I think genetically the Polynesians must be built differently from us. There is no way my hips could ever move like that, or so fast!! The gestures are much like Hawaiian hula, but livelier with lots of drumming as accompaniment.

More Heiva

The Autonomy Day Parade, celebrating the islands’ domestic autonomy from France, was another Experience. We had prime seats in bleachers along the parade route and couldn’t figure out why so few locals were there. It turns out that almost everyone on the island is in the parade! All the dance clubs, all the soccer teams, all the tennis teams, all the surf clubs, all the body building clubs, even the hot rod clubs were represented. It was a bit long, but again showed every variety of Polynesian flowered fabric in the groups’ matching costumes.

The javelin throwing contest, where about fifty competitors in teams of three throw ten javelins each in seven minutes, is more like an ancient battlefield than the Olympic javelin. All this happened in fearsome bursts of flying steel-pointed sticks all aimed at a coconut on a pole ten meters in the air. Not only did they have to hit the coconut – maybe twenty javelins in each round did that – but only the javelin stuck in the nut closest to the top won the single point for that round. Apparently this all started in the Tuamotus as a spear fishermen’s activity to pass the time until the fish started biting. There was also a demonstration with a skinny guy lifting an enormous volcanic beach stone, a traditional athletic event.

Then we went to the fruit carriers’ competition. Each man carried a bamboo pole hung with coconuts, pineapples, papayas and flowers adding about 100 pounds. They had to run barefoot (and sometimes bare-bunned; a few of the guys wore thongs of that ever present Polynesian fabric!) around a one-mile course. It seemed to be quite strenuous, but fun to watch.

We also saw parts of the fire dancing and Tahitian foxtrot competitions. These weren’t as interesting as some of the other events, so we recessed to having dinner at the local food stalls, called roulottes. These open-sided vans occupy a big area next to the cruise ship docks every night of the week. They serve everything from chow mein to pizza, steack-frites (French spelling), and crêpes. They are so good and so full of outdoor picnic atmosphere that we haven’t even checked out the other restaurants in town.

The other major Heiva draw is the artisans’ fair. I went three times, it was so wonderful. It is in an out-of-the-way part of town, so not many tourists see it. Every day there are song and dance performances with everything in Tahitian – no French, let alone English. All of the islands send their best crafts people with crates full of their wares – wood carvings, shell jewelry, tifaifai (appliquéd quilts), clothing, baskets, hats, even tattoo artists. It was fabulous!!! Luckily we are flying home soon and I can offload some of my hidden booty.

As I type this, we are packing for two weeks in the US. We’ll visit Paul and Michelle in San Francisco for a week, then fly to Tacoma for a round of visiting Jan’s Mom, annual checkups, shopping for boat parts, and filing the tax return. Hopefully, we’ll get to see a few friends too. Mark and his girlfriend Jaye are here to boat-sit Raven in our absence.

When we return to Papeete we’ll have one last round of provisioning before heading north and west to Huahine, Raiatea, and Bora Bora until the middle of September.

We are taking home lots of photos for these pages, so we hope you will enjoy them.


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This page was last updated on 04/13/04.

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