Leeward Islands

After a final dinner in Tahiti with friends Diego and Marina we departed Tahiti for the Leeward Island of Huahine. The overnight passage was fine sailing, with the wind pilot performing fabulously, but bouncy and uncomfortable below due to the seas. The French weather bureau labeled the sea state “forte,” and strong/forceful was apt. When a set of large waves swept across our stern quarter breaking under us, my adrenaline would surge as I felt the power lift the boat and propel us forward. My night watch felt like a mild roller coaster ride, with periods of calm spiked with intense rushes.
We spent only one night at Huahine, in a large bay inside the lagoon, before pressing on the 20 nm to Tahaa. What sweet cruising grounds are here, where a day sail takes you from one island to another, only a quick jaunt through the force of the Pacific wind and waves, then a quick dash through a pass, and you’re inside the blissful protection of the lagoon.
The next day we left our anchorage just inside the pass and set out on a sail around Tahaa within the calm of the lagoon. These cruising grounds are well traveled, so charts are accurate and markers are well maintained. No need for a lookout in the rigging spotting danger here, we just followed the markers like sailing in the ICW (Intra Coastal Waterway). Of course nowhere I’ve sailed on the ICW comes even close to the striking beauty of the volcanic isles rising sharply from the lagoon, covered in lush vegetation, with the ever-present palm trees swaying gently on the shore. The water was also the now familiar gem shades of lapis to turquoise. In short, we were sailing in paradise.
Our destination for the day was the Coral Gardens, providing snorkeling grounds with a sunset view of Bora Bora 20 nm across the horizon. We picked a perfect sandy patch among the 7 other boats, buoyed our anchor chain to stay free of coral heads, all verified by Devon who gamely leapt overboard to dive the anchor. In the midst of our lunch, while enjoying the stunning scene of Bora Bora’s famous peaks in the distance, a charter catamaran came barreling straight for us, downwind, with the anchor trailing between its hulls like a dog’s tail between its legs (imagine the dog, in deep shame, walking backwards). Anchoring is considered a fine spectator sport among sailors, as there’s plenty that can go wonky as you transition from the glory of sailing to hooking yourself on the bottom, so we’ve enjoyed many a cup of tea in the cockpit while covertly stealing glances at a boat in mid-drop. The huge Oyster yachts (big money) gave us a thrill in Fatu Hiva as they tended to lower their anchor while moving forward (bad idea). One Oyster even had a fender on the bow to keep the chain from scraping the gel coat off the hull. But at least they headed into the wind while trailing their anchor. Flying downwind with the anchor between the hulls? We’d never seen anything quite so astonishing! And the charter cat chose to fly between us and another boat. We abandoned all pretense of eating lunch, Mark went to the rail in case we needed to fend them off, and we waited to see what would happen next. Their anchor caught, probably on coral, and they swung around abruptly to the correct position of bow to wind, landing themselves smack in the middle of our view of Bora Bora. They didn’t back down on the anchor and they were swinging towards us too close for comfort. We knew we wouldn’t be able to spend a night in such close quarters, and so we up-anchored and set off on another blissful lagoon sail.
Tahaa shares a lagoon with Raiatea, the spiritual center of this part of Oceania, so we headed for one of the most sacred marae in French Polynesia: Taputapuatea. Beating to windward all afternoon we anchored halfway down the East coast of Raiatea and enjoyed another blissful sail the next morning to the anchorage off the center of the world. In one of the numerous outstanding interpretive panels at the restored site, Raiatea (also known as Hava’ii) is the head of an octopus, whose tentacles proceed outward, some curled shorter to reach the archipelagos of the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Australs, and Cooks, and Tonga, others reaching far to encompass Easter Island to the east, New Zealand to the south, the Gilberts to the northwest, and Hawaii to the north. It was here that we learned more about the significance of the dance in Papeete, with panels elaborating the elements of a marae that were brought to life in the performance.
Marae Taputapuatea has also been at the center of reclaiming culture and identity under the ongoing colonization by the French, including relaunching traditional sailing canoes and inaugurating long voyages using the ancient and extremely well developed star-based navigation system, amplified by an intimate knowledge of swell, wind, birds, and clouds. We sat on the grounds eating a snack and realized how fortunate we are to be journeying through these islands after four decades of institutionalized and sustained efforts to reclaim language and identity. While colonial institutions are omnipresent, and the French unwilling to cede political control, the people of these islands continue to carve spaces and revitalize practices that link their pasts to their future. Kim
PS We are now on day four of an 8-10 day passage from Bora Bora to the small island nation of Niue. More on that to come. Current position 17 degrees 42 minutes south; 158 degrees 24 minutes west.

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