To cruise the waters of French Polynesia’s Leeward Islands is nirvana for many. The choice is tantilizing – legendary Bora Bora, authentic Tahaa, spiritual Raiatea & Huahine the most feminine of them not forgetting magical Maupiti & the untouched motus (atolls) of Tupai & even Mopelia. It’s truly the best cruising in the world – there’s nothing to rival the consistent sailing conditions, the majestic mountain scenery, the exceptional diving, the world’s most beautiful lagoons, the plentiful fishing opportunities, the sensational sunrises & sunsets ……………… & the list goes on & on.
Most undertake this voyage through paradise aboard sumptuous catamarans with a multi-skilled skipper & a hostess with the mostest – your every comfort is catered to; everything is covered. Catamarans are ideal for this type of sailing offering wide deck-space & less draw than mono-hulls thereby giving greater access to excellent mooring sites & the best spots possible in the scintillating lagoons.
Many look to Raiatea for their vessel. The selection of available craft is as varied as the blue hues of the island’s lagoons, well almost, & Raiatea makes an ideal base from which to explore. The catamarans come in all sizes & configurations:
Raiatea & Tahaa
For those who feel they lack the experience to venture into open water Raiatea & Tahaa are made for them. Both islands sit majestically within the same expansive & beautiful lagoon offering stunning ‘still water’ cruising as one can sail around both islands without having to leave the lagoon. There’s plenty to do but my recommendation is to take your time & concentrate on the waters surrounding Tahaa. From there you can specifically target places of particular interest in Raiatea – Marae Taputapuatea, for example or Motu Nao Nao.
The motus to the north of Tahaa are simply drop-dead stunning; from their northern-most extremity you can watch the sun rise over Huahine & set over Bora Bora without your moving! Cruise into the exquisite Tahaa Resort for lunch or a drink or ten & then meander past the multitude of motus taking dips in waters whose colours you would have thought are only possible through ‘worked’ photos.
Continue steadily around to Toahotu Pass mooring near Motu Mahaea (Ceran) opposite Motu Toahotu (Atger). This is a very special place – an action-packed location offering great dives, the opportunity to surf or wind-surf &, if needs be, access to certain modern commodities despite the relative isolation. Huahine is visible in the distance – it’s a magical to see the sunrise over Huahine for those rising early. You will not wish to leave!
Returning to the ‘cat’ from the Tahaa Resort & sunrise overlooking Motus Mahaea & Toahotu with Huahine just visible behind the later:
From Toahotu Pass it’s easy to access the sensational diving in the passes off Raiatea or the spectacular bays cutting deep into the island of Tahaa which make for magic spots to moor overnight. My favourite is Hurepiti Bay flanked by the waterside, shimmering white church at Tiva with a mystical Bora Bora as the backdrop, great fishing/diving at famous Paipai Pass through which the world’s greatest outrigger canoe race, the Hawaiki Nui Va’a passes each year & where dolphin will regularly cruise by just as you are settling into sunset drinks:
There are plenty of images of the magnificent scenery surrounding Raiatea & Tahaa so here are a couple of photos capturing different aspects of ‘life on a cat’ whilst cruising these beautiful waters including heading up Raiatea’s Apoomao River by any means in the last 2 middle images:
For those who are a little more adventurous the opportunity exists to visit Huahine &/or Bora Bora not to mention Tupai, Maupiti & Mopelia (& indeed even further afield once the sailing bug has got you!) If you are looking to cross open waters to visit other islands & motus be sure to discuss your ‘sailing dream’ in advance with those where you hire your yacht – the pass at Maupiti can be treacherous so self-skippered craft may not be permitted to sail there, safe mooring off Tupai is not for beginners, & Mopelia is a long trip, an atoll where a keen understanding of narrow fast flowing passes & mooring in certain weather conditions is indispensable……………..a skipper may well be required by the yacht rental company.
I’m an experienced yachtsman & even so my advice is to take both a skipper & a hostess. The skipper knows well the boat, the seas, the passes, the motor in case of mechanical issues & so on, not to mention the best spots……hey you’re on holidays! The hostess keeps the beers flowing & they are skilled cooks…..hey this is a holiday!!! If you are not convinced then reflect on the value of ‘insider’ knowledge such as knowing that in Tahaa there is only one pharmacy (it’s at Haamene), or that in Maupiti there’s no doctor or pharmacy & medical treatment can only be found at the dispensary near the Town Hall – the skipper will know where it is, would you? Mopelia – this is total isolation, how well do you know your boat in case of a problem?
Huahine &/or Bora Bora
Huahine is a beautiful island possessed of unique charm & mystery, an island bathed in history & culture. It is held to be the most feminine of islands (have your skipper explain the significance of the Tahitian ‘Hua’ & ‘Hine’). It is well worth visiting, particularly the island itself.
In a move welcomed by the boating fraternity 16 permanent ecological moorings have been installed around Huahine – 5 alongside Bali Hai Beach, 5 others around Mati, 3 in the lagoon at Hana Iti & 3 others in Haapu Bay. The bouys are placed at least 70m apart & can accommodate yachts up to 20m long & weighing up to 20 tons. It is also envisaged that Bourrayne Bay will be developped as a safe anchorage during cyclonic conditions for both yachts & superyachts.
Bora Bora is simply paradise on earth. Depending on your sailing itinerary, Bora Bora is a good option to consider as the place from where to start your sailing. Why not have the world’s most beautiful island lagoon as your base & Bora Bora offers better proximity to the off the beaten “tack” adventures of Tupai, Maupiti & Mopelia.
I took a cruise from Bora Bora to Raiatea/Tahaa several weeks back – our skipper owned the catamaran & as a diving instructor knew the islands both above & below water like the back of his hand, whilst our chef was the owner of one of the better restaurants in Bora Bora! Fun crew, great cook (food better than on any other rental craft on which I’ve sailed), booze included, the skipper willing to sail where required (not the case elsewhere), better equipped with leisure equipment than other similar rental craft …….. best of all around an all-up price some 30-40% less than that proposed for similar but frankly not as good tours ex Raiatea.
Our ‘cat’ arrives back in Bora Bora around sunset & below, anchors off Matira Beach where va’a (outrigger canoes) can be seen heading out for a training paddle in preparation for the Heiva i Bora Bora. In the shot that follows…………….just check out the sunset on Matira Beach backgrounding the fish caught on the way home!!!:
If you are sailing in Bora Bora without a hired skipper there is excellent mooring to be found off Bloody Mary’s or along Matira Beach in the relatively deep waters just around Raititi Point where the now closed Hotel Bora Bora is located…………follow the channel markers closely!
Close-by there is a good snack – Snack Matira – & a great restaurant – Restaurant Matira Beach – both at water’s edge, plus a nearby supermarket. (Alas the unmarked patisserie opposite Snack Matira has moved closer to town).
It is not possible to sail with safety around Point Matira itself but it’s fairly straight-forward in a smaller keel-free craft & well worthwhile giving access to the Coral Garden snorkel dive amongst other gems.
Lying just 17 kms off Bora Bora is the world’s most photographed atoll – the heart-shaped Tupai, symbol of love, the dream spot for many to seal their union for life:
During the last population survey (ISPF 2012) 2 people are recorded as living on Tupai; presumably reflecting the fact that the atoll reportedly has a guardian! A small number of Bora Borians pass by spasmodically to harvest the motu’s coconuts for copra. In yet another moment of political folly 2 overwater structures were constructed for the sole enjoyment of a single man. At the same time the motu’s pass was dynamited to make a shallow entrance into the lagoon & what a stunningly beautiful lagoon it is. As safe access for yachts is not possible to the atoll but it can be achieved using smaller keel-less craft & it’s a thrilling entry adding to the overall ‘buzz’ of the outing:
It’s best to visit (early) in the morning to permit a round tour from Bora Bora or as part of a sail across to Maupiti – don’t be late for Maupiti as the pass can be treacherous.
Tupai is not without it’s own unique place in history – in 1777 two sailors jumped ship from Captain Cook’s “Discovery” whilst she anchored in Huahine.. They headed for Tahaa before deciding on Tupai but were captured there by locals & handed back to Cook. Tupai has also been long-held as the place where the Chilean mutineers from the ‘Araucano‘ buried their considerable treasures in the early 1820’s. More recently many hold that Tahiti’s GIP, said to be akin to a private army for a most recent President of Polynesia, were reportedly trained in armed warfare on Tupai by former members of the French Foreign Legion.
Tupai was inhabited many years ago but cyclones saw residents moving to safer shores, a move which has seen Tupai preserved in it’s natural state, a the true Robinson Crusoe experience. It’s here that one can truly say: ‘I got away from it all’. Tupai has also a primitive stone tidal fish trap – Tupaiofai – initially constructed many hundreds of years ago. It is sited between the passes of Apooparai & Teavamoa. Needless to say the marine-life is exceptional – during a recent visit whilst diving off a famous wall there a massive humpback whale descended down to check us all out!
Why not check out Tupai for yourselves!
Maupiti is a real gem; it’s simply sensational – many say it’s “Bora Bora without the development’.
The island’s only pass, Onoiau Pass, can be extremely difficult to navigate but the rewards are a fantastic lagoon, no major hotel constructions, & the type of tropical island paradise for which most spend their lives searching.
Maupiti’s only pass – from water-level & from atop the island’s highest point:
‘What to do on Maupiti’ – the subject is extensively covered in a great report entitled Magical Maupiti.
Mopelia or Maupihaa as it is also known, a beautiful untouched motu, sits enticingly in the Pacific some 100 nautical miles from Maupiti. Visits here are so rare often the locals – a population of a grand total of 11 during the last population survey (ISPF 2012) – will paddle out in their outriggers to greet you.
The atoll has been known for centuries to local polynesians as a place of abundance for turtles, coconuts & a wide range of sea-birds. Turtle meat is a delicacy & regrettably when turtles first became a protected species in French Polynesia Mopelia’s turtle resources were plundered for a number of years by speed-boats making day trips from Bora Bora & Raiatea.
Mopelia has a stunningly beautiful, totally untouched lagoon with depths in places approaching 40m for those looking to moor. A full day’s sail from Maupiti, Mopelia’s pass is quite narrow & can be dangerous. You’ll need a good motor to counteract the strong current often flowing against you at more than 6 knots! Be aware & closely check weather forecast details as this is an atoll thereby offering little or no protection in the case of high winds. It is well worth the planning though as this is a truly magical spot!
Mopelia, this virtually unknown dot of land lost in the Pacific Ocean, has a most intriguing story in its history which deserves telling here. It’s the story of a certain Felix von Luckner (“the Sea-Devil”) & his crew (“the Emperor’s Pirates”) were merchant boat raiders in the early 20th century. Aboard the Seeadler (Sea Eagle), a three-masted windjammer, they operated with great success in the Pacific Ocean (& Atlantic) with a capacity to attack opponents causing only minor, if any, casualties; an ability which made them legendary heroes internationally.
From a painting of the Seeadler:
Luckner ran away to sea from school aged 12 years on a boat travelling to Australia. He fell overboard in rough seas & was only saved through his grabbing an albatross & despite being severely pecked used the bird’s flapping wings & the flight of other albatross overhead to guide the lifeboat to him.
He would jump ship in Australia then work for 7 years in an incredible array of jobs including newspaper salesman, assistant lighthouse keeper (until caught with the lighthouse keeper’s daughter), kangaroo hunter, circus worker, professional boxer (he had great physical strength able to bend coins between his fingers & to tear up telephone directories by hand), fisherman, seaman, Presidential Guard in the Mexican Army, railway construction worker, barman & inn keeper. It perhaps goes without saying that Luckner was an accomplished magician!
Luckner later joined the German Navy seeing action in WWI during which he was appointed Captain of the merchant raider Seeadler. After a considerable number of successful raids Luckner found both the US & the Royal Navy ‘looking for him’. To avoid capture he sailed south into the Pacific & in June 1917 needing to scrape clean the hull of his boat & with beri-beri amongst his crew put into Mopelia.
Too large to enter the lagoon & in the interest of safe mooring, Luckner anchored outside the reef. Later, that August, the Seeadler was wrecked on the reef in a tsunami according to Luckner but as a result of drifting aground whilst the prisoners and most of the crew were having a picnic on the island according to the American prisoners.
The crew & prisoners were able to salvage certain provisions, some firearms, & two of the Seeadler’s life-boats. As optimistic as ever Luckner rigged one of the 10m long open life-boats as a sloop & set sail for Fiji, 3700kms away via the Cook islands intending to capture a sailing ship once there, return to Mopelia for his crew & prisoners & resume raiding!
Luckner passed by the Cook Islands authorities posing initially as Dutch American mariners then as Norwegians (multi-lingual, Luckner had earlier in his career passed off one of his seamen as his wife to escape the British). His luck ran out though when he was bluffed into surrender in Fiji & subsequently held prisoner in NZ. Of course he managed to escape & capture a vessel before being re-caught but that’s another story (as is the remainder of his life as leading author, public speaker in the USA & on it goes).
News of Luckner’s arrest soon reached his crew on Mopelia. At the time a French Trading vessel, the Lutece, had anchored outside the reef. One of Luckner’s officers would head out to ‘greet’ them capturing the vessel at gunpoint! Luckner’s crew then set off aboard the captured boat leaving the French on Mopelia with the American prisoners.
Four of the American prisoners would subsequently sail the remaining open boat 1,600 km to Pago Pago & arrange for the rescue of the 44 sailors left stranded on Mopelia.
Parts of the wreck can still be seen, through hundreds of fish, in the relatively shallow waters of the reef on the southern side of the pass. Relics from the Seeadler have been salvaged over the years some of which can now be seen in the Australian War Memorial Museum…..perhaps one day they can be returned.
I think anyone making the effort to visit Mopelia should strongly consider ‘eating like the locals’ – make enquiries about lobster fresh from the reef or the delectable, huge blue keveu (coconut crab) for dinner; then local bird’s eggs for breakfast:
‘Bon apetit’ ……………. takes on a totally new slant!