February 17, 2013

Sailing in Tahiti, Society Islands.

By Robert Cross

Our three weeks Sailing Charter in Tahiti last October was a replenishing break. We enjoyed 10 days as the no2 lead boat alongside Penny Whiting MBE on one of her cabin share charters; as well Sail Connections had 2 bare boat charters enjoying the company as a flotilla. The balance of time our families joined us and we took the opportunity to sail around all the main Society Islands of Raiatea, Taaha, Huahine and Bora Bora, visiting the new and checking up on old favorites.
Leaving BaseLeaving Base
Beach at FareBeach at Fare
Cultural show at HuahineCultural show at Huahine
Crayfish ready for the BBQ.Crayfish ready for the BBQ.
Faaroa BayFaaroa Bay
South RaiateaSouth Raiatea
Charcoal BBQ - primal funCharcoal BBQ - primal fun
Aquarium at Bora BoraAquarium at Bora Bora
Relaxing sailing inside the AtollRelaxing sailing inside the Atoll
Dinghy to Taha'aDinghy to Taha'a
Colors of the PacificColors of the Pacific

Tahiti is an extensive sailing region covering an area the size of continental Europe with its charter boats located in the Society Island group. The islands have well formed atolls wrapped around volcanic peaks offering sheltered anchorages and the distance between them true blue water sailing that is as good as it gets without having to cross an ocean.

My Tahiti is not the normal tourist fare, not the over the water bungalows of Bora Bora, not the pearl farms or infamous local dining/drinking venues though I agree they do form part of the appeal. Don't let Tahiti's natural offerings be lost to you. It's the natural beauty that makes these commercial ventures so popular. On a boat you see the parts unaffected by tourism in a more natural state.

With so much to do and see time becomes the issue, as with any charter. I like to think I have a good understanding of how to spend this time efficiently while still maintaining a holiday pace.

Bora Bora is on everyone's itinerary and it is an awesome experience sailing up to this dramatic land form. Taking in Bora Bora means Huahine will not be on a 7 day itinerary. 10 days will cover more ground and to me is the minimum time to cover the 3 main Islands. With 2 weeks you can take in Huahine or Maupiti but not both, it will take longer again to cruise all of the Society Islands.

I left this trip inspired to return and sail from the main island of Tahiti and take in the Tuamotus to finish up in the Society Islands absorbing some wonderful downwind sailing and scenery along the way. The new Catana 55 carbon would be the boat to do this on, fast passages in luxurious comfort. If that does not happen a cabin share on the Eleuthera 60 stationed in the Tuamotu's may have to do.

For the purpose of this Cruising blog I have covered a 14 day itinerary that will take you round the main islands of Raiatea, Taha'a, Huahine and Bora Bora. This is a condensed account of our trip and is not intended as a cruising guide, we have a more extensive guide to act as the skippers reference while on charter which we hand you as part of our charter package.

Setting Sail from Raiatea

The yacht bases are located on the northern end of Raiatea in the heart of the cruising grounds. Depending which company you charter with you will depart from Apooiti or Uturoa marina's. Uturoa is the main town and the markets are 500m up the road. Its a taxi ride back once you're laden with groceries or the supermarket will gladly drive you back to the Marina.

Day one can be a tiring experience. An embarkation that goes to plan will follow this set formula

  • Arrive at base, introduce yourself and drop your bags at the back of the boat
  • If the base manager is ready to do the boat briefing proceed to get this done before cluttering the boat with bags
  • Make yourself at home and stow your belongings and check that the boat has all of its inventory
  • Make sure there is snorkel gear for everyone
  • Send someone up the road for basic fresh produce and to top up a local sim card available from the base
  • Do the outboard briefing and ask to take it for a run. Make sure you are 100% happy with the outboard running under load
  • All crew to do the chart briefing and ask as many questions as you feel you need to
  • Leave stocked up for a couple of days with a plan to shop for full provisions on the islands as you go
  • Get us to pre provision the boat with heavy non perishables.

Venturing to Huahine is our plan for the following day. The quaint little town of Fare has the best supermarket of all the Islands directly across the road from the wharf where you can tie up, this is a lot easier than trying to do it all in Raiatea on day one. Bora Bora also has supermarkets so plan to have enough on board to cover the time it will take to get to either destination. Shopping during the cruise is an enjoyable sojourn into the local culture of each island.

Once oway from base we head to the motus inside Passe Teavapiti south of Uturoa where the light blue water provides for a sheltered anchorage. If you feel like a restaurant meal on the first night you can go to Bay Tepua. There are 2 moorings for the Hawaiki Nui restaurant just off their dock. Here you will find a good bar, restaurant and nice swimming pool. There are local dances and happy hour on Fridays.

Passage to Huahine - shopping in Fare

Huahine lies 25 miles to windward so not everyone will want to bite off this sail on the second day of charter but my approach is to get it over with and it's all downwind from there. Alternatively you can sail further down the coast to the south of Raiatea and do this part of the trip to enjoy another day or 2 getting accustomed to boating life inside the Atoll. This can have the advantage of providing a more windward starting point for the starboard long tack across to Huahine.

It is recommended that you set sail no later than 10am when making a crossing, the winds tend to be less in the morning and the sun should be high, which is helpful when finding an anchorage as it allows you to see the contour of the bottom in clear waters.

We crossed in the most unpleasant of conditions but the Catana 47 performed well through the waves with a reefed main set to steady us rather than plugging straight into the sea under motor alone. 5 hrs later we sailed through the pass and into the still waters of the lagoon. The main town of Fare lies inside the most northern of the 2 passes and a good anchorage can be found off a lovely beach just inside the pass. Ashore you will find interesting beach side bars, pearl merchants, small boutique resorts and restaurants. From here it is just a short walk to the main town centre where you will find the markets. You may wish to provision from here or come alongside the wharf in the morning for this purpose.

In the main store you will find everything you need at reasonable prices. It is not totally correct to describe Tahiti as expensive, if you live as the locals do the prices are reasonable but if you eat at resorts yes it will cost. I found wine and most dry goods comparative to what I pay at home. Even the 2 freezers full of frozen Afco meat from Invercargill (NZ) was not noticeably dearer than the prices we pay in New Zealand. On this note, on the way home in the duty free stores my daughter wanted to buy the latest must have teenage fashion accessory headphones which proved to be 30% cheaper duty free in Tahiti than duty free on the way into NZ.

Another bargain-buy in Fare was 5 freshly caught crayfish for $50, courtesy of a local fisherman on his way back from clearing his pots. It was my daughters' birthday so a crayfish feast seemed like a gift from the gods. What I didn't count on was these 5 crustaceans having names by breakfast, developed personalities by lunch time and I had to draw the line when dinner was threatened by the suggestion of a facebook page celebrating the inevitably short lives of their new friends.


The lagoon at Huahine extends along the western side and is closed off at the southern end with just the 2 passes to the north. Huahine is actually 2 islands connected by a bridge. It is possible to take an excursion to the other side or venture out and go into the pass on the eastern side but the lagoon there offers limited cruising, the 2 days this would take was not in our itinerary. The main lagoon is a most scenic experience boasting the best beach in the Society Islands. Huahine is described as less commercial which it clearly is. It has only the one large resort with tourism more focused on the eco tourist. The signs of life ashore are not what could be described as rustic or native, with the houses along the coast clearly displaying a level of affluence.

The locals are doing just fine without escalated tourism giving this island a friendliness that is genuine and the restaurants and bars had a good feeling to them, leaving me with something often missing from the more popular spots in Tahiti, a sense of having received value for money.

Huahine was an all round good experience and Fare rated our favorite town.

Southern end of Raiatea

We sail out through the northern passe of Huahine late morning in clear sky with the faint outline of Raiatea on the horizon. As we cleared the lee of Huahine the wind settles to a steady 15-18 knots broad reach at a comfortable 8-9 knots of boat speed. This Champagne sailing was enjoyed by all as we relaxed, held on course by the trusty autohelm, keeping a watch out for the occasional boat and another on the kids who had taken to sitting on the tramp watching for whales and enjoying the motion of the boat as the water flowed steadily below them.

Three hours later we passed through the central pass and head across the lagoon to Faaroa Bay. The majority of the cruising in Tahiti is on the reef side of the lagoon rather than the island itself which tends to bypass much of the culture. This is what makes Faaroa bay a must-do as part of the itinerary. The bay itself reminds me of a Fiord, tall steep slopes either side with a circuit road along the coast creating a continual though sparsely populated village. At the head of this bay is a river where you can explore and take in the old botanic gardens and signs of early colonialism. The local custom does not allow for the use of outboards up the river but on close inspection without local knowledge navigating an outboard would most likely become troublesome. There is commercial guide set up at the entrance to the river to take guided kayak or motor boat trips up the river and this is worth putting some time aside to enjoy. It was a charming evening listening to the background noises of life ashore retained by the perfect acoustics of the valley.

Next morning we made our way to Marae Taputapuatea where the Polynesian early mariners are said to have set sail to colonise the land they called Aotearoa, (New Zealand). This is a sacred religious site and is interesting with stone structures open for close inspection.

After our morning walk we made our way around the corner to anchor on the sand to the south of Passe Teava Moa. On the main island from here we spotted the blue roof of a modest resort that was an excellent stop for lunch and refreshments.

All fed and watered it was time for a quick swim and then onwards around the island. Next stop was a little lagoon within the lagoon on the western side of the motu inside Passe Nao Nao. Care must be taken as there is only room for a few boats as there is a reef 50m out from the shore. With clear visability we navigated into the shallow lagoon and manoeuvered close to the beach to drop anchor and settle back towards the reef. We discovered the most amazing snorkelling spots, this reef is in 4m of water allowing for a greater diversity of marine life proving more freedom to explore the depths as well as the normal view from the surface. I give this a 9 out of 10 on places I have snorkelled and second equal to one other place we shall come to later.

Southern Raiatea to Taha'a

The following day the plan was to head up to the northern end of Raiatea and then on to Taha'a for the night. The west side of Raiatea does not have a lagoon that is navigable in a charter boat so we cleared the lagoon through the second Passe Toamare taking in the view of the leeward side of the island along the way. There is not much of note on this side, a small village sits just inside Passe Toamare where you will find a well recommended restaurant although this stop was not on our agenda. We set off and had another amazing sail out to sea to get clear of the effects of the high land which can create strong gusts then gybing back on to starboard to head for Passe Raotoanui turning hard to starboard to pick up a mooing off Anapa Pearl Farm.

No doubt someone on your boat will be in the market to shop for pearls and for me the idea of buying them in Raiatea rather than Bora Bora or back in Papeete was likely to be better value. As well being better priced we also had a most enjoyable guided tour of the farm including a snorkel amongst the peals hanging in the shallows you see the small small tropical fish as they feed on the growth to clean the shells..

Taha'a shares the same lagoon making this voyage a continuation of passage along the coast of Raiatea past the more populated regions with a short sail heading for Apoopuhi bay to pick up a mooring. This bay has previously been known as the Taha'a Yacht Club but has since been sold as a private residence. The moorings are now under the management of the Pearl Farm on the headland. I was to find out later the deal is you can use a mooring if you go and buy pearls but by now we had our allocation of pearls but we would definitely visit this farm if we were to use their moorings in future.

With the weather holding but a windy couple of days to follow my plan was to head for Bora Bora and have a couple of days up our sleeve to get back and see the rest of Taha'a.

Bora Bora

Broad reaching under blue skies over an emerald sea parting foam as we glide down the waves heading for the iconic peaks of Bora Bora.

Inside the loagoon we turn to starboard and anchor in an expansive shallow area between Topua Motu and the outer reef. Everyone was keen to swim and it was a lovely first night watching the sunset over the horizon after one of those great sailing days.

The next day we made our way through the narrow passages to the south of the island and circumnavigated the main island to end up anchored just inside the Coral Garden. A known place to satisfy the on board demand for snorkelling this expansive area to the south east of Bora Bora. By now the wind had got up and in fairness the snorkelling here is much better in still weather as it is exposed.

The next day we anchored off the resorts with their bures extending out over the bay. Well dressed charter clients are welcome ashore but you must phone ahead first or risk being turned around by security at the dock. Once accepted you will find yourself in that indulgent resort state, being over charged for everything bar taking a breath but feeling very self satisfied. Resorts can be an effective intermission on a yacht charter.

We headed up to the open water aquarium where reef sharks and rays share a caged off area with all manner of fish in a stream of water flowing between 2 motus into the lagoon. This is a very staged event and was a most enjoyable experience. You will encounter rays and all manner of fish while snorkeling in the open Lagoon but the sharks are less common and the aquarium was very cool.

The next day we called into the Bora Bora Yacht Club, picked up a mooring and went ashore for lunch. This institution is now under new management and they were very helpful supplying us with water and ice. Lunch was very good and reasonable. Following this we went to the Marina Mai Kai just around the corner and picked up a mooring, you can get a marina berth but it is set up more for larger vessels. The restaurant included a band and a shared experience with well heeled super yacht owners enjoying as we were good food at reasonable prices.

Not to be recommended by me is the infamous "Bloody Marys" where we found ourselves the following night. This famous venue relies heavily on a profile based on past performance. Not to put too finer point on it the food was poor and expensive plus as if they'd not got enough out of us we were blatantly ripped off, a mistake I found difficult to have rectified when paying the bill. They have a wharf where you can fill up water tanks, stop for a drink at lunch to pay your dues but patronise the former mentioned for dinner.

Back to Taha'a

Heading back to Taha'a it pays to make the open water crossings in good time to reach the other end while the sun is high. The trip from Bora Bora to Taha'a is on the wind but the trade winds first thing in the morning tend to be lighter and more from the north giving a better angle into the wind. We made this passage with one long port beat up to the lay line to easily fetch the passe on starboard tack. This was a bit lumpy but pleasant enough and the progress out to sea provided a glimpse of a couple of whales.

We can organise a one way charter for you to fly out from Bora Bora but this is expensive and as most of this leg is sailed in the lee of Taaha it is a reasonably pleasant on the wind leg of the trip.

We turned to port inside the reef and headed around Taha'a in an anti clockwise direction stopping in the shallow water out from the Le Taha'a Resort. If resorts are of interest this is the best to be found, somehow it just integrates better with the world around it than the overly exclusive resorts of Bora Bora. It's quality is 5 star+ and the buffet breakfast is a pleasant treat late in the holiday.

The best part is what the resort calls the Coral River. A stream of incoming water flows between 2 motus. Here the fish are regularly fed by the resort guests and as a result are plentiful and friendly. Take water shoes rather than flippers, anchor the dinghy and walk up the side of one of the motus and drift down in the stream. This is the other 9 out of 10 snorkeling experience though very different to the one we had enjoyed at Raiatea. Here you are best to go at high tide which is only about 1 foot but as some of the coral is shallow so it makes all the difference.

The next day we made our way around the island and stoped for a snorkel at one of the many motus. With dinner in mind we chose Bay Hamene with 2 restaurants of note; the first you will pass is Hibiscus hotel who have a cultural evening on Saturday nights. This was another place where they suddenly lost the ability to speak English when it came to questioning the bill for our group. Overall it was an entertaining evening enjoyed by everyone. The newer more ready to please restaurant at the head of the bay is my recommendation for good food, pleasant surroundings at reasonable prices. You will find their contact details in the cruising guide. .

The next day is an easy day of relaxing, enjoying the slower pace we have now become accustomed to. Late in the afternoon we made our way back to the marina to refuel and pack up the boat ready to depart in the morning. We enjoyed a fabulous outdoor concert in the park adjacent to the marina and at this stage we felt as if we belonged here in Tahiti, celebrating a balmy evening in paradise with the locals.

The best Sailing Holiday for you in Tahiti

Much of this trip was alongside Penny Whiting MBE on her twice yearly package sailing holiday in Tahiti. Penny is a NZ sailing personality and has taught over 33,000 people to sail through her sailing school. This is a guided trip not set up to teach you to sail but I certainly learned a lot about cruising by being part of her well structured event. Cabins on the April trip are sold out. There is another planned for late Sept/Oct and if this is of interest to you contact us or Penny directly. If you enjoy sailing in the company of others there is also fully crewed charters on the Eleuthera 60 and other event focused trips we help organise such as joining in the Pearl Regatta or Kitesurfing safaris.

We do have the best bare boats available in Tahiti for you to book at rates that are reasonable by international standards and compare favorably to those charged if staying ashore at a resort, your yacht is your luxury tahiti resort that takes you to the best places shared with friends. Our full cruising guide and personal experience is at your service when you book your sailing holiday through Sail Connections.

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