LAKE SAILING THE SOUTH PACIFIC
BY KIMBALL LIVINGSTONOnce upon a time a father and a daughter pulled to the side of the road just short of home to watch a sunset too good to resist. The sun seemed to hang in the sky, inches above the Pacific, spreading a glow over the Golden Gate. A flight of pelicans glided homeward. A lone sloop rode an inbound tide, sails brilliant in the slanting light.
And still the sun seemed to just hang there.
What I'm getting to is the sad fact that, even though true sunset was mere minutes away, father and daughter did not have the patience to wait. With a quick look, they revved up and moved on, victims of time and the times. And that is why their charter cruise with The Moorings was more than a sail and more than a South Pacific adventure.
"They" equals us, and Julia and I recognized the ugly irony as I turned the key in the ignition. But we really had to go. I find it reassuring that we had the same feeling about our Tahiti trip, meaning we really had to go, and during our time aboard we experienced that wonderful thing that can happen on a boat: outside pressures venting, the "world" dropping away as soon as you part the dock lines. We sat peacefully to watch not just one sunset, but another and another. Julia shared her amazement "that any place on earth could look like this." By daylight we counted shades of blue. We spent nights lying on the foredeck, staring into starry space and talking about our lives. Our so-called lives. You get the idea.
Granted, there are other ways for humans to slow down and breathe deeply of the elixir of life. You don't have to go to the lengths of a South Pacific cruise aboard a charter catamaran with a professional skipper and a cook. But, it's a good idea. Serious victims need strong medicine.
We arrived at The Moorings base on the island of Raiatea as others have before us, pretty well rested from a night's stopover in Papeete, on the island of Tahiti. We had been well cared for by Air Tahiti Nui, so the rebounding was easy, and the short flight from Papeete, passing over Moorea, was great rubber-necking. The Moorings staff briefed us on the need-to-knows (nothing formidable) and introduced us to Michel, our skipper, and Sylvie, second mate and cook, who soon had us under way aboard Atoti, a 47-foot cat named for a type of tiny blue fish of the reef. Real atoti, people-pleasing fish whether they know it or not, school around a home-base coral head, creating a shimmering, pulsating, living halo around it. On the reef, they're hard to miss. We anchored that first afternoon at a motu near the Taohotu Passage, across the blue lagoon from Raiatea, to windward of Tahaa. While Michel and Sylvie took care of sails and details, Julia and I jumped overboard to let everything except the moment wash away. Soon we were snorkeling face-to-face with atoti on the hoof.
I have friends who prefer bareboat charters to crewed charters because they'd rather do things for themselves. Personally, I thrive on hands-on sailing. But say you were looking to share a rich sailing experience with family or friends who don't sail (or rarely sail) either because they have other passions, or because their seasickness threshold is too low …
And there we were. Julia, 17, long ago established that horses are her thing, and sailing is not. But even someone not enthralled by sailing is likely to respond with enthusiasm to the question, "Would you like to go sailing in Tahiti?" And so it was. Her mother was tied up at the office (a grim story; don't go there) and a brief imagining of me in the cockpit with the helm in one hand and a chart in the other, with Julia on the foredeck as I shouted, "Dammit, does it look deep enough or not!" was enough to rule out the bareboat option. I would be, not a captain, but an admiral. I would establish goals, not waypoints. The special upside to a crewed charter is that it can be a pure vacation: no responsibilities; no cooking; no dishes. "Admiral" has a certain ring to it, and there was nothing accidental about the admiral's choice of destinations. You could be drawn here by romantic notions (not necessarily misplaced), but I had a plan.
The leeward islands of Tahiti, les Iles Sous-le-Vent, are volcanic, old, and worn down. Protective reefs have grown up around them. In the lagoons inside those reefs the water is flat, so flat you could be sailing on a lake, but you're not on a lake, you're way out there in a wild blue yonder of exotica. Tradewinds. Startling mountainscapes. Colors you might never have known to exist in nature. And that's all in the first few minutes.
Raiatea shares a lagoon with the island of Tahaa, unusual for starters and the more so because Tahaa has navigable water all the way around it, inside the lagoon. Imagine. You can circumnavigate a tropical island, wander from anchorage to anchorage, and never leave the "lake." People don't have fun when they're green at the gills, but I felt confident that in this lovely lagoon of the two isles, we would find plenty to do and see and never leave the lagoon and never challenge Julia's kinesthetic equilibrium. The puffy cumulus clouds of the tradewinds roll through this part of the South Pacific day by day, part of a process as infinite as anything I know. Spread a sail, and you're in it and of it, and it is good. This is more than a theory.
Part of the beauty of a crewed charter is having things your way in five-star comfort. As father and daughter returned from their first snorkeling excursion and rinsed at the freshwater shower astern, there were flowers dressing the table and refreshing drinks waiting. Hors d'oeuvres arrived. The sun departed, trailing a pink sky that, by and by, shaded to a purple deeper than any prose I could throw at it, so don't get me started. We dined under the stars, and here came the Big Dipper, but low on the horizon. No Polaris. Viewed from 16 degrees south, the North Star was around the corner, on the other side of the planet, and we were where we wanted to be. We were around the corner.
I won't pretend that everything was perfect. In specifying preplanned menus to The Moorings staff, the admiral placed too much emphasis on his lean and clean, adult preferences and trusted too much in a recent spate of culinary adventurism on the part of Her Daughtership. What I mean is, Julia's taste of paradise would have gone down better with an occasional cheeseburger. Still, she got on with the sashimi, and Sylvie's poulet grillade prompted her to ask, by way of praise, "what's the word for 'the best'?" Le meilleur.
Our next morning found us sailing counterclockwise around Tahaa as far as the northern fringe of motu to dive, goof, dine, and stay up late. Not late enough to keep me from being up for the next, eye-popping dawn, but skip the self-congratulation. Julia was already out in the kayak, revving up for her next trip to come (kayaking in the Pacific Northwest). The breeze was nil, and the breakers that usually define the reefline were silent. The lagoon seemed to extend all the way to the ocean horizon. It was easy for Michel to sell the kid on island hopping to Bora Bora (the name alone is a marketing tool to rival "Tahiti"), and so we sailed through the Papai Pass and left the lagoon after all.
Given it to do over, I wouldn't. However, I was enjoying Julia's enthusiasm. I liked it that she "wanted to see Bora Bora" and was willing to commit to the crossing. As it turned out, Julia was okay-enough on the ocean. She didn't savor the sailing as I did, but it's only 12 miles, island-to-island, plus a few more miles to Bora Bora's only entrance, on the side opposite Raiatea/Tahaa, and the approach is a visual feast to rival any landfall, anywhere.
Inside the lagoon we turned left, dropped the hook, and hiked the Motu Ome over to the fringing reef. Julia, who used to keep hermit crabs as pets, marveled at the number and variety of hermit crabs in the wild and the micro-size of the smallest. We got rained-on, briefly, then sun-dried, quickly, and then we got lost, but not for long, walking through the jungle growth back to the kayak. These landscapes do something to me. Peering through brush and trees to the dead, scarred heights of the volcano, I couldn't get over imagining that any minute, Raquel Welch was going to come tearing down the trail with a tyrannosaur in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, the lagoon was infested with jetskis, and Julia suddenly discovered a throat infection, and we spent less than 24 hours at Bora Bora. Reality intrudes. Following a next-morning visit to the village of Vaitape and the town doctor's latticed, open air waiting room, we made tracks back toward Raiatea. The kid faced a down day while the medicine took hold, the boat faced an upwind leg sooner or later, and the clock (that again) was running.
In a matter of hours we were back in "our" lagoon, where we overnighted again off Tahaa, then made sail to explore Raiatea, less storied in Western literature than Tahiti, but more meaningful to the people of the Maohi culture. To them Raiatea is the sacred island, the cradle of the Pacific civilization.
According to the old ones, it was at the Marae Taputapuatea that the first people emerged from a hole in the ground. The oral traditions of these people reach back to a time when canoes set out to colonize as far out as the young volcanic islands we now call Hawaii, so it resonates that the myths of Taputapuatea begin, not with an inward migration, but a black hole. Unlike the worn and broken stones of many archeological sites, these stones were home to royalty and priests into an almost-recent time. Only a handful of generations have passed since Westerners arrived, and people here do not regard their religious sites, their marae, as abandoned or dead. The ancestors' wooden buildings and their bunting and color are gone, but the stones are young.
We made a clockwise circumnavigation of Raiatea, with additional sailing time and snorkeling time (no crew from The Moorings would fail to offer that), but our big hit after the marae was paddling upstream at the River Aoppomau. Emptying into Faaroa Bay, this is the only navigable stream in all of French Polynesia. Trees overhang the waterway, rooted in banks grown up with wildflowers that would cost a fortune back home. Like many cruisers before us, we were seduced by the river's winding narrowness and the play of light through the canopy. Raiatea being a steep island, there's no going far upstream, but I doubt that many of the folks who came before us or after us portaged three times before they gave up. Then as the afternoon waned we drifted lazily back downstream among bird calls and the falling of the daily hibiscus, thousands of blossoms dropping one by one with a "plop" apiece, spotting the river with bright, yellow petals.
So you see how the days went. The march of the tradewind clouds may hint at something infinite, but the dratted Gregorian Calendar is all about enforcing the finite. Sheesh. We were out of time. We said our goodbyes to Sylvie and to Michel and handed the boat over with one day remaining to us on the island. Certain obvious choices tap-danced onto the stage: a cheeseburger (not le meilleur, as it turned out), but more importantly hurrying ourselves to the stables at Kaoha Nui Ranch in time to ride. Horses do for Julia what boats do for me, and she needed a fix. Me, I'm something less than a rider, but Julia requested "a babysitter horse" and assured me that I would be fine. Cool. I had requested a babysitter boat.
In my life, every day should include some sailing. In the kid's life, every day should include time on a horse. She didn't expect to make a horseman of me any more than I had brought her to Tahiti expecting to make a sailing fiend of her. Mounted up, however, and slipping into her comfort zone after a week in mine, and seeing me actually sitting a horse, more or less, on a steep trail, she couldn't resist returning to a theme that's been one of her favorites through the years. From 20 yards up the trail came that voice I know so well—"Dad, you're such a dork!"—prompting the standard retort, "Yeah? Well at least I can sail."
We'll be back.
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