Pacific Pearl Page 2

Each night we were treated to a Polynesian meal, on two occasions on a private motu. The settings were exquisite—ocean on one side, lagoon on the other and a sky full of stars above. At this latitude you can see the Big Dipper and, over to the south, the Southern Cross, that magnificent symbol of the Southern Hemisphere.

Dinner was a traditional meal, which included beef, mahi mahi, breadfruit, taro and other local foods, all cooked in a fire pit. For palates not accustomed to such fare, some of the vegetables, especially the breadfruit, were not enjoyable—try biting a piece of chalk for a general idea of its taste and texture. Nor did it help that the pit was described as the same sort of pit once used to cook wayward sailors and other hapless visitors to the islands.

A number of us, including Tor and me, decided to climb Tapo’ii, Raiatea’s mountain. The hike takes half an hour or more, and the view from the top across the lagoon is stunning. What was also astounding were the number of locals who ran up the mountain for exercise, stopping to stretch at the top before running back down.

Our first destination, Bora Bora, has long been a Valhalla in the imaginations of cruising sailors and deserves its reputation. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Rounding the island to get to the pass, with breakers smashing on the reef in ultramarine and turquoise splendor and green-forested mountains capped with clouds in the background, I found it difficult to concentrate on sailing. As it happened, I had made a bad tactical choice during the race, so that when the wind went light we were left with a long downwind run to the pass. Dusk being imminent, we ignited a diesel-infused breeze and caught up with the back of the fleet. Chalk up one DNF for Veel Geluk.

It was on our sail to Taha’a that the magic happened for me. For a decade I had kept a photo in my office of a sailboat beating up a tropical lagoon. Now I found myself inhabiting that same scene: same lagoon, same tropical forest and mountains, only now I was there.

The one complaint I have with the Tahiti Pearl Regatta is that there isn’t enough time to explore inland—the event is very much about the racing. Still, the camaraderie was great, and all the crews were clearly having the time of their lives. In the beginning, the Brits stumped about, nodding as they passed by, but by week’s end, they were calling out Io orana, Polynesian for “hello,” to us as they passed by, and a terribly accented “bonjour” to the French. The French were always ready with a cheery ”allo,” and the few Americans smiled more and more as the days went by. The locals were invariably pleasant, and we always felt like honored guests. I only wish I had another week to do some more exploring, snorkel the reefs and laze about on the beaches. A caution: If you do charter, book early. Every one of the fleet’s charterboats was out on the racecourse.

The ferrocement boat did surprisingly well, aided by its rating I suspect, but the other bigger boats had trouble in the light winds. Several boats quickly appeared as contenders in their respective classes, but not Veel Geluk. Still, we were having fun, and our wonderful crew was learning quickly.

For the final race, an Olympic course with a long run from the downwind mark back to the race village, the sparse wind finally decided to blow a maramu and came in from the south at 25 to 30 knots. After pondering the crew’s experience (or lack thereof), I decided to sail the course but not compete, flying just the jib, furled if necessary. Gybing the mainsail in these winds with an inexperienced crew (Tor was shooting from the press boat) just wasn’t a smart idea. Even so, we ended up in the middle of the pack, with the reef just five or six boatlengths away from the mark. We blew the gybe and hung up the genoa on the forestay while one of the competitors was rounding the mark inside of us, not two feet away. We could have touched his boat.

Our boat started drifting down on the reef while I frantically tried to sort out the sail. Once more I resorted to my backup plan—diesel power. A CNN television crew got the whole mess on tape. How embarrassing.

The other competitors had a ball. The racing was fast, furious and tremendously exciting in the day’s wild winds, and the serious competitors just loved it. The closing party was held at the Hawaiiki Nui, a lovely pub and restaurant, and the sailors were jubilant. It had been a fantastic week: incredible scenery, wonderful new friends, and if the sailing hadn’t been the greatest every day, it was competitive and the final race certainly boosted everyone’s adrenaline levels.

The prizes were awarded according to class: monohull, multihull and Dfi Pro, the sponsored boats. In the end, it turned out it didn’t matter if you came for the racing, the scenery, the culture or the camaraderie of fellow sailors. The Tahiti Pearl Regatta came out best in class in every category, and the enthusiasm of every person involved was testament to that. As a showcase for Tahiti, it was spectacular; as a memory it was priceless.

Oh yes. The flower petals I tossed over the side? They returned. And even then it was terrible to have to leave.

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