Pacific Pearl

Polynesian tradition has it that if you throw flower petals into the sea and they return to you, you will return to the islands.

I was in French Polynesia for the Tahiti Pearl Regatta, regarded by many as one of sailing’s premire regattas after only seven years in existence. I am pleased to report that many are very likely right.

My host for the regatta was Tahiti Tourisme, and true to Polynesian culture, I was made to feel welcome from the moment I boarded the Air Tahiti Nui flight in Los Angeles bound for Papeete, on the island of Tahiti. The next day a commuter flight brought me to Raiatea, the host island for the regatta.

Sunsail’s charter representative, Patricia Hubbard, introduced me to my ride for the week, a Beneteau 423 named Veel Geluk (Dutch for “good luck”), and together with photographer Tor Johnson, I made ready to cast off. First, however, we made a quick grocery run that left my credit card breathless. High prices, it seems, are the only drawback to sailing in paradise.

Provisioned at any price, Tor and I motored out of the marina and anchored close to the race village. We then dinghied in to register for the event and meet some of our fellow competitors. The regatta is designed to showcase as much of the islands’ beauty and culture as can be absorbed in a week’s cruising and racing. Day one was to feature an optional practice race. The first official race was to finish in Bora Bora. After that there would be a race to Taha’a, followed by some more practice and then a race back to Raiatea. Magnifique!

There were just two of us for the practice race, so we asked our Sunsail hosts if they knew of any potential crew. Before long we were joined by Cynthia and Julia, who work for regatta sponsor Tahia Collins Pearls, followed later that day by Philippe, a French Canadian hitchhiking around the South Pacific, and Kazaue, a photographer from a Japanese sailing magazine. We were as race-ready as you can be with a crew completely unfamiliar with anything to do with sailing. Fortunately, Tor owned our boat’s big sister, a Beneteau 47.3, and Kazaue had sailed and raced dinghies in Japan. As for my racing skills, well, I can drink beer with the best of them, but that’s about it.

With that in mind, I advised the crew that we were there to enjoy the regatta and that safety was our first priority. (In fact, we never came close to winning anything.) Following a quick lecture on safety and things not to do on a sailboat (fingers out of winches, noggins clear of booms and the like), we roared off to the practice race, which took place in almost no wind. Up went the asymmetrical, and we were flying away at a spine-tingling knot and a half, closing on two. With a green crew like ours, it was probably for the best. But then, after an awkward start, we were overtaking the fleet. Our biggest fear, because we didn’t know the course, was that we would end up in the lead. Fortunately, the wind died even more, and the race was called just as we were coming up on the first-place boat. Saved! Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to lose the race from the front because we were lost?

Back at the race village, half a dozen boats were tying stern-to at the quay, some not very successfully. Thus, we saw proof that sailing around the world doesn’t mean you know how to pick up a mooring, back down to the quay or get a line across to shore, even in a dead calm. If you have these skills, be proud. Sailing isn’t just about crossing oceans or chartering a big boat in paradise.

During this regatta, the only thing in town that could float and wasn’t racing was the mayor’s bathtub. There were Hobie Cats, fast 18-foot local one-designs, two Amel Super Maramus, an Oyster 53 and a local guy in a ferrocement Marine Pacific 41 that usually ran in the front third of the fleet. Life isn’t always fair, not that it mattered. We were having fun, as was everyone else. They were just sailing better than us.

The fleet also included two Sundeer 63s, a couple of plastic classics and a lovely ketch from the ’60s. Crew experience ranged from a total lack of racing ability (us) to semi-professional. That pretty much rounds out the 50-plus fleet, except for one I want to mention: Ciao, a Sweden Yachts 45 in full cruising trim, sailed by a Slovenian couple.

We were entertained each evening with live Polynesian music and dancing. You have to see and hear this to experience the impact of traditional music pulsing in the shadows of the mountains. The dances and rhythms evoke ancient tribal history, and the costumes, which are much as they were before the arrival of Europeans, are visually stunning, as were the women dancing. I was beginning to feel some sympathy for Capt. Bligh, whose crew mutinied in order to stay on these islands.

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