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Summer Vacations: Cruising French Polynesia

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The first Europeans to come to French Polynesia were Spanish and Portuguese explorers, in the early 17th century. They were followed by a Dutchman, Le Maire; the British; the Frenchman Bougainville, in 1768, who at least gave his name to a plant; and Captain Cook in 1769 (to observe the transit of Venus), 1772, and 1779. It seems fair to say that they were all overwhelmed by the beauty of the place and the loose sexual mores of the society, as were, no doubt, the whalers who followed them; the missionaries of the early 19th century were in turn horrified, and their ministrations were disastrous for the local people and their way of life.

We modern-day tourists tend to follow in the footsteps of the numerous writers who succumbed to the islands’ beauty, including Melville, Loti, Stevenson, and the poet Rupert Brooke. Then, of course, there are the works of Paul Gauguin, whose paintings have become for many the irresistible image of French Polynesia.

But, says my husband, George, when given a sailing trip for his birthday, just which of these places is Tahiti? It’s a reasonable question, even for a geography maven like George. Tahiti is not only an island in French Polynesia, but the name many travelers and travel books use for the Society Islands, of which the island of Tahiti is a part, and sometimes for all of French Polynesia, a group of 109 islands spread out over a million and a half square miles of the South Pacific that lie closer to Auckland, New Zealand, than to California. If you charter a bareboat in Tahiti, you sail the leeward group (Les Iles sous le Vent) of the Society Islands, but there are ways to go farther and see more. That’s what we were looking for.

“Do you think Star Flyer actually sails?” I ask George when we first come on board.

“Sure,” he says. “The first officer told me they sail whenever there’s enough wind. She goes faster under sail than under power.”

For corroboration, he leads me to a wooden plaque conveniently mounted on the way to the dining room and thus hard to miss. Sure enough, among the vital statistics are speed under engine, 12 knots, and speed under sail, 17 knots—impressive even for a 360-foot four-masted barquentine, whose other vital statistics include a total sail area of 36,000 square feet and a mainmast height of 213 feet. As if to prove the point, some or all of the 21 sails—square on the foremast and fore-and-aft on the others—are raised/unfurled by a sizable crew, sometimes including passenger volunteers, and always to the Vangelis soundtrack for the Columbus epic “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” It’s not quite the right hemisphere, but it’s inspiring nonetheless.

Star Clippers describes its fleet as “luxury yachts.” To my mind, the luxury lies not only in various forms of tender loving care—wonderful meals, a sizable shower, and creature comforts too numerous to name—but in the 947 nautical miles covered between our departure from Papeete on a Sunday evening and return to Papeete 10 days later, and in the days and nights at sea it takes to cover them.

However, let me mention a few onboard events I found special: watching Irving Johnson’s 1929 film, “Round the Horn in a Square-Rigger,” projected on a sail during a night at sea; ditto for “Mutiny on the Bounty”; an evening of identifying stars in a blazing night sky undisturbed by ambient light, which is all the more special because none of them, except for the Southern Cross, are familiar.

I’ve been looking forward to the two nights and one full day at sea—nights at sea not being part of my regular routine—it will take to travel the 250 nautical miles from Papeete to Fakarava, in the Tuamotu Archipelago. That seems about the right amount of time to recover from almost 20 hours, door to door, of travel from home near Boston, Massachusetts, to Faaa Airport in Papeete. The conditions couldn’t be more benign, the stars are bright, and we don’t know whether the engine is assisting; it’s totally silent. That first night we manage to enjoy the atmosphere for about 2.5 seconds before falling asleep, but spend a pleasant second day taking pictures, reading, watching other people climb the mast, and participating in many meals (if you count tea time and cocktail time and post-dinner time); I can imagine that in the same conditions, a cruising couple sailing with a GPS and an autopilot would be doing much the same.

If we’d been approaching any of the Society Islands the next morning, we’d have seen their volcanic peaks long before our actual arrival. This isn’t true of the Tuamotus, whose atolls, composed of small, flat reefs and islands (motus) surrounding a central lagoon, can spell trouble for the unwary navigator; the lagoon is entered, carefully and sometimes not at all because of bad weather, through an entry channel or channels between the motus. We are told that setting off on foot from the idyllic beach won’t yield much of interest, so we spend as many hours as possible in the warm, clear water, emerging only for lunch and a performance by a local dance troop, accompanied by a terrific band.

Another night at sea and another 145 miles takes us northwest to Rangiroa and its huge lagoon. Not finding all that much to investigate can be as revealing as finding a great deal to explore. A walk on the ocean side reveals a very open ocean responding to a blow, windswept vegetation, and a number of bikers enjoying the flat road. A walk back on the lagoon side takes us to the Kia Oro hotel, through back yards, and past a couple of competitive outrigger canoes.

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