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Tahiti Pearl Regatta

At our shoreside celebration on the island of Huahine, one bright gazelle of a female child dashed to and fro, to and fro, leaping to the beat of the drums, infectious joy trailing in her wake. Was she a French local, in from Papeete for the Pearl Regatta, Tahiti’s annual gathering of the sailing tribes? Did she come by way of a long-distance cruiser, with parents not satisfied to merely pass through but seizing the opportunity to play sailing games along the way? Did she come from one of the boats in the charter-racing fleet on a one-week (it’s never enough) vacation? No matter. There is a lovely thing that happens when you’re “out there,” and we each take what we can get and make of it what we can. If I had that kid’s energy, I’d hurt myself. But I had my own moment on Huahine.

What began 10 years ago as a charter lure for Aussies has become much more. Four days of racing, three days that count for trophies. All the partying you could want—in the vast Pacific, where dots on the chart mark the very stuff of romance: volcanic peaks worn haggard through the ages, washed by the trades, blissfully warm. The reefs surrounding these islands protect waters as smooth as any lake. But when you’re there, you are out there in that vast Pacific.

The island of Raiatea, hub of the regional charter industry, was home base for the 2015 Tahiti Pearl Regatta. The month was April, autumn in this part of the world, the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the best sailing. Each morning started with a “banana race,” what the locals call a windward-leeward event. Then came something more ambitious. The offering on day one was a banana followed by a light-air beat from Raiatea to Huahine, a distance of 23 miles. And then our celebration on the beach. Day two served up a banana off Huahine, followed by a reach back to Raiatea in a refreshingly fresh breeze—and that sticks in the memory.

First there was the look of it—Raiatea, distant in its own shade of blue, halfway between the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky. A fetching sight. But we didn’t have time to meditate on that aboard Ekolo’Kat, a 34-footer designed by naval architect Nicolas Gruet of Papeete. Nicolas was setting us up to get away ahead of much bigger traffic, Raphael was scrambling to set the boat’s glow-pink spinnaker, and Benoit was scrambling to wrap the winch for the set. I was scrambling my French, which runs better in lower gears.

The spinnaker popped, and I snapped a shot of the speedo reading 16.3 knots. We’d later see speeds north of 19, but I was a little too busy for shutterbugging just then.

Tactically, there’s not a lot to say about our race from Huahine to Raiatea. We were rockin’. We gybed a few times. It went in a hurry. It was tropical, beautiful, all that gushy stuff. There was nobody in front of us. And having nobody in front of us was all good until—there we were, down the track with the peaks of Raiatea rising fast, and even my French was able to pick out, as phrases flew by, a difference of opinion regarding the passage through the reef, as in, where is it? On the chart, La Passe de Faaroa. The spin was pulling hard, the closing rate was enough to command my attention, and that white froth that marks the edge of the open sea was right...there.

I’m sure you understand: it is good to sail on the sea. It is difficult to sail on the edge of the sea. Yep, that island was getting mighty big. And then, finally, here was Nicolas spotting the markers: “Oui! Rouge et vert. C’est là.” And in a minute, we were sailing in “Lake Raiatea,” with six miles of smooth water reaching ahead to the finish line and the gun. But if I go on and on about how good that ride was, you might hate me.

It’s easy to anchor a catamaran in the sandy, sparkling shallows of these islands, tucked up close to the reef. It’s easy under the circumstances of a post-race winning moment to enjoy a libation and a swim in bright, caressing water. But if I go on and on about that, too, you might hate me.

To the voyager, Raiatea is one of the preferred destinations among the Society Islands group that we loosely call Tahiti. Its one village of note, Uturoa, is also the administrative center of Les Isles Sous le Vent, those downwind from the actual island of Tahiti. Uturoa has two boatyards, a market, ATMs that work even if their appearance does not inspire confidence, and a lot less hubbub than the capital on Tahiti, Papeete. Raiatea has pearl farms, beaches, coral and the River Faaroa, the only navigable stream in these steep islands (navigable, but not very far). It also is home to the carved stones of a sacred gathering place, the Marae Taputapuatea. Not just any marae, by its name doubly tapu, or holy, where the first people of the Mauri emerged from the earth. The original Polynesian languages had no “B” sound, but the English “taboo” derives from the notion that you don’t mess with tapu. Certainly not with Marae Taputapuatea, honored still as a living force, the launching point of Polynesian migration through the Pacific, and likely to touch you in some strange way. The stones have memory, or so it seems.

Raiatea is also unique in sharing a lagoon with a sister island, Taha’a, which can be circumnavigated without leaving the lake. Or lagoon. Tahiti Pearl racing wrapped up with the 21-mile Tour de Taha’a, featuring seductive views of Bora Bora rising in the distance. (Pora Pora in the old days, but don’t expect it to be rebranded now.) I followed the race aboard a charter cat belonging to the regatta. Our professional skipper, Christophe, having a moment of his own, spotted dolphins and called out to all of us in a rush of excitement. Yes, he’s local, and yes, he does this all the time, and I was reminded of another cruising-ground moment, thousands of miles away and completely different, yet not different at all, with dolphins leaping in a bow wave and my companion observing, “No matter how many times you’ve seen it, you feel blessed.”

My time aboard a regatta vessel gave me an opportunity to learn that French Polynesia is host to 9,000 charter guests and 800 or so cruising vessels annually, including some whose owners take advantage of new policies allowing them to extend their stay beyond the standard 90-day visa. For five archipelagos, each very different, 90 days is a rush job. You have to apply ahead of time, in person, at a French consulate or embassy, and the process takes two weeks. But you can expect to be welcomed if you have a clean record and a financial status that makes you worth having around.
In the wake of the Tahiti Pearl competitors, other voyagers will be exploring the lagoon of Raiatea-Taha’a. The reflections from the sandy shallows will pose the question, who turned the lights on? Bora Bora will beckon, half a day’s sail beyond the lagoon. And somewhere in the world, perhaps in a far place or perhaps very close to home, someone will be sailing with the dolphins, feeling blessed. A different someone, kicked back, will dream of being out there. It might be you. It might be me. Someday, see you there.

Kimball Livingston, editor-at-large for SAIL, has been a sailing journalist for more than 25 years and specializes in coverage of sailboat racing

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