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Tips for Cruising French Polynesia

We had only re-attached our bow anchor prior to reaching land, after a wonderful 22 day passage from Mexico to French Polynesia. All the boats inside the crowded anchorage in Atuona Bay, Hiva Oa, had set a stern anchor. We were too tired to set ours so we anchored outside the breakwater with two other boats and went to sleep. It was comfortable outside the main anchorage, but a bit more of a ride to the dinghy dock. Next time we will prepare our stern anchor as well as our bow anchor.

Knowing these were some of the people we would be sailing with for the next few months, if not years, we put a call out for sundowners on our boat. We hosted 18 people from 8 boats. It was good to put faces to the names and voices we had been hearing for about three weeks, on the Pacific Puddle Jump daily SSB radio check-in. We would continue to socialize with these cruisers well beyond French Polynesia.

After checking in at Hiva Oa, our 90-day clock began ticking. We sailed to Tahauta Island and experienced the first of many breathtaking Polynesian environments in both Hanamoenoa and Hapatoni Bays. White sand beaches, lush tropical vegetation, clear turquoise waters filled with sea life, curious dolphins, lobsters, turtles and friendly Islanders. We recommend waiting for the wind to turn, for the sail southeast to Fatu Hiva.

Ua Poa Island

However, if your patience runs out, explore Ua Pou Island. It has the same mountain geology, with beautiful volcanic spires, dramatic mountains and hikes to stunning vistas. Everyone in Ua Pou waits for the local supply cum-cruise ship, Aranui, to arrive. It brings about 120 tourists and much-needed supplies. The days the ship arrives, the market is overflowing with artisans, music and dancing. In the afternoon, the grocery stores are full! You are able to provision with tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and even frozen Beef Bourguignon from France.

Nuka Hiva is about a 5 hour sail north from Ua Pou. The anchorage at the main town of Taiohae can be crowded. Taiohae is the administrative centre of the Marquesas Islands and it has the feel of a “city”. The atmosphere is a little less welcoming or maybe just busier. The town seems to be alive between 4 and 7am. By 9am the bakeries are closed for the day and the fruit and vegetable market has minimal items left. Care should be taken when using the dinghy dock: local fishermen clean their daily catch; pitch the heads and entrails into the water next to the dinghies, and the black-tip sharks go wild!

From Taiohae, cruisers have a choice of sailing west to Daniel’s Bay, with the leisurely hike to the stunning 610 meter waterfalls, or east towards the deep and calm Controleur’s Bay. The village of Taipivai, at the head of Controleur’s Bay, is small and friendly and a great place to hitch a ride, preferably in the back of a pick-up truck for unobstructed views, over the mountain north across the island to Hatiheu Bay.

It is good to check with the fuel dock prior to departure from Taiohae, as there are often fuel shortages, especially if the supply ship has been delayed. Before leaving the Marquesas Island group for the Tuamotu Islands, we wanted to top up our dinghy’s fuel tank and jerry can, but there was no gasoline in Taiohae. This provided us with a couple of days to sail to Anaho Bay, on the north east coast of the island.

When sailing to the Tuamotu Island chain, we recommend heading as far SE as possible. This allows you to leisurely explore more atolls on your way NW. After a 3 ½ day sail, we arrived at Makemo Island. This was the first of what would be many final evenings of short passages spent trying to dump wind and slow down to arrive at an atoll entrance in daylight and close to slack tide. Often one finds one or more boats tacking back and forth outside an entrance, waiting for daylight.

As our friends, Jennifer and Campbell on Camdeboo explained, the current in these channels is usually based on the wind and the tidal effects are negligible. The wind pushes water in, over the low lying reefs and motus of these atolls and fills them up like a big bucket. If there has been much wind in the past few days, the channels all have outbound currents, sometimes a lot of current, regardless of the tide. Before you know it, calculating tides and winds at entrances and exits, and keeping elbows in through some of the narrow passes, becomes second nature.

Once through the passes and inside the lagoons, there are often various anchorages to explore. Almost all boats keep a bow watch while sailing or motoring across lagoons, as there are scattered coral heads. Depending on the sunlight, it can be easy to spot colour changes and different wave patterns. We found it helpful to use a remote control for the Autohelm and sit up on the bimini to watch for obstructions. When exiting the atolls, even though the “overflow” effect is outbound, it is a good idea to go at slack tide. The outbound current can be very strong and steering may be overwhelmed, causing boats to be carried into the coral.

It is important to check the weather regularly while in the Tuamotus, even while sitting at anchor. You may have to adjust your cruising plans, as strong systems can move in that might keep you inside a lagoon for a week or more. A very important safety rule is to sail based on the weather, not based on a calendar date. Almost all of the bad situations cruisers get into are based on having to be somewhere on a certain date. There are “pensions,” guesthouses or small resorts on almost all the islands as well as local flights between islands. The extra cost for a night at a hotel or a short inter-island flight could be less than damage to the boat, a crew injury, or worse.

Makemo Atoll

In Makemo, as in most of French Polynesia, you can place an order at the bakery and collect croissants, pain chocolate and baguettes the next morning. Reef sharks are also common in French Polynesia and snorkeling the anchor to see how it is set, especially with coral heads around, is common in the shallower waters of the Tuamotus. If someone is nervous about swimming with sharks, a quick swim to the anchor and back may be a good initiation. It is a good idea to swim with other people (other targets), remind yourself that sharks are looking for easy (smaller) food that they are accustomed to, and, as sharks tend to eat at night, repeat, “10 to 3 you can’t eat me!”, while swimming.

It is a good idea to get more relaxed being in the water with sharks around, by the time you arrive in Fakarava. The pass in the south end of Fakarava has some of the best diving in the Tuamotus. Top Dive, in Tetamani village, will pick you up for an amazing experience. Dives start at the ocean side of the pass and the incoming current creates a drift dive that brings you into the lagoon. Some dive operators are overly keen for you to dive (and charge you) and will risk dives during outbound currents. There are numerous stories of divers being swept out to sea.

The south pass of Fakarava is famous for the “Wall of Sharks”. These are large groups of sharks (20-100+) all slowly moving into the current. They are looking for tasty fish that are disoriented in the incoming current (because remember, they don’t usually hunt between 10 AM and 3 PM!). They are in tight groups, hence the term, “wall”. A better description might be “peloton” of sharks. They swim slowly against the current, making little progress. If one gets too far forward, it peels off and the current takes it to the back of the group. The divers drift along the coral-covered slope beside them. We were told that the sharks do not like the air bubbles from divers (maybe we were told this just to make us feel better…).

There is a restaurant at the lovely, family-run, Pension Motu Aito Paradise, with a wood-fired pizza oven. The restaurant owner, and pizza chef, Manihi, is very nice and welcoming. Many cruisers rush to the northern pass of Fakarava, but we recommend taking time to anchor in the SE corner. The small restaurant on shore is happy to prepare fried fish, french fries and BBQ’d meat and chicken. If you are lucky, the locals will play guitar and ukulele and sing.

The diving at the northern pass of Fakarava, near the village of Rotoava, is supposed to be spectacular, with drift dives through underwater canyons. The pastries and ice cream in the village are good, too! We recommend a visit to the Havaiki Resort for their pearl farm demonstration. For a small fee you can participate in the Pearl Lottery. You choose an oyster from the pile and win the Tahitian pearl inside (if it is defective, you get to choose another oyster). You can then eat the oyster and go to their waterside cafe for cheeseburgers while they polish and string your pearl.

The false pass on the western side of Toau has great snorkeling. It is easy to tow the dinghy along for a drift snorkel. On shore, Valentina and Gaston might be able to sell you fresh tuna or arrange for a traditional feast. They also maintain several mooring balls that they check regularly. Rumour has it the charge for the moorings and the feast has increased considerably.

Manta Ray

A lovely overnight passage from Toau brought us to Tikehau, our last atoll in the Tuamotu Island group, before crossing to the Society Island group in French Polynesia. The village, 8 nautical miles to the south once inside the lagoon, is small; one grocery store, one bakery, and two dive shops! Serge, at the Tikehau Village Pension, www.tikehauvillage.com, takes guests on excursions to swim with the giant manta rays, and a wonderful lunch and snorkel on an uninhabited motu. It would have been difficult for a cruiser to find the mantas without local knowledge and the excursion was well worth it.

During our stay in French Polynesia, we participated in the Polynesian Magellan SSB radio net (locally called the Poly MagNet). We reported the high winds and uncomfortable conditions we were dealing with on our passage from Tikehau to Moorea. A cruiser we know radioed that Point Venus, on the NW corner of Tahiti, is a wide open bay and safe to enter at night. We took the advice, changed course and anchored easily in the large bay in the dark. Point Venus has a big lighthouse and hotels and lights from cars on the oceanfront road. The point blocked most of the wind and all of the waves. We slept soundly for 11 hours!

After hearing on the radio that the new marina in Papeete is wonderful and that many friends were docked there, we went to the city. After being on quiet islands and villages of a few hundred people, Papeete felt busy and crowded. Although we ate out too much (the local food trucks are great!) and we bought too many pearls (Tahitian pearls come in so many beautiful hues: green, purple, blue, champagne, silver!), it was nice to catch up with cruisers we hadn’t seen since the Marquesas or since Mexico. In addition, we found out that cruisers have to stop in Papeete by law.

During our check-out in Bora Bora, we learned that cruisers require a document from the marina in Papeete. Although we had stopped in Papeete, and stayed at the marina, we had not requested the official check-out document. The Gendarme in Bora Bora understood our situation and our check-out was delayed while they contacted Papeete for our official clearance.

The majority of cruisers “race” from Papeete to Cook’s Bay, Moorea, to participate in the Pacific Puddle Jump’s Rendezvous. However, cruisers should keep in mind that Cook’s Bay is a very deep cove and it is difficult to find a place to drop anchor in less than 30 metres! We skipped the race to arrive ahead of the 65+ boats participating in the Rendezvous. We found an anchoring spot near the head of the cove and not too far from the Bali Hai hotel, where the Pacific Puddle Jump events would take place.

We did not have enough time to explore both of the islands that lie between Moorea and Bora Bora, so we needed to choose between Hauhine and Raiatea Islands. As we sailed for Raiatea, we hoped to return someday to visit Hauhine. Once inside the reef at Raiatea, we sailed into Hotopuu Bay. It is quite deep, but we found an underwater hill where we could drop the anchor (approximately 16°50.438 151°21.205). As most cruisers do, we anchored another day at the head of Faaroa Bay and dinghied up the Aoppomau River. While anchored off the main town of Uturoa, we hiked up Mount Tapio for a great view of Raiatea, Tahaa, Hauhine (15 miles east) and Bora Bora (20 miles west). It was clear enough to also see Maupiti (about 40 miles west).

Coral Garden Tahaa

We stopped at the Hibiscus Hotel in Haamene Bay, but they had shut down the turtle sanctuary a few years earlier due to new government regulations. We continued on to Motu Matarare and the popular Coral Garden drift snorkel. Two recommendations here: keep a good watch out for charter boats, mainly catamarans, as they rarely know what they are doing and especially do not know how to anchor securely. Secondly, try to time your drift snorkel for a Sunday when many local families will be enjoying the area.

The rugged volcanic Island of Bora Bora, surrounded by a coral reef, is spectacular and the waters are beautiful. However, there is an overwhelming sense that hotel guests are preferred over “yachties”. Almost all of the beaches on Bora Bora have resorts on them and are private. We highly recommend you time your visit to Bora Bora with the dates of the annual Heiva Festival. During the day there are sports, crafts and agricultural contests such as javelin throwing, weaving and fruit production. At night there are choral, dance and orchestral contests. The evening events are quite elaborate. The dancers’ costumes are impressive and the mostly drumming orchestras are intense.

While checking out of French Polynesia in Bora Bora, we confirmed with the Gendarme that we could stop at the beautiful Island of Maupiti, just 20 miles west. Before setting off for Maupiti, do check the wind as the entrance pass can be treacherous. We asked the captain and crew of the local Bora Bora ferry for their recommendations for the pass. Like Bora Bora, Maupiti is a beautiful mountainous island surrounded by a coral reef. What are missing are all the hotels, cruise ships and tourists. After 3 months in French Polynesia, and many great places, we found Maupiti to be the prettiest island and the most amazing blue water.

Maupiti

The hike to the top of the mountain in Maupiti was difficult but well worth the views. However, the highlight is the resident giant manta rays! Rumour is the manta rays hang out every morning near the channel marker inside the lagoon. Anchor near the marker, snorkel to check the anchor and you will most likely be rewarded by seeing a manta ray! Closer to the channel marker, several manta rays regularly swim against the current with their mouths open to filter plankton and tiny creatures for food. All the mantas were over 4′ across and some were over 6′ across. With huge manta rays in your backyard, a gorgeous mountain vista and crystal clear water surrounding your “home”, it is hard to pull up the anchor to leave. Fortunately a little bit more of French Polynesia awaits.

If you plan to sail to the atoll of Mopelia, about 100 nm west of Maupiti, inform the officials at the town hall in Maupiti. They often have critical supplies, movies on a USB stick, or even a 10-year old child, to deliver to the people who live on the atoll.

Mopelia is a beautiful circular atoll made up of coral reefs and sandy motus, with a lovely lagoon in the centre. About 30 people, including a few families, live on the atoll. They process coconuts for the copra market (the basis of coconut oil). The entrance pass to Mopelia is deep but narrow, with shallow coral ledges on both sides. It is easy to understand why supply ships do not regularly stop here. There is a constant ebb (outflowing) tide that varies in intensity. Hold your breath, keep your elbows in and in 2 minutes you motor through the pass.

We stayed in Mopelia for 12 days, ostensibly waiting for a good weather window for the 800 mile passage to Beveridge Reef and on to Tonga. How do you spend 12 days on a remote island?

The 90-day visa is too short of a time to visit all of French Polynesia. If the extended visa process were less convoluted, having more time to explore would have been nice. However, balancing out the need to be in a secure place for the cyclone season with the costs of marinas and boatyards in French Polynesia, it is understandable that many boats continue on to Tonga or to New Zealand.