When Duncan's parents; Chris and Jean; first mentioned a visit, it seemed a long way off. We suggested the society islands as we thought they'd be a sight to be seen. They were unsure at first, then they asked around friends who had seen a little of this side of the world... then they knew it was an opportunity too good to miss. As Tahiti came into view just over two months ago now, I still remember the anticipation for what was to come. By this time we'd been in French Polynesia 6 weeks already. We'd seen the two extremes of atoll formation; the high volcanic peaks of the Marquesas and the sunken remnants of the Tuamotus. Now it was time to revel in the best of both worlds; mountainous islands cosseted by their outlying reefs; turquoise lagoons peppered with motus (small outlying coral islands) surrounded, but safe from the breaking surf.
Chris was kind enough to note down some thoughts of their visit so I've included some of them throughout this blog, in italics as here;
"Duncan was introduced to sailing at three months and although all our children have sailed extensively across oceans in small boats, salt water has always seriously run through Duncan's veins. I suppose it was inevitable that he would cross the Pacific but he caught me by surprise when Ruth and Duncan asked us out. We didn't think twice and although Impetuous was still 700 miles away in the Marquees Islands we booked our flights with air New Zeeland to Tahiti. True to their word we found them waiting for us at Papeete airport. After a short taxi ride we piled into the solid dinghy they had made in Guatamala, and feasted our eyes on easily the most beautiful yacht in the lagoon, for the first time.
We had visited Impetuous on land in Houston while she was in her cradle but now the 38ft double ender lay deep in the water and with her bowsprit and wooden mast looked truly spectacular."
We arrived two days early intentionally to Tahiti so we could see a hurricane hole anchorage we'd read about and do a little stocking up at Carrefour (the luxury of French living!). The anchorage did appear to be as safe as reported and we spoke to a couple who'd left their boat there for a few months, they were happy. We're just gathering information for next time; French Polynesia is special as a cruising destination. It's not just amazingly beautiful, there are no fees for us Europeans which makes the European prices in the shops easier to take. You might be surprised just how much of the boat budget gets used up on entry and exit fees, we certainly are!
We'd washed our cushion covers for our impending visitors which seemed a great idea until it came to leaving the boat. Do you leave them up drying on the sheet ropes? hoping they won't blow away or get rained on, or bring them in early... it was time to go so they came in, They got put back in place and we rushed off. We didn't quite know where the airport was beyond how it looked on our charts so after speed marching a mile or so we started asking around; 'ooh la la, Loin!', came the reply, 'what, how many kilometers?', '5...6...7?' Well, of course it wasn't, we were there within thirty minutes, which was great as we then turned out to be two hours early...(Duncan really paid attention to the correspondences!)
It was very special having Chris and Jean staying with us. For a start off Chris did ALL of the washing up and got so enthusiastic about catching rain water that we never had to think about it whilst they were here. Having another couple with us brought home to us just how lucky we are to have all the time in the world wherever we choose.
First off we went to Moorea. In retrospect there was a lot more to see in Tahiti but at the time we wanted to get sailing and into more peaceful climes. As our friend 'Jacques' said "Here in Papa'ete we've got a refill on our Carbon monoxide levels!" as the traffic zoomed around us. Our first bay in Moorea was little visited for obvious reasons, we rolled about like Weebles. We enjoyed our walks up to the waterfalls but back on the boat we made a quick exit.
Our exit through this pass was pretty exciting with waves breaking over the back deck. Closely watching the GPS, 'yes we are moving... just....' Cooks bay on Moorea was astonishingly beautiful. The water was deep and crystal clear. A clean, fresh clarity, entirely different from the turquoise clear waters that we stayed in the next night round the corner. There we shared the anchorage with numerous rays. Outside the pass we saw a whale with a calf...
After Tahiti and Moorea we headed on to Huahine. There's no doubt; when we first mentioned that we would be setting out in the evening for this 90 mile trip, there was some clear silent resistance. I, as a novice just assumed they'd understand and look forward to it, and Duncan of course didn't elaborate or worry about the deafening lack of enthusiasm from his parents. The night sail was a pleasant one with plenty of wind so I was surprised that Chris and Jean didn't really seem to relish it. In the morning Jean said 'well if I was impressed before by your long passages, now I'm really amazed by what you two have done'. We anchored near the pass at Huahine ready for lunch then everyone had an afternoon sleep.
Huahine was a lovely island. It's peaks were a little less dramatic than the others and perhaps therefore the feel on island was much more agricultural than tourist driven.
"It seems to me that Duncan has made two very good decisions. The first was choosing Impetuous. I discussed the choice of boat with Ruth giving them both the credit but she was quick to remind me that at the time she knew nothing of yachts, only narrow boats, on which she lived. It was entirely Duncan who chose the Alajuela. Ruth obviously took a leap of faith to devote so much time effort and money into the Impetuous dream! But Impetuous IS simply a dream. She has beautiful lines, the finish of her hull, the varnish work especially her lovely wooden mast, together with her topsides, cockpit and interior all add up to the perfect blue water yacht. We set off from Tahiti for Huahine about 100 miles away. Soon we were clear of the land and picked up a force 5-6 broad reach. The Aries (Beryl) was set, and off we went at 6-8 knots. The long keel gave her amazing directional stability. The cutter rig kept her sails small and manageable and her 13 tons made for an easy motion. In short the perfect yacht for trade wind passages and more than able to take more challenging conditions in her stride."
"Secondly, of course, its getting together with Ruth who is clever, highly practical, a quick learner and totally at home on Impetuous whether at sea or at anchor and very active. Indeed often when either of them find a spare moment they are beavering away at some repair or new project. For instance, varnishing the gunwales, repairing sails, making cushion covers and commissioning step ladder, essential for getting out after a swim for the old fogies!"
Chris and Jean swam from the boat at least twice every day, they were like yo-yos in and out of the water so the swim ladder was a good addition for them. We had managed up until then by climbing out of the sea up the rudder hinges onto the back deck. A good trick, but perhaps not the most elegant way for visiting dignitaries!
"I had imagined that our time on Impetuous would include eating ashore in beautiful little French Polynesian restaurants perched on strategic outcrops with splendid views and perhaps even with air conditioning. My thoughts were misguided, we found no such establishments anywhere. They probably existed, almost certainly on Tahiti but we never came across one and apart from a baguette sandwich we never ate ashore."
"The off islands especially Bora Bora were peppered with exclusive holiday complexes on the motu islands of the reef, where exclusive food was no doubt served. However, there is a plus side to French Polynesia; French food in the supermarkets at not too unreasonable a price. We bought baguettes, Pate de Campagne, endless cheeses, merguez sausages and on and on."
"What came as a real surprise was the truly magnificent, imaginative food cooked by Duncan and Ruth. They occasionally cooked together but usually one would take full control. It didn't matter who, the food was superb. They had caught a large Dorado before arriving in Tahiti and from time to time it was the basis of the evening meal both in the form of fish stock and sometimes frozen steaks from the freezer compartment of the excellent fridge."
"It will be the use of beans that I will remember most. Beans, which I have never really eaten apart from the Heinz variety, turned up in most meals. You had to think ahead as they needed soaking for various amounts of time and when enhanced by a variety of spices were quite delicious. I'm a toast and marmalade man for breakfast so I remain surprised at how tasty a dollop of chilli beans wrapped in pancake was at 8 O'clock in the morning! The food produced from cuisine Impetuous was spectacular and the need to seek food ashore seemed pointless."
"No account of our food should exclude fruits which grew naturally on the islands. With the exception of pineapple which we bought but were very cheap everything else was free. Ruth was constantly foraging for limes. Ruth too was getting good at breaking into a green coconut and acquiring the milk through a straw. And, of course, we cracked open the ripe coconuts for their flesh. But the real surprise was breadfruit which grew in profusion and was not obviously harvested by the locals. We picked the large fruit about 6 or 7 inches in diameter, they were cut into chips and fried; delicious!"
Having four strong personalities on the boat was of course occasionally a stretch for us all. For Duncan and I the constant chatter and commenting on everything got to breaking point a few times. Duncan came up with a novel solution for this; strapped a dive tank on and submerged. When he came back, the answer to 'how was your dive' was a very heartfelt 'quiet'.
Chris and Jean have been sailing on their own boats their entire lives together (well over 40 years) and so obviously have their own ways of doing things. Mostly there were no clashes but it was inevitable there'd be some. You've already heard their shock and subsequent acquiescence to beans being a large part of the menu. You've been spared from hearing just how much our lives would be enriched (according to Chris) by the purchase of an outboard motor but it seems the washing up was an even bigger deal;
"I am always happy to wash up. My culinary skills are somewhat limited and I feel that washing up, drying the dishes and generally clearing up is a useful contribution; I feel I am doing my bit! Normally I enjoy immersing the greasiest of pans into hot soapy water, fresh water of course, putting them onto one cloth to drain before drying them with another, nothing new there, I hear you say! You can imagine by dismay when I was quickly informed that cold salt water was the order of the day and there was a special tub of vim-like salt water soap specially provided! I must admit, my first feeling was one of shock. Cold, salt water, surely not! There was worse to come! You see, if you dry salty dishes with a tea towel, it soon becomes heavy with salt and in the moisture ridden atmosphere of Polynesia never dries. Yes, I found myself drying up with damp salty tea towels. At first I just bit the bullet and followed protocol but as time went on and I became active in acquiring fresh water, either from a tap ashore or sometimes from collecting it from the sunshade, Anyway, I now felt more confident and started surreptitiously rinsing my clean salty dishes with a quick squirt of fresh. Also I took to washing out the tea towels in fresh and hung them out to dry; that made me feel so much better. Taking a step backwards, I really can see that on long voyages washing up in salt water makes a lot of sense. In time I grew more accustomed to the situation and would perhaps have adapted to it in the end."
This anchorage on Tahaa was the most beautiful snorkelling we've seen. There is a hotel there called the Tahaa Pearl where people stay in wooden huts over the water (at VAST expense) and yet the gap between the islands seemed hardly visited by them. The pass between the islands is nicknamed the 'Coral Garden' an apt name indeed and is visited sporadically by trip boats. Jean came back from her first visit wide eyed with wonder. The coral and fish were so bright you could see them clearly from outside above, but once you put your mask on and drifted amongst them it was spellbinding.
After Tahaa we sailed over to Bora Bora where Chris and Jean would be flying back from. We had several days there with them so went right around the island. The island had a different feel from the others. It seemed less friendly with it's busy road and commercial feel but there's no doubt it is a stunning place.
"The people of French Polynesia, almost to the last one, were quite delightful. The girls were pretty, usually with a flower tucked behind an ear and the boys were handsome. They invariably smiled, were always ready for a joke and were as helpful as they could be. Even the traditional Polynesian tattoos seemed somehow more acceptable."
"I was surprised at how they never pushed their wares at us and left us alone at anchor. Some young men were often seen paddling outrigged fibreglass canoes around the lagoon. One chap paddled after us for 10 or 20 minutes, finally catching us as we dropped anchor,with a smile he handed us a diary for us to sign!"
"Bora Bora was indeed beautiful. Much of the lagoon is deep enough to sail in but shallow enough for the sandy bottom and the blue sky to give those perfect turquoise blues and with a backdrop of the volcanic crater perhaps it does deserve the title of the most beautiful island in the world. As we watched Impetuous sail slowly away from the reef island airport a turtle surfaced and with those images, our time in Polynesia came to a close."
Once we'd dropped off Chris and Jean to go back to the world of hot showers and dishwashers we decided we still wanted to see a bit more of the Society islands. We'd missed Raiatea which is a big mountainous island inside the same fringing reef as Tahaa (of the excellent snorkelling). Though this looks like a house that might have a vase of flowers in the window and floral bedspreads, it's actually just a shell used by the fishermen to store their equipment on the edge of the lagoon.
Most of the anchorages in the Societies were very deep. It became a bit of a problem whilst we were moving so often; it's ok pulling up 70m of chain in 25m of water every few days (though still hard) but every day gets a bit much. So when we found this beautiful spot anchored in 3m of sandy basin we stayed several days, went diving on the nearby wall, varnished, relaxed and enjoyed the peace!
This was one of the biggest ceremonial places of the islands; a Marae on Raiatea. It was a big platform for dances and offerings with many ancient carved stones overlooking the sea.
Then we returned to Bora Bora and had a few more days there enjoying the scenery and doing some boat jobs. A squall around the top of the island ripped apart a seam on our mainsail so we took the opportunity to sew a new leech line onto it too. Thus rejuvenated we wonder if we'll ever get around to rebuilding and fitting our new one.
Bora Bora Maitai yacht club; it's a popular place. Though it's been a luxurious joy to find french cheeses, baguettes and saucisson on these islands of the pacific, our waist lines will thank us for leaving. We're getting ready to run out of butter again.
The most beautiful island in the world? We'll let you know...