A silver vessel in the white light of a full Pacific moon, Staghound neared the opening in the barrier reef off Paopao Bay as the last shimmers of rose and gold faded from the clouds over the island of Tahiti, 10 minutes astern. Moorea seemed to float just beyond the smooth lagoon, palm trees spilling down the mountainsides to fringe gleaming beaches, valleys receding mysteriously into shadow.
Lazily the swell lifted to break on the coral reef to port, white water marking the area of danger, a clear line guiding us on our way. We navigated as sailors had for generations, before buoys, before lights, when the look of the sea was its own chart. Above the masthead hung the Southern Cross, and strong in the warm air was the scent of flowers piled on deck from our Papeete farewell, heis of tiare Tahiti and frangipani and hibiscus mixed carelessly with coils of line and fenders and the rest of the assorted gear of a small ship off on an ocean voyage.
There is something about islands. Long ago a kindly power fashioned them in anticipation of the day when the continents would become suburbs and the cities unbearable caldrons of noise and hurry. Islands almost anywhere mean escape. And part of their fascination lies in the fact that no two—much less any two groups—are ever really just alike. The pine-clad skerries of the Baltic, as majestically somber as the music of Sibelius, the classic simplicity of the isles of the Aegean, the mountainous splendor of the Caribbean chain—all are different, and each has its own allure.
But even the connoisseur will concede a very special position in the hierarchy to the Society Islands, those reef-girt jewels in the Pacific whose crowning orb is Tahiti, the ultimate island. Always I had thought of Tahiti and the islands of Polynésie Fran√ßaise as a someday cruise, but it had seemed impossibly remote from the orbit of my life. Now the thing had happened: a casual letter from an unknown yachtsman in the distant Pacific asking for information on Finisterre's mechanical refrigeration system had led to a developing correspondence; an invitation to crew in the Transpacific Race aboard Nam Sang had brought me within reaching distance in Hawaii, and finally a cablegram from Honolulu had brought a prompt reply: SAILING FOR SUVA FIJI MID-AUGUST. COME ABOARD STAGHOUND TO BORA-BORA. And so, unbelievably, here we were, outward bound from Papeete for a cruise of the outlying islands.
July 10, 1960
Staghound was not the only sailing vessel from far away which now lay in Tahiti—there were also, among others, Sterling Hayden's Wanderer and the little white ketch Mana-Wanui, owned by the Stanley Too-goods of Nassau, friends with whom we played and swam through languorous, relaxing days before our departure. But for Staghound and her owner, Paul Hurst, it was no ordinary cruise of Les Iles sous le Vent—The Islands below the Wind, to leeward of Tahiti—that we departed on. Staghound had come to Tahiti on a westward voyage around the world, and had swung in the multihued waters off the valley of Taapuna for almost two years, one of those wandering yachts which make Tahiti a port of missing ships, for no one ever wants to leave and sailors drown in a lagoon of pure content. "You find you were never truly happy any place else before," said Paul, "and then you question whether you can be happy anywhere else after you go." He spoke from experience: a yachtsman from Santa Barbara, he first saw the island in the Honolulu-to-Tahiti race of 1956, promptly went home and bought Staghound to come out again. Now came the "after," the continuation of the global cruise; but when our sailing date was set for Tuesday, scoffers laughed: "Which Tuesday?"
But more than a hundred friends had gathered on the quay, and hands were clasped and cheeks kissed as the heis of farewell were placed over the heads of the departing. We were five aboard: Paul, Plazi Miller (who had come out here with him from America), two native Tahitians, Terii and Sam, and I. Lines snaked aboard. There was not a breath of wind. As we powered away, music sounded faintly from Restaurant Vaihiria. Slowly Terii lifted the flowered circlets from her shoulders one by one and dropped them in our wake—and in the wake of her tears. Like perfumed stepping stones they lay on the water, symbolically linking us with Tahiti forever, for Polynesians believe that if you cast your heis astern as you leave you must return.
For a long time we sat watching the receding panorama of boats moored stern-to along the waterfront, and the red-roofed buildings peeping through the trees, and the mountains lifting to the cloud cover, their colors changing as the sun lowered. The spell was broken when Terii dried her eyes and went forward to sit on the bowsprit pulpit, obeying the advice of Paul: "Don't look back." Soon, in the lighthearted manner of all vahines, as the islanders call their women, she was laughing with Sam.
We crept along until a gap appeared in the breakers, a dark lane where the swells undulated smoothly into a darker cleft in the loom of Moorea. Turning, we followed the channel, awed to silence by the beauty of the night and the majesty of the land. Mountains towered on both sides and ahead, so steep and so high as to eclipse the moon. Under us the water lay luminescent and mercurial, reflecting the silver sky except where canoes fishing by torchlight cast long golden spears. Thus I imagined it must have been when Captain Cook conned Endeavour into Paopao Bay, thenceforth to add his own name to the charts.
Quietly we furled the sails and dropped anchor. After dinner Sam perched in the port upper berth and began to play his guitar, softly singing ancient songs in the ancient tongue. The huge "dam John" of Algerian red wine was brought to the cockpit and the cabin table was moved into the forepeak. We clapped hands in time to the music, and suddenly Terii was dancing the strongly emphasized hula of Tahiti, eyes flashing, dark unbound hair flowing, the traditional frangipani blossom behind one ear.
When I went on deck next morning I discovered the real drama of our anchorage. Around Staghound on three sides the mountains rose almost vertically, verdant to the summit. On the open side of the giant bowl I could see palm-shadowed beaches, and inside the barrier reef lagoon water of every shade of green and blue. Smoke lifted lazily from thatch houses almost hidden by flowering trees. Clouds had not yet begun the daily ritual of shrouding the higher peaks and touching the slopes with gauzy haze: there was a sharply etched brilliance of color I had never experienced before, a breathtaking clarity.
Paul came up the companionway as I stood on deck. "Beautiful," he said, "but wait. After breakfast we'll go round to the next bay and you'll really see something. I'll put Stag-hound alongside a beach where you can pick coconuts from the rigging."
A FEELING OF MAJESTY
Still I was not prepared for Papetoai Bay. Many times in my travels I have been shown by local guides the most beautiful place in the world. Perhaps this is really it. There was a feeling of majesty akin to that of a Norwegian fjord, but here the towering mountains had been touched by the magic wand of the tropics. All was rich, warm and alive, rather than cold and austere: small clouds reflected in the blue water, palms waving in the soft breeze, color lying on the mountainsides like splashes of dye.
We spent days between the two bays of Moorea, sailing, swimming, lazing. It did not seem necessary to go far or fast, for nothing distant seemed important. Yet for a sailor, once embarked, there is always the lure of the horizon, and finally we slipped through the opening in the reef at sunset, bound for the harbor of Fare on the island of Huahine, 82 miles to the west.
Clear of the land, a long sea was running before the maraamu, the fresh southwest wind which occasionally displaces the normal trades. Breaking crests burst under the counter to shoulder Staghound on her way. Happily she rolled along, and I felt happy and at home. This was the way one should visit the South Pacific, I told myself, aboard a snug little vessel with shipmates who knew and loved the islands. In the fading light I looked around the deck. Bunches of bananas swung in the main rigging, coconuts were heaped on deck forward of the skylight, a basket of mangoes and pamplemousse rode aft of the cockpit, and red wine sloshed in the "dam John" at my side. Not yachty, but right, as a vessel should cruise, and I felt even more the kinship between Staghound and Finisterre, both sturdy go-anywhere ships of 38 feet over-all, both with a turn of speed. Designed by John Alden, Staghound had twice won the Transpacific Race before coming to Paul Hurst. Under short canvas we clipped off the miles. Moorea was in sight astern at dark, but when the moon arose at the end of my wheel trick, the sea was empty.
At 4 o'clock, when I came back on deck for the dawn watch, Huahine was plain on the starboard bow for a perfect landfall. Yet in the moonlight it was unreal. As each passing sea lifted above the horizon, the jagged outline of the mountains merged into the tumbling crests, to disappear until the next trough and then come up again, the peaks looking like a wave suddenly turned to stone. Watching, I was hardly aware of a change in the quality of the light. At dawn the first moments of sun were not brighter than the moonlight, only different in texture. Then suddenly the clouds over Huahine glowed, and it was day, brilliant day. Nothing can quite compare to dawn at sea in low latitudes, with an unfamiliar island lifting over the bow.
The barrier reef of Huahine extended far beyond the shore, with a dogleg turn. At 6:45 we jibed and stood in close to the breakers, and had to jibe again. Rounding the corner into the lee, the water smoothed, and we saw clearly defined the opening of the pass leading to Fare Harbor.
I wish I could say something pleasant about the village of Fare, beyond the fact that giant mangoes can be purchased at the open marketplace, but it is indeed a fatuous lover who can find no fault. Seeking escape from staring children on the dock, I retreated to a room in the Hawaii Hotel, upstairs over the restaurant-café-bar and general store of Ah-Kim. The walls were of pale blue fiber-board, and the single light bulb overhead formed one corner of a suspension system for the mosquito net. From hooks by the door depended bent and rusted hangers. A single yellowing sheet covered the mattress of the bed, which took up most of the floor, leaving space only for a single chair and low round table. Through the uncurtained window came sounds of hammering; of voices speaking Chinese, Tahitian and French; of babies crying, flies buzzing and roosters crowing without cease.
Seeking escape again, I hired an ancient Ford with Plazi and Sam for the trip to Maeva, a fishing village on a tidal lake, where houses are built on stilts over the water. Outside of Fare, Polynesia was again Polynesia. At Maeva we found not only a labyrinth of stone fishweirs dating from ancient times, but the ruins of a marae, a pagan shrine. In the afternoon we explored the other end of the island by outboard, and found it lovely. Wide, white beaches sheltered by towering palms opened into deep bays, and finally into Port Bourayne, which was connected by a shallow passage with Maroe Bay on the other side. Huahine is shown as two islands on the chart, Huahine Nui and Iti, Huahine Great and Small, although they look like one from the deck of a passing vessel.
Not so our next pair of islands, Raiatea and Tahaa. As we left Fare Harbor, they stood bold and separate on the horizon ahead, although they are embraced by a single giant barrier reef in the shape of an hourglass. Small, creaming wavelets raced us to the pass. The maraamu still blew. Staghound was ready for rough going, South Sea fashion, the bananas in her rigging securely lashed to the ratlines, the drinking coconuts at the foot of the mainmast well chocked down, a carved tiki (idol) in the cabin below for luck.
But there was less wind and sea outside than we expected. The blasts funneling through the valleys had been stronger than the true offshore breeze. Staghound rolled along, with flying fish skittering from under the bow. Sea birds circled and dived over schools of bonito. We watched lazily, bestirring ourselves only enough to put out a fishline, while the purple haze of distance melted from the volcanic cones of Raiatea and transmuted the emerald-green slopes of Huahine astern.
As we approached Raiatea the symmetrical cone of a long-dead volcano lined up with a pair of palm-crowned islets to form a guide to the pass. Entering, Staghound was immediately in smooth water. Everywhere the Polynesian barrier reef, invisible above the surface, was a curiously effective buffer against the ocean seas outside, reducing heavy swells to ripples.
Not only is Raiatea the second largest island in the group after Tahiti, but the town of Uturoa is the second metropolis. Although it is no Papeete, I found it had unexpected amenities, including a room with private bath at the Hotel Hinano. Again I moved ashore. Hinano is a useful word. It is the name of the national brew, a strong beer made in Papeete, which uses a native girl in pareu as a trademark, and also of many vahines who might have posed for the ad. Loudly calling for Hinano in any bar is certain to produce results one way or another, possibly both.
THE JOINT WAS JUMPING
It was Saturday, and Saturday night is Saturday night the world over. After dinner in the hotel restaurant the crew of Staghound joined the crew of a New Zealand yacht at the Vairahi Bar. In South Sea (or any) lingo, the joint was jumping.
In Tahiti people have fun. As sailors have found through the years, there are few taboos and no inhibitions. This expresses itself in a unique form of dancing. In Hawaii visitors are told to watch the hands. Here there was no nonsense. Hinano flowed. The drums increased tempo. The joint got jumpier. And when it finally closed we jumped our way back to Stag-hound, to move the cabin table and go on dancing to Sam's guitar.
A few miles from Uturoa is the famous shrine of Taputapuatea, once the center of learning and worship for all Polynesia, a vast triangle extending from Hawaii to Samoa to Easter Island. More than 600 years ago the Aotea canoe set off from Raiatea for New Zealand, and the Maori people still consider the island an ancient seat of knowledge. Archeologists have proved that sacred stones from Taputapuatea were taken to lesser maraes thousands of miles away.
In the morning we visited Taputapuatea by outboard. Landing in a nearby village we walked past groves of coconuts and copra drying sheds to a point of land extending into the lagoon. A soft wind blew through the trees, and the roar of the surf was loud. The decoration of human skulls described by the Reverend William Ellis, the great Polynesian scholar who visited Taputapuatea in 1819, had long since been carried away by marauding whalers, but the ruins of extensive coral and stone platforms were still there. Also remaining was the tall pillar on which the ancient kings were presented to their subjects. Local legend has it that the same stone was used to measure the height of warriors; any man who could not top it was likely to become a victim of the nearby ceremonial oven. If the legend is true, former inhabitants of Raiatea must have been supermen, as the stone was nearly nine feet high.
On our return to Uturoa for lunch, Staghound acquired a passenger, Repeta, who was going home to Tiva, on Tahaa, our next stop. Repeta was 16, a typical vahine. Her skin was soft brown, perhaps a shade darker than a brunette American girl might achieve from a summer on the beach, and her dark hair hung in a thick braid to her waist. Her eyes were large and expressive, and her smile as innocent and shy as a child's. She loved flowers. She was completely unaffected in manner and dress, and without visible complications; in the soft climate and relaxed customs of the islands complications as we know them simply do not exist.
Leaving Uturoa, Plazi Miller went aloft to con Staghound through scattered coral clumps, but between the islands the water was deep and free from dangers. As on the Bahama Banks, the color of the water was dependent on the depth, so Staghound reached across a quilt of blue and green, with purple patches of deep coral to either side.
Terii and Repeta chattered in the shade of the mainsail while the island of Tahaa lifted higher. Scalloped by deep bays, Tahaa is a cruising man's dream of snug harbors, all with romantic names: Tapuamu, Apu, Teoneroa-Haaoa, Hamene. Coconut trees grow not only along the shore, but to the tops of the lower hills. And, coming around the southern point, there is a vision of distant loveliness, the steep cone of Bora-Bora, symmetrical and almost perfect on the far horizon.
Tahaa is an island rarely visited by yachts. A crowd gathered as Stag-hound made fast to the small quay. The people seemed curious but quiet, and soon drifted away. "They'll be back," predicted Paul. We swam and drank sundown rum punches in the cockpit as Terii cooked dinner. The village appeared deserted. But as we sat at the table in the cabin the tentative chords of a ukulele began to sound from the shore. Sam took his guitar and went on deck.
Gathered on the quay was a solid mass of people, "like a dark wall," as Paul commented. Sam sat on top of the trunk cabin amidships and began to play. Soon the man with the ukulele was alongside. Another man ventured aboard and began to sing. He left to return with a guitar, and a wonderful night began. Tahitian music is less plaintive than Hawaiian; there are few sad songs, laments for lost loves and the sorrows of parting. It is gay, and always there is the beat, the vibrant pulse of life. Almost everyone could sing. From the shore voices joined in, or began a new song when the musicians paused.
The crowd on the quay moved in time, an unconscious mass response to music. Ashore couples began to dance. Slowly big-eyed children stole into the cockpit, peering below but vanishing like moths if invited farther. Vahines giggled from the shadows and gradually came aboard. Men followed, until our decks were crowded and Staghound took a heavy list. A waning moon peeped over the horizon. Cigarettes glowed. All was laughter and good humor: how long would we stay, where were we going, whose girl was Repeta? The three musicians played steadily, voices soft and caressing. Below, the pat of bare feet on deck in time was like the sound of muffled drums.
A NIGHT FOR REPETA
It was a moment of glory for Repeta. As we docked in her home village she had displayed a fine proprietary air. Now she sat next to Sam. When he rested she took over the guitar, and played it well. She sang every song. For hours the music continued, while the moon lifted above the spreaders and began to drop on the other side of the sky, until at last the crowd slowly drifted away. Finally there was only the sound of surf on the reef, and the village slept under the palms.
Next morning I was awakened at sunrise by the tentative plunking of a ukulele on the dock. But this time no one stirred in welcome, and the player went away. Later I lighted the stove to make early tea, had a swim while the water was heating, and went ashore. People smiled as I passed and called "la ora na," the Tahitian greeting used in the sense of both hello and welcome which means "May you live." The village was awakening, and the simple chores of a simple life were under way.
When the time came to sail after breakfast, we still had a passenger. Repeta was quite ready to continue the trip—have pareu, will travel. It took some time for Paul to explain in French that from Bora-Bora Stag-hound was making a long voyage and there wasn't space for a vahine, however charming. Reluctantly she went ashore, possessions in a small basket. She stayed on the quay to cast off our lines, gave us a final quiet, shy smile and disappeared as a kitten might wander away.
All along Bora-Bora had had a special allure. From the first I had heard of the drums of Bora-Bora, the girls of Bora-Bora, the beauty of the twin peaks and the islands of the lagoon. It being my birthday, the weather gods decided to give me a perfect final sail. The maraamu had lost most of its punch and the sky had cleared except for a few puffy cumulus clouds to lend emphasis to the blue. The seas were lazy instead of cresting, yet overhead the sails filled snug and taut without slatting.
The closer we sailed to Bora-Bora, the more perfect it looked, a Bali Ha'i come true. Fishermen walked the reef as we entered the pass, darting long spears into inshore pools. Others dragged nets. Outrigger canoes drifted across the lagoon. And to starboard lay Motu Tapu, The Forbidden Isle, where, according to legend, young girls were sent to stay out of the sun and thereby become paler and more alluring. Crowned by palms, ringed by white sand and water of many colors, Motu Tapu, years ago the locale of the famous motion picture Tabu, epitomizes the South Seas.
Inside the lagoon Paul swung Staghound to starboard and followed a line of deep-blue water. Skirting a sunken coral ledge, we came to anchor in eight fathoms. I had asked for poisson cru, and it was up to us to get the poisson. Nor was it difficult, thanks to Sam. With his homemade wooden speargun, he was uncanny at stalking and long-range shooting. Contrary to expectation, reef fish in Tahiti run scarce, small and wary. Sam's technique was to dive well away from prey he had spotted, then move flat along the bottom, seeking coral clumps for cover. At times he would hide behind a branching coral tree until a fish swam within range; watching him from the surface, my lungs ached in sympathy. Rarely did he release the spear without making a hit.
Leaving the affairs of the pot in the hands of a master, I swam farther along the reef, occasionally diving down for a better look. There were tiny fish by the thousands, flecks of blue, of purple, of yellow, of red, of green, of stripes and spots and iridescence, for nothing else in nature rivals the pigmentation of the smaller inhabitants of a tropic reef. Some hung together in dense clouds and others peered in lonely suspicion from minute caverns, while my favorites—inch-long, pale-blue characters—appeared and disappeared from a thicket of coral like a covey of quail in pine woods.
Swimming back to Staghound, I was reminded that less innocent creatures share the same waters. Far below, shadowy in the depths, a huge horned ray flapped along the bottom. The tempo of my strokes unconsciously quickened.
Poisson cru (e i'a ota in Tahitian, plain raw fish in English) had become my favorite Polynesian dish. Nothing is more delicious. Nor is it raw, except in the sense it is not cooked by heat. Now at last I was to see it made.
A RECIPE FOR "POISSON CRU"
Almost any sort of fish may be used, although bonito is considered best by Tahitians. After cleaning, scaling and dicing into small cubes, it was put in a bowl, and the juice of perhaps a dozen limes squeezed over—enough to thoroughly dampen the flesh. Terii anointed a layer, salted it generously and turned it with a fork, making sure none was missed. Onions were sliced in and given a thorough tossing to mix. The bowl was covered to marinate. Thirty minutes is sufficient to cook to the taste of a true convert; after an hour the meat is done enough for almost anyone. It has the taste and texture of cooked fish, and the flavor is not strong. Excess juice is drained off and salad ingredients added—sliced tomatoes, more chopped onions, diced carrot, halved hard-boiled eggs, lettuce—none or all, as fancy dictates. Ideally, milk from pressed coconut meat should be poured over just before serving, but this is not essential.
Paul had arranged for an evening birthday party at the Hotel Tiare Tahiti on the waterfront of the village of Vaitape. Candles had been added to the oil lamps, and our table was strewn with flowers. As usual in Polynesia, the dining room was a palm thatch-roof supported by palm trunks, open on all sides. A warm, perfumed breeze blew through, and we could see the lights of fishing canoes across the lagoon.
Soon the drums warmed up. As we dined—on more poisson cru—I was aware of movement in the outside darkness. There was no moon, but I thought I saw people crossing stray shafts of lantern light. Still, I wondered if there would be enough for a dance. Indeed! At the first sound of music couples flowed to the floor, until even the orchestra was inundated.
Bora-Bora belles have a no-wallflowers system at dances. They cluster in deep shadows beyond the ring of light from the room. They will dance when asked, but selection of a partner becomes a chancy affair. The crew of one yacht was reported to have solved the problem by the use of a Polaroid camera and flash gun: when developed, the print was inspected, and each man made his choice ("I'll take the second from the left.... I'll take the one by the tree...."). The system worked fine until the vahines, with a fine Tahitian sense of humor, shifted positions in the darkness as soon as a picture was made.
Vaitape, seen by daylight the next morning, proved to be a village of a single street winding along the foot of the twin peaks of Taimanu and Pahia. The beach is its front yard and the lagoon its swimming pool. On a point near the church stands a coral monument and bronze plaque in honor of Alain Gerbault, a French sportsman who circumnavigated the globe on a small yacht, receiving the Blue Water Medal of the Cruising Club of America. Later he returned to Bora-Bora, his ideal of earthly perfection, where he ended his days, to be buried in the lagoon.
From Bora-Bora Staghound was voyaging without pause 600 miles to Rarotonga, while I returned to Papeete. We celebrated our final day with a sail aboard an outrigger canoe. Even in Polynesia the outboard has taken over, but we were fortunate in chartering a canoe of a type little changed since the days of Captain Cook.
Bringing along a few cans of bully beef and a jar of water, we sailed across the lagoon, seven people aboard a craft only 18 feet over-all and no more than 18 inches wide. Countering the outrigger on the opposite side was an extension to take the stays of a unique double-masted rig—a short, thick spar stepped through a thwart, with a second, lighter mast in the nature of a very tall gaff, giving a sail of high aspect ratio and astonishing drive. As each hard williwaw rifled down the twin peaks, the canoe jetted ahead, while Sam scrambled along the outrigger to add his weight for stability.
It was a swift and exciting sailing, almost as though we were taking wing. The day was perfect, one of those tropical delights when everything sparkles: light danced on the fronds of the palms, in the shallows over which we sailed, on the crests of little wavelets, on the towering breakers thundering on the reef. Beyond the line of breakers which marked the barrier reef we could see Raiatea and Tahaa, indistinct on the horizon, hard to separate from their cloud covers. Looking down through the water, we could see the purple of sea fans, the green and gold of coral, the darting shadows of fish.
Swiftly we closed Point Matira, a long shelf of sand crowned by palms. We ran the canoe ashore and swam while the Polynesian skipper climbed a nearby tree. Coming out of the water we were welcomed to the shade of a sea grape with green coconuts, their tops sliced off, nature's goblet. "This is it," I said to Paul Hurst, and he laughed and replied, "Yes, this is Tahiti. Or Paradise."
As never before in my life, reality and legend had become one.
ILES SOUS LE VENT
ROUTE OF "STAGHOUND"
SOUTH PACIFIC OCEAN
ILES DU VENT