Society Islands: Sail the Sous-le-Vent

Setting blissfully adrift in French Polynesia

Aug 16, 2006
Outside Magazine
Society Islands

HIGH SOCIETY: Set sail in this unique island chain    Photo: Corel

Access & Resources

Getting There: Air Tahiti Nui (877-824-4846, flies nonstop to Papeete from LAX (from $923 round-trip) or JFK (from $1,223). Air Tahiti (011-68986-42-42, flies from Papeete to Raiatea (from $240 round-trip). Charters: Sunsail (800-327-2276; offers 37-to-57-foot yachts. Bareboat charters start at $2,500 per week. Full charters start at $14,000 per week. The Moorings (800-535-7289,, based on Raiatea, offers 36-to-50-foot yachts for a minimum five-day sail....

SAILING IS THE ONLY FORM OF TRAVEL on which my family agrees. Despite the close quarters, squabbles between my mother, father, brother James, and me diminish on board a boat. We've seen a fair amount of the world this way. Or at least a fair amount of water.

In search of new winds, we find ourselves in Tahiti, the central hub of the Society Islands. With a prevailing easterly averaging 15 to 20 knots, the Societies make for an ideal cruising ground. The 14-island archipelago is divided into two groups, the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. We like the sound of the latter in French (Les Îles Sous-le-Vent), so we take the hour flight from Tahiti to Raiatea, the home port for Sunsail, our charter company. After a quick stop to provision in the capital of Uturoa, we're under way on Tourteau, a 47-foot Beneteau we'll call home for the next two weeks as we make a round-trip circuit of the Societies.

On our three-hour shakedown sail to Tahaa, Mum gasps, "Look at the color of this water!" It's true: The sea beneath us is becoming a lighter blue. Alarm bells go off—changing colors indicate changing depths. And although we should be in the channel, I can see the ocean floor.

"Wait, we're in French waters," my father yells from the helm. (The buoy system in French Polynesia is the opposite of that in American waters.) We make it to Tahaa without running aground, then dinghy ashore for a sunset dinner at Marina Iti. There's no menu, and we're the only people in the beachside restaurant. We eat cheese soufflé and mahi-mahi stuffed with shrimp and drink rum and wine.

Tahaa is known as the Vanilla Island, owing to the fragrance of its numerous vanilla plantations. Most of the residents are full-blooded Tahitians, but there is a visible French influence—the mailboxes are designed for baguette, not post, delivery.

The next morning, the sky keeps clouding over, and hail drives us below. After several false starts, we finally make a break downwind for the fabled island of Bora-Bora. When my father was a lad living in the outskirts of London, he thought Bora-Bora the farthest, most exotic place in the world, and so although some of the more rugged sailors advise we skip this "glitzy" island, we are too close not to have a look. It's a glorious five-hour journey under full sail.

Bora-Bora may be developed by Tahitian standards, but we find it magnificent, with lush Mount Otemanu stretching up 2,385 feet in the center. Over the next few days, we visit the famous Bloody Mary's for its eponymous drink and sit out a small cyclone before sailing back to Tahaa. Upon entering the lagoon, we're surrounded by some 50 dolphins. Had I been born into a godly family, we would have claimed the presence of the divine. We simply grin idiotically and say "wow" a lot.

After exploring Tahaa, we chart a course for Huahine, 25 nautical miles away. There is some grumbling on board arising from the fact that we are down to cheese and . . . cheese. We haven't showered in a few days, because we've run out of water. James is the smelliest, as he's refused to swim since the morning a harmless reef shark circled the anchored boat.

Once we procure steaks and water in Huahine's main village of Fare, we head south to the bay of Avea, ringed with perfect white-sand beaches. Here we rest for a few days, doing somersaults in the water and floating on our backs. In the evenings, James and I dinghy ashore to play poker and talk wind with the locals in a sand-floored beach bar. James throws down a full house and announces he's quitting his job at a Manhattan law firm. (He did—and is now penniless in Santiago, Chile.)

We spend the rest of our time exploring the bays of Huahine before finally returning to Raiatea. Once back at base, we gulp down the last of the Hinano (the local beer) and say goodbyes. Faces forlorn, we remember the famous French sailor Bernard Moitessier, who, instead of turning north to Britain from Cape Horn to win the Golden Globe race in 1968, kept on sailing, his course set for French Polynesia. We understand why.

Filed To: Sailing

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