6 Bora Bora
Mine is the migrating bird
Winging over perilous regions
of the ocean,
Ever tracing out the age old path
of the wandering waves…
- Tuamotuan sacred chant
Once clear of Hiva Oa's jagged coast, I set a southwest course to clear the rocky ramparts of Ua Pu Island not far to the west. Nine hundred miles off my bow lay Bora Bora.
When French explorer Louis Bougainville sailed through these islands in 1767, he described it as paradise on earth: “Nature has placed it in the best climate in the Universe, embellished it smilingly, enriched it with all its gifts, covered it with handsome inhabitants...she herself has dictated their laws.” And so began the romantic myth of Tahiti.
In fact, when Captain James Cook arrived a year later, he recorded that the Tahitians stole anything that glittered, were constantly warring with their neighbors and practiced human sacrifice. By 1900, Tahiti had lost most of Bougainville's charm as well as any resistance to Western civilization, at least for Paul Gauguin who wrote: “It was Europe...under the aggravating circumstances of colonial snobbism, and the imitation...of our customs, fashions, vices, and absurdities of civilization. Was I to have made this far journey only to find the very thing which I had fled?”
Tahiti was not on my list of ports to visit any more than Honolulu or the American South Seas capital in Samoa. Those places might be magnets for credit card-toting tourists and high budget cruising yachts, but they held nothing for me and in fact represented “the very thing which I fled.”
Then there is Tahiti's less developed sister island, Bora Bora. For me, that double-barreled name has always been a magical incantation, conjuring up images equally intoxicating as the name Tahiti. The flowing syllables of those two islands, more than any other, define the words exotic and sensual. Any fool would know Bora Bora was not now as Bougainville had described it more than two hundred years ago. Yet, I hoped Western civilization's heavy hand may have come down more gently on this outlying island of Tahiti. Even if I convinced myself Tahiti was ruined, I had more seamanlike reasons for holding course for Bora Bora: Tahiti lay a point or two too close to the wind for Atom's taste.
French solo sailor Alain Gerbault put it simply when he wrote: “Why go against the wind to certain islands if there are some equally beautiful ones to leeward?” Through the language and lore of sailors come metaphors apt to any man's life, such as a sailor's struggle to windward isles or his free flight to leeward. Enough windward destinations await us in life that we need not seek them out.
Between Atom and Tahiti lay a group of low coral atolls no solo sailor, equipped with only a sextant, should care to approach. From deep water, changeable currents can set you on the reefs before even sighting the sandy motus of the atolls. Even the chart boldly declares it “The Dangerous Archipelago” in case it was not otherwise apparent from the groups of tiny dots sprinkled over the chart like star constellations. True, some solo sailors have successfully passed through these islands, even in the days before GPS satellite navigation. Most of them had dependable engines to negotiate the currents in the narrow passes, and either God's own pilot looking over their shoulders, or the seamanship skills of a Moitessier or Slocum. Remembering my own near disastrous approach to the Galapagos, I wasn't willing to chance another near shipwreck and so held course a good distance off The Dangerous Archipelago.
For three days Atom bounded smartly over the waves, as if running a steeplechase, but the weather then deteriorated to a near gale and steady rain. As an atmospheric depression passed, the winds abruptly ceased. The seas still ran high, as they do for a time after the onset of a sudden calm. Without wind in her sails to steady her, Atom behaved like a rodeo bull gone berserk. Her head would lift to a wave crest, fall and bury itself in the following trough, then raise again to send a river of water streaming from her back. With the bow down, the stern kicked up so high the rudder lost its bite on the water. Then the stern fell until the afterdeck scooped another load of water to send rushing forward. Along with the pitching motion, Atom occasionally swung round to a sideways stance, rolling in her crazed way from toe rail to toe rail. With no wind, there was no way to hold a course, and nothing to do except lash the tiller amidships to prevent it beating itself to pieces against the side of the cockpit. After a half-day wedged in my bunk behind the lee-cloths, a fresh wind of about 20 knots from the southeast returned.
Atom now resumed her familiar steady, long strides over the waves. With a fair current assisting we covered 165 miles in one 24-hour period between two evening star fixes. Part of me wanted to slow down to save wear and tear on the sails, but the thrill-seeker urged me on until I noticed a seam beginning to let go in the jib. With the wind square on the beam – our fastest point of sail – the leeward toe rail and side deck was almost constantly under water, causing some new deck leaks to make themselves known. I went back to sponging seawater out of leeward bunks and lockers and pumping the rest out of the bilge several times a day. Going forward later to swap the number three jib for the storm jib, I noticed with some amazement how low the bow was riding in the water. As with any heavy-keeled displacement boat with a short waterline, our attempt to push the sea aside at seven knots boat speed resulted in our nearly plowing ourselves under.
The wind eased some and the seas gradually steadied to give us a more normal heave and roll. The strong wind that had so agitated the seas yesterday, now caressed it into lying low. Its soft touch produced an equally calming effect on myself as well.
About this time, I tossed overboard a full pot of vegetable stew due to an extremely strong acid flavor that I traced to the taro root I'd harvested from Tehoko's garden. It turns out I had not learned so well when he had shown me how to separate the edible from the non-edible roots. I then test boiled the rest of my taro stock and ended up throwing at least half of it overboard.
During the day, I'd watch flying fish take wing ahead of our bow. Those slow to lift off risked the slashing bite of the dorado fish who hunted under cover behind our keel.
At night, the flying fish were attracted to the soft yellow glow of my kerosene cabin light shining out the companionway hatch and bronze-framed cabin ports. Thump – one hit the side of the cabin house or flew into the mainsail and dropped on deck. A few times a fish would come flying, arrow-like into the cabin, once landing on top of me in my bunk. The next part some won't believe – I could barely believe it myself! As I reclined in the leeward bunk, with my head propped up against the galley cabinet, a flying fish shot through the companionway hatch, hit the cabin house side above the galley, and fell – yes – fell, right into the frying pan sitting on the gimbaled stovetop. We both lay as we were, momentarily stunned. I could have dropped a little oil in the pan, put on a cover, and lit the cooker. Instead, I dumped him back over the side – the first fish to go live from the frying pan back to the sea.
It reminded me of another memorable encounter with a flying fish as I sailed Atom in the Straits of Florida one dark night between Key West and Miami. A ship was overtaking me and I stood in the cockpit scanning her well lit bridge and deck with my binoculars. For a fraction of a second, I heard a fast approaching whoosh. Then, POW! I was hit square in the chest with a force and shock that sent me crumpling to the cockpit floor. My first thought was that someone on the ship had shot me. That lasted just a second until I saw a full-grown flying fish lying beside me.
Just before noon on my seventh day out of Hiva Oa, I sighted the craggy peak of Bora Bora rising from its coral base. Having spent my childhood in the flat, mid-western states, I've never lost my feeling of awe at the sight of towering cones of land emerging from the sea after days or weeks of anticipation. The first hint of Bora Bora was a clump of white cumulus clouds piled up on the horizon. They showed no sign of drifting away as they normally would over open sea. A few miles closer in, the clouds detached themselves from the sea and the top of the island's central peak became visible as it lifted above the curvature of the earth.
I sailed as fast as I knew how in a race to beat the setting sun. It would be foolish to attempt to enter a strange harbor after dark, particularly a narrow, reef-lined entrance. At sunset, when green slopes fronted by a frosty white line of surf battering the windward reef were clearly outlined, I was still six miles short of the lagoon entrance. The night passed easy as I turned about, backed the jib and hove-to in the sheltered lee of the islands of Tahaa and Raiatea. Fair skies and moonlight allowed me to see the dark mass of the islands and scattered lights ashore, and to keep clear of the reefs that wrap each island.
By dawn, I had reset the sails and positioned myself directly in front of the entrance. Bora Bora's central island, surrounded by the flat waters of an encircling lagoon, was backlit by the sunrise. The lagoon, in turn, was surrounded by a circle of barrier reefs and a necklace of low, palm-covered motus.
Wind and current were both spilling directly out of the narrow pass between the reefs so I started the engine to gain the anchorage. On both sides of me the surf broke in an unmistakable warning of shallow reefs. Midway through the pass, the engine failed. Now at the mercy of the current, I was ejected from the pass and in no time found myself a mile out to sea. It was a familiar routine, as if some mischievous ghost resided in this tired old engine. So happy in his former life, puttering around the safe harbors of Michigan's lakes, the old Atomic Four was now frightened into a seizure whenever we entered the swirling currents and hull-ripping coral heads in a tricky pass.
Along with the ghost, I guessed there was saltwater contamination in the fuel tank from the leaking deck fill fitting, which in turn led to a clogged filter and corrosion to the carburetor. With scraped knuckles and a back sore from hanging over the engine, I managed to strip and clean the carburetor and fuel filter without losing any essential bits into the bilge. On our second attempt, we entered the harbor and found it was deep, very deep: everywhere over 60 feet with hard coral bottom right up to the suddenly shallow shelf next to shore. This made it impossible to anchor securely with the puny ground tackle I carried. What I would have given then for my current setup of an anchor windlass and 33-pound anchor with 150 feet of chain, shackled to a ¾-inch diameter nylon rode!
After searching around for a suitable spot, I fortunately found an empty mooring buoy in front of the Oa Oa Hotel. Next door to the Oa Oa were the $200 a day thatch-roofed bungalows of Club Med. A topless French girl sailed past me on a windsurfer, confirming that I was back in civilization. Squeezed between mountain and lagoon, the village of Viatepe lay only a few minutes walk from the hotel's dinghy dock.
Any visions I had of being welcomed as the brave solo voyager in this particular corner of paradise were quickly dispelled by my visit to the local gendarmarie. As in Atuona, the gendarmes here serve as police, customs and immigration. Three officers, dressed in their sensible short pants tropical uniform, greeted me politely in French. Then one of them poisoned the atmosphere by bringing up that touchy issue of the $850 bond sailors are expected to hand over with the promise of having it returned by bank transfer when they leave the colony. As before, I replied in the negative, and unlike before, un petit crises ensued. Six arms flailed about like angry orchestra conductors, adding emphasis to the excited discussion, first facing each other, then me, and back to themselves again.
It was as if I were the first sailor to reach their blessed shores with less than $850 in his pocket. This went on until they conceded that since I had been forced into their fair harbor by the extraordinary circumstances of my tale (broken engine, navigational error, storms, imbecility, sea monsters no less) I could stay four days. I had asked for two weeks and got a definite “C'est impossible!” Even with my limited French I couldn't pretend not to understand that, particularly as it was spoken by three frowning faces swinging side to side. With some further grimacing and head-scratching we negotiated a one week stay with the familiar provision that I then sail directly to the bank in Tahiti. Let's see, Tahiti lies 200 miles dead to windward. “Qui, pas problem.”
As it so happened, one week was exactly how long I had intended to stay. I was learning that to get along with French officials when you are not, shall we say, following the rules, you must first engage in a good, long, polite argument and never, never speak to them in English, no matter how poor your French is. The sadistic delight they take in watching you fumble with phrase book and dictionary, and then stand before you, teacher to dunce pupil, correcting your pronunciation, goes a long way towards pacifying the puffed up French bureaucrat. It's a matter of feeding their wounded pride. Play the game, humiliate yourself, and they will yield in the end.
Another thing that perhaps I should not keep harping on about was the outrageous prices of goods in the shops of French Polynesia, but it was a constant concern. There was almost nothing in the shops of Viatepe I could afford. It was fortunate that my needs were few. And then, my luck changed in an instant and it seemed I might even manage to depart Bora Bora with a few dollars more than when I arrived.
In one of the tourist boutiques I struck up a conversation with Philippe, the shop owner. Somehow, I mentioned to him I had new T-shirts I was trading for food with the islanders. Philippe was selling T-shirts in his shop for $15-$20 each. He came to the boat and picked out a bagful of my most colorful shirts picturing popular rock bands. He had no garden vegetables to offer, but cash was fine with me. “Will you accept eight dollars apiece, mon ami?” The next day my shirts from Miami were hanging in his shop's racks, ready to sell to tourists from Sydney or Paris, or perhaps even Miami. Imagining the pleasure the three stooges customs officers in the gendarmerie would have in locking me up for smuggling, I reminded Philippe, “Let's not mention this gift exchange to anyone.”
The best way, really the only way, to see this island, if you want to avoid the rushed views of a rented tourist scooter, is to walk the island's sole circular road as it skirts the banks of the lagoon. The irregular-shaped island, some 20 miles around, is a bit far for a relaxed, single day walk, so I brought along my tent to camp on the opposite side of the island and then continue around back to Viatepe the following day.
What luxury to walk under the shade of the overhanging palms on the smoothly paved road paralleling the many beaches. Neat little homes were decorated as art on canvas with window boxes sprouting bright flowers. Pareos on clotheslines flapped in the warm wind like colorful flags of the various states of Oceania. Loaves of baguettes hung out of mailboxes next to the front gates, delivered daily from the Chinese bakery in Viatepe. I barely noticed the resort hotels, of which there were a few. Unlike the towering concrete eyesores of Waikiki or Miami Beach, these were one or two stories high at most, covered on the outsides with timber and palm thatch in the native fashion that's so easy on the eye. The road was so lightly traveled I wondered where the tourists were. It was Tahiti without the traffic. The vehicles that did pass me were mostly motor scooters, sometimes loaded with father, mother and three children in precarious balance.
How magical to share the road with beautiful, dark-eyed vahines, wrapped in pareo as they zip by on puttering Vespa scooters, bound for home with a basketful of baguettes. Many vahine wear the hibiscus flower in their flowing silky black hair. A flower above the right ear means available, left means she's already taken. If you're introduced to a local vahine, she'll ignore your offer of a limp handshake as she joyously plants a kiss on each cheek.
On the far side of the island, far from houses or hotels, I stopped for the night in a coconut grove along the beach. I knew enough not to sit down or pitch my tent directly under a tree pregnant with skull-cracking nuts. For a long while I sat up tending a small mosquito-deterring fire of discarded coconut husks. Over a palm-covered motu, I watched the moon rise, seemingly suspended in the lagoon between sea and sky. Surf breaking on the reef miles away became a visible white line. Warm trade winds stirred the palms, their long fronds waving and shadowboxing in the faint light. I felt I understood Gauguin when he wrote: “The lofty coconut trees lift up their plumes, and man does likewise.” Deeply I breathed in the perfumed island air. This, at last, was my Bora Bora!
In the morning I was awake before the soft glow of predawn. The sun would soon rise over the same motu that birthed last night's moon. Before it did, I was on the road again. Though written for a harsher land and hardier breed of traveler than myself, I couldn't help but place myself in John Masefield's poem as I continued my trek around the island:
There is no solace for us,
For such as we,
Who search for some hidden city
We shall never see …
Instead there is only the road,
The Dawn and the Wind and the Rain
And the Watchfire under the stars,
And the road again.
The walking was so effortless that I gave in to the temptation to climb the central mountain peak that loomed constant above my left shoulder ever since beginning my counterclockwise walk at Viatepe. A trail lured me up, and then disappeared. I continued moving up through thick brush. A vertical stone cliff face forced a detour. In another place, I entered a mass of hanging roots from trees seemingly rooted in air. Grasping suspended vines for balance, I stepped, then swung like an orangutan, from root to branch until I looked down to see I was well above the ground in a net-like tangle of vegetation. I went as high as the rocks and trees rose. I guessed I was on or near the summit, though I had no way of knowing, for the trees and roots had me completely boxed in.
Later that day, I gazed up at that broad perpendicular cliff face from the deck of my boat in the lagoon. The geologic story of this island was as clear as the scene before me – an epic of perpetual struggle between land and sea. This island, with its peak eroding into the lagoon, showed itself older than Hiva Oa, younger than the atolls of the Tuamotus. Ephemeral islands begin as newly born volcanic peaks pushing up from ocean depths, and like a man, make their stand for a time against the elements, before sinking again from erosive forces, to live and die in infinitely slow motion.
After seven dream-filled days in Bora Bora, I returned alone to the sea and once again set aside the shore-going mask we've all learned to wear in society. I laid a course for the islands of Tonga, 1,500 miles to the west.