Sea of the Moon: Island-hopping under sail in French Polynesia

In the late 1920s a globe-girdling yachtsman named William Albert Robinson lay off the northwest coast of Tahiti in his 32-foot ketch, Svaap. He probed for a pass in the barrier reef that would lead him to the island’s main town, Papeete.

“We ran in with the thunder of surf on both sides,” Robinson would write. “Once in the fairway along the shore — the air was heavy with the scent of flowers and we could hear the sounds of birds, dogs, cattle…”

Some 80 years later — voyaging in one of the world’s biggest commercial sailing ships, the four-masted barquentine Star Flyer — I came through the same pass. It was a nighttime arrival. Breakers crashed on the surrounding reef. With master and harbor pilot conning the vessel from a wing of the bridge, we lined up a pair of flashing green range beacons and coasted under power to the maritime quay in the center of town.

Yet instead of Robinson’s birdsong and bellowing of cows, we were greeted by the roar of traffic from Papeete sprawling 21st-century waterfront. Neon signs proclaimed shoreside attractions: to starboard, the Vaima Shopping Center; dead ahead, Les 3 Brasseurs (Three Brewers) Café. Almost under our bowsprit a clutch of open-sided restaurant vans, ablaze with light, dispensed everything from sushi to steak.

Papeete was my final port of call in a week of sailing and motorsailing among the Society Islands, semi-independent territories of France. With names like Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora-Bora, these storied outposts of reefs, lagoons and upthrusting volcanic crags lie scattered across 12,000 square miles of Polynesia west of the 149th meridian between latitudes 16° and 18° south. My passage in the huge windjammer recreated the age of 19th and early 20th-century trading schooners — packet ships hauling passengers and freight — that at one time were fixtures of the South Sea Islands.

Star Flyer and her younger twin, Star Clipper, are the collective brainchild of 62-year-old Swedish shipping entrepreneur, Mikael Krafft. Built in Belgium in 1991 and 1992, the vessels carry Luxembourg registry, but are operated by Krafft’s Monaco-based Star Clippers, Ltd. A third passenger packet, the five-masted full-rigger Royal Clipper, rounds out the fleet. A fourth is being planned.

Steel, aluminum and teak

Save for her aluminum yards, wooden wheel and acre of teak decking, Star Flyer is steel to the trucks. Sheets, halyards and foremast yard-braces are nylon rope. Standing rigging — stays and shrouds — are steel wire. The shrouds are set up with rigging screws, not deadeyes. Belowdecks, amenities for up to 170 passengers include a library, a bar-lounge, a capacious dining room, and compact cabins with private baths. Topsides, an instrument-crammed pilothouse is recessed into a break in the foredeck a few steps forward of the helmsman’s station, on the open bridge. Four large motor lifeboats double as shore tenders.

The ship’s overall length is 367 feet. Her beam is 50 feet and the draft is 18 feet. The gross registered tonnage is 2,300. Sixteen Dacron sails totaling 36,000 square feet, tailored by the Polish loft Sail Service, spread from masts as tall as 20-story buildings. The auxiliary is a 1,360 hp Caterpillar diesel geared to a fully feathering four-bladed screw. Engine exhaust vents clear of the fantail through the jigger mast. Two 560 kW generators supply ample electricity for the ship’s lighting, air-conditioning and watermaking needs.

With a hollow clipper entrance and a clean run aft, the vessel can achieve 17 knots under sail (12 under power). But on my particular voyage the tropical belt of light-to-moderate southeast trades rarely permitted us to exceed 10 knots, with the wind abeam or on the quarter.

A 46-year-old Pole, Mariusz Szalek, was skipper. A slim 6-footer, his dark hair touched with gray, Szalek, who trained in sail, has spent his professional life as mate or master in yachts, container ships and square-riggers. He assumed command of Star Flyer in early 2008. In addition to his international master’s ticket, he holds the unusual qualification of licensed lagoon pilot for all of the Society Islands except Tahiti, where taking a government pilot is mandatory.

Of Szalek’s polyglot crew of 75, most were in hotel or galley jobs, the rest on deck or in the engine room. His chief mate hailed from Italy; his second and third mates from the Ukraine. Two of the three deck officers had, like Szalek, put in their time in both sail and steam. One had experience solely in sail. English, by the way, was the ship’s working language; master and mates spoke it fluently.

Tahiti was the jumping-off-point as well as terminus for the trip I took, and I joined the ship on a hot, humid evening at the end of May. With 140 passengers aboard we motored out of Papeete’s pass a few miles west of Matavai Bay, where Bligh of the Bounty once had anchored and Captain Cook charted the coast.

Dropping the pilot

Clearing the pass, the ship dropped the pilot into a bobbing launch. Our course was west-northwest. Destination: Huahine. A light breeze puffed out of the east. Szalek ordered loose-footed staysails set on fore, main, mizzen and jigger masts. Inner and outer jibs rode up the stays. Pitching and rolling easily in a southerly swell, we motorsailed overnight — the run was 110 nautical miles — closing with Huahine’s west coast at dawn. The sun lit our way through a narrow pass edged by exposed reefs.

Szalek tied up to a mooring buoy at the south end of a quietly beautiful lagoon. A few dwellings hugged the shore, backed by deep valleys and precipitous crags clothed in a mantle of foliage. Passengers were ferried to a small pier by tender to explore ancient archaeological sites or to haggle over sticker prices for ubiquitous black pearls, staple commodities in this part of the world.

Late in the afternoon we retrieved our passengers and doubled back through the pass to the open sea. Visible some 22 miles to the west were the saw-toothed ridges of Raiatea, our next island-hopping stop. We had a good slant of wind, southeast at 10 knots — a perfect sailing quarter. Szalek shut down the engine and Star Flyer’s fore-mast squares scrolled down from rollers in the hollow yards like hydraulically operated window shades: forecourse, lower and upper topsails, lower and upper topgallants. To port, wisps of pink cirrus clouds flew on the breeze. The sea was ruffled, blue-black shot through with reflected glitter. Masts and sails rose stark against a darkening sky. Our squares filled and pulled us forward. We picked up speed. The bow curled back a furrow of foam.

Standing off

With safety a prime concern, Szalek avoids after-dark passages of the island reefs. In succeeding days — at Raiatea and again at neighboring Tahaa — we stood off overnight before slipping in at daybreak through constricted passes. The two sister islands are linked by an encircling reef and the grand sweep of a shared lagoon studded with palm-fringed islets, called motus. For shore parties there was a schedule of excursions to pearl farms, vanilla plantations, snorkeling reefs; for the crew, the unending shipboard round of sail repair and overhauling and renewing wire and rope.

At sunset of the voyage’s fourth day we weighed anchor and motored out through Tahaa’s Papai Pass to the offing. A heavy surf broke on the reef as we ran clear. Now out to sea, Star Flyer rolled and pitched like a hobbyhorse in the rising southerly swell. With the wind east at 15 knots, gusting to 20, Szalek shaped a course northwest for the 20 mile downwind sleighride to one of the more celebrated of the Polynesian islands, Bora-Bora. “We’ll make it in two, two-and-a-half hours,” the master said. “I’ll go inside; I won’t lay off. It’s one of the islands where the lights always work.”

In the dark, on the starboard tack, all sails set and drawing, we came up fast along Bora-Bora’s west coast to the reef entrance, Teavanui Pass. As we fetched the reef I could see the lighted channel markers: green to starboard, red to port — the reverse of U.S. buoyage. The French Hydrographic Office chart showed 300 meters between the lights. There was plenty of water under our keel. Szalek doused sails at the mouth of the pass and worked through under the auxiliary to an anchorage in 25 fathoms about half a mile below the chief town, Vaitape.

Measuring no more than 2 miles by 5, the island is completely enclosed by a sheltered and navigable lagoon. Its single dominant feature is a 2,000-foot crag that juts from the landmass like a shattered tooth. Ashore in Vaitape the next morning, I wandered along a dusty harborside road flanked by a depressing straggle of tourist shops hawking pearls, trinkets, Turkish-made tropical sportswear. But a few steps from the town wharf I stumbled on a curious reminder of the island’s more traditional appeal, as rest stop and even as sanctuary for sea-weary mariners. Half hidden in a cul-de-sac rose a stepped plinth of black volcanic rock — monument to the great French yachtsman Alain Gerbault. In 1926 Gerbault called at Bora-Bora on his epic solo voyage around the world in the 39-foot sloop Firecrest. Later he lived on the island for several years. The circumstances surrounding the death of this reclusive navigator are uncertain; but he is thought to have died in the East Indies in 1941.

We sailed again at 1700. The sun was veiled, the sky full of racing clouds — a good omen. At the seaward lip of the pass the wind piped up out of the northeast at 20 knots. “There’s a low around here somewhere,” the master said. “This wind will shift to the north.”

The offing was gray, lumpy and flecked with whitecaps. The swell was still in the south, but higher now, about 9 feet. The ship rolled heavily. The pilothouse inclinometer recorded swings of 10, 12 degrees. At 1800, with the wind at 25 knots and backing into the north as advertised, we rounded the top of Bora-Bora. Sails set, the big barquentine came smartly across the wind onto the port tack — sheets cast off, staysail booms hauled out to starboard, yards swung and braced. The ship leapt ahead at 10 knots on a compass course of east-southeast.

Last night at sea

Our last full night at sea, Star Flyer tracked north of Tahaa and Huahine on a 140-mile passage to Moorea, the heart-shaped island lying 10 miles northwest of Tahiti across the strait called Sea of the Moon. The wind, fair at first, died at dawn. The auxiliary shoved us along under bare poles through the short, steep swell. Within an hour the distant blue scribble of Moorea’s peaks and pinnacles came into view in the southeast.

At noon we drifted in toward land. Szalek picked his way cautiously through a gap in the jagged coral guarding the island’s northwest coast. Just off the village of Papetoai, on the starboard hand, the pass opened into a broad, funnel-shaped lagoon: Opanohu Bay. It was an idyllic, unspoiled spot rimmed by white sand beaches and lush volcanic crags. Most of the location scenes for Dino De Laurentiis’s 1984 remake of the cinema classic Mutiny on the Bounty were shot at Opanohu. We anchored in 20 fathoms of crystalline water, and passengers went ashore by tender to swim and snorkel off a pretty little cove on the east side of the bay. (Anchored close by was a weathered 36-foot sloop, Wind Dancer, one year into a two to three-year circumnavigation and crewed by a couple from Juneau, Alaska, Chris and Richelle Burns, with their children, Grant, 12, and Grace, 8.)

Departure once more was scheduled for 1700. With all hands aboard, the bosun stood by the windlass. The wildcat engaged; the port anchor started up; the riding pawl clanked against ratcheting chain. We motored northwest up the bay. Szalek conned from the port bridge rail. He called out orders to the man at the wheel: “Port ten…port five….” The ship’s head, which had fallen off to starboard, came over. Star Flyer threaded the opening in the reef. “Midships…steady on three-three-five….” A stone’s throw away to port, breakers of cresting foam smothered the superstructure of an old wreck. Now through the gap, Szalek brought the barquentine round to the southeast. Bands of rose and turquoise spread across the western sky.

After stopping overnight and most of the next day — seventh of the voyage — at the second of Moorea’s two northern inlets, Cook’s Bay, we eased back through the reef and logged 8 knots under power across a glassy, windless sea. We were on the final leg. The course was east by south. At 1800, the sun set blood red in a cloud-streaked sky. Moorea dropped astern; ahead, Tahiti’s peaks loomed on the horizon. Darkness spread quickly. The lights of Papeete glimmered in the night. The island’s pilot launch — signal lanterns white over red — raced out to meet us.

Alan Littell is a novelist, journalist and longtime contributor to Ocean Navigator. His new book, Courage, a novel of the sea, is scheduled for December 2008 release in hardcover by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.

By Ocean Navigator