Thursday, March 14th, 2013
By Kate “Bob” Addison
Last Thursday morning saw the Picton Castle sailing for Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, 500 miles away from Bora Bora, all square sails and fore-and-aft sails set as we made the most of the fair, light, trade-winds.
Our last port was Bora Bora, and we upped anchor and cleared out last Wednesday afternoon – in a bit of a rush as it turned out because of some fun with immigration officials. Most places in the world give you 24 hours to depart after clearing out, and in most places in the world there is a local immigration office or police station that can handle the paperwork no problem. French Polynesia used to be like that too – you went to the local Gendarmerie at your last island, where a friendly policeman stamps all your papers and checks all is in order before wishing you ‘bon voyage!’ Then the next morning you get under way. No big deal at all, and charmingly like clearing in and out of French territories elsewhere. The French Caribbean is sweet that way, very smooth and cordial. Not so here at Bora Bora.
We don’t know if the rules have changed in French Polynesia, or if the immigration department is just trying to validate its own importance in the strained economic climate of government ‘efficiency savings’ (we have seen this before), but now it seems that not one, but two immigration officials must be flown to the island from where you plan to depart the group, put up in a nice hotel, fed, watered and then flown back to Papeete, all at the expense of the vessel. No matter that the clearing out takes maybe an hour, and all they do is check the crew list and stamp the passports since we are also required to submit all of the customs forms electronically in advance, so it seems to us that it’s not so much work to justify a day trip from Papeete. They check nothing else. They do nothing else. One guy can do this in 15 minutes. Or maybe that’s just what an ignorant sailor would think.
And we were surprised that these gentlemen actually insisted on watching the ship sail out from Bora Bora. Said they had to by law. Hard to imagine that they see every one of the hundreds of cruising yachts off like this, makes us feel kind of special… Maybe they had a big influx of illegal immigrants escaping from the arduous life aboard square-rigged sailing ships. Must be all that sail-handling, power showers and the sunset guitar session on the foc’sle head making them want to jump ship. Or, perhaps it was the fact that we have Aitutaki next on the voyage plan – I mean, it is often called the most lovely island in the Pacific, but next to Bora Bora they must have thought that was too horrible to contemplate for our indentured crew, and that they were at high risk of abandoning ship shipmates and voyage in favour of working illegally in French Polynesia – perhaps washing dishes in a fancy restaurant or cleaning the rooms in an exclusive hotel?
But the most surprising about these immigration officials was their obvious delight at the idea that we might leave a couple of hours later than originally planned so that we could stow our boats and finish up some jobs before we left. The reason for their pleasure? A free night in a hotel and a whole extra day of being paid to do nothing but hang out at Bora Bora! When we tried to say we would leave immediately to avoid this additional expense, there suddenly arose an insurmountable language barrier – though our French had been perfectly adequate to be understood just minutes before. Eventually I had to go and call our agent and ask him to stop booking hotels and flights for the officials they were calling him for as they were so adamant that they would stay the night and fly home the next day. It seemed we ruined their plans of a little getaway overnight in lovely Bora Bora….
Bora Bora was nice, but the point of it is really the fabulous lagoon and the stunning peaks of the mountain of Bora Bora, rather than life ashore itself – a wonderful spot for snorkelling and diving in clear turquoise water with plenty of coral and colourful aquatic life. Our gang had a great time cycling all over, stopping for picnics and a swim on the beach, and then heading to the cheerful food caravans by the little town for dinner of steak-frites or crepes. The island is beautiful of course, but it is all carved up into expensive resorts – almost every beach is private, and there are cars everywhere. And the hordes of $1,000 a night bungalows over the water? The Captain says they look to him like prisoner-of-war camps from World War II movies…
Bora Bora seems to miss out on the friendly fun atmosphere of Huahine – most businesses seemed to be catering to tourists rather than locals – expensive black pearl jewellery, scuba diving centres, fancy imported clothes. And this all really changed on the day the cruise ship Paul Gauguin was in town too – suddenly all of the shops and little stands that had been shuttered, opened up to sell their wares to the visitors, the people running the stores changed from their every day plain pareaus and t-shirts to very lovely special occasion dresses tailored from patterned pareau cloth. It’s very nice stuff that they sell too: bright colourful pareaus or sarongs, many handpainted with big bold tropical flowers; black pearls and carved pearl shells, strings of shells or flowers to bedeck your darling, wood carvings and things woven from pandanus. All very lovely, but definitely not catering for a local crowd. Like many a sweet tropical island this one has been a little bit swamped by the forces of higher end development for others, oh well. Hard for places to find the balance, some pull it off, not sure how they do it. Still a nice place to visit, and I am sure friends could be made ashore in due course.
And so I risk making enemies of everyone back home in the snow, by saying Bora Bora was ok – good time had by all and great holding at the anchorage – but Huahine was much nicer. And the Captain says if you liked French Polynesia, you are going to love the Cook Islands and Aitutaki is up first….only 400 miles away in sweet South Pacific trade-winds – not so bad….