Monday, March 18th, 2013
Bora Bora – what an evocative name, no? If the soft drum beat of Bora Bora drifting murmuring past your ears does not conjure up visions of the South Pacific, what will?
(Well, I’ll get to that more later when we consider Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Manihiki, Rakahanga… sweeeeeet)
Bora Bora, the name and the island, may well be the most and best recognized of south seas idol sirens. This no doubt is due to the fact that it truly is a beautiful tall mountain island in a lovely setting of a young atoll lagoon. But this world wide recognition of Bora Bora as the “south seas paradise” probably also has something to do with the Second World War and some US Navy sailors a long time ago.
Sometime after the commencement of hostilities in the Pacific in the early 1940’s, the USA sent a large contingent of the US Navy to occupy the island in order to set up and operate an air strip. They figured that they needed airstrips every so often to get airplanes across the broad Pacific to reach and supply the western islands where some real war was going on, Solomons, New Guinea, Guadalcanal and so forth.
But there were some ticklish points to consider; Bora Bora was France and France was out of the war, a large part of France was under occupation by Nazi Germany and the rest under the the collaborationist regime known as Vichy France which was openly unfriendly to the Allied cause. This US presence at Bora Bora no doubt irritated the government of Vichy France, but they could do little about it being so far removed, virtually half a planet away. And maybe they had their own troubles closer to home anyway.
Back to the story. WWII was a rough go a lot of places where soldiers and sailors were sent. But not everywhere was so seriously affected, not every military installation was on constant “red alert”, anti-aircraft guns manned and jittery, tensions running high. Bora Bora became legend in the annals of the Pacific war as the “oh-my-gosh-you-were-based-there in the war?” You see, absolutely nothing of a martial nature occurred at Bora Bora. Not a single shot fired in anger, no sign of anyone you might call an “enemy”. Just a bunch of young America Navy guys from the cities and farms of the United States looking after an air strip they scraped off a motu (now the modern airport for the island, naturally enough), making friends with the locals of this beautiful, friendly unspoiled sunny tropical island with sweet lagoons for fishing, diving, sailing, swimming, feasting, dancing of a night, making coconut wine, walks on the beach holding hands… and nothing resembling war anywhere near or, even thought of that much perhaps.
Then the war is over. Probably the news came by telegram, no doubt a big party to celebrate, after that, nothing, just as before. Bora Bora changes not at all, except that these men head home. And they tell stories of “their war” – perhaps some were chagrined to admit how easy they had it at Bora Bora while others fought and slogged it out. More probably a little bit quiet about how many babies they left behind at Bora Bora. Yes, there is something of a generation of half American Bora Bora islanders born circa 1943-46. Anyway, the legends of Bora Bora in the modern western consciousness were born along with these babies, now grandparents themselves. Now let us slip forward a few decades and bring our Picton Castle crew into the picture.
After a day sail from Huahine only 40 miles to the east and steaming through the well marked pass, we anchored off the small main town of Vaitape at Bora Bora. The anchorage is deep but very good holding as we found out that night when some particularly strong squalls blew through. Our big 1,500 pound anchor and about 300 feet of stout inch and a quarter chain kept the ship completely secure through the night. Our barque with her square-rig windage budged not a millimetre.
The cruise ship Paul Gauguin sailed in and anchored a couple days. This caused all the little shops to open their doors but we saw few of the cruise ship passengers; perhaps they were whisked off on tours.
The next few days there was plenty to do for our gang at this legendary island. We launched the longboat and raced all around the gorgeous turquoise lagoons, sailing, tacking here and there under reefed main. On shore many of the gang took bicycles for round island rides. This easily done on a leisurely day. Plenty of beautiful scenes and vistas along the way as you circumperambulate the iconic towers of lava that were once the centers of volcanoes. And nothing better than going to the local grocery store and getting a few baguettes, some cheese, Orangina and Hinano and heading off for a picnic in the shade by the lagoon, tossing bits of bread to the many colourful fishes.
There are a couple nice watering holes as well such as The Bora Bora Yacht Club where internet was available with something cold to drink. Little road-side stands sold mangoes and pamplemousse. Many purveyors of black pearls to be sure but most of us are waiting for Rarotonga for this sort of thing. And in the evenings, you could get a fine and HUGE meal at one of the BBQ caravans near the waterfront under the night sky at an open air table with your shipmates. Around these tables amidst the bbq savors, much talk of islands and passages to come.
We are sailing for the Cook Islands now, where, to those of us who have sailed these waters before, the South Pacific adventure really begins. Rarotonga; stunningly beautiful, very friendly, accessible and so much to do – mountain climbing, rent a scooter to take you around the island, school kids aboard and dancing – “Island Night Feasts” and dancing – Dancing at Trader Jacks, heading over to The Staircase for, you guessed it, more dancing – sailing in the big ocean going double canoes, called Vakas – black pearls galore – Saturday farmers market near the waterfront, fun nights at Banana Court – head over to Muri Beach Lagoon where it is believed that the fleet of vakas that headed off to settle New Zealand, not a thousand years ago assembled from all the islands and set forth – it is often said of Rarotonga by visitors – “this is what I thought (hoped) Tahiti would be like”. Rarotonga is perfect. And Picton Castle both knows Rarotonga well and is well known in Raro.
But first we will anchor at Aitutaki 200 miles ahead to the WSW – Aitutaki could well be the untouched island that Bora Bora once was. And Aitutaki is certainly the island paradise that many dream Bora Bora to be, but alas, is not. A smaller yet still high center island with lovely topography, pristine blindingly white smooth sand beaches, One Foot Island, a motu to sail to across the broad lagoon with top snorkelling – or visit the 1828 church. Soft and quiet, peaceful, and friendly, very few shops, no tour buses lined up – a great place for us to sail our long boat and dory too. And we have good friends too, at Tamanu Beach Resort where barefoot is the order of the day to be sure.
I could go on and on but I will restrain myself and wait for later Logs: In Rarotonga we soon expect to load up supplies into our 100 ton hold and on deck and help bring islanders back to their home islands before sailing onward. Palmerston Atoll; a tiny atoll with about 60 folks who have hosted Picton Castle crew many times in the past – fishing, learning to dance, much feasting, maybe some island project to pitch in with, certainly a “shade tree” medical clinic by our ship’s doctor. Manihiki; famous as one of the most beautiful atolls in the entire South Pacific and for the best black pearls – and no harbour or anchorage at all, the ship must heave-to to discharge our supplies. Rakahanga; a true old school Polynesian atoll living quite traditionally and quietly. Tongareva aka Penrhyn; also pretty serious about black pearls but here we have something of an anchorage and can even enter the lagoon if conditions suit. PukaPuka; the famous island where we actually “tie up to the reef”. Suwarrow; uninhabited but a pristine lagoon perfect for anchoring our barque and exploring, boat trips and camping expeditions. Onward we sail for Samoa, where it is well believed that exploring vakas set out from to discover and settle all of the rest of Polynesia; Tahiti, Marquesas, Hawaii, Rapa Nui, Tuamotus, Mata-ki-terangi (Pitcairn). Tonga: the South Pacific doesn’t get any more “old school” than this; the only and last actual south seas island kingdom, never, ever colonized by a European nation.