Return to Raiatea, Tahaa, Huahine and Bora Bora 2017

December 2017

Beer of the moment: Hinano

We had long wanted to return to the Leeward Islands, part of the Society Islands, and finally found an excuse. Allan had been dreaming about owning a Catana catamaran for some time and Raiatea is one of the few places that you can charter one, so we booked flights and off we went.

Now I should point out that December is not the best time to go sailing in the Society Islands, technically it is in their cyclone season. That probably explains why we also got a discount from Dream Yacht Charter for booking at that time of year.

The Charter base is at the top end of Raiatea and to get there we needed to fly from Auckland, New Zealand to Tahiti, then onwards to Raiatea. The flight connections were a little tricky and we wanted to see Tahiti and Moorea again so we decided to top and tail our yacht charter with a few days in hotels. 

Our 5 hour flight from Auckland got us in to Tahiti at a little after midnight. I had booked the closest accommodation - The Airport Motel to give us somewhere to put our heads down when we arrived. The motel is just across the airport car park and up a hill. Its convenient but also a little basic.

Moorea

In the morning we woke early to get down to the town centre for our ferry to Moorea. In 2004, the bays in Moorea stuck in our minds for the clear warm water and the stingrays and sandy motu just off the Hilton Hotel.

We had elected to stay in a beachfront bungalow at the Manava resort for a few days. We weren't disappointing, the accommodation and ambience were great. Our room was right on the sand and the hotel had an excellent pool, bar and restaurant. It was also reasonably priced compared with some of the other options on the island.

From the hotel we walked into the nearby village and enjoyed a nice meal at the Moorea Beach Club. We also ate at a nearby cafe, which was nothing special. We needed to get back out to the motu that we remembered and for that we decided to hire a car.

Along the northern coastline of Moorea are a number of nice hotels. We stopped in at the Hilton to see their turtle sanctuary. It is quite a big resort with a shallow salt water river running through the middle of it. The turtles were nice to see, but they also had some captive dolphins in a pool which didn't look all that big. The resort had a nice feeling and would probably be a nice place to stay.

Further along the coast we found a small car park where you can pick up a boat ride to the motu which turned out to be called Coco Beach. We had a nice stop on the island, there is a small restaurant/bar and most of the people there seemed to be snorkelling and enjoying the view and food. Quite nearby is an area were remembered from our last trip where you can swim with stingrays in some shallow water. We liked it before but it seemed a lot busier this time. As we planned to see some stingrays in the south of the island at the Moorea Lagoonarium we decided to give it a miss.

We drove on round the island. Its a fairly small island and there is not much to see, the northern area is definitely the most spectacular. In the south we arrived at the Lagoonarium. We didn't know quite what to expect really. There is a small car park and a shed. You pay your fee at the shed then a man came over in an open boat to take us over to a small motu. This is local tourism at its best. The motu had been converted to a small, very rustic resort. It had a number of small shacks where you could change into swimming gear and what looked like a shipwrecked boat where you could get tea and coffee. I didn't see any toilets though :)

It was a quiet day when we were there, only the three of us, two other guests and our host, who didn't speak any English but was happy to indulge my schoolboy version of french. He clearly loved his work though.

The real action is in the water. They have some very nice coral just off the motu. Its not super deep but they have helpfully installed some floating lines and bouys so that you can pull yourself along even when the current is strong. There were quite a few colourful reef fish, but it all took off when our host started his twice daily feeding show. He was absolutely swamped by reef fish, then stingrays. A posse of reef sharks kept their distance but circled behind us. After the Steve Irwin stingray incident we have been a little wary of stingrays but they were very friendly. They would happily brush along again your body and our daughter Annabel got right in the middle of the feeding frenzy and what she described as a "stingray cuddle". Their skin is reminiscent of suede leather, but their tails are a bit more like a rod of crushed glass fragments. The fish are not caged in, but clearly the source of regular food is what keeps them there. I would say its a great experience and a must-do on Moorea.

After a few days rest and relaxation it was time to head back to Tahiti for our flights to Raiatea.

Picking up the boat in Raiatea

Its a short flight of less than an hour to Raiatea and the Charter base is only 2-3kms from the airport.

We were met at the airport and very soon had our eyes on our charter boat. A 2014 Catana 42 Carbon Fusion called Carmen. My first impression was what a lot of freeboard she has, like all Catanas she is quite tall. In other ways she looked small. The base was full of bigger Catanas, a few of them 47ft and even 50ft+. 

 

The charter formalities and briefing took a while, but eventually, late in the afternoon we were able to set off. We had arranged for the base to do most of our provisioning, so that saved a little time.

Our first stop was to be Motu Cerant on the east side of Tahaa. In my rush to get out of the marina i hadn't spent enough time studying the charts and identifying the relevant marks. The briefing had told us to pass the marks outside the base to starboard because they mark an area to be kept clear so that aeroplanes can safely land at the airport.

We confidently set off under motor towards the first mark with Bev at the helm. About 30 metres from the mark i realised we were headed towards the wrong one and what lay ahead was a bank of coral. Some emergency steering and an exchange of profanities and we missed it, but it did sharpen our senses for the rest of the trip.

Expecting the boat to have a small, inconveniently placed chart plotter, which it had, I had loaded a trial version of Navionics on our Ipad Pro. Seemed like the perfect solution when I tried it out at home. Of course it didn't work now, there is no GPS in the $1700 Ipad Pro, unless you buy the model with 4G built in. It works at home because it estimates the location from your WiFi. Even my cheapest Android tablet has built in GPS, this left us without a backup navigation device and the supplied copies of paper charts were very difficult to read. 

I had originally wanted to visit one of the restaurants near Motu Cerant and take a buoy, but in the end we anchored in 3-4 meters of water next to the coral shelf and spend our first night aboard at anchor. In the evening, I found a marginal and very slow open Wifi access point on the mainland of Tahaa and painfully downloaded Navioncs to my Iphone over several hours.

First Passage from Tahaa to Huahine

We had a very vivid memory of the Avia Bay in the south of Huahine and were very keen to visit again, although from the outset if the weather wasn't good I had been prepared to forgo the trip to Huahine in order to make sure we got to Bora Bora.

There was very little wind in the morning and none in the forecast, so we decided to exit the fringing reef, at the nearby pass, and motor the 25 or so miles to Huahine. The passage was uneventful and we took the southern pass into Huahine at the main town of Fare.

To get to Avia there is a long and winding marked passage along the western side of Huahine, inside the fringing reef. Its complicated and stressful until you get your eyes adjusted to navigation in the coral, but its a beautiful trip.  The water was very clear which only served to make the coral look even closer to the surface. At times there was only a couple of meters depth but it looked much shallower.

Eventually we reached the protection of Avia. It quite a bit deeper in the centre of the bay and there were three or four other yachts anchored off the Hotel Le Mahana. Last time it was much busier and I remember several charter boats, with Italians onboard, rafted up and partying into the night. Its also where our friend Stephen climbed our mast to help sort out a problem with our wind instrument, I had chickened out of the 20m climb after my terrifying experience up the mast, off the coast of Panama.

A big surprise this time was the quality of the snorkeling. The water was warm and clear and just off the beach we found some coral and lots of tropical fish in only a few feet of water. The seabed was also littered with sea cucumbers, which allegedly is a sign that the water is very clean.

Last time we had eaten at Le Mahana hotel in the bay so we decided to give it another go. I could remember almost nothing of the place, but Bev recalled some features of the dining room. A couple of the other yachties were having a beer, but there didn't seem to be any guests around. At the bar they said they could do us some food, but only a limited menu. We agreed, but it was a bit lacking in atmosphere with only ourselves and another couple, who turned out to be on Honeymoon, in the large dining room.

When I went to pay the, quite-pricey-for-what-it-was, bill, I was dismayed to find that my credit card didn't work. I had enough cash to settle it but I was worried that my credit card had been compromised again. On our last two holidays we had problems with our cards being "skimmed".

Back at the boat, I couldn't get access to the hotels WiFi or the WiFi Hotspots that are supposed to be common in the islands. The sign-in for the WiFi hotspots didn't seem to work at all with Apple Iphone/Ipad. To make matters worse my Iphone 6 decided to lock itself up, and demanded to be plugged into Itunes. Just what you need when it might be required in a life or death navigation situation... Fortunately Bev's Iphone was still working, for now at least.

I decided to ring our bank in New Zealand. After about 10 minutes waiting in the call queue, I gave up. An hour or so later, I tried again but still couldn't get through. Eventually I flicked on the Data Roamimg and checked my mobile banking app. It all looked okay. Bev thought maybe the staff "preferred" a cash transaction rather than credit card, she might be right. The morale of this story though is don't use your phone for international data roaming or phone calls. When we returned to New Zealand, these calls, and checking on the weather one time, cost me over $500!. I complained to the bank about the time spend in the call queue, especially as I was trying to prevent a potential fraud. I suggested they prioritise calls from overseas to save customers money. To their credit, the bank gave me a $100 towards my costs. I got no good news from the mobile provider, 2Degrees. They told me their tariffs are on their website, $10 per mb for data and $7.39 per minute for phone calls. Presumably I would have had to activate my data roaming to be able to look at the tariffs on their website ! Anyway its the last bill I will get from them, as I have cancelled this mobile account and two others.

After a little bit of investigation it looks like you can get a much lower cost simcard from local Telecom provider Vini. Data is still too expensive to contemplate streaming movies, or the like though. I'm also sure that if had a Windows laptop with us instead of our Idevices we would have been able to sign up for credit on the Wifi Hotspot service provided by WDG.

As the night drew in, I noticed the batteries were a little low. They are probably hammered on charter boats so I started up one of the engines to charge them up. After about 20 minutes I noticed the engine noise had changed and the revs were becoming erratic. I applied a bit more throttle to see if it would calm down, but it spluttered and stopped. I left it for a few minutes, its started okay but again spluttered and stopped. Very likely a fuel problem I thought, and reminiscent of our charter of catamaran Inordinate in the Caribbean in 2001. There were no tools or spares on the boat so I resolved to ring the base in the morning.

Best case, I thought they would send an engineer down to the boat. I certainly would have refused to sail back to Raiatea with only one engine, in case it was fuel contamination issue and the other engine also failed. That  would make negotiating the pass into Raiatea very dangerous. They agreed to have their local engineer meet us back at the main town of Fare. It was quite a way back up there but I reasoned if the remaining engine cut out we would have to quickly drop the anchor to stop the boat drifting into the coral.

We got back up to Fare and after a couple of attempts, anchored on the coral and sand bank between the two passes into the town. The nice young guy would came to fix our boat also ran tours on the island, including by Jetski. It turned out to be a fuel problem as I thought,  a loose fitting on the fuel line was letting air into the injection pump. Unfortunately by the time the job was done, we had to spend another night on Huahine.

We decided to go ashore and visit the Supermarket, bar and try to find an internet cafe. Huahine has a population of about 5000 people and only a couple of resort hotels. The main town is pleasant enough, what is really surprising is how good the supermarket is - a veritable Aladdin's Cave of stuff. We were able to get a few things that weren't on our provisioning list too. I managed to get to the Internet cafe just before it closed. A very casual idea of a number of random laptops connected to the shops Wifi. I tried to download Itunes on one of the and unlock my phone. It took forever to download and it didn't work, back in New Zealand it took the best part of a day of going round and round in circles to restore it...

We also stopped in at the local bar on the waterfront. It had quite a good nautical vibe, but there were too few people there to make it really come to life. On the right night I reckon it would be a great place.

Huahine to Raiatea

We had a decent sleep, there had been a bit of wind and rain overnight but we seemed to be reasonably sheltered.

In the morning a few boats started to arrive from Raiatea, they must have left very early and in the dark to get there at that time.

As we left through the pass, we instantly started to feel that the swell and wind were up. There was nothing about this in the forecast. We thought about turning back, but that would have put pressure on us getting to Bora Bora so we forged ahead.

It was an awful trip. There was a North Easterley wind of about 25 kts, but hard to know as the wind instrument wasn't working, and a northerly swell of 2-3 metres. The wind and waves were hitting us on the starboard side. Conditions were bad enough for us to put on the cheap hard foam lifejackets and close the saloon doors. I decided to hand steer most of the way to try to smooth out some of the waves and also pinch up towards our entry point on Raiatea. And it rained, like a monsoon.

To be fair the boat handled it quite well. It felt quite buoyant as the waves crashed in and there weren't too many creaking and groaning noises, although there was quite a bit of slop in the steering and the autopilot kept hitting the limits of its travel.

By the time we got to the main pass at Raiatea, I was soaked and sunburned, Bev was saying she never wanted another boat and Annabel had confessed to being quite frightened.

We took a mooring on the reef, opposite the Dream Yacht Base and contemplated whether to get off the boat and fly to Bora Bora.

I spoke to the base and they confirmed the weather forecast for the rest of the week was benign, no wind to mention, although they also seemed surprised at the wind speed we reported on our Huahine passage.

We decided to go over to the West Side of Tahaa and either anchor for the day or sail over to Bora Bora.

Arriving near the pass on the west side of Tahaa, the pilot book had said it was a very good anchorage. We thought about it but there was a very long fetch from the North and there seemed to be quite rough conditions at the anchorage. After some to-ing and fro-ing we decided to go through the pass and get over to Bora Bora.

Tahaa to Bora Bora

Its about a 20 mile sail to Bora Bora, but the wind died and we ended up motoring the whole way.

The approach to Bora Bora is magical, the soaring peaks and long fringing reef. But is also very touristy. The first sign that we were near the pass were all the dive boats anchored on the seaward side of the reef. Inside the reef we immediately spotted Wind Song, a sailing-clipper-style cruise ship that we had seem last time, and lots of hotels and hotel transport boats.

We decided to take a mooring at the Bora Bora yacht club. Last time it was just closing down and looked like in needed some investment. What a difference now. They have a trendy bar and restaurant area and even a souvenir shop. We were told that it was a special dinner night with a fixed menu and entertainment. It was a three course meal and the food was fantastic. It seemed like a mostly local crowd with many obviously good friends with the owner. The entertainment was a couple of male singers from Tahiti who were very good. We had a great time but it was a bit expensive - over $300 and we didn't have much to drink.

In the morning we moved the boat round to west side of To'opua. There were a few boats anchored on the reef side and we thought it would be a good place to snorkel but I have to say the snorkelling was disappointing. The water was clear enough but it was mostly sand and the odd bit of bleached coral. The outlook was amazing though. In the evening we moved the boat to anchor in a bit more shelter, just north of the Conrad Bora Bora resort. The weather continued to be stifling hot, very high humidity and almost no wind to cool us down.

The next day we motored round the south end of To'opua and took a mooring off the famous Bloody Mary's dock. We visited a couple of times on our last trip and had very fond memories of the place. It was a "must do" on our trip. I tried calling a few times to make a dinner reservation, but no answer. Through the binoculars I could see there was a wedding party having photos beside the dock. I was a little concerned that perhaps it was booked out for a private function. After a few hours I ventured out in the dinghy to see if we could arrange a table for dinner. It was shut for renovations ! I was dumbstruck, I had been dreaming of dinner there for ages. Talking to some locals they told us that it was often closed during December for re-furbishment but also to give staff a holiday break.  

We had two other places we wanted to see on Bora Bora, the eastern side of the island, which I was too nervous about navigating last time, and the Maikai Marina.

The trip round the top of Bora Bora wasn't too hard, but it does get very shallow further to the South East. We opted to anchor up and visit a couple of coral sites in the dinghy. Again the snorkelling was disappointing. I wasn't too keen to anchor there for the night as it was pretty exposed from the the North, East and South. So we trekked back to the Maikai Marina and took a buoy.

The Maikai turned out to be a very nice restaurant with a few docks, one of which had a big section missing. We had a very pleasant evening there. Cocktails were good and Annabel got her internet fix. The bill was reasonablish.

I felt we had got the measure of Bora Bora again. First time we were in awe, now i could see that these days it was a big tourist machine with lots of sophisticated hotels and places to eat. The beaches were no better than other places and the snorkelling was disappointing, at least at the spots where we went.

We had to think carefully about what to do next, we could stay another night but then we would be committed to sailing back to Raiatea the following day or we could go and have a night in Raiatea or Tahaa. The forecast was for no wind, but being cautious we made a move for Tahaa.

Tahaa

After a flat calm motor back to the same pass at Tahaa we had left a few days before I reflected on the fact that we had done no real sailing. I had unfurled the Genoa on the Huahine trip but the mainsail had seen no action.

We motored up the west side of Tahaa to a sand bank off the Coral River, which is a gap between two motus and flanked by Tahaa's only five star resort, Le Taha'a. We anchored in about 2m of water and it was crystal clear. From the back of the boat we could see eagle rays and the odd shark.

We took the dinghy up to the coral river. The snorkelling was spectacular. Hundreds of reef fish and some beautiful coral. We were told that a great experience is to go to the reef side and let the current push you down the river. I was a bit  concerned that Annabel would get dragged over some of the coral so we elected to just snorkel from the sides of the motu. We were also advised by a local to bring some bread to feed the  fish. That definitely meant we had to come back for a second visit, and we did and it was even better.

Tahaa is known for its production of Vanilla. Other than the hotel, its tourism is all pretty low key. I think we underestimated the place and would spend more time there if we visited again.

We had a pleasant night at anchor, just south of the resort, and the following afternoon made our way back to the base. We had an early flight the next day back to Tahiti so we wanted to get the boat check-in formalities done that afternoon.

Raiatea

The Dream Yacht Crew baorded the boat outside the marina and took her in to the fuel dock then marina berth. I was glad of it because the marina was still packed with charter boats. It was December 20th, they told us that over Christmas all the boats would be out on charter. 

One thing that did surprise me was that they dived on the boat to check for hull damage. I guess its a common occurrence with some of the shallows in the lagoons. I had a view on the risks of sailing there so I had taken out the extra insurance and we only had $600 deposit at stake, but was still glad to get it back!

It was like an oven in the marina, even less wind than at anchor, so we went out in search of a restaurant. About a 2km walk from the marina towards the airport we found Le Napoli, a pizza restaurant. I don't think Bev was going to walk another step so it appeared right before a major crisis ensued! Le Napoli was a bit rustic, but seemed popular with the locals, in fact it was packed by the time we left. The food was really good and the service great too. Highly recommend it. We managed to get them to book us a taxi back to the marina.

Tahiti

Back in Tahiti, we had booked a sister hotel to the one we stayed in on Moorea, the Manava Suite Resort for a couple of days, and a hire car.

We used the car to visit Papeete and the waterfront area that we remembered from our first trip. We also visited the Central Market, which was interesting and the Pearl Museum which was mostly a shop with a few interesting historical exhibits. We also visited the big Carrefour supermarket and marina that we had visited last time. The marina has been extensively updated since 2004. It was a great chance to look over a few different catamarans that were in the marina.

We also visited the Museum of Tahiti and her Islands. I am usually a fan of museums but found this one a little so-so, perhaps if more of the exhibits had been described in English I might have got more into it. Annabel and Bev were quickly bored with it.

The hotel turned out to be good. We had booked a beach view room, but because of renovation had no view to speak of. The hotel had given us some credit, as had Expedia, which softened the blow. It had a great pool and swim up bar and i'm sure the renovations will make it even better. We ate in the Hotel one night to use up the credits and it was okay but not amazing. We felt lucky not to be staying on Christmas eve, because they only offered a special menu at $300 per head !

A reasonably short walk from the hotel we found the very nice Blue Banana restaurant. The outside gives nothing away. Inside its quite a big place, facing out on to the water. The food and service were amazing, a real treat. If we didnt have the hotel credit I think we would have eaten here both nights it was so good. It wasn't cheap but by this stage in the holiday we were getting used to the high prices in French Polynesia.

Final Thoughts on the Catana 42

You know the old saying, "You should never meet your heroes", well it felt a bit like that. I had been all over this boat in my mind, watched every Youtube video, read every blog and sailing magazine review, even requested some pricing on a new boat.

On the positive side it felt quite robust. I liked the high freeboard and it didn't flex, creak and groan like some other boats. The deck hardware, winches and blocks were all big and beefy. Engine room access was good and the 40hp Yanmars moved it along quite well, even though it would have benefited from three blade props rather than the two blade fixed props in had on this one. I didn't get to sail it, but I'm sure that would have been a positive feature.

Carmen was a four cabin layout, the small heads convinced me that the only model you would want its the three cabin owners model, in order to get a decent toilet and shower space. I have no idea why Dream Yacht Charter only put a tiny Garmin plotter in the saloon, it would undoubtedly avoid some navigation "incidents" if they put one at the helm. I would also spec engine controls at both helms if I was buying one.

But I'm not, and here's why.

The first issue is that visibility forward is poor, a lot of the blogs talk about it but it really is a pain, especially if you are only 5ft 2 tall,  like Bev.

The saloon couch is uncomfortable. We need a space where all three of us can lounge comfortably when its raining, cold or dark. On the 42, the couch is just too small and at awkward angles. I don't know how you could fix it. On the owners version, maybe you could forgo the chart table area ?

The ventilation was terrible. It was very hot and humid, we had some ineffective fans in the cabins but it was difficult to get air into the boat. Deck hatches on our other boats seem much more efficient at this than side hull hatches on the Catana. Oh and when it rained, the beds and saloon all got wet if we left the hatches open. In fact the hatches leaked even when they were closed. I see on the Catana 47 that its possible to have 4 forward facing hatches in the saloon, rather than the two small hatches we had on Carmen, so maybe that's an option.

Storage is quite limited. Storage under the beds is good and under the cockpit sole, but there is a lack of good accessible storage for clothes, personal items and food. Some prime storage space in the saloon is taken up by the batteries.

Helm position is scorching in the sun. We know that we mostly sail on Autopilot, but on this trip we found we spent quite a bit of time on the helms, navigating the passes and reef passages inside the lagoons. There is no shade at the helms and I got quite burnt despite a hat and SPF50 sun cream. I also got soaked from waves slamming the sides on the Huahine passage, I'm not sure it would be very nice in a decent seaway at night.

So I don't know where that leaves me for our next boat. A Catana 47 may be a better bet for us, it looks more comfortable, but I cant really afford one. A Lagoon 42 is probably close to what we had before with Bagpuss but I want something different. I'm drawn towards the Seawind 1260, but need to see one up close, apparently you can charter them in the Whitsundays...