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Sailing in South Pacific's Storied Society Islands

March 22, 1987|RICHARD LOW | Low is a Santa Ana free-lance writer.

UTUROA, Society Islands — Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea, those gentle islands of song and myth, and the storied havens of Capt. Cook and the Bounty mutineers, are exalted as the pleasure sailing paradise of the South Pacific.

Each year thousands of charter sailors from all points of the compass (most from California) set a course off Tahiti to enjoy the dazzling seas, dependable winds and serene, come-hither islands that have beckoned nautical and artistic adventurers for 400 years.

The mighty square-riggers of centuries past have given way to hundreds of pleasure yachts that ride the northeast trade winds, mainly among the steeply mountainous Society Islands, sometimes the low coral atolls of the Tuamotus.

These far-flung island groups are the two largest of the five archipelagoes that make up French Polynesia, set midway between California and Australia, and a 7 1/2-hour flight from Los Angeles.

Charter sailors may cruise with a hired local skipper and sometimes with a cook and guide as well. But more and more are taking bare-boat charters--taking the helm and crewing the yacht themselves. The main charter port is Uturoa on the island of Raiatea, 250 miles and a 45-minute flight northwest of Tahiti, the biggest island.

In Uturoa, half a dozen operators charter out 30 to 40 sailboats ranging in length from 30 to 70 feet, with space for 6 to 10 passengers. Most have full heads (toilets) and hot showers, full galleys with refrigeration, charts, dinghy with outboard motor, snorkeling gear, fuel, insurance and many other items.

The special excitement to sailing and exploring these legendary isles is cruising in the wakes of Magellan, Cook, the Bounty and Kon Tiki, all of which landed here on their historic voyages.

The western Leeward Islands sector of the Societies has by far the most popular cruising waters. The four major islands lie within sight of each other and demand no instrument navigation skills. Robust passages over open sea, usually with light wisps of high cloud to temper the sky's intense blue, culminate in calm lagoons giving safe, easy anchorage with ample privacy.

Spectacular Scenery

By so many criteria, French Polynesia assuredly ranks with the eastern Caribbean, the Greek islands of the Aegean, and Tonga among the celestial yachting domains of the world.

The jagged green volcanic mountains of the Leewards soar out of the ocean, with spectacular cliff formations, crystalline beaches and cascades of hibiscus to accent the dramatic topography. The teeming reefs present brilliant tableaux of fish and coral life, and plenty of game for fishermen with rod or spear.

Ashore, the many hotels, beach bars and drowsy villages provide a pleasant break from deck and cabin. An inland hike through the lush greenery and the many ancient Polynesian ruins and burial grounds loosens the boat-stiffened legs of claustrophobic crews.

Tides and currents do run stronger than Southern California's, but they are much gentler than those of San Francisco Bay or the San Juan Islands of Washington and British Columbia, and so should pose no problem to an experienced West Coast yachtsman cruising the Societies. The same holds for the carefully charted, well-buoyed reefs.

Californians made up about 80% of the estimated 4,000 sailors hiring boats in French Polynesia in 1986.

They find that each of the Leewards boasts its own cachet. Raiatea is surrounded by a lagoon with several easy passes through the barrier reef. It also has the only navigable river (by dinghy) in the entire territory, which is spread over the approximate area of Europe.

Almost contiguous, the more rustic Tahaa is laced with fiords and inhabited by the Feti Panior (Spanish clan), mixed-blood descendants of Chilean sailors shipwrecked there in 1863, and renowned as the most handsome of the many handsome peoples of the islands.

A 20-mile close reach east lies Huahine and the best surfing in French Polynesia. This "isle of bays" is dotted with 30 archeological sites of Polynesian temples and villages including Fa'ahia, settled in AD 650-850. They are the oldest discovered ruins in the Societies, which are named for Britain's Royal Society, sponsor of Cook's voyage to them in 1769.

And then there's Bora Bora, whose name alone is the spark of dreams for seamen and landsmen alike. For many it's the most beautiful island in the Pacific, even the world. All the superlatives ever written seem feeble understatements on first heaving into view of this ocean Eden with its misted peaks rising over silver beaches and azure lagoons.

A 35-mile reach from Tahaa, Bora Bora has sung a siren song to mariners since the Polynesians arrived here from Asia in their sail-canoes 3,000 years ago. With many beautifully sheltered anchorage coves and mooring basins at Le Yacht Club and Hotel Oa Oa, favorite way stations for trans-Pacific yachtsmen, Bora Bora is the happiest, most popular roadstead in the territory.

Some Not for Inexperienced

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