Tuesday 12 May 2015

Raiatea, the Pearl Regatta

We are in Raiatea, the spiritual capital of the Society Islands, 150 miles west of Tahiti and host of the Tahiti Pearl Regatta.  We enter the pass into the lagoon and dock on the quay in the small town of Uturoa. The central market square has been taken over by the regatta where coloured flags ripple in the breeze and earnest young assistants crouch at makeshift desks over Apple computers, taking our registration forms and our Pacific Francs, issuing us with fluorescent wristbands and T shirts. 

We return to Juno clutching an array of sponsored merchandise and we change into our orange Juno uniform shirts for the evening party on the dock.  On board we have Andrew - of course - and his wife Jeannette. In addition we also have the crew of Wayward Wind - Mindy and Victor, plus Caspar from Aretha. Seven all told for the regatta, a good number for racing Juno.

The Pearl Regatta is well known; more for being held in the most beautiful sailing waters in the world than for anything else. It is eye wateringly expensive and the organisation is atrocious, but who cares?  We are racing in the South Pacific and it is enormous fun. We start the first race well, crossing the line first and tacking out through the narrow pass in the reef at full tilt. The first race is a 20-mile beat to Huahine, a neighbouring island. The race starts late because the committee boat has some technical problems and the wind is light; but does that mean that they shorten the course or extend the deadline? No, this is France and despite pleas from several boats over the VHF we hear them announce, ‘the feeneesh line will close in sirty seconds’. As a result, not a single mono-hull finishes, with only one or two multi-hulls registering on the leader board, having started 20 minutes before us.

Huahine is beautiful; another gorgeous tropical island with a fringing reef, narrow passes and a turquoise lagoon of still water. It has been a long sail, arriving just before dark, but we shower and change into our Polynesian outfits and call the regatta water taxi to take us ashore. We are deposited at the dock where beautiful girls with flowers in their hair greet us with garlands and glasses of Ti Punch, ushering us along an open corridor of palm fronds to a large grassy arena where marquees have been erected. After a brief welcome by the Mayor of Huahine the race committee chairman stands up. ‘Je suis desolee’ he begins, winning us over immediately. But then goes on to defend the committee’s deplorable organisation and to our surprise gets a loud boo from some who have spent six hours beating upwind, only to find that the finish line has closed because some bureaucrat hasn’t the gumption to alter the sailing instructions and shorten the course. Regardless, the evening is joyful, despite a buffet of unidentifiable and largely inedible food served up by Polynesians with irresistible smiles. Supper is followed by dancers, fire jugglers and a Polynesian band, bristling with feathers and rattling their drums with gusto.

We are woken at dawn by a boat gliding alongside. In the bow is a beautiful girl in a bikini delivering complementary bread to our boat and offering to take our rubbish. This could only happen in Polynesia where the morning baguette is sacred and bikini-clad damsels are everywhere, even adorning the cans of the local Hinano beer.  The race back to Raiatea is a downwind drag race and again we start first across the line, slip through the pass and then set our goose wing rig for the twenty-mile run. We are fast on this point of sale with twenty knots of wind behind us and we lead the cruising division across the channel, gybing through the pass. The final leg is a broad reach inside the lagoon in flat water and we set our big red spinnaker, thundering across the line at nine knots in full view of the spectators on the town quay. The only incident that mars the race is a hydraulic hose that ruptures under pressure, squirting oil all over our decks. Still, barely a day passes on the World ARC without drama and it doesn’t detract from our elation to finish the race in such style.

The final day’s racing is a circuit of the neighbouring island of Tahaa. However, one of our primary winches has been making alarming noises and when I dismantle it I find that the central spindle has seized inside the drum and I spend the next few hours with the help of Stefan, grinding off the high spots, re-greasing and reassembling the winch by which time we have missed the start. A bout of sickness has run through the ARC fleet, with several cases of flu, and a case of Dengue fever for ten-year old Bluebell who is unusually quiet. Caroline and Nichola on Aretha both have flu and although they make a brave attempt they have high fevers and retire to their cabins. 

Unwilling to miss the closing party, we motor to the finish line and anchor with the rest of the regatta fleet, just behind the motu where the party is being held. A wooden skiff with an outrigger collects us in the dark and drops us at the small wooden pontoon. Girls in bikini tops with flowers in their hair greet us at the dock and tie pink ribbons on our wrists. Even by our standards it is a lovely tropical island with soft white sand and coconut palms.  A large screen has been erected on the beach showing a slide show of pictures from the regatta. Unable to spot any boats from the ARC fleet, my attention wanders and I join Caspar at the bar who is celebrating the sale of his company in style with champagne.  There is an announcement over the PA system and we gather around a clearing in the palm trees where a hefty Polynesian dancer covered in tattoos holds court. He begins his show with a dance like the Haka, sticking his tongue our in a warlike snarl; then he seems to lose interest and laughs at himself.  A young blade with a red pareo wrapped around his hips joins him and they start their acrobatic dance, spinning their flaming batons high in the air, creating circles of fire in the dark. It is quite mesmerising to watch and Caspar leans over and reminds me that this is another great experience that we will always remember.

I return to the boat early to check on Caroline who still has a high temperature, but thankfully by morning the fever has broken and she starts to recover.  We learn that the party went on until the early hours with some of our crew remaining on the island all night until they were ejected this morning.  We are delighted that Exody, one of the World ARC boats, won the cruising division; in part by starting every race while many less committed racers skipped the early races, having a leisurely breakfast instead and joining in time for the mid-morning starts.   I think that perfectly sums up the Pearl Regatta.

1 comment:

  1. More amazing experiences, fast down wind sailing but a few illness problems. Hope caroline is fully recovered now. All looking very chilled.