A Circumnavigation of Tahiti

by Drew on June 5, 2009

This ones for all the sailors out there headed this way.  It’s a long one I know.  I thought about putting it on a different page as some sort of “article” but alas…here it is anyways!

Coming from the Marquesas or the Tuamotu Islands, your first stop will likely be Papeete because you’re interested in getting back to a city, restocking you dwindling food supply, and maybe eating out at a restaurant or two. If you have the time and patience to do so, I recommend you aim for the northeast corner of Tahiti Iti, stop over at Tautira, and then daysail your way to Papeete in a two or three day hop. If not, you can always circumnavigate the island after you visit the city in a counter clockwise direction. It’s a fairly easy trip and you’ll get to see the *real* Tahiti; the one that mesmorized generations of sailors who arrived here in centuries past.

Leaving from Taapuna Pass just south of Marina Taina you’ll sail south down the coast to the southwest corner of Tahiti Nui. It was dead calm on the day we headed in this direction and we thought about jumping in Pass Maraa on this corner and motoring through the lagoon to take a look at West Avaiti Pass (I think it’s actually Ava Iti). At the last moment I decided to bypass this route since I’ve read the exit pass is hairy at best and we weren’t looking to stress ourselves out. Instead, we continued east to Rautirare Pass and entered the lagoon next to Pururu Island where I hoped to drop the hook and enjoy some clear water next to a sandy island. This is where I learned that Tahiti is basically covered in small rivers and streams that empty out into the lagoons and there’s almost always one coming into the lagoon inshore of a pass. To find clear water you need to anchor out farther from land, next to the offshore side reef. This can be difficult because many of the lagoons average 80-90′ of water and the reef is literally an underwater wall shooting straight up to the surface. You can go from 80 feet to 8 inches in only a couple of yards. The other thing I learned is that much of Tahiti is black sand which looks and holds more like mud. Our picturesque island anchorage wasn’t near as pretty as I hoped so we moved on, motoring through the lagoon in search of clear water. By the way, just behind the island, give the offshore side of the channel plenty of leeway and stay closer to shore. It gets shallow fast and looked to me like it invaded a bit of the channel on the south side. With a heavy cloud cover over the afternoon sun, we weren’t able to explore the reef side of the lagoon opposite Port Ataiti (near the Paul Gaugin museum) so we ended up dropping the hook in 45′ of water (mud bottom) just off a spit of land with a small car pull off about even with the eastern side of the reef in the middle of the bay. It was a quiet anchorage except for the car that camped out on the car park about 11pm and blasted music out across the water for a few minutes. I did love how the trees and bushes near the water shedded their flowers and they all floated out around us.

The next day we continued east in the lagoon past the Gaugin museum and out Tamarauri Pass. We reentered the lagoon through Pass de Teputo which is the main entrance into Phaeton Bay, the only hurricane hole on Tahiti. We bypassed the bay and headed south down the coast of Tahiti Iti. We passed Maui Beach which the guidebook describes as “reminiscent of Matira Beach on Bora Bora.” That’s a load of B.S. It’s barely what I’d call a beach and not worth a stop in my book. This put us into the very wide bay of Tapuaeraha which is easy motoring and takes you past an elementary school and an old French naval base. Keep a look out for the flying dinghy inside its little hangar just north of the naval base. From here, we continued south around point in the well-marked channel into Teahupoo Basin. This is where is really gets beautiful. The green mountains come right down into the water. It reminds me of the western coast of Costa Rica, especially right around Dominical if you know the area. You can anchor out in the basin if you’ve got the chain or explore your way out to the outer reef here and find some shallower spots. It’s a stunning view looking back on the island. We wanted to be in the middle of the action (for the Billabong Pro) so we moved on towards the small marina at Teahupoo. Once you slide by a small point of land next to Pass Avaino (you’ll know because there will be swell coming into the lagoon) you can either head off to the left (north) into the marina or stick to the right and wind your way through a curvy channel into the bay opposite the marina. The channel itself is fairly easy but exiting the channel can be confusing. If it’s cloudy as it was when we came this way, you can’t tell when its safe to turn back to the north and formally head into the bay. Take it from us, as you pass the last red marker on you left, turn and head towards the spit of land that sticks out. We kept straight trying to give the inshore reef some leeway before we turned and smacked right into the outside reef (I say smacked, but we were only moving about 1 knot or so). Do not take a sharp left turn into the bay. There is a coral outcropping that sticks out and you will hit it. Instead, aim at that spit of land for a hundred yards or more before turning north into the bay. When we visited, there was a big yacht with “Billabong” down the side of it parked at the tip of this spit. Head up in there till you hit 40′ of water or so and drop near the middle. We had winds from every single direction during the two weeks we anchored here so you don’t want to be too far to the west (a reef) or too far to the right (the boat channel and land). You can head into the marina through the small boat channel (the inshore side of the two green markers). You’ll see lots of boats doing it…just follow them. You can also pull the big boat in there and fill up the water tanks (not through the dinghy channel though!) and they’ve also got trash receptacles. From here you can explore the famous surf break at Teahupoo (“cho-po”) by dinghy. If you’ve got a fast dinghy, head east past the point of land closest to the break and keep going for a couple of miles. In dinghy channels around the Societies, you keep the black and white markers inland of you and the all white ones to the outside. You’ll eventually see a river mouth you can go up into and anchor the dinghy. From there, it’s a 5 minute hike inland to a grotto where you can swim in complete darkness underground. You’ll probably see other boats in there if it’s a weekend. If not, flag a boat down and ask em where it is. Everyone is friendly in this part of Tahiti.

We left out of Passe Havae (the same pass as Teahupoo) and sailed close-hauled around the corner of Tahiti Iti and fairly close up the eastern shore. It’s a beautiful sail…just make sure you give Faratara Reef enough leeway. We decided not to stop at any of the anchorages along this coast. Not for any particular reason, we were making good time and having a great sail so we kept going around the northeast corner and into Tautira Bay. We pulled up toward the beach just south where the river flows in and dropped in about 18 feet of water. The anchorage is great when you’ve got normal tradewinds and seas but I’d stay away during any northerly or westerly flows. Although we experienced no swell or rolling at anchor, there is a mild swell washing up on the beach. We dinghied in on the north side of the river exit to the public beach area but be careful! The rocky reef formation just off the beach comes out of nowhere so go nice and slow or you’ll tear up your prop. It’s difficult to see because the water isn’t clear here. The black sand beach is STEEP and it was difficult to pull the dinghy up out of the swell so I followed a local’s lead and drug the dinghy across the small bar into the river. Once you get through the outgoing flow, it’s deep enough to drop the engine and crank back up. We tied off to a tree and jumped ashore from there. Later, I took the dinghy pretty far up this river and never ran into any problems. You could probably go upriver quite a ways and explore if you have the time. The public beach area is gorgeous. The sun sets back over the big island and the locals gather and play boule (bocci ball). If you walk north along this road it circles around the point and eventually ends up at the local magasin (store). It’s actually well-stocked for this side of the island! You can cut back through the neighborhoods to the beach side. Make sure you check out the old church. This was the without a doubt the friendliest place we visited on the island. Everyone greets you as you walk by and we were practically accosted by a guy who wouldn’t stop giving us fruit! He saw us looking up at a mango tree and stopped to ask if we wanted any. We said we were okay but he took off to his house and brought back a whole bag. Ten minutes later, getting in the dinghy, he showed up with a big bag of bananas! Then he took me over to someone else’s house for more mangos! He wasn’t looking for anything from us…it was just typical Polynesia hospitality.

We sailed out of Tautira Bay and down the outside of the reef almost to Taravao before we cut north and hauled butt in the 25 knot trades. We gave the northeasterly shore of Tahiti Nui a wide berth. We sailed far enough north that once we gybed we wouldn’t have to gybe again to clear the reef off Papenoo which sticks out 2 miles or so. Just after Point Venus, we turned south and dipped in for the night. This anchorage is basically the big brother of Tautira with a lighthouse. They look very similar with their big black sand beaches. We pulled up just under the lighthouse and dropped anchor in 15 feet of water for the night. Then came the rain. It rained all night and all the next day before we finally gave up going ashore and moved on. I would have liked to explore here but we were anxious to get back to civilization and meet all the new puddle jump arrivals. We thought about stopping at the Tahiti Yacht Club for the night but when we cruised by all the moorings were full and anchoring was only available in deep water. An hour later we were tied up at the quay downtown.

I’m including a copy of an email I sent Seth on Honeymoon with some info on Tahiti. It’s gives some good info about the quay downtown. If it sounds like I’m cheap and trying to stay downtown for free, I am. We mastered the art of “being sneaky” down there. If you disagree with that…oh well! However, I do have some revisions to make:

– The older port captain, Gerard, seems to have fallen for my charm. He is still a little gruff with some other sailors but for some reason, his attitude changed when he knew we were heading down to Teahupoo. We stayed downtown for probably another 2 weeks total after I sent this email and I never paid a dime….even when he knew we’d been there for several days. This was very different from what other boats experienced so don’t expect it!

– As of the day we left (June 5th) they now have a security guard who logs each boat’s name at night so fibbing your arrival day during the high season will not work. Also, Gerard (the older port captain) walked the docks every morning the last couple of times we stayed down there. If you want to impress him and get on his good side, here’s a tidbit. He’s the coach of one of the most prominent va’a (outrigger canoe) teams in Tahiti.

– The other, younger port capitain no longer has a receeding hairline…he shaved it.

– The ferries downtown suck. They need to slow down. Yes, it is annoying for us monohulls.

– The anchorage around Marina Taina is crowded but you can always find a space. Anyone who says it’s full hasn’t been to creative anchoring school. Keep in mind that many of the local French guys have maybe a 2 to 1 scope out since either their anchor is buried six feet under the sand or they’re on some sort of homemade mooring. Check outside the mooring field straight across from the fuel dock.

– They took the pitchers of Hinano off the happy hour list at the Pink Coconut.

– I thought I’d include my mechanic’s info. He’s a nice guy, a bit rough around the edges but he worked out for me including a replacement of my entire Perkins bottom-end. Do not expect punctuality. You should know what island time is by now. Pascal Maintenance and Logistic 74 42 26. He has his own boatyard. No travel lift but a crane instead. It’s not an “upscale” place but it’ll work in a pinch. His rate is 4500cfp/hr.

– Tom on Zen turned me on to Christian (74 68 01). I didn’t get to meet him but did call for some advice and he was extremely friendly. I believe he’s a Spectra water rep but also an all around good guy who can offer guidance.

– Dieselec did a great job on my alternator rebuild. Would highly recommend them for anything having to do with alternators or fuel pumps.

Hey Seth,

Yeah…it’s really great down here on the south side of Tahiti.  It rains a lot more and the green cliffs come right down to the water.  It reminds me a lot of the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.  If you guys get a chance to come down here I recommend it.  You could sail here first and then up and around the west side of Tahiti and enter through the pass right there at the main marina facilities.  If you’re worried about checking in a each island, don’t.  No one seems to really care much around here and you could sail for weeks without checking in with anyone.

The only exception is in Papeete.  You def need to visit Immigration and the Port Captain in the little blue house at the head of the northern cruise ship dock.  I think because Margie and I have our long stay visas we don’t have to pay the bond (they haven’t said anything so neither have I!) but if you haven’t done it already, this is where you’ll take care of that.  There are two port captains.  One thicker guy with peppered grey hair and one skinny, younger guy with a receeding hairline.  The younger guy is GREAT.  You’ll know he’s on duty if his motorcycle (looks kinda like a dirt bike) is parked at the rear door to the office.  The other guy has an attitude.  Neither one will charge you if you are only staying a night at the quay but with the younger guy you can get away with 2 nights sometimes.  If you plan on visiting the quay, I’d wait a couple of days after arriving or until they come find you before checking in.  I’ve seen boats sit there for a week flying their yellow flag.  The older guy will actually come down to the quay and sometimes you’ll find him behind your boat yelling “YOU CHECK IN????”  Whether it seems like he does or not, he really has no clue when you actually arrived so tell him you got there that morning and that you are coming over as soon as you get the boat cleaned up.  Don’t yell it from your boat, jump up on the docks and give him the usual Polynesian handshake (slap and tap) with a big smile.  I’ve dealt with the guy many times now and he’s much more affable if you deal with him like an old friend.  I’ve spent a total of 16 nights at the quay so far this year.  I’ve paid for 8 nights.  Last year when we stayed there it was 100 cfp /meter per night.  Now it’s high season and it’s 240 cpf per meter.  For the 8 nights I’ve paid to stay there the total cost (nightly plus trash, water, and tax) was 25,722 cfp.  Not a great deal but my mechanic was finishing up some work from last year and it’s closest to his shop so it was needed.  You can always show up on a Satuday afternoon and stay till Monday morning without anyone noticing or caring.

We like being downtown cause it’s close to many restaurants and the cheapest eats on the island.  For lunch we always hit the food stalls in the downstairs of the market or Oasis café on the backside of Vaima center.  For dinner, we LOVE the roulottes that gather on the square near the port captains office at night.  There are usually 15-20 to choose from.  Our favorite is La Boule Rouge (the one with the blinking red ball on top).  Their salted crepes are awesome most nights but if they are REALLY busy pass it over cause the quality goes downhill.  I get the one called Viagra and Margie loves the Tex Mex.  The Crème Freche pizza pies from the pizza cart are great as well.  Sunday is a really popular night here with tons of families and kids.  I think they like to take the evening off from cooking at home.   The have good homebrew beer at Trois Brasseurs near the Port Captain’s building too.  Right now they have a happy hour – buy one get one free – special going on.  UNHEARD OF in these islands so take advantage if it’s still offered when you get here.  If you are at the Quay on a Friday, it is pretty fun to go out in Papeete for a night.  We found a couple of upscale bars we really enjoyed last year if you’re looking to spend a little $ one night!  And the dance clubs can be a good time especially if you’re looking for a change from “boat life” for a night.

If you need parts, you will find them here.  Fare Ute and Motu Uta are the industrial areas with all the hardware, auto, marine stores, and the mechanics.  If you need something specific, let me know.  I’ve walked all the streets over there and found a good bit of stuff.  If I don’t know where anything you need is, my mechanic surely does and I’ve got to meet with him in a couple of weeks up there.

I would highly recommend a couple of nights at the Quay.  Even if the port captain finds you right off and you end up paying for a couple of nights, we think it’s worth it.  I mean, you can’t swim, it’s not beautiful, and it’s loud but it’s completely different from anything else in this part of the world and worth seeing once!  The other option is the Marina Taina area west of town just past the airport.  This place is FILLED with boats and many French sailors live here on moorings and at the docks year round.  I can’t comment on the costs of either the moorings or the docks cause I’ve yet to pay.  We’ve secretly grabbed private moorings that were vacant for the night here and there and we’ve only spent one night at the transient moorings before we came down here.  I figure if we’re only there one night and no one comes looking for us, I’m not gonna volunteer myself to pay.  Plus, I fueled up at the docks there so I figure they owe me a night!  There is anchoring available but it is tight and it’s only gonna get tighter as we enter the busy season.  It’s a high traffic area so you can’t drop the hook right on the channel and most of the reef side is covered in moorings.  You guys are on a cat so you may have more options than us (depth wise).  I would recommend looking on the southside of the docks just off the large dinghy dock.   We met a couple of boats that found some vacant area around there to anchor.  This is where you want to be to provision the boat.  You can get basically everything you need foodwise at the Carrefour.  You can walk there and push a cart full of groceries back to the marina.  Apparently someone from the store comes to pick them up weekly.  If you need it and can’t find it at Carrefour, a place called Cash and Carry near the airport has other selections at great prices and there is another Carrefour-type place (I think it’s called Hyper U) in the suburbs east of Papeete our friends took us to.  There is one more place called Cost and Co. that carries a lot of Kirkland (Costco) brand products.  We haven’t been there yet but I know where it is next to downtown, within walking distance of the Quay.

There is a cool bar/restaurant at the marina called “Pink Coconut”  They have a happy hour specials and I’ve heard bands there on Fridays and Saturdays.  Our buddy Kyber
(www.mysticsail.com) spent several months in this area and he says Thursday nights are the best.  It’s got almost magical views of the sunset looking across the mooring field and on towards Moorea.

Hopefully this helps someone out.  I enjoy reading other people’s accounts and sometimes I feel like I don’t put enough “useful info” in my posts.  If you have questions, drop me an email.  I’m happy to help if I can.


{ 1 comment }

Nomadic Matt June 7, 2009 at 6:35 am

any photos of this?

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