CountryFrance (COM: Collectivité d'outre-mer)
Description & main attractions
French Polynesia covers an area of the South Pacific about the size of Europe. It is made up of 130 islands in five archipelagos: the Society, Marquesas, Tuamotu, Gambier and Austral Islands.
Robert Louis Stevenson, who stopped in the Marquesas on the schooner Casco in 1888, spoke for generations of sailors to come when he described what he saw in these immortal words: ‘The first experience can never be repeated. The first love, the first sunrise, the first South Sea island, are memories apart and touched a virginity of sense… As the first rays of the sun displayed the needles of Ua Pou, these pricked about the line of the horizon; like the pinnacles of some ornate and monstrous church they stood there, in the sparkling brightness of the morning, the fit signboard of a world of wonders.’
As symbols of the South Seas, these islands are indeed unmatched and there are few sailors who do not dream of cruising one day among these enchanted isles. From the rugged beauty of the Marquesas to the crystal-clear waters of the Tuamotu atolls and the lofty peaks of the Society Islands, the variety in scenery and cruising opportunities is unsurpassed in the South Pacific.
Most boats make their first landfall in the Marquesas having sailed along the traditional route from the Galapagos, or directly from Mexico or California. Fewer boats take the longer route to Mangareva in the Gambiers, usually after detours to Easter Island and Pitcairn. The spectacular scenery of the Marquesas, with their craggy soaring peaks and lush vegetation, makes them among the most beautiful islands in the world.
It was not, though, their natural beauty that brought two of these islands to international attention, but the work done here by some of their famous visitors.
The painter Paul Gauguin spent the final years of his life on Hiva Oa where he created some of his best-known canvases depicting the beauty of his Polynesian hosts. While Hiva Oa now thrives on its association with Paul Gauguin, Nuku Hiva’s claim to fame is as the setting of Herman Melville’s Typee.
Melville called at the Marquesas on the whaler Acushnet in 1843, where he jumped ship and spent some time in the village of Taipivae, a stay that inspired his enduring bestseller. While the story is entirely fictional, the atmosphere of days gone by depicted by Melville can still be felt in these islands where ancient stone statues and sacred sites survive in the brooding forests.
In complete contrast to the lofty Marquesas are the Tuamotus, once called the Dangerous Archipelago on account of their treacherous currents and lurking reefs. Yachts used to avoid this area, but many now stop and visit the low atolls, as the risks have diminished considerably with the advent of radar and GPS. Negotiating the passes into some of the lagoons can be a difficult operation because of the strong currents, and navigating inside the lagoons studded with coral heads can be just as daunting. This calls for careful eyeball navigation, ideally when the sun is overhead or behind the observer and the colour of the water gives an indication of its depth.
Back in the modern world, the capital Papeete is greatly enjoyed by visiting sailors as they are able to berth Mediterranean-style in the centre of this bustling town. Development, which has not affected the outer islands, has left its mark on Tahiti, but in the rest of the Society Islands life continues to proceed at a slower pace, and Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora Bora continue to be highly appreciated destinations for both charter and cruising boats.
In the relatively small area of the Society Islands all ingredients that make up a perfect cruising ground are concentrated: relaxed sailing inside enclosed lagoons, plenty of sheltered anchorages, a wide choice of restaurants and, for the long-term cruisers, good supplies and repair facilities in the main centres of Tahiti and Raiatea. As the ancient site of Havaiki, the island of Raiatea lies at the symbolic centre of the Polynesian triangle whose far-flung corners stretch to Easter Island, Hawaii and New Zealand. It is believed that long ago it was from here that people set off in large double-hulled canoes in search of new lands to settle. Eventually they reached New Zealand, which they called Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud, and founded a new home there.
The population is 287,000. Polynesians form the majority, although there are a number of European settlers, mostly French, and also a Chinese minority. Papeete is the capital and is quite mixed, while the population of the outer islands is pure Polynesian. Tahitian and French are the main languages, although each island group has its own distinct Polynesian language.
The climate in the greater part of this vast area is tropical, with the exception of the southernmost islands of the Austral group where it borders on the temperate. July and August are the most pleasant months in Papeete, with an average temperature of 25°C/77°F. The weather between November and April is warm and rainy, while May to October is cooler and drier, when the islands are under the influence of the southeast trade winds. These winds are called mara’amu in Polynesian and the term also refers to the winter season, whereas the wet season is called toerau. Reinforced trade winds are a feature of the winter season, especially August, when they occasionally blow at 30 knots. The cyclone season is November to March, and almost every year at least one cyclone affects one or more of the islands. Full cyclones rarely hit the Marquesas, but they can be affected by storms during that season.
Host marina / Port information
The best facilities are to be found in Papeete, which has several chandleries and workshops specializing in yacht repair, as well as haulout facilities. The only other centre with extensive repair services is at Raiatea, which is a busy charter base.
There are few marinas as such, and those in Tahiti are always full with local boats. Vessels can be left between seasons either in Tahiti, in the port area, or in Raiatea, either on the hard or in Marina Apoiti.
In Bora Bora there are now two mooring facilities, the new marina at Vaitape or a number of visitors’ mooring buoys that have been laid by the Bora Bora Yacht Club.
Provisioning is best in Tahiti. The best supermarket for long-term provisioning is Carrefour in Papeete. Duty-free fuel may be purchased on departure by obtaining an exemption certificate from customs.
Location on the map
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