It’s black out, pitch black, aside from a delicate, sparkling necklace strung along Bora Bora’s shoreline and a single incandescent pearl set in the heavens. It’s 1 am, and it’s raining.
Behind a duvet of heavy clouds, a sea of stars is obscured, but the full moon refuses be disguised tonight.
Ping, ting, pling.
Raindrops dance on the cabintop.
The kettle whistles over the sound of our engine rumbling. To have any chance of reaching the treacherous reef pass at Maupiti when seas are projected to be at their calmest, we need to be underway by 1:30 am.
The first time we sailed west to depart Bora Bora, it was to visit Raiatea and Taha’a, which we’d skipped when we sailed from Moorea. This time, however, was truly farewell. After a few final days of bliss, we visited the Gendarme to clear out of French Polynesia and made several hefty runs to local magasins to stock our larders with fresh vegetables, eggs, and other supplies that would get us by for somewhere between two and four weeks. We were headed off the grid and didn’t expect to see a supermarket again for up to a month.
We had been watching the weather, hoping we could sneak in a few days at just one more French Polynesian island before journeying onward to the Cook Islands. The weather Gods offered us a gift—conditions were ripe for a visit to Maupiti. Although we had technically been stamped out of the country and were expected to leave within 24 hours, we decided to embrace the opportunity. We felt like mischievous little shits. Our partners in crime were the crew of s/v Sarita who had departed Bora Bora 30 minutes before us.
A 12-knot northeasterly breeze sent us trotting westward. The rain dissipated, clouds parted, and dawn broke, revealing another volcanic masterpiece.
One helluva narrow reef pass
Maupiti’s reef pass has a reputation for being treacherous. If you’re lucky enough to get in, you might not be able to get out for a while; a while, as in weeks. At its most aggressive, water can rush out of the lagoon at 9 knots, which would have been impossible for ole Red Thread to negotiate. What’s more, when there is a large running swell from the south or southeast (the direction from which the prevailing winds blow during cruising season), the pass can be impossible to negotiate, with waves standing to defend the entrance to the lagoon and seas breaking over the reef.
Thankfully, we only had to fight through 2 knots with light winds at our stern. The entrance was the narrowest we’d traversed in our travels. Safely within the lagoon, we snagged a mooring ball near an area where manta rays supposedly feed regularly…
I’d like to say we were so energized by our arrival that we launched the dinghy immediately and went exploring. Alas, we were exhausted from our obscenely early start and spent most of the day moving between meals and napping. That is, except when we heard the clatter of an outboard motor approaching soon after we laid down to rest.
Two very drunk, very friendly men hollered “Ia ora na!” (hello in Polynesian) as we scurried up the companionway and hurriedly slung fenders over the port aft quarter, where their hands gripped the toe rail. Skipjack tuna were scattered in the belly of their tin runabout. We wondered whether the men had been out fishing all night, a common practice in the islands, or if a visit to our boat was the tail end of an all-night bender.
They spoke a little English. We bumbled through the few words we knew in Polynesian. Through laughter and jokes, we agreed to swap some tuna for a couple beers. One of the men proceeded to use a hacksaw to butcher a hunk of flesh from what we then realized was a very frozen fish!
Trade complete, our new friends invited us to a nearby motu for a BBQ on the beach the next day. I was delighted! This is the type of invitation I live for.
A beach BBQ with new friends?
Conversation with strangers?
A chance to learn about local culture?
Sign me up!
That afternoon, I rounded up the fixings for an American-style potato salad that would be our contribution to the get-together.
In the presence of greatness
As we sipped our coffee the next morning, I rushed to prepare the potato salad for that afternoon’s rendezvous. I needed to cook quickly, so we could join Richard, Jude, and Katya in search of the resident manta rays who visit the lagoon each morning to feed. We swam with manta rays once before, with Mark and Helen in Bora Bora, and the allure of potentially seeing the animals again made us feel giddy.
We donned our masks and snorkels and slipped into the water. There they were. Two? No, three? Four?! Wait, SIX!! Six magnificent giants soared below us in 7 to 10 meters of water. These mantas were larger than the ones we had seen in Bora Bora, close to three meters (if not larger), though we suspect of the same species (reef manta). Neil and Richard, the most skilled freedivers of the five of us, dove close enough to see their side profiles! Having only figured out how to really swim about 18 months prior (I didn’t sort out decent swim skills until we were in Costa Rica…embarrassing, I know), I could hardly keep my wits about me to keep swimming with all of the excitement, let alone trying to freedive!
The pale underbelly of each manta is daubed with a design all its own, a pattern as unique as a fingerprint on a human or the fluke of a humpback whale, whereas their broad wings are painted in one of three motifs: chevron (black and white markings), all black, and leucistic (light or white due to reduced pigment). Their movements were slow, purposeful, and elegant. It’s no wonder that Polynesians revere them for their strength and wisdom.
Unlike those in Bora Bora, Maupiti’s mantas were not accustomed to daily tourist boats containing dozens of curious humans. Yet, surprisingly, these mantas also seemed wholly indifferent to our presence. They were wild and yet so tame and peaceful. It was awe-inspiring to be in the presence of such special creatures. We plucked our salty bodies from the water feeling privileged and elated by our experience.
A backyard BBQ Maupiti-style
An hour later, we rocked up to the beach a few minutes later than the time proposed by our hosts the morning prior, which meant that we were really, really early. We were on island time after all. To be honest, we were unsure if our new friends recalled inviting us at all! As an hour passed on the uninhabited motu, and then another, the tin boat from the day before appeared.
Two couples and a small flock of children climbed over the gunnels and splashed into the pale water. One man pulled a whole frozen tuna from a hold in their john boat and hung it from the bow in a plastic bag in the shallows, where it could defrost.
Whereas kids back home sit in a fenced yard playing with kittens, the children on Maupiti’s Motu Tiapaa sat belly-button deep in the lagoon feeding stingrays tuna scraps from their hands. The gentle creatures were at least half as tall as the eldest kids and certainly larger than the youngest, a 2-and-a-half-year-old who spent most of the afternoon wearing nothing but an oversized snorkel mask! Fearless, he, too, fed the stingrays and caressed their silky wings as if they were the coat of the meekest kitten.
Our new friends gave us a lesson in Polynesian cooking. Jenna diced the tuna, while Tea cut onions, garlic, and fresh ginger root. Jenna and Phillip then drizzled lime juice onto the fish and mixed it through with their hands. Minutes later, the first lime wash was drained from the bowl and onions, ginger, and more garlic were sprinkled atop the heap of tuna. Next the fish was covered with a dressing of oil, vinegar, lime juice, salt, sugar, and garlic. Finally, freshly grated coconut was wrung through a dish towel by hand to extract rich creamy coconut milk, the hallmark ingredient that distinguishes poisson cru from ceviche.
Meanwhile, rum fermented with coconut water, lychee, and sugar, brewing up a deliciously potent “local beer.”
Tea directed my fingers, guiding me to braid palm fronds into the shape of a heart, like the ones that lined the pillars of their simple beach hut. Sunshine beat down on our heads as she corrected my errors and let me find out just how difficult it is to create a piece of art from a leaf.
Neil took a length of old line from our dinghy and tied a decorative, 3-strand Turk’s head knot around the post that braced the palm-frond woven shelter; a gift from us for their generous hospitality. In the salty air hung the aroma of fish on the grill and laughter of children. The meal was delicious and our new friends seemed to enjoy my potato salad.
The afternoon sun grew long and we returned to Red Thread and then enjoyed a sundowner with Richard and Jude from s/v Sarita.
Is it possible to have a better day than one that awakes to a snorkel with half a dozen goliath manta rays, involves a beachside barbeque with a local family when the sun is high, and ends with sundowners with two of our very best cruising friends? I think not.
Maupiti manta ray mooring waypoint: 16°28’.372S 152°15’.220W
Point of departure: Vaitape, Bora Bora, Society Islands of French Polynesia – 07/21/16
Point of arrival: Maupiti, Society Islands of French Polynesia – 07/21/16
Distance traveled: 34 nautical miles
Total time: 6 hours
Engine roaring: 1 hours
Sails soaring: 5 (83%)
Average speed: 5.7 knots