By Peter Hughes
We sailed at night, almost before anyone realised. The ship swivelled silently off its berth and slipped into the harbour basin. Only when the yellow lights strung along Papeete’s waterfront began to trickle past to port was I sure that the voyage had begun. It was a moment I knew I was lucky to experience, and one that I marvelled should exist at all. Outside lay Polynesia, ahead the Sea of the Moon; beneath me spread the teak deck of a fully rigged tall ship.
To spend a week in the South Pacific, wandering among some of its most evocatively named islands – Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea – was one thing. To do it under sail on a four-masted clipper was to enter an orbit of high romance. But every Eden has its serpent and French Polynesia would be no exception. First, though, came the romance…
The passengers, to a man, had come on deck to witness our departure. There was a faint squeak at my shoulder and the tip of a sail – the mizzen staysail – stirred. Then, as if by levitation, it began its ascent of the mast. The effect was ghostly, a milky sheet rising in the moonlight, apparently unaided. Two pale jibs materialised, followed by the soaring triangle of the main staysail. Now the ship was alive, shaking off its temporary hibernation. What in port had been a dead tracery of rope, stretched haphazard against the sky, suddenly had purpose, tautened by capstans, twitched by the wind, running through pulleys. The masts, only minutes before stark as oaks in winter, blossomed with the foliage of July as sail after sail unfurled, shook out its creases and swelled with the hot wind of the tropics. Even the deck seemed to be breathing as the ship began a gentle roll.
The helmsman spun the big wooden wheel and called out his course, ‘Three zero three.’ A woman pulled her husband away lest, in his curiosity, his shirt became caught in the whirring handles. There was a hiss from the public address system and as we gathered speed, Vangelis’s throbbing theme from the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise pounded from the speakers. (It was to provide the cheesy accompaniment to our every departure.) To my right a woman passenger was standing at the rail. She was wearing a piratical black eye-patch. She actually had injured her cornea but just for a second I looked for a parrot.
Star Flyer is a 360ft steel-hulled barquentine built in 1991, one of three tall ships in the Star Clippers fleet. For the past year it has been based in Papeete, Tahiti, making seven-, 10- and 11-day voyages through two of the five island groups of French Polynesia. On my seven-day voyage, which started and ended in Tahiti, we called at five of the other Society Islands; on the longer voyages Star Flyer reaches the remoter and less visited Tuamotus.
The ship carries a maximum of 170 passengers. The one thing they have in common is that they have all managed to persuade themselves that they are not really on a cruise. And in many respects they are not. There is no casino, kids’ club or spa, let alone bingo or floor shows. Evening entertainment is more concert party than cabaret, with a music quiz one night and karaoke the next. The crew put on a talent show and a Polynesian group came on board when we were back in Tahiti.
What Star Flyer has instead are sails, more than 36,000sq ft of them: topsails, gallants and staysails, a spanker, jigger and jibs. There are belaying pins and blocks, winches and spars; yards, sheets, ratlines and shrouds. Among the crew is a sailmaker-cum-rigger whose job is to sew patches in the Dacron – not canvas, which is too heavy and hard to handle – and work aloft with rope. He is hoisted up the masts in a harness; it is left to the passengers to clamber up the rigging and into a crow’s nest.
There is also a halyard they can haul to raise a sail, which would otherwise be done by electric motor. In the old days, of men before the mast, a ship like this would need a deck crew of at least 60 to sail it. Star Flyer has 17, including officers. Yet sail it does. Its 48-year-old master, Captain Borówka Brunon, from Poland, reckons to spend 60 per cent of each voyage under sail.
Sail defines every aspect of the ship. From the brass portholes to the mahogany-stained panelling – and what isn’t cast in brass is made of timber – to the ropework mouldings and prints of windjammers on the walls, Star Flyer is a sailing ship.
The smallish cabins, with their copious storage, belong to a yacht; the bar is straight out of Treasure Island. Open on either side to the South Pacific, it is sheltered by a canvas awning. Along the heavy mahogany ship’s rail there are glimpses of the mizzen mast stays and the hull of a lifeboat. There are even apple barrels for Jim Hawkins to hide in. They are rubbish bins.
We sailed all night and half the next day to reach Huahine, 110 miles north-west of Tahiti. Looking ahead from just behind the bridge – to which passengers have almost permanent access – it struck me that the view must have been very similar to the one Captain Cook had on his first visit in 1769. Outrigger canoes – pirogues – came out to meet us and, in the foreground, the bowsprit rose, as if sniffing the wind, sails piled along its length, the jib sheets angled tight to the top of the foremast. Beyond, across a glittering expanse of turquoise sea, was the island, rugged and green, with trees dense as plumage.
In fact very little of that scene could have been exchanged with Cook, and not simply because the bowsprit is steel, the sails Dacron and the pirogues plastic. The island would have looked different too. Much of the vegetation has arrived since the 18th century. Fruits, such as mango, papaya and citrus, are relative newcomers. As are forest species such as pine and acacia, whose feathery tops, flat as mortarboards, are changing the appearance of many of the islands with their discordant horizontal hatching. Along the waterfront straggled a line of small houses. These were not traditional fares, made of wood and thatch to accommodate the climate, but prefabricated bungalows designed to withstand it, with air- conditioning and cyclone-resistant construction.
Paul Atallah is an anthropologist and no respecter of myth. He runs a tour on Huahine dedicated to dismantling preconceptions about Polynesia. Thirty of us piled on to Le Truck, the classic public transport of the islands that is gradually, and sadly, being superseded by Japanese minibuses. This one, typically a brand new lorry chassis with a wooden shed bolted on the back, took children to school in the week and families to church on Sundays.
We drove to the village of Maeva, at the foot of Mou’a Tapu where, on the hillside, and inconspicuous to the passer-by, is one of the densest concentrations of archaeological sites in French Polynesia. Atallah had worked on their excavation with Dr Yosihiko Sinoto, the leading authority on the islands’ anthropology. We sat on the shore beside the remains of a marae, or temple, in the shade of a sacred tamanu tree. Two fishing canoes slouched on their outriggers, and a couple of men sat in the shadow of an ironwood tree, while Atallah unpicked the legend of paradise: ‘The idea that the Europeans put an end to a tropical paradise is nonsense.’ The islands, he said, were violent, populated by constantly warring families, impoverished, and practised cannibalism and human sacrifice. Their resources were limited to rock, bone, coral, seashell and timber.
He led us up the hill to where the bush had been cleared to expose a series of stone terraces, the remnants of a substantial settlement with small fields, houses and burial chambers between 200 and 500 years old. ‘In Hawaii or New Zealand this would be a National Park,’ Atallah said. ‘But here they don’t understand the significance. It’s still a colonial education with more European history taught than Polynesian.’
French Polynesia is a French ‘overseas country’ – pays d’outre mer. That means it is French in more or less everything except traffic police and currency, which remains the French Polynesian franc. Only in the past two years has the Tahitian language been permitted to be taught in schools. The islanders are French citizens; their head of state is Nicolas Sarkozy, though they have their own, local president.
What they also have is an economy Botoxed with aid. France pumps about €1.3 billion a year into the islands, tantamount to a handout of more than €5,000 to every man, woman and child.
Per head they have a national wealth equivalent to Australia’s. Not bad for a place that imports eight times as much as it exports, and whose major business, tourism, has been stagnant for years. Hawaii gets more visitors in 10 days than French Polynesia in a year.
Before the ship sailed there had been time to kill on Tahiti. Time is not the only thing on the island that should fear for its mortality, judging by the yarns the locals tell. The intrigues of recent Polynesian politics involve a plot straight out of John Grisham.
Allegations of vote rigging, corruption and cronyism, and the disappearance in 1997 of an over-inquisitive journalist, Jean-Pascal Courand, make the machinations of Mutiny on the Bounty look like a tiff in a skiff. The government elected last April was the eighth in four years. ‘Tahiti has its drawbacks,’ Paul Theroux wrote in his 1992 book, The Happy Isles of Oceania. ‘It is expensive, traffic-choked, noisy, corrupt and Frenchified…’
It was Sunday morning and the Tahitians were at prayer. Those who weren’t were keeping their heads down in respect for the ones who were. The roads were deserted. In the village of Punaauia, Holy Communion was being celebrated in a church that could have been a naive woodcut. It was painted carmine and cream and had a pencil-sharp steeple and lancet windows dabbed with stained glass.
There was a congregation of about 200, Protestants, in common with more than half the population. Despite being French, fewer than a third are Catholic: the London Missionary Society got there first. More than half the worshippers were women, dressed in white, and wearing either straw hats wreathed with flowers or ‘head crowns’ of little white gardenias called tiare. The priest wore a loose white shirt and a heavy lei of frangipani blossom. It was hot. Children ran in and out of the open doors; women fanned themselves by the open windows. At the back of the church, occupying one of the varnished pews, six musicians were grouped round a large amplifier.
The service was in Tahitian and the singing, accompanied by keyboard, guitars and a ukulele, braided with gutsy harmonies. When it came to the Eucharist a cloth was carefully removed from the altar to reveal a sort of sacred buffet efficiently arranged in wooden trays, one for the bread, one for tiny glasses of wine and one for the empties.
Paul Gauguin, the Post-Impressionist painter, took a house at Punaauia on his first visit to Tahiti in 1891. It was also where Marlon Brando made his first home after filming Mutiny on the Bounty. Brando’s widow, Tarita, still has the house; Gauguin’s descendants only got his name. His son Emil, who died some years ago, was a farmer, his grandson Ato, a hotel receptionist.
Soon after his arrival Gauguin wrote to his wife, ‘Tahiti is becoming completely French. Little by little all the ancient ways of doing things will disappear.’ He should see it now. Mankind has only ever found paradise in order to lose it or, in French Polynesia’s case, to nuke it. For 30 years France tested nuclear weapons on two isolated atolls in the Tuamotus. The tests stopped in 1996 but, one way or another, France has been paying ever since.
All of which has gone to create a sort of brat state, one that has income without output and the promise of Paris coming up with more. There is effectively no income tax, yet the schools are good, health care is free and there are excellent roads and a national airline that runs at a loss.
The things that are taxed are the things that visitors buy, not the breadfruit, coconut, taro and fish that the locals pick, grow and catch for themselves. Some of the prices make your credit card curl: £25 and £30 for continental breakfast in hotels is impressive by any standard. (Against that the ship is good value. Or it was: the shipboard currency is the euro.) What is impossible to price is the utter eye-pricking, spine-tingling, camera-bursting beauty of the place. Even the curmudgeonly Paul Theroux allowed that, ‘it is impossible to belittle its natural physical beauty’.
I snorkelled over coral among a confetti of fish off Moorea, kayaked on Raiatea, and on Tahaa learnt how to pollinate vanilla by hand, flower by flower, with a toothpick. I ran the gauntlet of black pearl shops on Bora Bora and saw the latest set of overwater bungalows there at the new Four Seasons resort. It has a wedding chapel and spa: the chapel looks like a beachside cabana, the spa could be a cathedral.
But the abiding memories are of colours beyond the wit of chemistry, of lagoons bluer than eyes and their diadem reefs, the inky ocean beyond; of cloud steaming off the carcases of ancient volcanoes, clad to their summits in pelts of vegetation, both thick as fur and fine as flock. And in the foreground, etched like a Victorian engraving, the masts, yards and rigging of the clipper that delivered us. If ever a machine was meant to be, it is a tall ship in Polynesia.
South Pacific essentials
Peter Hughes travelled with Turquoise Holidays, which offers a seven-night package with return flights from £2,850pp (01494-678400; turquoiseholidays.co.uk). The price is for two sharing a superior outside cabin, and includes all meals and return economy flights from London to Tahiti via Los Angeles with British Airways and Air Tahiti Nui. It does not include excursions. For information on the cruise, visit: