Sailing for pearls

Christine Retschlag | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 3

Tahiti’s Pearl Regatta is attracting more and more crews from around the world. And for good reason, according to Christine Retschlag.

Waves gush over the reef like a shaken champagne bottle and thick accents, as French and smoky as a packet of Gitane, pepper the salty air. A postcard-perfect Turkish moon drapes from a southern sky dripping in diamonds, and crabs scuttle furtively along the shoreline.

Think Tahiti. Think Bora Bora. Think again.

For landlubbers, French Polynesia is a paradise of over-water bungalows punctuated by endless afternoons where every hour, undoubtedly, is cocktail hour.

For sailors, or those simply seeking a little more adventure, there’s the Tahiti Pearl Regatta. Tahiti’s signature 15 to 20 knot north-easterlies heralded the start of the race from Raiatea, nudging the fleet of mono-and multi-hull vessels 22 nautical miles from Uturuoa across sparkling waters to Taha’a Island.

Similar speedy south-easterlies pushed competitors across 25 nautical miles of open ocean and around the crashing reefs into the mill pond of Bora Bora lagoon on the second day.

By day three, a practically whispering 10 to 15 knots provided perfect sailing conditions for the final 10 nautical mile course around Bora Bora lagoon.

Staged each May, the Tahiti Pearl Regatta was born in 2004 between nine friends, who shared a passion for sailing.

By 2005, the regatta had grown to 19 crews, and has continued to grow since.

I signed on along with 26 other crews, including three from Japan, three from the United States of America and the remainder from French Polynesia.


Tahiti Pearl Regatta organiser, Stephanie Betz says they aim to spread the net and attract Australian crews, who would then be invited to become ambassadors for the event on their return to Australia.

Ambassadors not only promote the regatta, but four people from an Australian yacht club would receive return airfares to Tahiti, accommodation, local transport, boat hire and race entry.

“We want Tahiti to be seen as a sailing destination. Every archipelago has something different to offer. The culture, the fish, the food … they are all different,” said Betz.

“Tahiti is not just about Bora Bora. You can have a relatively cheap sailing holiday here. For around $US1000 a day, you can hire a catamaran for eight people. Two people can pay as much as $US1000 for a single night for an over-water bungalow.

“When you are in a hotel, it is hard to get in touch with the population. On a boat, you go ashore and meet with the local people. We are trying to be authentic and keep things simple.”

Ms Betz says sailing is ideal in French Polynesia because the region is not subject to moon tides. Because of its geographical location – exactly halfway between Australia and the US – low tide occurs at 6am and 6pm every day, and high tide at midday and midnight.

And the sun tide only has a 20 centimetre impact on the tide, rendering overnight mooring stress-free.

Traditional Tahitian feasts, cooked in underground ovens and consumed under flames to the accompaniment of local singers, musicians, and dancers, marked the end of each day’s racing in this year’s regatta.


Tradition runs deep in these parts, with skippers blessed for racing in a Benediction ceremony conducted by a Tahitian elder.

The crew of the pearl jeweller’s boat of Tahia Collins – sponsors of the regatta and first-time entrants – proved a formidable bunch, both on and off the course, in their 51-foot boat, skippered by Frenchman, Jean Yvon.

The seven crew members, whose cases of Moët and Chandon sat alongside tens of thousands of dollars worth of jewellery onboard, ranked in the top four teams to finish the threecourse race overall.

Not surprisingly, Tahiti dominated the field, taking out the top seven places in the mono-hull division, with skipper, Teva Plichart ranking first overall in the Oceanis 423 Tahiti et ses iles.

Locals also dominated the multi-hull division, taking out first and third places, with the Japanese crew sailing in at second.

Apart from the annual Pearl Regatta, held every May to capitalise on the superb weather and the traditional 10-to 15-knot winds, each July, when the south-east trade winds blow in at around 20 to 25 knots, the Tahiti Tourism Cup is staged.

Between 300 to 400 boats cross the Pacific, from Panama to Australia and New Zealand during the event.

But there’s more to French Polynesia than just the water.

A new and eye-opening venture is the eco and culture tour into the heart of Tahiti with Mato Nui Exercusion. Tour guide, Maraetaata Hereveri takes travellers into the lush Pape Noo valley, flush with wild fruits, Tahitian ducks and more than 1000 waterfalls.

The full-day and half-day tours offer a glimpse of the green behind the gold of the island, with treks through dense foliage, visits to sacred sites, and swimming at secret spots.

For Maraetaata, who hails from nearby Marquises, Tahiti is his home away from home; his island paradise.

“I love Tahiti. It is a big island. And it is a beautiful island,” he says.

Tahiti is the largest of the region’s 118 islands, of which only around 25 are actually considered legitimate islands, due to their volcanic rock and fresh water. The rest are coral reefs.

And even then, Tahiti is only around 100 kilometres in circumference, fitting easily inside San Francisco Bay or metropolitan Paris, which equates to a two-hour round-trip around her hem.


Gary, a Californian-born taxi driver who came to Tahiti 17 years ago, says before 1960, Tahiti hosted less than 100 tourists a year.

“We were an unknown entity in this part of the world. It was French nuclear testing that got the airport built,” he said.

“Marlon Brando was one of the first people to arrive at Tahiti airport, when he came in 1961 to film Mutiny On The Bounty.

“If you were here in 1959 and came back in 1966, you wouldn’t recognise it. That much had changed in a very small period.”

But like many island nations, travellers can expect to re-set their clocks to a more laid-back approach, in this case “Tahitian time”, which can lead to some inefficiencies and frustrations.

Despite the fact that much of the population speaks French, misunderstandings and poor communication between tourism operators are disturbingly common for a destination which relies heavily on the tourist dollar.

Thankfully, with a population of just 250,000, of which 75 per cent are Polynesian, 15 per cent French and 10 per cent local Chinese, the eclectic people are the key to this country’s charm.

“French Polynesia is the most expensive place in the world to live. But there is little racial tension here,” Gary says.

“We have no natural resources on the islands so without them the importance of these islands to countries around the world is little.

“When the French arrived, very little happened to the Polynesian lifestyle. Because of that, there is not a lot of animosity between the Polynesians and the French.

“There is a certain innocence in the population that is hard to find elsewhere and you’ll experience it.”

Tahiti. Laid-back. Colourful. Sometimes frustrating. But never, ever boring.

Footnote: The writer travelled as a guest of Tahiti Tourisme, Air Tahiti Nui, and the Tahiti Pearl Regatta. Formore information on Tahiti, goto