Find your sea legs at Tahiti’s Pearl Regatta

Intrepid adventurer Chris Osburn reminisces about his adventures on Tahiti’s high seas

CELEBRATING its eleventh anniversary and touted as one of the most important yacht races in the South Pacific, the Tahiti Pearl Regatta combines competitive sailing – on the high seas and in lagoons – with cultural events and boozy night time festivities. The route changes every year to give sailors a chance to discover different aspects of this remote and tropical paradise. This year’s race took place over the weekend, bringing memories of my own adventure on the Tahiti seas in the 2013 regatta flooding back.

That year the race was centred around the islands of Raiatea and Huahaine, and ended off the coast of Taha’a (the “Vanilla” island). It was physically and mentally challenging stuff and required some careful planning. But as we motored toward the starting line, just off the coast of Huahine, there was little talk of conditions at sea or the course back to Raiatea. The previous night’s barefoot bacchanalia on the beach had left our crew feeling rather worse for wear, and the conversation focused on how on earth everyone had managed to make it back to their boats, and whether a self induced boke would be a wise way to regain the old sea-legs.

To shake things up a bit, I had ditched my media boat to hitch a ride with a trio of young Aussies – Nick, Nick and Damian. We, along with a few other sailing vessels, were to race from Huahine – French Polynesia’s “Authentic” island – to Raiatea, the same archipelago’s “Sacred” island, where the regatta had begun a couple of days before.

Captain Nick was owner of the ship, a Hanse 445 he’d purchased in Germany and named Charm Offensive. He’d turned 30 two days before, receiving an inflatable walrus from his crew to mark the occasion. He had been sailing since June 2012 from the Baltic, picking up and dropping off an ever changing cast of sailors and backpackers en route to his hometown of Sydney. Crewman Nick was a life-long friend of the captain and fellow Sydneysider, who, along with a slightly older and more sea worn Damian from Melbourne, had come aboard Charm Offensive in the Caribbean a few months before the regatta.

The two Nicks and Damien had passed through the Panama Canal together and had witnessed the mating dance of the blue-footed booby while moored in the Galapagos, a locale where they had also been given caps by members of the Ecuadorian navy. They’d made girlfriends at exotic, far flung ports, got drunk often (but never at sea) and smoked an awful lot of cigarettes.

That day, the crew wore their Ecuadorian navy caps, along with matching sleeveless “Australia” shirts they’d picked up at a bar in Antigua. Motoring toward the starting line, the talk finally turned to strategy, and of finally feeling human again. Densely verdant and undulant Huahine diminished as we cruised toward the edge of its expansive lagoon. So did the island’s heady musk of largely untouched forest, subsiding to the scent of the open sea. The smell of the sea breeze was only tainted by the inevitable billows of cigarette smoke from the crew. 

Signing up for the regatta had been a last minute decision for Nick and co, having heard about it only three weeks prior. It had sounded like a fun, scenic diversion, promising yet more stories to share once they’d reached home. The weather had been stormy on the sail over from Raiatea though, resulting in much choppier waters than they’d anticipated. But today looked set to be all blue skies and bluer seas, with strong enough winds and not a drop of rain.

The regatta attracted a fleet of just over 50 registered vessels, from UK-made luxury Oyster yachts to Hobie Cats and even a few metres long, locally constructed “trimaran”. It was impressive, especially considering the regatta had started out a decade ago with boats numbering in the single digits. Participation in the event was (and always has been) open to all types of sailboats, with crews entering from across the globe. Registration fees were kept relatively low (around £100 per vessel plus another £100 per crew member) so more residents would be able to participate and visitors could afford to charter local yachts.

With the payment of fees comes T-shirts, crew kit and fresh bread delivered to each boat every morning. In the spirit of friendly competition, placing well was mostly about the bragging rights. However, the overall winning crew of last year’s regatta was offered an invitation to participate in highly esteemed Les Voiles de St Tropez.

Back to the race at hand: our crew’s cavalier approach seemed to pay off. Or maybe it was the crew stepping things up to show the tagalong journalist that they had it in them to win (apparently, they hadn’t done terribly well in previous races). Or perhaps it was simply dumb luck and kind winds. Whatever the case, Charm Offensive proved her worth by marking the best time in her category. There was no talk of nausea now, just of popping open a well earned beer and getting to port for some provisions: more booze, some snacks and, of course, more cigarettes.

It was time for a celebratory lunch before an afternoon of “banana races”, followed by a scheduled “Pacifique Pirates” themed soiree on Motu Ceran – a tiny coral islet a few miles offshore from Raiatea – for a prize giving ceremony and another raucous night of live music and dancing.

No doubt the 2014 crews have had every bit as much maritime hijinks: if you want to discover your sea-legs, I really can’t recommend the Tahiti Pearl Regatta enough.

Need to know

WHERE TO STAY
The perfect place to rest your head after your Air Tahiti Nui flight, InterContinental Tahiti delivers that first breathtaking Tahitian experience when you awake after your first night in this stunning paradise. Rooms start at €281 per person per night (excluding taxes, services and meals), dependent on season and availability. To book visit tahiti.intercontinental.com or call + (689) 86 51 10.

MORE INFORMATION
For more information on Tahiti and her islands, tour operator package deals and special offers visit
tahiti-tourisme.co.uk

HOW TO GET THERE
Air Tahiti Nui - www.airtahitinui.com (international airline carrier): Air Tahiti Nui is the national carrier to French Polynesia with departures from Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Auckland to Tahiti with connecting flights available from London with Virgin Atlantic. An economy class return fare with Air Tahiti Nui from London to Papeete, Tahiti via LAX starts from £1,514 including taxes. For further information and reservations contact +44(0) 844 482 1675 or resa@airtahitinui.co.uk, or visit airtahitinui.com.

Air Tahiti - www.airtahiti.com (local airline carrier): The Polynesian domestic airline, Air Tahiti services 48 of the islands (Cook Islands and Tahiti included). There are several flights a day and weekly between the main Islands of the 5 archipelagos: Society, Tuamotu, Gambier, Marquesas and Austral. Air Tahiti Passes are also available which enable you to travel between several islands. For further information or to book visit airtahiti.aero or call + (689) 86 42 42

HOW TO GET INVOLVED
The Raiatea Regatta Association - tahitipearlregatta.org.pf