James Michener once described Bora Bora as the most beautiful island in the world, or so the tourist books say. And it is lovely, with towering bluffs overlooking a bluegreen lagoon with palm-shaded beaches and, to the southwest, one of the most spectacular barrier reefs in the South Pacific. But 1 was in no mood to enjoy its beauty in the late afternoon of my 13th day there -- particularly not the reef. For Felicity was stuck solidly on a jutting finger of the reef, having grounded with a jolting, grinding crash that had a sound of finality to it.
This predicament was especially galling for two reasons. I'd had my fill of rude French officials and residents after five months in French Polynesia (four of them in Tahiti) and had stopped at Bora Bora on the way out only to have my passport stamped at the island that became so well known in the United States during World War II because of the U.S. military base there. An intended two-day stop had stretched to two weeks when one of my crew came down with hepatitis, meaning the hospital for him and blood tests and gamma globulin for the rest of us. The second reason was that we'd run onto the reef, which was clearly charted, through shameful carelessness, during an afternoon day sail in light winds inside the lagoon. I'd been standing on the foredeck watching a school of spotted manta rays cavorting around our bow, when I suddenty noticed a coral head whiz by just below the surface. I yelled to the helmsman to turn toward deep water, but before he could we struck a glancing blow on one coral head and then ran smack onto another.
Fortunately, the wind died soon after, and we were spared the crashing waves that usually roll in from the ocean, which would soon have pounded the boat to pieces. In calm sea conditions, but much shouting and chaos, we were able to devise a plan to get free. We were not leaking and we had an hour of daylight left. By taking two heavy anchors out (using a mouth-inflated body-surfing mat) and leading the lines to the powerful winches that trim our big headsails, and by cranking with the superhuman strength of the terror-stricken, we managed to kedge the boat off the reef and get afloat. Then, by moving the anchors a bit at a time, we worked through the coral heads and out tinto deep water, just as dark fell.
An hour later, safely at anchor in front of the Hotel Bora Bora and well along on our second round of rum and Cokes, we were in better mood to appreciate Michener's view of the island. The next morning, after a diving inspection showed no serious damage -- just a couple of deep scratches and some lost paint -- I breathed a prayer of relief to Charley Morgan, the boat's builder-designer, and publicly revoked the curses I'd heaped on the sick crew member who'd delayed us and indirectly caused the near-disaster.
The hepatitis victim was Gene Brooks, of Durham, one of three blue-water hitchhikers I'd recruited off the Papeete waterfront after Bill Goodwin and I ended our sailing partnership there. The other were Gary Titchenal, of California, and Steve Trombley of Seattle. We had sailed from Tahiti after a month of cruising through the Leeward Islands of the Society Group. Because these islands stretch downwind from Tahiti in the southeast trade-wind belt, they're known by the evocative name of Iles Sous le Vent , or Ialands Under the Wind. Their quiet beauty and lazy pace were a welcome change from the noisy bustle of Papeete.
We especially enjoyed Moorea, Tahiti's "sister island," which most visitors to the South Pacific probably would nominate as the most beautiful. We spent a week there in isolated Robin's Cove, with our bow anchor set out in the lagoon and Felicity 's stern pulled to within jumping distance of the beach and tied to a coconut palm. We shared this idyllic spot with only one other yacht, a trimaran named Valkyrien , whose skipper, a rioutous Dane named Frank, is, like me, gathering crew here and there as he goes around the world. All of Valkyrien 's crew were friends of ours from previous stops. We joined forces for daytime hikes and snorkeling in the lagoon and for nighttime cookouts on the beach or forays to the "One Chicken Inn," a thatch-roofed native nightspot that features live island music and Western disco music in about equal portions. The lifestyle beats the heck out of government work.
We sailed in company with Valkyrien to Huahini, landing on a market day that coincided with the arrival of an inter-island trading schooner, which created a colorful carnival atmosphere along the waterfront. At Huahini and later at Raiatea, we enjoyed the hospitality of the "Bail Hai Boys," a trio of American dropouts who moved to the Society Islands about 20 years ago and established an immensely successful chain of hotels featuring traditional thatch construction and bungalows on stilts over the lagoon, with glass floors for viewing the coral and tropical fish. In Raiatea we saw out first firewalkers, members of religious sects who, in trancelike states induced by secret rites, walk barefoot over pits of red-hot rocks without being burned.
After the reef incident at Bora Bora, we packed Gene off on a plane to a Papeete hospital and set sail for Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. By a happy coincidence of geography, the island groups in the central South Pacific stretch westward in a slightly zigzag line, about 600 miles apart, all the way to Australia. So once a yacht has crossed the unbroken 3,000-mile expanse of the eastern Pacific (Felicity did it in a fairly "quick" 23 days), the passages between island groups become short enough to be enjoyable. We made the 650-mile passage to Rarotonga in a leisurely five days, with the southeast trades blowing fair all the way and the South Equatorial current giving us 15 to 20 free miles each day. "Hector," our Reibandt self-steering vane, steered all the way and our watches were passed reading or sunbathing, with occasional checks to be sure we were still on course and weren't in danger of being run down by a ship or a squall.
Rarotonga is today what Tahiti must have been like 25 years ago -- a beautiful, un spoiled island with happy, friendly people who delight in welcoming visiting yeachts. From the moment we sailed through the reef pass into the harbor, past the wrecked hull of the brigantine "Yankee," of National Geographic fame, we were practically adopted by everyone we met. As soon as we were cleared by harbor officials, we were greeted by Father George, a Dutch Catholic priest who has lived on Rarotonga for over 20 years and the self-appointed welcoming committee for visiting yachts. He took us on a tour of the island in his pickup truck and for tea at his little church-home beside a lagoon in the village of Titkaveka. He has done this for every visiting yacht crew since he's lived there, and keeps an album-scrapbook of the boats with notes from crewmembers. We made an entry for Felicity and gave Father George a color photo of her under full sail.
During our three-week stay on Rarotonga we rented motorbikes and explored every corner of the lush island. We went up into the mountains to see waterfalls and the ruins of ancient shrines and villages, and we visited most of the villages on the plateau that circles the island's coast. The people we met invited us to their homes and their churches and ceremonial dances. They showered us with more fruits and vegetables and gifts of handcrafted items than we had room for on the boat. Small wonder that "Beautiful Raro" is just about everybody's favorite port.
Its unspoiled days are numbered, alas. Just last year the New Zealand-supported government completed a new airport that will accommodate jumbo jets, and a 300-room resort hotel, "The Rarotongan," opened. Now all that remains is for Marlon Brando to make a movie there and permanently inflate the economy, as the filming of "Mutiny on the Bounty" did in Tahiti.
Valkyrien had visited Rarotonga ahead of us, and two crewmembers had signed off to live with a native family for a month. When we were ready to sail their visas had expired, so they signed onto Felicity . Karen Kruse and Ellen Dumesnil, of San Francisco, rounded out a five-member crew that was to stay together for 1,500 miles to Samoa and Fiji.
The first three days of out leg to Pago Pago were about the most miserable I've spent at sea. It rained continuously, and the wind alternated between gale force in frequent squalls and light and fluky the rest of the time. When the weather finally cleared at dawn on the fourth day, we were sodden and worn out. Worse, it was Karen's birthday and she was seasick. So I changed course for Palmerston Atoll, a tiny necklace of coral islets a little north of our direct course to Samoa. Although the atoll is inhabited and has an interesting history, I'd planned to skip it because, according to my charts and sailing directions, there is no passage through the reef for yachts and no anchorage outside the reef. But now I hoped that we could tuck up close under the leeward side of the largest islet, where the village is, and let the boat drift in calm waters while we rested for a few hours and celebrated Karen's birthday in proper style. This diversion turned out to be one of the most memorable of the voyage.
As we approached in mid-afternoon, a small flotilla of outboard-driven skiffs came out to meet us. A man in the lead boat introduced himself as chief and asked if we would like to be shown where we could anchor. We accepted with delight and were led to a point within 50 yards of the reef over an underwater coral shelf about 30 feet deep. On command we dropped our anchor and a boy dove over and hooket it to a coral head. The chief assurD us that this "anchorage" would be safe as long as the s.wind stayed southeast and held us off the reef, and assured us that the wind would not shift for at least several days. (Of course he was right.)
When we were securely situated, the chief invited himself and all of the others aboard -- 15 men and boys in all. We distributed cold beer and rum drinks to the men and soft drinks to the boys and were told all about the atoll. The settlement was founded about 1850 by William Marsters, an Englishman who, during his 50 years on the island, had several native wives and "many, many" children. All of the 57 people who live on Palmerston today are related and most of them are named Marsters. They are lightskinned and speak English with an accent that sounds vaguely Caribbean. Their living is derived from the plentiful fish and turtles in the lagoon and from selling copra to the trading schooners that stop by four times a year. Coconuts, papayas, oranges, lemons and limes grow on the island, but no vegetables will grow because of the wind-blown salt that seeps into the soil. Only five or six yachts a year blunder by, so they were as delighted to see us as we were to be there. Before leaving us at dusk, the chief, John Marsters, invited us to come ashore the next day and look around the village and the island.
The trip through the reef gap in the skiffs sent out to fetch us the next morning was worth the detour to the island. We surfed through the narrow opening ahead of a huge wave and then zigzagged among coral heads and the jagged remains of a Korean tuna boat that had wrecked on the reef a year earlier. (These wrecks are littered all over the Pacific; hardly a reef or shoal is without one or more of these "aids to navigation.") It was old hat to the boatmen, who seemed not to pay much attention to what they were doing, but it was very much white knuckles for us until we were safely indide the lagoon.
The village was a pretty and neatly kept cluster of houses of several kinds, ranging from wood structures with corrugated metal roofs to thatch huts. We visited the little schoolhouse where the children attend classes taught by teachers from Rarotonga, and the island's minister, James Marsters, proudly showed us his church, which has a beautiful carved mahogany pulpit and stained-glass windows sent out from England AS GIFTS TO COMMEMORATE THE VISIT TO Palmerston of the royal yacht Britannia about eight years ago. The church was swept away by a hurricane four years ago, but it lodged on the outer reef and was towed back, replaced and restored.
While visiting the island, Prince Philip went bathing (nude) in the lagoon and we were shown the very spot, now called "Prince Philip Pool." We toured the copramaking operation and finally climbed up for a view of the lagoon from "the hill," a coconut palm-covered mound that is the island's highest point. During the hurricane, the people retreated to the hill and tied themselves to the palm trees. A sign on one of the trees reads "Welcome to Palmerston Atoll. Population 57. Elevation 14 feet."
Lunch at John Marsters' home turned out to be an elaborate banquet on which his wife Mada and their three daughters had been working all morning. There were at least a dozen dishes, including fish and crayfish caught in the lagoon that morning, turtle soup and turtle steak and a variety of delicious dishes cooked in coconut milk. We were offered beer or rum but opted to drink coconut water from nuts cracked open by three deft whacks with a machete.
John and Mada have been to Sydney and Auckland, and they and most of the others go to Rarotonga "every couple of years." They're quite knowledgeable about world affairs, which they follow by radio and magazines brought by the trading boats. We gave them some current news magazines and collected a load of mail to be posted in Pago Pago. Since the next boat wasn't due for two months, most of the adults took the opportunity to send off cards and letters to friends and relatives -- there are Marsters all through the Cook Islands and in New Zealand and Australia.
As we boarded the skiffs to return to Felicity , we were inundated with gifts of flower and shell leis, fruits and beautitul seashells. In return, we gave them a supply of radio batteries and stainless-steel fishhooks and all the paint, epoxy and paint brushes I could spare. We said goodbye, a boy dove down and freed our anchor, and we set sail. Looking back at the people waving from the beach, we commented that we felt a pang of loneliness -- not because we were leaving but because they were staying, on such an isolated island. I remember having the same feeling leaving Floreana Island in the Galapagos. But then we realized how silly that was: The people of Palmerston Atoll are perfectly adapted to their isolated lives, and they're almost certainly happier than most people who live in more "normal" circumstances in crowded, noisy cities.
The remainder of our passage to Pago Pago was pleasant and, except for one incident, uneventful. As I was shaving late one afternoon, I glanced out the port and saw a whale about the size of the boat, not more than 50 feet away, going in the opposite direction. We reshed on deck and watched him chug astern, giving no indication that he had even seen us. Then, when he was about a hundred yards away, he turned sideways, spouted a terrific blast of water into the air -- as if in salute -- and resumed his course to Rarotonga.
I had intended to spend the hurricane season on Pago Pago, American Samoa, but contrary to my expectations, the harbor is dirty, undeveloped and -- sheltered from the trade winds by high mountains on either side -- steamy hot. Also, contrary to what I'd heard, the place has no yacht facilities and very little in the way of boat supplies and equipment. After almost 10,000 miles of sailing, Felicity needed a thorough cleanup, haul-out and overhaul, including some engine and refrigeration work, and it became clear that I could not do the work in Pago Pago. Worse, Pago is one of the dullest places I have ever been. There is nothing to do except gather each afternoon for "Happy Hour" at the Rainmaker Hotel and listen to the latest plans of the residents to leave the island for good.
So I found my crew, who had moved ashore and were making plans to fly on, and we quickly provisioned the boat and set out for Fiji. I have a ham radio rig aboard and had spoken to yacht friends already in Suva who assured me that besides good shelter from storms, it offers every kind of yacht facility and service.
We made an overnight run to Apia, Western Samoa, arriving at dawn. As we entered the reef pass, we saw a beautiful 36-foot sloop from Hawaii that had missed the entrance in the dark only hours earlier and gone on the reef. We watched the heavy seas breaking over her and, in a morning, pounding her to bits.
We stayed only two days at Apia because it was late November and we were getting into the cyclone season. We visited Robert Louis Stevenson's home and burial site -- where a great debate was raging as to whether there is a mistake in the version of his "Epitaph" that appears on the plaque at his grave site. It reads "... Home is the Sailor, Home from Sea, and the Hunter Home from the Hill," and the controversy was whether or not the article "the" should appear before "Sea." We had dinner one evening at Aggie Grey's famous hotel and were treated to a short conversation with Aggie herself. She had just recently celebrated her 80th birthday, but was still dancing in the floor show after dinner and still encouraging legends that she was the model for "Bloody Mary."
Our five-day leg from Apia to Suva was a rollicking roller-coaster ride in gale winds just ahead of the season's first hurricane. We had storm sails up most of the way, but the winds remained from the southeast and we were able to hold our course. On the way, we crossed the International Date Line on a Wednesday night, and since the next day became Friday, we were neatly deprived of Thanksgiving Day.
Late Friday afternoon we anchored at the Royal Suva Yacht Club and furled Felicity 's sails for the last time that year. After clearing with harbor officials the next morning, we moved the boat to the poolside dock at the Tradewinds Hotel in the Bay of Islands just west of Suva, where she was to remain for five months -- resting and waiting out the storm season. Gary, Steven, Karen and Ellen signed off again, this time for good, and flew on to New Zealand. I settled in at the Tradewinds among about 25 other voyaging yachts, most of them friends from earlier stops, and began in leisurely fashion to get Felicity ready for a new crew and another 10,000 miles.