We stumbled upon it, during the waning hours of a day sail between one Leeward Society Island and another. Instead of continuing to the pass we’d planned for entering Raiatea’s lagoon, we made the spot-decision to sail through another, more easily made on the point of sail we’d enjoyed all day. Our Morgan Out Island was close-hauled in about 12 knots of breeze with barely discernable seas, the sun setting fast on a beautiful, blue sky tropical day. “This is one of those sails we’ll always remember,” Brian said. He was right, and the best was yet to come.
Our most informative cruising guide for the Society Islands, written back when I was in kindergarten, called the inner bays of this pass “isolated” and the authors confessed they hadn’t anchored in either one. Another guide described it as an excellent stop if you’re looking for tranquility, fishing, and surfing, but cautioned that coral growth made it impossible to transit from here to other bays within the lagoon. Charlie’s Charts had the briefest of mentions: “Passe Tiano is not recommended.”
If we have learned anything after nearly ten years of cruising, it is that one sailor’s snub of a spot can be another’s finest stop. Weather conditions, time of year, personal preferences, and the vagaries of your cruising neighbors and their questionable anchoring techniques can all conspire to affect how you experience a place. A quiet bay all to ourselves that’s skipped by other cruising boats sounded like the perfect cure for the constant tourist traffic that had been ailing us in Bora Bora.
As we sailed through the slip of deep water between the green and red buoys marking the pass, we could already tell we were on to something good. To starboard was a juicy, left-peeling wave just waiting for a surfer; to port a picnic of a motu with a perfect sandy beach, surrounded by crystalline shallow waters studded with healthy coral heads; directly ahead the towering western flank of Mt. Tefatuaiti, the 3000-foot wall of lush green striped with dozens of waterfalls. We motored deep into the glassy waters at the head of the northernmost bay, dropping our anchor in 70 feet and where it sank safely into silty mud, due to the freshwater river just a swimmer’s distance away.
Paddlers in outrigger canoes waved as they passed by. Scooters buzzed distantly along the road wedged between the water and the mountains, put-putting at half speed as if they know there is really no better place to be. As the sun slipped beneath the horizon in a blast of pink and orange, a million mynas came home to roost in a big old mango, filling the air with their cascading calls. Peachy-pink sea grape blossoms drifted by, filling our last view of the day with flowers. We thought we might stay another day. We thought that day after day after day.
Our life settled into the perfect pace of activity and relaxation, our preferred cruising pace. Coffee with the sun rising over the misty top of Mt. Tefatuaiti, stretched out and paddling out to the surf by the time friends back home are commuting to work, late brunch then an afternoon of lounging or boat projects, snorkeling or exploring with the SUPs. Sundowners, supper, and sleep. One day we didn’t make it to the wave until late afternoon and were joined by three boys with boogie boards who each greeted us with a cheerful “Ia Orana” and a fist bump, as if officially welcoming us to their wave. One day we paddled up the river to see how far we could get, waving hello to a couple of guys chilling by the bridge but seeing not another soul save a handful of horses where the river turned to a thin stream over rocks. Returning, the two guys were waiting with a fat sack of mangoes. The next evening one of them, Purau, delivered directly to the boat: crabs, pamplemousses, and a stalk of bananas.
Another morning we were late off the mark, still sipping coffee in the cockpit as the eight o-clock hour rolled by when Brian noticed a little white van easing around the bay, pausing and honking in front of each house. He trained the binoculars on it and declared the driver was selling baguettes out the side door. We hopped in the dinghy and sped ahead of him. Baguettes and pain au chocolat, eggs and cheap cheese, this guy was a rolling 7-11. Do you come every day? I asked. “Oui, mais pas dimanche.” Everyday but Sunday.
Could it get any better?
Sure it could! I had my first ‘so-good-I’ve-got-goose-bumps’ ride on a wave. We played Where Will They Pop Up Next for an hour as a pod of dolphins with calves circled the boat, schooling their breakfast along the shallow ledges of the bay. Our friendship with Purau deepened as we got to know his family and exchanged gifts. We spent Christmas searching for giant snail feet while snorkeling along the clear, healthy coral of the barrier reef. During our months cruising the Society Islands, we came back to this bay four times. Everyday we watched other boats sail right by but only a couple ever came in, and often left after a few hours or an overnight because the pass is a dead end. It’s impossible to transit Raiatea’s inner lagoon from here, so most see it as a waste of time. And we only wanted to waste more time there.
Every cruising sailor holds an image in their mind of the perfect spot. It probably involves palm trees and soft white sand, see-through water and sweet anchor holding, solitude and silence save the crush of surf on the reef and the dawn chorus of shorebirds at first light. Many, many anchorages meet those most basic requirements, and after awhile it’s easy to feel that every spot is good enough.
But a perfect spot? You can close your eyes and conjure its finest details for months following. It’s the one that haunts you after you swallow the hook, or draws you backwards against the tradewinds because you just need to know if it’s as good as you remember. It’s the one you hold in your heart on the darkest nights offshore, when you’re asking where the hell you’re going.