Our chefs took some badly needed time off before this last Epic opting for some civilization back up in Tahiti while Jody, Bruce and I stayed put on Discovery hoping to get up close and personal with some Humpback whales and also to explore the paragliding potential of Tubuai. The winds finally backed off to a reasonable level (imagine not wanting wind on a kitesurfing expedition!) for a few days during our break and luckily our whale efforts paid off. Seeing whales in Tubuai takes very little effort- they are everywhere. But swimming with them proved a little more challenging. We tried a number of different approaches, but the best encounter remains practically our first attempt. We spotted a solo whale approaching from behind steaming right for us. Not wanting to change anything we just quietly dropped a long line into the water so we could hold on and let Discovery sail on under auto pilot and staysail at very slow speed. Bruce and I took the plunge, myself with Jody’s camera. Bruce held onto a line on the port side, I was on starboard, both of us were looking behind the boat, expecting the whale to swim up behind us and hopefully get curious enough to stay awhile. Nothing, nothing, nothing…then suddenly right at the same time Bruce and I looked down and right below us swam the giant. I took one picture, then the camera battery died. 5 minutes later a mother and her calf approached from the same direction, this time all of us hung onto the line and Jody’s dream to swim with whales was finally realized after all these years. For her it was a bit bittersweet without being able to photograph them, as they were literally within feet looking right at us, but no doubt it was one of the finest ocean moments any of us have ever experienced.
The days on Tubuai passed much too quickly. It is an island that grows on you and our departure would be a sad one indeed. Stick your thumb out to go anywhere and guaranteed the first car that passes will pick you up. Again and again we’ve witnessed remarkable hospitality and generosity on this expedition, but the locals of Tubuai are in a world of their own. Clearly the lack of tourism is one of the keys. For most of our stay Discovery was the only boat at anchor. With our kites in the air or paragliders on our backs we must have been the gossip of the town. I say paragliders on our backs because Bruce and I spent an inordinate amount of time walking up just about every ridge, valley, shoulder, hill, mountain there is on the island hoping to fly but were turned back again and again. There were two launches that would have been incredible, but they have both become totally overgrown as the local flying club, consisting of one person must have given up against what must be very aggressive plants. This stuff is thick, which our badly scratched legs could attest. I did get a short sledder flight at sunset one day, which almost but not quite culminated in me landing in a tree.
And then, the impossible. The wind died totally. The night before the start of the trip this log will eventually get to was the calmest we’ve seen since leaving Tahiti some six weeks ago. We were anchored inside the reef in a sand bottom lagoon that is difficult to imagine even while floating on it. The moon was nearly full, and the water so perfectly clear that we all got a bit giddy just going for a swim. The dinghy, tied behind the boat looked like it was floating on air, the reflection of the boat on the bottom as discernible as on a perfectly sunny day. We were in a swimming pool the size of a small US state, and as has been the case for quite a long time- we had it all to ourselves.
We were joined by Cristobal and his friend Sebastian from Chile and Brian Jacobs from the States the next day, the second trip out for both owners. We immediately took everyone out to see the whales, knowing the calm would not last. Imagine flying to one of the most remote outposts in the world, getting on Discovery, which was anchored just off the airport, and within an hour watching whales do their thing. Seeing the looks on everyone’s faces is one of the most precious aspects of my job.
The wind did indeed increase the next day, which provided two very nice days of kiting, one a particularly spectacular down winder inside the reef. We dropped the boys off at the east end and sailed back down the north side of the lagoon with Brian and Cristobal while Bruce went solo down the south seeking out waves, which he found aplenty, although at double overhead and a bit messy he was reticent to tackle them too aggressively. That evening Brian said The Best Odyssey had changed his life- the experiences and places we’ve gone have given him a whole new perspective on what living is all about. This probably sounds a bit sappy, but it’s a compliment I’ll never forget. The places we go, the things we do…we are remarkably fortunate and I am thankful to Brian for sharing his elation so intimately.
The next morning, with the arrival of a new forecast we made the decision to return to civilization by sailing back up to the Society group, beginning with Huahine, some 400 miles NNW. It was a decision I had a very hard time getting my head around. I really didn’t want to leave Tubuai. Each of us had fallen in love with its many charms and while I’m usually thrilled to see what’s on the horizon, this was not one of those times. I started it off badly when Lars and I took an hour before departure to scrub the bottom, but we did it in strong current and choppy water. I’m not prone to seasickness, but something about being upside down bouncing around scrubbing green slime away sent me reeling. I didn’t notice it until we finished, then sat on the stern fighting off puking well into our departure.
The sail north was in some ways terrific and others unremarkable. We caught no fish, definitely a big strike against the trip. A little fresh sashimi always cheers the mood. The wind, while not strong was up between a close reach and a beam reach, which while very fast (we covered the distance in under 48 hours) was a bit uncomfortable. But the nights were splendid. The moon now at full and the sky cloudless, the night watches were mesmerizing and a highlight for everyone.
I didn’t expect to be as taken with the northern Society islands as I was with the Australs because of the simple fact that we would be back amongst other boats and more people. But if Huahine is somewhat representative of this corner of French Polynesia I’m happy to say my expectations were all wrong. It is firstly gorgeous. Secondly it has a stupendacular (Gavin word) flying site. This is the trip we cross over big time into paragliding. As Bruce, Jody, Brian and I are all pilots and the winds for a few days on our arrival would not be strong enough to kite, why not take to the skies? And predictably, all the cruising boats would be anchored right next to one another on the opposite side of the island, leaving this heavenly spot all to ourselves. Within a few hours of arrival, with the help of the Huahine paragliding club (which consists of two locals- Xavier and Gilles) each of us were in the air, soaring over the magnificent green hills, clear lagoon and outer motus which protect the inner waters.
So halfway through the trip we’d swam with Humpbacks, kited one of the most amazing lagoons in the world, had a blue water passage, and had three amazing days of flying in Huahine. As the food is always unbelievable we could have just had a happy end there, but the wind gods would play one last card on this one, and a fine card it would be.
We sailed the short distance across to Raiatea to finish out our trip in search of waves. In 10 years of being out here I can promise finding that magic combination of clean wind from the right direction that lines up with a good break is incredibly challenging. On rare occasions, like the pro trip in June- you get lucky. Once again we had luck, and a bit of local help on our side. Unfortunately I can’t show you what we got as Jody missed the last few days of the trip opting to swim with whales in Moorea but I can tell you it was the best kiteboarding experience I’ve ever had. I also can’t tell you where it is, respecting the local protocol. Don’t you hate that? A big carrot, and a bigger stick. I’ll just say the wave was screaming fast; clean and big, and the winds were perfect. A high adrenaline affair. Bruce claimed he got 100 waves. Ok, maybe an exaggeration, but not by far. We retired to the Tavaruna yacht club for a good dose of Maui’s pina coladas (Maui the owner, not the island), then had a 5 course last supper compliments of Hannah and Lars, which has become not only tradition, but practically world-famous (at least in our world!) that was the icing on the cake, or in this case the chocolate fondant (baked chocolate cake with a gooey center) and raspberry sorbet.
Bruce has been on something like 6 trips so far- said it was the best yet. Cristobal said it was the best vacation of his life. Ditto for Sebastian. Brian couldn’t stop smiling. And we still have 3 shares left? Hello? Are there any sane people left out there or am I just missing the appeal of work, mortgage, traffic, house, car…