SI Vault
Carleton Mitchell
July 11, 1960
Westward from Papeete, beyond the usual tourist routes, lie the Islands below the Wind, unsurpassed in perfect beauty
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July 11, 1960

The Enchanted Suburbs Of Tahiti

Westward from Papeete, beyond the usual tourist routes, lie the Islands below the Wind, unsurpassed in perfect beauty

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A silver vessel in the white light of a full Pacific moon, Staghound neared the opening in the barrier reef off Paopao Bay as the last shimmers of rose and gold faded from the clouds over the island of Tahiti, 10 minutes astern. Moorea seemed to float just beyond the smooth lagoon, palm trees spilling down the mountainsides to fringe gleaming beaches, valleys receding mysteriously into shadow.

Lazily the swell lifted to break on the coral reef to port, white water marking the area of danger, a clear line guiding us on our way. We navigated as sailors had for generations, before buoys, before lights, when the look of the sea was its own chart. Above the masthead hung the Southern Cross, and strong in the warm air was the scent of flowers piled on deck from our Papeete farewell, heis of tiare Tahiti and frangipani and hibiscus mixed carelessly with coils of line and fenders and the rest of the assorted gear of a small ship off on an ocean voyage.

There is something about islands. Long ago a kindly power fashioned them in anticipation of the day when the continents would become suburbs and the cities unbearable caldrons of noise and hurry. Islands almost anywhere mean escape. And part of their fascination lies in the fact that no two—much less any two groups—are ever really just alike. The pine-clad skerries of the Baltic, as majestically somber as the music of Sibelius, the classic simplicity of the isles of the Aegean, the mountainous splendor of the Caribbean chain—all are different, and each has its own allure.

But even the connoisseur will concede a very special position in the hierarchy to the Society Islands, those reef-girt jewels in the Pacific whose crowning orb is Tahiti, the ultimate island. Always I had thought of Tahiti and the islands of Polyn�sie Fran�aise as a someday cruise, but it had seemed impossibly remote from the orbit of my life. Now the thing had happened: a casual letter from an unknown yachtsman in the distant Pacific asking for information on Finisterre's mechanical refrigeration system had led to a developing correspondence; an invitation to crew in the Transpacific Race aboard Nam Sang had brought me within reaching distance in Hawaii, and finally a cablegram from Honolulu had brought a prompt reply: SAILING FOR SUVA FIJI MID-AUGUST. COME ABOARD STAGHOUND TO BORA-BORA. And so, unbelievably, here we were, outward bound from Papeete for a cruise of the outlying islands.

Staghound was not the only sailing vessel from far away which now lay in Tahiti—there were also, among others, Sterling Hayden's Wanderer and the little white ketch Mana-Wanui, owned by the Stanley Too-goods of Nassau, friends with whom we played and swam through languorous, relaxing days before our departure. But for Staghound and her owner, Paul Hurst, it was no ordinary cruise of Les Iles sous le Vent—The Islands below the Wind, to leeward of Tahiti—that we departed on. Staghound had come to Tahiti on a westward voyage around the world, and had swung in the multihued waters off the valley of Taapuna for almost two years, one of those wandering yachts which make Tahiti a port of missing ships, for no one ever wants to leave and sailors drown in a lagoon of pure content. "You find you were never truly happy any place else before," said Paul, "and then you question whether you can be happy anywhere else after you go." He spoke from experience: a yachtsman from Santa Barbara, he first saw the island in the Honolulu-to- Tahiti race of 1956, promptly went home and bought Staghound to come out again. Now came the "after," the continuation of the global cruise; but when our sailing date was set for Tuesday, scoffers laughed: "Which Tuesday?"

But more than a hundred friends had gathered on the quay, and hands were clasped and cheeks kissed as the heis of farewell were placed over the heads of the departing. We were five aboard: Paul, Plazi Miller (who had come out here with him from America), two native Tahitians, Terii and Sam, and I. Lines snaked aboard. There was not a breath of wind. As we powered away, music sounded faintly from Restaurant Vaihiria. Slowly Terii lifted the flowered circlets from her shoulders one by one and dropped them in our wake—and in the wake of her tears. Like perfumed stepping stones they lay on the water, symbolically linking us with Tahiti forever, for Polynesians believe that if you cast your heis astern as you leave you must return.

For a long time we sat watching the receding panorama of boats moored stern-to along the waterfront, and the red-roofed buildings peeping through the trees, and the mountains lifting to the cloud cover, their colors changing as the sun lowered. The spell was broken when Terii dried her eyes and went forward to sit on the bowsprit pulpit, obeying the advice of Paul: "Don't look back." Soon, in the lighthearted manner of all vahines, as the islanders call their women, she was laughing with Sam.

We crept along until a gap appeared in the breakers, a dark lane where the swells undulated smoothly into a darker cleft in the loom of Moorea. Turning, we followed the channel, awed to silence by the beauty of the night and the majesty of the land. Mountains towered on both sides and ahead, so steep and so high as to eclipse the moon. Under us the water lay luminescent and mercurial, reflecting the silver sky except where canoes fishing by torchlight cast long golden spears. Thus I imagined it must have been when Captain Cook conned Endeavour into Paopao Bay, thenceforth to add his own name to the charts.

Quietly we furled the sails and dropped anchor. After dinner Sam perched in the port upper berth and began to play his guitar, softly singing ancient songs in the ancient tongue. The huge "dam John" of Algerian red wine was brought to the cockpit and the cabin table was moved into the forepeak. We clapped hands in time to the music, and suddenly Terii was dancing the strongly emphasized hula of Tahiti, eyes flashing, dark unbound hair flowing, the traditional frangipani blossom behind one ear.

When I went on deck next morning I discovered the real drama of our anchorage. Around Staghound on three sides the mountains rose almost vertically, verdant to the summit. On the open side of the giant bowl I could see palm-shadowed beaches, and inside the barrier reef lagoon water of every shade of green and blue. Smoke lifted lazily from thatch houses almost hidden by flowering trees. Clouds had not yet begun the daily ritual of shrouding the higher peaks and touching the slopes with gauzy haze: there was a sharply etched brilliance of color I had never experienced before, a breathtaking clarity.

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