Cook Islands,  Rarotonga

Polynesian Spirit

We’ve made it to Rarotonga!

Our arrival here is a bit of a milestone. It marks our exit from French Polynesia, where we have been exclusively sailing for about a year. That means not only a change in language, but a change in cultural influences (New Zealand rather than French), food supplies (imported from New Zealand instead of France) and weather. It’s a very chilly 26 degrees Celsius as I write this, so we’re decked out in woolly jumpers and long trousers. Most importantly for me, however, it marks the furthest West that I have ever sailed. In 2003 I ended a 5-month voyage aboard the sail training ship Picton Castle here in Rarotonga in order to return to the UK and begin my enrolment at university in London. That journey, however, planted the seed that was to eventually become the driving force that has inspired this voyage which we are currently undertaking. It was here, 14 years ago, at the age of 19, that I vowed to myself that one day I would own my own boat and sail back here to the Pacific on my own terms. Onward from here, therefore, is entirely unknown territory. We have very little idea of what Customs and cultures we can expect in the island groups to our West, but I have no doubt that the indomitable Polynesian spirit which drove me to make that vow to myself all those years ago will pervade. That incredible spirit of generosity is ubiquitous here, and is demonstrated quintessentially by the little old lady featured in the following account:

Our final day in Raiatea was spent preparing for sea, and then in the evening we headed into town to watch some of the dancing at the Heiva. The dancing really is phenomenal in Polynesia – in this case about 40 men and women spinning, stamping and wiggling, each adorned in the most fantastical costumes. The music is strongly percussion-based but some tunes also feature ukulele or some other local instrument to carry a tune. There was also a beer tent, a pool hall and candy floss too. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening.

In order to get around the island we have been becoming more and more accustomed to hitch-hiking as a means of transport, and have met some truly lovely people in doing so. As we travelled back from the shops on our final day, our driver was a chatty older lady who beamed in a perpetual toothy smile and didn’t seem in the least bit phased by the fact that I could only understand every 5th word at best. We had a good chat, she went out of her way to drop us off right where our dinghy was tied up and we bid farewell. We soon discovered that we had left our two baguettes in her car once we arrived back on board Bob, but it was no big deal. Sarah made some bread and we enjoyed our last dinner in French Polynesia; fresh-baked bread and garlic-roasted Camembert.

The next morning we awoke a little earlier than usual and I began to prepare Bob for leaving the mooring and motoring the 9 miles to the South end of the island, where we hoped to pick up a light breeze that would waft us along to the reef pass and out to sea in the general direction of Rarotonga. But there was a figure on the shoreline shouting something at me. Close inspection revealed, to my horror, a little old lady shouting and waving a package that looked ominously baguette-shaped. I should have known. The Polynesians are just such incredibly kind people. It turned out that she had come back to the fishing port the previous evening upon her discovery that our baguettes were in her car, but we’d already left for the Heiva. So, she came again the following morning and would not hear of keeping them for herself but insisted on us taking them from her. I’m pretty sure that if we had attempted once more to respectfully and apologetically refuse her baguette-delivery services she would have plopped into the water and swum them out to us. Such is the kindness and hospitality of the Polynesian people. Needless to say we felt horribly guilty for having put this little old lady so far out of her way for the sake of two (now stale) baguettes. We could hardly ask her to throw them in the bin either (she claimed she didn’t like them and didn’t want them!) after all the trouble she’d been through to return them to us. We manoeuvred Bob right in to the little dock by the shore to effect the transfer, thanked her profusely and waved exuberantly as she climbed back into her car with a big smile on her face. The funny thing is, I know from the look on her face that she got just as much enjoyment out of doing that for us as we felt for her having done it. It’s the way the world should be!

So, we were on our way (with plenty of bread). The winds on-passage were better than expected and we made excellent time for the first three days, reaching on a port tack. On the fourth day the wind died, as expected, and we decided to motor rather than bob in Bob because the forecast looked incredibly light for the next three days and we were only 120 miles from our destination. 6 hours of wind during the night gave us a bit of respite from the droning, as well as an opportunity to test, for the first (and hopefully last) time the temporary repairs done to the starboard lower shroud. They held without any more drama, and the following afternoon saw us arrive in Rarotonga, the first English-speaking country either of us have seen since Pitcairn one year ago, and the first English-speaking port since I left St. Martin in February last year. Words cannot express (see what I’m doing here? Har har har!) how wonderful it is to have the freedom to have a conversation with ANYONE! We can eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, laugh over their arguments, and listen to the children swearing profusely as they insult and abuse one another as only children can do. It’s bliss.

We’ve rented a scooter and spent the day yesterday driving around the island and stopping at a few spots that looked interesting. Today we’re going to go to a golf course and I, the golf expert (not) am going to try to ‘teach’ Sarah how one of the most silly games ever invented (search YouTube for Robin Williams on golf) is played. Tomorrow might be rained out, but it’ll give me an opportunity to remove the alternator (oh yes, that’s been the most recent thing to break) for testing and possible replacement. Right now, Sarah is eating a bowl of cereal with real, non-UHT milk for the first time since Panama, and I’m about to follow suit.

Below is a photo of the kinds of costumes and the dancing that is typical of a Polynesian Heiva. Sarah actually took this photo in Tahiti but it’s the same idea. A large part of the Heiva, which is a festival that lasts for a month, consists of dancing competitions between the various local and invited dance troops. All of them are of a high standard and feature dances by children, teenagers, young adults and ‘mamas’ – ladies of more mature years.

Update later in the day: The golf course was closed. Fortunately a proxy was found in short order which was more to Sarah’s liking. Our roles were reversed, and she had the opportunity to teach me how to play ‘real’ golf.

On a completely different note, we think we have deduced a bit of Disney trivia from our very (VERY!) limited knowledge of the various languages of the French Polynesian island groups we have visited so far. The island below is Huahine, and it is apparently the one that the latest Disney film, Moana (or ‘Vaiana’ as it is called in Tahiti), was based on. ‘Huahine’ apparently means ‘sleeping woman’ and inspired the character of Tefiti. Can you see it in this picture that Sarah snapped as we were leaving to sail to Raiatea?

Moana’ is a very common word that one sees all over the place in French Polynesia. My tattoo artist in Nuku Hiva is named Moana. In both Tahitian and Marquesan it means ‘water’. You may also have noticed our use of the word ‘motu’ in previous posts, and as part of the name of the group of islands called the Tuamotus. A motu is simply an island. Nui means ‘big’ or ‘grand’. Hence, the ocean is ‘Moana Nui’. The name of our friend’s boat (also mentioned in a previous post), ‘Mana O Te Moana Nui’ means, loosely, ‘Power of the Ocean’. The name of the island that the Disney character Moana is from is ‘Motu Nui’, which simply means ‘big island’. I’m sure there are many, many more subtle linguistic tidbits in the film that we have missed. If you can think of any, let us know. We have watched it several times now and will most likely watch it several more 🙂


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