Cruising the Pacific part 6: Mexico to New Zealand

By: Steve Raea, Photography by: Steve Raea

Cruising the Pacific Keeping Neried off a seawall in Rarotonga as a strong swell rolls through Avatiu Harbour’s narrow entrance Cruising the Pacific
Cruising the Pacific Negotiating the seawall in Avatiu Harbour as the washing machine churns below Cruising the Pacific
Cruising the Pacific Geoff, Steve’s old man and crew from Tahiti to Tonga Cruising the Pacific
Cruising the Pacific Cruising the Pacific

Leaving the turmoil of Tahiti, Nereid makes good time to Rarotonga in 25 to 30-knot trade winds and her skipper finds a welcome sanctuary from a moody swell and a merciless seawall.

Cruising the Pacific part 6: Mexico to New Zealand
Three anchors and a burger bar

It is often said real beauty lies within, and this is certainly true of Rarotonga's Palace burger bar. A dilapidated old wooden structure with a rusted iron roof and a permanent list, piles sinking through age and neglect, the Palace's single outside lamp has become something of a beacon of hope over the last four days.

At the edge of Rarotonga's small and exposed Avatiu Harbour, the comings and goings at the Palace have been a comfort through the long nights I've sat in the cockpit with the wind shrieking in the rigging, praying the three anchors holding the yacht off the harbour's merciless concrete seawall will stay.

For almost a week the harbour has been a washing machine, churned up by a north-east swell rolling through the narrow harbour entrance, fuelled by a deep tropical low moving away slowly to the south. Around the island, sections of Rarotonga's circular road have been closed by rocks and debris hurled ashore by a huge week-old southerly swell coming in over the island's fringing reef.

A braver soul than I might have elected to put to sea to escape the harbour and its concrete danger, but the forecast six-metre swell and persistent north-east gales have made this a very tough call. At least tethered to terra firma we've had the option of scrambling up the seawall and walking across the small gravel car park to the Palace and consoling ourselves with a burger and fries if everything came unstuck — even if it were 3am. But out there on the ocean there would be no such comforts.

On our toes

We arrived in Rarotonga on Tuesday, 28 May after a quick passage from Tahiti in fresh 25 to 30-knot south-east trade winds. These came as a bit of a wake up after the light airs of the North Pacific, and we were kept on our toes for much of the passage.

We were short-handed for this leg, with my stepdad Geoff joining the boat in Tahiti for the two legs through to Tonga. A veteran circumnavigator, his experience was welcome. I couldn't help but be reminded, though, that the last time we put to sea together we lost our mast halfway to Fiji during a race. Being an engineer, the challenge of building a jury rig and sailing the boat home had captured his imagination. Hopefully, we'd have no requirement for his specialist skills this time.

We'd timed our arrival at the harbour entrance for first light and found only a single cruising yacht tied to the seawall. This was a blessing because the seawall — the only berthing option for cruising yachts — is often busy, which can result in yachts being separated only by the thickness of their fenders.

Like Tahiti and Moorea, Rarotonga's mountainous peaks are often shrouded in low cloud that swirls around and mingles in the tropical valleys, and this tends to give the island a Jurassic look from seaward.


Our stay in Tahiti was brief at just under a fortnight, which was long enough because the main island has little in itself to offer cruising yachts. Recent changes have now made it almost a chore to berth in the inner harbour at the foot of the town.

Five years ago this was the place to be, and yachts simply dropped an anchor and backed down onto the town seawall. Getting on and off the yacht was easy and the delights of the town unfolded like a table cloth. These days you're required to lie with your stern tied to one of several large steel barges that are so high off the water it's almost physically impossible to get on and off your yacht unless you're equipped with a large plank to bridge the gap. This is not something cruisers routinely carry and there's nothing provided for this purpose. The Tahiti harbour master concedes it's not an ideal arrangement and says visiting yacht numbers have dwindled to such a level that the berthage fees generated are insufficient to maintain the facility.

This only leaves Taina Marina further around the island, but this is not user-friendly either and is prohibitive, so the only remaining option for yachts is to anchor off the marina in the lagoon or to pick up a mooring buoy for $5 a day. It's a pleasant enough spot with the island of Moorea 10 miles distant, but it is a 30 minute taxi ride back into town or a 40 minute bus ride if you can find a bus and are then lucky enough to be picked up.

Island in turmoil

The charm of Tahiti for cruisers has always been the island of Moorea and the Society Islands — Huahine, Raitia, Tahaa and of course Bora Bora — the jewel of the South Pacific. The Society Islands lie roughly 120-miles due west of Tahiti and provide delightful cruising with sheltered lagoons and tropical bars and restaurants built over the water, which are expert at parting sailors from their cruising funds.

But as for Tahiti proper, it's something of an island in turmoil. The political situation continues to be unstable with on-going agitation for autonomy from France, yet the French colonials show no willingness to even consider the prospect. The gap between the colonial 'haves' and the indigenous Tahitians appears to be widening, and this is now clearly visible with growing signs of poverty and discord. For the first time, I felt apprehensive walking about town after dark.

But the French influence has its delights — none more so than fresh baguettes and croissants, espresso coffee, quality red wines and of course the French language, which can make for a challenging time.

But the starving flea-ridden dogs, rubbish blowing in the streets, failing infrastructure and obvious tensions have taken some of the shine off what was once a top holiday destination.

Moving on

With work commitments back home looming, our schedule did not allow us to pass through the Societys this time and we sailed direct for Rarotonga. The anticipation of being in a country where English is the primary language and an abacus is not required to determine the value of the Kiwi dollar was appealing. There was also the occasion of a family wedding on Rarotonga and a rendezvous with my partner Cherie and her extended family to look forward to if we pressed on and made good time.

We arrived two days before the nuptials and 18 hours before the tropical low, which put paid to the couple's plans for a romantic beach wedding. The wind buffeted the coconut trees and heavy, squally showers washed across the island, but not even this was going to dampen the spirits of the wedding guests who had flown in for the occasion.

Among these were Cherie's three teenage sons that have, in the time I've known them, been something of a magnet for police attention, whether warranted or not. Excitable boys and Rarotonga had the potential to be a volatile mix and the outcome was always going to be interesting.

The boys didn't let the side down but neither did they end up in jail — the worst being a moderate fine for a traffic violation and a late night ride home by the local constabulary for their own 'protection'. Nevertheless, the relief on their mother's face was palpable when all three boarded the plane for home.

At a moment's notice

We've spent our days in Rarotonga sampling the hospitality of the many resorts scattered around the island and keeping a weather eye out for rampaging All Blacks running amok at the waterfront bars.

Rarotonga has a special charm and the island residents are friendly and warm. It is not, however, a recommended destination for cruising yachts and the local harbour board shows no signs of encouraging them. Aside from the lack of berthing options and exposed harbour, there are no facilities for yachts or their crews. There are no anchorages or navigable passes through the outer reef to speak of. Yachts have to be ready to leave at a moment's notice and this can be quite stressful.

For all of that, Rarotonga's fees schedule for visiting boats is the highest I have struck anywhere. That merciless seawall costs $2.30 per metre of boat length per day. Then there's the $55 departure tax for each crew and the $55 customs charge for accepting your paperwork. All up a cost of $400 for a seven day visit. My advice: catch a plane.

Next stop is Vava'u, Tonga, a distance of just over 800 nautical miles, and after a week of too much wind it looks like we're in for a period of light easterlies. It's raining again here, and the majestic mountains are lost in the drizzle.

The challenge now will be shaking off the harbour seabed from the three anchors that have served us so faithfully.

Check out the rest of Steve's adventure:

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