Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Maupiti - Bora Bora’s Subdued Sister

About 30 miles east of Bora Bora in the Leeward Society Islands, lies another, little known atoll, also with a mountainous interior. It is called Maupiti, which has one village, Vai’ea, and about 1200 inhabitants. The Polynesians say it is like Bora Bora was 30 years ago, for some cruisers the island is one of their highlights in the Pacific, but most sailors skip it on their way west, mostly because of its notorious pass to access the lagoon and safe harbor.

The Pass

The only pass (cut in the outer reef) to enter Maupiti’s lagoon is located on the south side of the atoll. This is also where the surplus lagoon water leaves through on an always outgoing tide. With the predominantly south west swell of the Pacific Ocean coming into the pass, this combination can be very dangerous, causing standing waves and making the pass inaccessible and deadly at times of high winds and big swells. Needless to say this is a tricky pass and a quite narrow one at that! All the guidebooks warn that entering the pass should be attempted in less than 20 knots of wind and a swell lower than 6ft. Mark and I waited for such a moment in Bora Bora, but as we have long known since being here: the weather predictions are rarely accurate.

Leaving from the leeward side of Bora Bora, it was dead calm the morning we decided to sail to Maupiti. The forecast called for 10-15 knots of wind and a 4ft swell: ideal! “If there is no wind, we are not going!” Mark said, when we lifted anchor at 7am. Not wanting to motor for six hours, I grudgingly agreed, hoping that we could at least make another attempt later in the week if we had to turn back that morning. It is always a double edged sword: no wind meant not getting there under sail, but perfect conditions to enter the pass. But, we wanted a decent amount of wind to sail there swift and comfortably… If the wind and the swell would be too high, however, and the pass therefore inaccessible, one would have to tack and beat back into that strong wind (no fun and a tiring and long effort) all the way to Bora Bora, getting in at night!

We didn’t bother setting any sails, since we had no idea what the ocean conditions were and, if we needed to fly the spinnaker, the mainsail would have to be dropped again anyway. Once outside Bora Bora’s pass, we motored for half an hour, when the wind cleared the island and filled in. For the first bit, we managed to stay on course with both sails, but then we had to furl the jib in and let the (bigger) main out to collect as much wind as possible from dead behind us. A preventer was rigged to avoid an accidental jibe. We considered rigging the spinnaker, but were too lazy at that moment and our decision proved to be a good one. At times the wind was blowing over 20 knots and we were happily cruising along at 5 knots with one sail! Of course the waves started to grow with the wind increase, to about 6-7ft, and we began to realize the downside of our steady progress: what would happen at the pass?

We gave the southeast corner of Maupiti a wide berth as recommended by the guides and started to approach the pass dead on under motor and with a tightly trimmed mainsail. The conditions had mellowed a bit and the visibility was OK. Our concentration was solely on the pass. Forget about the charts; navigation is purely visual here! Lining up the first set of range markers perfectly, Captain Mark did a great job steering us through the entrance, in between breaking reefs. At the first set of green and red markers, we lined up the second set of range markers to guide us into the dogleg of the channel. From there on, the water was calm and the rest of the way very well-marked and straightforward. We had safely arrived in Maupiti! We dropped the hook in front of the church and took a breath, while grey clouds gathered and the rain began to fall. Even though Mark said the whole experience was a bit nerve racking and not something he’d want to do again, through the photographer’s lens, it didn’t look all that scary! :-)

The Mainland

Maupiti is relatively small and encircled by one road of about 7 miles. Most of the people live along the south and east coast of the mainland, while five motus and exposed reef frame the lagoon. One cloudy day, Mark and I set out to walk around the island and see what we could find. Not much, but it was good exercise. Except for a few churches, a school, some small grocery stores, a covered market place, a bakery and one government building, the village of Vai’ea consists of private houses and friendly locals. We passed high cliffs, tons of breadfruit, coconut, banana and mango trees – all in season! – and lots of empty space. On the west side of the island, we ventured out to the only beach, a white sandy stretch called Tereia, to take a break in the shade, before returning to our dinghy at the conveniently located floating dock in town.

The View

This last Sunday, we woke to blue skies at 6am and decided to tackle the mountain top in the middle of the island. About an hour later, our “Kiwi” friends Monique and Garth (from New Zealand) on SV Heartbeat (now the second sailboat in the atoll) joined us for this endeavor. In the span of roughly two hours, we climbed the nearly vertical trail and steep rocks, where help was provided by knotted ropes. While we sweated like crazy (the heat and humidity are not to be underestimated in the tropics), drank heaps of water and took a couple of breaks, the view improved with every step we took! When we finally arrived at the top, the surroundings looked awe-inspiring; truly breathtaking. Mark and I agreed it was right up there as the best view we’ve seen in the Pacific. Photos were snapped, snacks were eaten and enjoyment was had, while gazing at the expansion underneath us. High up, the breeze cooled us down enough to spend about 45 minutes on the top, but the sun was still burning like hell. The descent was as challenging as the hike up, and brutal on the knees and other joints. It took us a good hour to head all the way back down, but we all agreed this incredible experience was worth every huff and puff!

View from the anchorage

Town hall on the lagoon

Irie at anchor - the only sailboat in Maupiti

Market place in the village

Breadfruit - every yard has at least one tree!

Vegetable stand along the road around the island
Motus on the northern edge of the lagoon
The mangoes are finally in season!

Messy, but yummy!

Different stages of the banana

Tereia Beach on the SW point

Walking on the (quiet) road around Maupiti

Bounty of the day

Thanksgiving dinner on Irie - just the two of us this year :-(

And a BLT as a birthday lunch the following day

Vai'ea town and the church, with the steep mountain top behind

Climbing to the top of Mt. Teurafaatiu

The view keeps getting better!

Monique pulling herself up with one of the ropes

Maupiti's airstrip extends from Motu Tuanai into the lagoon

Best view in Maupiti, and French Polynesia!

Maupiti's only pass, between the southern motus

Garth admiring the magnificent view

Maupiti's NE side

Posing in front of the reef-filled western part of the lagoon

This view made the challenging hike more than worthwhile

Interesting reef pattern in the western part of the lagoon

Mark and Monique taking a break on the top of the mountain

Church of Vai'ea underneath us and the rickety airport shuttle

Heartbeat and Irie at anchor in the lagoon of Maupiti


Lisa Dorenfest said...

Your photos from atop Mt. Teurafaatiu put mine to shame :-) I may never take another photo again. Beautiful to see Maupiti through your eyes. Glad that another boat showed up and you had some company :-)

Liesbet said...

Thanks, Lisa! But, your pictures are always a treat to the eye, so, please, keep on taking them! The ones from the North Island in New Zealand (http://lisadorenfest.com/2014/12/06/north-island-tour/) are stunning as ever... And all the ones you submit for the Daily Post are incredibly fitting and amazing! :-)