Time to skip Tahiti?

“Should we skip Tahiti?” A question I never thought I’d hear was asked seriously over sundowners last week as we discussed 2020 plans.

The popular cruising destination is sending a strong message that cruisers aren’t wanted anymore. Last week, a local cruiser reported that police began clearing boats from the busy Taina anchorage in Tahiti. This is overwhelmingly where transient boats anchor when they visit the largest island in French Polynesia. There was little notice for the meeting called to discuss plans, and no alternate option offered; the marina in Taina is typically booked in advance and not a ready option.

Tahiti isn’t the only spot in French Polynesia that’s tightening regulations and forcing out boats. Bora Bora has banned anchoring entirely. Moorea is expected to follow suit soon. There is a wider trend in French Polynesia to grow restrictions: local press report that the goal is to regulate anchoring throughout the islands. Meanwhile, in Tahiti, the port authorities clearing the Taina anchorage stated clearly that “there is no Plan B” for relocating the cleared boats; particularly unfortunate timing and tone given that cyclone season begins there this month.

Maybe it’s not a big deal to be required to use moorings or marinas. But it’s more complicated than just planning ahead and budgeting a little more. Ask the Hynes family on the Outremer 51, Archer. His family returned to the mooring field in Bora Bora where they’d left their boat to go ashore for dinner in July. Archer wasn’t there: a search found the boat blown downwind until it hit the unforgiving structure of a resorts’ overwater bungalow after the mooring (about $30/night) they secured their boat to broke, causing massive damage to the vessel.

Bora Bora schematic shows available moorings (green) and former anchorage areas (deep red) – source, Seth Hynes

“It’s really sad what happened to our boat,” Seth reflects, “but even sadder to see what’s happening regionally. I think it’s great the locals want to protect their islands, but I wish they would have worked with the cruising community to do this safely rather than rush in change. By enforcing the “no anchoring” law before the infrastructure was in place it has put all of us in a very dangerous situation. I’m glad no one got hurt on our boat or at the hotel as things could have been much worse.”

Fortunately, and incredibly, this damage to Archer is only cosmetic
The view from below deck of damage from impact above a berth.

Bonaire has done a fantastic job of protecting their fringing reef by requiring boats to pick up affordable moorings. It is magical to swim under your boat on a vibrant, thriving reef at snorkeling/freediving depth that this setup makes possible.

Cruisers all know the mantra not to trust a mooring until you’ve been able to check it. Easy in Bonaire, and we replaced the fraying line. But how could Archer have realistically been expected to check the shackle at 85’ of depth that broke? Of course they can’t, they have to rely on the integrity of the owners/managers, and that chain in Bora Bora clarifies a motivation for profit over vessel security.

Why is this happening?

The move in Tahiti is due in part to a development plan, but read the local press articles about restrictions and local sentiments come out. It hurts to know reader comments indicate they’re happy for cruisers to go away, angered at the lack of respect they feel is shown for the local community and environment.

Protests in Huahine: with permission from TNTV Tahiti Nui Télévision

In Huahine, a youth group staged a protest that included floating a big mainsail painted with “no anchoring” – and gave press pictures of the coral damage caused by careless boats. Here, at least, is a positive move to direct boats to anchor in a boxed area away from the reef and vulnerable coral (fantastic, but sad they had to take this in their own hands). In Raiatea, the next most populous island after Tahiti, there were problems this past season with local boats aggressively threatening cruisers, with tactics ranging from verbal assault to cutting anchor rode.

Are there just too many boats? A couple of factors combined to significantly increase the number of boats in the area. A few years ago, French Polynesia began allowing vessels to remain three years before requiring importation (previously, boats were limited to just a few months). Then long-stay visas became easier to acquire, so not only visiting boats but their crews can readily spend more time in the islands. There are simply more boats, and enough of those boats are not respecting the local mores. This is a response to a perceived invasion of disrespectful cruisers. The complaints range from cultural to environmental, and they are not for you or I to judge as the guests in a place; it’s for the hosts, who seem ready to stop playing that role.

All this played into that conversation over sundowners a few nights ago, as we sat under Totem in the not-so-romantic shipyard with visions of much-more-romantic tropical anchorages in mind. Should we consider a major re-route and skip French Polynesia altogether? Hey, I’d love to visit my family in Hilo. The off-track destinations of Kiribati hold deep appeal. We want to skew towards places we haven’t visited before, anyway.

We were dead serious for about 20 minutes, then snapped back to reality. Of course we’ll go to French Polynesia! There are MANY islands, and we plan the least amount of time in the areas most subject to restrictions.

I’m keen to find the lesson in any situation. What’s the lesson here? That we (cruisers) need to lose entitlement and gain perspective for our negative impact, real or perceived. It’s incumbent on us to proactively be good citizens. Helping in this regard is AVP (Association Voiliers Polynesie); they’re meeting with authorities to represent cruisers and find a bridge to educate cruisers and charterers on visiting responsibly, while boosting local confidence that these boats contribute to rather than detract from their community. Anyone can join the organization and help them advocate for the cruising community: visit https://voiliers.asso.pf/comment-adherer/ for details.

My friend Holly Scott sails her boat out of Raiatea, and rightly pointed out – these islands pushing out cruising boats are both the least interesting and the most touristed. They are exactly the places we prefer not to spend much time in. But they are the popular names that are familiar to outsiders, and have a historical draw based on beaten paths and accessibility. There are many nicer places to explore in French Polynesia. And hopefully, as they are visited by those with a keen eye for respect to local customs and environment. We’ll keep an eye on the situation, spend less (or no) time in the Society islands, and always be mindful that we’re guests in their home.

My facts will not be perfect here, in great part because the situation is changing so quickly. Big thanks to Linda Edeiken of Jacaranda, amazing ambassadors the cruising community – I first learned about this from Linda; to Ryan Levinson, for his work in FP representing cruisers with AVP; thanks Seth Hynes for contributing, sorry your lovely Archer had to be the canary in this coal mine!

34 Responses

  1. Great article with some very good points, ie. places with tightest restrictions are also the most heavily visited by tourists. Those aren’t necessarily the places we’d go either. Still, it presents a a solid subject for discussion.

    Perhaps the cruising community deserves further introspection regarding the cruising communities presentation, as a whole, in foreign places; particularly in environmentally sensitive places. As the the community grows, so does the differing perspectives and different habits of the individual cruisers. I’ve witnessed this to a similar extent where I live.

    One of my family’s most cherished places to visit is a place called the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in south-central Utah. I’ve been frequenting this gem since I was 16 years old (25 years). It’s remote. Many places are difficult to get to. In many cases it requires a good amount of commitment and planning to get to some of the more magnificent parts. Up until the last several years, one would be hard pressed to see any other travelers. And then came the magazine articles, features, and Top 10 lists of places to see.

    Last year, some friends and I, along with our boys, went there for our annual Boys Trip. Granted, we went on Labor Day weekend, but, I had never seen as much foot traffic in the area before, ever. It was quite discouraging, actually. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the presence of others that was the main reason the experience put me off (though we do go there to somewhat get away). Rather, it was the sense of neglect, entitlement, and “checklist” mentality that was the problem. An area as environmentally sensitive as Escalante deserves I deeper level of consideration and awareness. Leave No Trace practices are required of the users. As frequency of human use increases, naturally, the philosophy of how to use these areas broadens. I saw anything from strict LNT principals being employed, to outright negligence (garbage about, surface turds, noise pollution). It’s disheartening. I imagine that’s where the islanders might be coming from in the case of the restriction. I can empathize.

    Then again, maybe they just don’t want the smelly, hippie travelers running amuck around their pristine resorts and scaring off the money. 😉

    Really though, a subject worth considering for all cruisers.

    1. Very thoughtful, Erik. The checklist mentality grates. And it’s these places – the “names” if you will – Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora – they are the checklist places in French Polynesia, they bear the brunt. Hopefully this can get turned around, but meanwhile – it’s not a stretch to understand the welcome wearing thin.

  2. While it is true (2019 season) that we experienced the locals threatening to cut our chain in Raiatea. They backed off as soon as we informed them we were leaving the next day. They seemed particularly concerned about long term anchoring. In Bora Bora we were forced to take a mooring ball quite a distance from town. I believe that it will get more difficult. BUT, this trend also appears to be ONLY in the Society Group. The Gambiers, Marquesas, and particularly the Tuamotus remain wonderful places within French Polynesia. As stated in the article, the most populous and least interesting from a marine viewpoint are the most likely to be affected. Just budget your time there accordingly.

    1. I think you’re right. Well, I hope you’re right! We’re looking forward to going back… especially to the Marquesas and Tuamotus.

  3. Great article Behan and food for thought. I want to take a few years to cross next time so zig zaging up and down maybe the sailing plan. I would value your thoughts and maybe make a good article. I think a season in Tuamotus alone would be amazing. I would need Jamie to distract the sharks so I could get the fish on board…. fair winds

    1. GREAT memories with your family in FP! You and Jamie can trade spearfishing wingman duty any time. Hey, come back to PV this winter and let’s talk about it!

  4. When going to any foreign country no matter how you travel you do what they do. You are guests . My Dad & i went their in the 70’s We had to take a mooring not anchor . We stayed 3 years. I wen to school their K to the 3 grade dad worked for their government doing water sample doing lazy 8 all the way around the island. everybody has forgotten that we visitors & what they say we do or we leave . everyone wants the same eminities that we have at home just different place. we have to learn the customs & culture their & do that when we get their. Traveling is no fun with out different Cultures . Now we have environment stuff going on. We got to be sensitive to the wild life too. Out of all my Travels in my life, I never wanted every country to be like the states. You have to adjust to to place where you are going to. No entitlement .

  5. Thank you for this very good summary of what is going on over there. What is really distressing is the speed of the changes of the laws, we arrived in french Polynesia 3 months ago, and so many things changed already, it’s difficult to have the right information. We’ll leave the Society Islands in a few days for the Tuamotu, hopefully we’ll be more welcome over there… I’ll let you know :o)!

  6. We’ve been trying to get back to French Polynesia en route to a return to the U.S. from NZ, but we’ve been having difficulties on the other side.

    The visa processing times are long, and we’ve run afoul of inconsistent regulations among the embassies in NZ, the USA, and Australia that have made it nearly impossible for us to get a Long Sejours. This is a huge change from when we last went in 2014 from Panama, where there was little trouble getting it.

    It’s been frustrating, to the point where we’ve basically eliminated a return from our plans, not because we don’t want to go but because we can’t figure out a way to work within their rules to get our visas processed so we can spend enough time there to wait out the seasons.

    Tahiti has the advantage of being the best place to get work done and re-provision, but outside of that I’d rather go elsewhere, to be sure. The big name places – including Bora Bora – were far from our favorites. But on the whole it does sound like there’s some unpleasant pushback in the busier spots that I’d be OK missing in favor of lower trafficked areas.

    1. That’s definitely the uphill path from NZ, in more ways than one! But I’m sorry to know the long stay visa is so hard from there. I’m in agreement with you on Tahiti and Bora Bora!

  7. Hello, I was dive instructor in Fakarava Tuamotu for 7 years.
    On the first year there was 3 to 4 sailboats during the hight season. On my last year in Fakarava (2014) there was 20 to 30 sailboats. I had to rescue some of them (unprepare people), unhook anchor who was tide around coral head.
    On charge during 6 month to a dive center at Tetamanu, some sailor stole sugar, and water from my place. I find trash bag drop on motu. They was diving solo and following my group, without respect for the people who paid for my service or for my. I feel the local people get mad , due to a minority of asshole.
    I am myself a sailor on plan to cruise from Hawaii to the fenua next year. Please respect and ask the community to adapt to the polynesian.
    Fare wind everyone. Aloha

    1. Hi Guillaume, thank you so much for sharing your experience. I also worry about these boats and crews, who get into sailing with more dreams than experience, and cause problems from their lack. But stealing, and freeloading, it’s just not right. I believe it’s the minority? But they can cause all to look bad. I’d love to know more specifics beyond human kindness and common sense for how cruising boats can be good guests. AVP may be working on this.

    2. I have to agree with many points that Guillame had made. There has been a rapid rise in the number of cruising yachts crossing the Pacific in the last few years, but I fear the ‘checklist’ mentality of some cruisers is creating major issues.

      Whilst cruising yachts have great potential to aid the communities of Pacific Island nations by creating new revenue streams there has to be mindfulness of the impact on these small nations.
      When we arrived in Nuku Hiva almost 18months ago there were at least 40 boats in the anchore. After a long Pacific Crossing without a stop in the Galapagos we of course were in need of disposing of some garbage along with many others. How do these small islands cope with this influx?

      There has also become an expectation that these small island communities should provide us with everything we need whilst not having everything they need.
      The supply ships are limited in number and frequency, particularly during the trade wind season and the capacity of the stores is limited.
      Its great to say that there are so many other places to explore outside of the beaten track in FP, but these island/atolls are also struggling to manage demand for their own population in season, nevermind thousands of cruisers.

      I have worked on yachts extensively through the Pacific and in the marine industry all of my adult life, have cruised privately on our own yacht from Greece back home to NZ and over those 20 odd years have seen a lot of changes in the Pacific, not all of them good. I have been very shocked and disappointed by the attitude, behaviour and inexperience of some cruisers in the last few years.

      I am home again working in a major NZ Marina, we are founding members of the South Pacific Sailing Network. A group of marine industry professionals striving for efficient promotion and communications to encourage yachts to experience these exceptional cruising grounds, strengthen the services available and aid the economies of the island groups. Mindfulness of cultural and environmental balance in the islands is vital.
      We are developing ways to assist Island nations to promote and communicate with the cruising community and also develop ways that cruisers can help and do good in less fortunate Pacific communities.
      I personally believe that French Polynesia does need to re-examine its regulations around cruising yachts. It would be great to see better infrastructure in the form of strong, well maintained moorings to provide safe places to stay and also to protect the reefs along with regulations to prohibit discharge within lagoons etc.
      The cruisering community needs to be mindful that these small nations, with far less resources than our own, are reacting to a very rapid increase in numbers and cruising yachts as well as a different type of cruiser, and these things take time. The expectation cannot be set as high as you would for a developed nation.
      French Polynesia is stunningly beautiful, the people are very welcoming, but to get respect and be welcomed we need to show respect for their culture, water, land and reefs.
      I encourage people to look at our website south-pacific-sailing.com to keep up to date with regulations and requirements for the various nations and to see how we are beginning to aid local Pacific communities.

  8. It is true that some sailors are not respectful but true also that French Polynesia government didn’t realize the consequences of allowing boats to remain three years without creating any new marina or boatyard. Conséquences are there are more and more boats with only the option to stay at the anchorage. As locals refuse any new infrastructures it seems the only option is for the French Polynesia government to back off and stop the three years permit. It will be a good improvement.

    1. It is a stunning lack of foresight on behalf of the government: how was this not considered as a possibility? But at least, three years in, it should be maximized…

  9. Hello Bevan. Nice to read you and you gave a very insightful account with a great conclusion ! thanks a lot. If I may add a few comments, being at the forefront of the relationship between the local authorities and the local yachting industry. From our discussions with them and the strategic roadmap that the officials have just published (a several hundred pages document that outlines the strategy for a sustainable development of French Polynesia) they absolutely want to develop cruising in French Polynesia. The current system of long term stays is one of the most welcoming in the world and that is not going to change anytime soon. The authorities did not expect such a growth in the number of yachts and are now focused on building the required infrastructures. Yachting is perceived as a long term development goal for a sustainable style of tourism. As we’ve seen in Bora Bora you can’t rush the installation of the necessary equipments…hopefully they will do a better job in the next places. Coral is the skeleton and the blood of Polynesia : lagoons feed the population and attract the tourists. Ryan and Nicole just published a video about coral friendly sunscreens…we as cruisers all need to be more environment conscious, using the right products, not damaging coral with our anchors, not throwing waste even organic in a lagoon, especially if it’s inhabited…the free anchorage in front of Taina is very convenient and so has attracted a large number of yachts including some “sticky” ones and even a fair number of half sunk vessels… This is just in front of a densely populated and poorer area. In non PC words a proper slum… not surprising people living there get tired of having their backyard turned into permanent housing or boat graveyard…It does not mean that Polynesians don’t like cruisers. Hopefully we can get all the energies working together to build infrastructures where needed and enable more cruisers to discover all the incredible atolls. There are 118 islands in Polynesia. We can keep Papeete for boat maintenance, the Leeward islands for resorts instead of yachts and all the virgin atolls for cruisers…

    1. hi David, thank you for sharing your insight. I like your last sentence a lot, that works for me! Assuming of course, there’s a safe anchorage to come in for maintenance. 😉 It’s too bad the officials didn’t consider the impact to the number of boats from extending time before import. I especially hope cruisers can be more thoughtful guests, so that regulations aside, there are not bad feelings from those on shore who look out at a boat anchored off their home.

  10. This is a great article, as usual, with good information on what we might expect when heading into the Polynesian Islands. Each of us has our reasons for wanting to live the life of a cruising sailor, and each is different. The main reason I sought this lifestyle is to visit the many Pacific Islands off the beaten path…the ones where there are no airports and only small villages or even uninhabited. That’s why I’m anxious to start moving west.

    As a young-ish U.S. Marine, I was fortunate to get stationed in Hawaii for 3 years. Although it is certainly well-traveled, I became enamored by the Polynesian culture and history while I was there and came to understand why Polynesians are so protective of their islands and their culture. One of my best friends is Polynesian. She and her daughter took the time to teach Kristi and I so much about their history and culture and how much they value nature and all the wonderful gifts these islands impart on those fortunate enough to experience them.

    Your point about being sensitive to the culture and environment while we are traveling the globe is something that truly hits home for Kristi and I. We not only want to visit places like this, but our plan is to bring needed items to the small villages as we travel. We want the islanders to look forward to visits from cruisers, not dread us.

    As always, thank you for a well-written and thorough post!

  11. Well if you decide to go via Palmyra Atoll, watch out for any shady drifters with an eye on Totem! (I just read “And the Sea Will Tell” recently.)

  12. Oh dear, we must have been lazing. After seeing/hearing from you in Indian Ocean Scraatch is still to Transit Panama, for 3rd time, and try and catch up, coming soon. This time possibly to Alaska via Japan….Trying to avoid world ARC and all the arrogant nuisance they make, almost a distillation of your ‘tick list’ cruisers.
    Thanks for Tahiti update, where does one stop there now?
    Last time I circumnavigated Tahiti itself and found pleasant empty stops at the south and on east coast. At one point a boat rushed out, apologised for no time for proper welcome, delivered a pile of fresh fruit and offerred the liberty of their shore line and reef. Yes this was Tahiti itself but the far end from Papeete…

    Kitty and Brian on Scraatch.

    1. Hi Brian, these anchorages are still wonderful and unspoilt. The restriction concerns areas where yachts have concentrated because they are close to Papeete, not really places you want to spend much time unless you wait for repairs or work here and live on your boat. Also restrictions in Moorea where everybody congregates during the week end…but 85 moorings is not that restrictive

    2. LOL re tick-list cruisers! I agree, but I’m also happy to see them go at all – even if it’s ticking a bucket list – than not go at all. Latest on Tahiti – check the website links in the post, there are some excellent resources there with latest/greatest. I’m confident we’ll have wonderful encounters in FP again and can’t wait to get back.

  13. We are so lucky we spent thirteen months in FP without too many rules. I’m glad they want to preserve the reefs but they need a plan.

  14. I NEED SOME ADVICE: I am traveling on a Norwegian Cruise in April 2020 from Hawaii down to Tahiti. We stop at Nuku Hiva on Monday, April 13. My wife has a bad back and MS and can’t explore that island as the drive is very tough. We would love to cruise around the island for the day, but there aren’t many excursions that do that (and we don’t care for the typical crowded pre-planned trips like that). Do any of you full-time sailors plan to be in that area at that time? I would love to compensate you to show a couple of tourists around the island for the day. Just thought I would try to see if I could get lucky! Thanks!

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