The reef pass to Maupiti takes nerve, a 90-degree turn mid-channel and a trusting yacht owner.
All is calm, even sleepy in Tahiti on board Pangaea, but a storm in Antarctica is about to change that. I’ve boarded the 184-foot long*, 36-foot beam expedition charter yacht in order to engage in a little adventure of the barefoot, five-star luxury type-and put a little distance between myself and the tens of thousands of honeymooners and tourists from around the world who are drawn to luxuriate at Bora Bora’s numerous posh hotels. Literally worlds apart from its famous and popular neighbor, our destination, Maupiti, doesn’t have a single overwater bungalow anywhere on the island. And that’s the way Maupiti likes it, mauruuru roa (thank you very much, in Tahitian).
Maupiti is made for Pangaea, a one-of-a-kind yacht with a one-of-a-kind captain, Michael Schueler. Pangaea and crew gladly leave the comforts of docks and moorings behind and go far out-island, to exotic islands in the Tuamotu Island Group with names such as Apataki, Amanu, Makamo, Toau or Rangiroa, with the goal of getting you out into the very middle of nowhere, and into the water with up to 500 sharks-safely.
I’d met amiable Capt. Schueler in March while covering a pair of sportfishing tournaments (October issue, “Tahiti’s Monster Marlin). Schueler had impressed and intrigued me with exotic stories of Pangaea‘s many far-flung yacht charter adventures through the South Pacific the past two years. Even after more than 30 trips to French Polynesia, I’d never made it to Maupiti. This time I would, thanks to Schueler and Fara Spector, owner/operator of Manaair International.
The next morning we are headed for Maupiti, and in quite a hurry. The Pangaea would need to depart long before dawn to avoid the major storm near Antarctica that was launching major swells in our direction. Thirteen-foot waves are due to arrive later in the afternoon; we’re in a race to Maupiti’s pass, against time and tide.
Schueler has taken Pangaea into Maupiti on three prior occasions, but he has come to respect its narrow Onoiau pass, shallow entry channel and minuscule area in which Pangaea will fit. Schueler makes it clear that one can never take too many precautions, especially with a $25-million yacht that’s not yours. The yacht makes three slow, deliberate passes along the reef, and the captain consults with three of his top mates. After their discussions on the bridge, Schueler decides that Pangaea can safely make it in.
In the wheelhouse I spot the Guide to Navigation and Tourism in French Polynesia and read that the lagoon outflow “results in very strong breakers and crashing waves across the entrance to the pass, which is only 10 meters deep, rendering it inaccessible and dangerous during these conditions, except for the inhabitants of the island who have a lot of experience and a boat with a powerful engine. And there’s more: “The narrow, hooked and often agitated pass cannot be navigated due to strong current.
As Pangaea approaches the entrance, I climb up her rear mast, and from my spot 70 feet above the water, I can see swiftly churning white water spewing out of the opening. It reminds me of summer days running Class-V rapids on the Colorado River.
In a way, this too is a rapids, as the seas that crash their way into the lagoon over the island’s low-lying south-facing reefs have just this one main channel opening to exit. The water endlessly swirls out of the pass, reaching speeds of eight to nine knots. Schueler accelerates Pangaea into the churning channel, which spits out a maelstrom of white and blue water. Progress is relatively slow, with Pangaea‘s top speed just a couple of knots above that of the outflowing current’s.
But entering the channel is a piece of cake-or at least the captain’s skill makes it appear so. All onboard send up a relieved cheer as the yacht cuts through the breakers at the mouth of the pass. But there’s still the challenge of navigating through a tight 90-degree turn, and then anchoring in Maupiti lagoon’s tiny pocket of deep water.
Since Pangaea is between charters, this is actually an opportunity for the yacht team to have a little fun. Along with the dozen Pangaea crewmembers currently onboard is Fara Spector of Manaair International, the multifaceted do-it-all company that works with Schueler and his charters, Spector’s 10-year-old daughter, Diandra, Tutera Mondaron, Tahiti’s top kite boarder, and me.
In a flurry of crew activity, out come the yacht’s many toys. The yacht’s sizable scuba locker would make most dive shops envious. Of course, Pangaea packs its own high-speed air compressor, and four Sea-Doo personal watercraft are launched by the pair of 30-ton cranes. Kayaks, snorkeling and kite surfing equipment are laid out on Pangaea‘s swim step. Schueler has enticed me with stories of the primitive beauty of Maupiti, its relative isolation, and also about the “varo, or Lysiosquillina maculata, which resembles a cross between a small slipper lobster and a very large headless shrimp. These lagoon denizens are not to be taken lightly, or easily. They are delicious to eat but also highly dangerous, with lightning-quick, razor-sharp pincers. Many Tahitians lack fingers, even hand parts, due to mishaps with the fierce varo.
Schueler and Chef Victoria Adams snorkel for varo, armed with but a simple stick tipped with a fishing line and a baited hook. Victoria floats in the rapid current hugging a small cooler in case they catch any. They return to Pangaea with an empty cooler, but with a captain who has all 10 fingers intact.
Breakfast is served on the yacht’s spacious comfortable and casual afterdeck, and it includes anything and everything, from simple pancakes and eggs to an exotic Salmon Benedict topped with caviar.
It doesn’t take long for the fun to get started, “tubing behind one of Pangaea‘s three tenders. Pangaea is a whirlwind of sports activity: kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving. Many who charter Pangaea are serious scuba aficionados, attracted by the emphasis on exotic diving with Nitrox and as many as 500 sharks, the giant mantas and the more than 600 species of fish that reside here in Polynesian waters.
Fara and I go ashore with Patrick Allman, Pangaea‘s first engineer, and the three of us walk the single road through Vaiea, the island’s quiet, slow-paced village. The island is rich in archaeological sites; petroglyphs in Haranae Valley, on the island’s west side, date back as far as 850 A.D.
A mere 1,300 Mauipitians inhabit the entire island, and when we arrive in town, we realize tourism is not big here. Colorfully clad Tahitian ladies astride scooters gossip in front of the market, each with perhaps half a dozen baguettes in hand, and kids frolic in dappled sunlight. I exhale deeply, merely enjoying the moment.
Over the next two days, the swell continues to grow, and the waves upon Maupiti’s southwest reef pound, thunder and hiss in tropical splendor. Scott Gow takes Tuteara and me as close as we dare on the inside of the reef in the small Zodiac.
But for us inside the reef, and safely upon Pangaea, life is less hiss and mostly bliss-summer is late in arriving this year, and powerful squalls reaching over 40 miles per hour keep Pangaea in perpetual motion two nights. Our captain admits he was up in the wheelhouse and close to firing up the engines more than a couple of times.
Our schedule had given us two full days in Maupiti, but the waves continue. “Oh well, says Schueler, shrugging his shoulders. “I guess we’re all stuck here for another day or two.
A local Maupiti fisherman, Nunu Amiot, appears with fruit or fresh tuna or mahi mahi that he’s caught. Getting in and out of the impassable pass is easy for him. When Nunu hears us talking about the varo, he disappears, only to return a couple of hours later with three small, live varo for me to photograph.
Two days later, the powerful, towering waves have subsided sufficiently for our captain to decide that it’s safe to make it back out of the pass. I recall a conversation I had with Capt. Schueler, in which he’d said that as the civilized world grows, the number of “truly secret places to explore and enjoy in this world diminishes. “The South Pacific is one of the last bastions of adventure, out in the middle of nowhere, Schueler says, “where you can swim with 500 sharks and giant manta rays in deserted island lagoons-alone and amazed in deserted crystalline 85-degree lagoons.
One last time, I head out for a snorkel and drift with the swiftly moving water, sharing the lagoon with the thousands of colorful, swaying and darting fish in this giant aquarium without walls. Soon it’ll be time to rejoin the real world-sadly, but with a greater appreciation for the world inside Maupiti’s reef.
Fara Spector’s Manaair International has air, sea and land divisions to handle all aspects of travel and lodging. Contact [email protected] or call 689 866 217; mobile 689 280 348. For additional information on French Polynesia, contact Tahiti Tourisme, www.tahiti-tourisme.com.
Shortly after this story was reported, Pangaea was sold and returned to the U.S. However, Fara Spector’s offers other options including Bullish out of Papeete, whose weekly rate is $100,000 (plus 25 percent APA and 11 percent French tax). To view the vessel, visit www.mybullish.com.
*Editor’s Note: As of March 2014 we have been notified that Pangea is now managed by Hill Robinson Yacht Management and has been enlarged from 184′ to 191′.