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27 November 2020

Sailing on the quiet of Aitutaki lagoon

Saturday 1 August 2020 | Written by Jonathan Milne | Published in Weekend


Sailing on the quiet of Aitutaki lagoon
Motu E'e on Aitutaki lagoon seems a world removed from the bustle of Rarotonga. JONATHAN MILNE 20073127

Taking the family out sailing on Aitutaki lagoon with Captain Ted Tavai is a reminder of just how lucky we are – and how important it is to value that by supporting our local businesses.

When he lived in Auckland, Ted Tavai dreamed of sailing. He saw the wind on the water. He saw the yachts scooting across the choppy waves.

But it was too expensive – in New Zealand they call it a rich man’s sport. And it was too cold!

Then, in 2009, Ted and Shelley Tavai moved home to the village of Nikaupara on Aitutaki.

“Coming over here was a dream come true. Looking at that lagoon, you wanted to be out on there!”

He got involved helping out at weekend down at the sailing club. Shelley is a teacher, and it turned out Ted is a bit of a natural with kids as well.

“I’m really proud of the young sailors here,” he says. “That’s really been my passion, seeing the big smiles, especially the ones who have never sailed before. Their whole face, their whole manner changes.”

It didn’t take long before Commodore Jim confessed that he was leaving. “I just went down there to help – and next thing you know, I had the keys to the Sailing Club!”

Aitutaki Sailing Club, to be clear, is three rusty, padlocked containers sitting on O’otu sandspit, coconut palms and ironwood trees overhead, the sand pockmarked by crab burrows that pose an ankle-twisting threat to the young, barefoot sailors carrying their Optimists, Lasers and Tazs down to the lagoon.

But as he became more accomplished on the water, local businessman Paul Henry made him an offer: to teach him to sail his old fibreglass Hobie 17-foot catamaran, so he could run his business, Sailing Aitutaki.

Ted leapt at the opportunity. And not long after, he bought the tour business. He took out a German tourist, Andreas Hawle, who fell in love with Aitutaki.

Hawle bought Etu Moana resort – and he financed the purchase of two brand-new rotomolded polyethlyene-hulled Hobie Getaway 17-foot catamarans, the latest and greatest on the water.

Now Ted takes tourists and locals out on the catamarans, ducking and diving and sprinting and sloping across the blue lagoon, weaving in among the coral heads on waters he has come to know so well.

He sailed our family out to Motu E’e, the same idyllic islet where 25 kids from Aitutaki and Rarotonga sailing clubs had camped for a regatta last year.

The kids he had taught to sail acquitted themselves pretty well up against the boys and girls from the bigger Rarotonga club, he reckons. “I’ve been pretty proud of them, they’re all good sailors.

“The worst thing at the regatta was watching an Opti and a Laser collide – they tore a sail and broke a mast.

“But the kids were okay – just their pride dented!” He gives a little chuckle. “They were both from Rarotonga.”

My own boys are just learning to sail Optimists with Rarotonga Sailing Club; they were excited to see Motu E’e where their friends had camped the year before.

Sailing is a great way to see the sea turtles, because there is no motor to scare them off.

But it’s tough times for Captain Ted, with the tourists gone. Our family are just the second tour he’s taken out since the borders were closed in March.

He’s grateful for the wage subsidy keeping him in work at Pacific Resort Aitutaki, and for the business grant that has helped keep Sailing Aitutaki afloat. “Without that grant, I think my wife and I would be suffering from financial hardship.”

Meanwhile, with more downtime, he’s been doing what others on Aitutaki are doing: getting out on the plantation, fixing up their house, doing some spearfishing …

He’s looking forward to borders reopening before summer – but not just so the tourists can return.

He has an adult daughter and son in New Zealand; his daughter has her own daughter.

“It is very tough with the borders closed – I’m really looking forward to seeing them again. Family is always important.”