What a difference a day makes. Twenty-four hours ago I was standing in line for a loaf of sliced supermarket bread. Today I'm standing on the back of a yacht, breathing in salt air and collecting an armful of warm baguettes from a smiling Frenchman. With an "au revoir" and a tip of his cap, the baker putters across the lagoon to his next customer. This may be race day in the inaugural New Caledonian Great Lagoon Regatta but no French crew worth their salt would start the day without fresh bread.
Under a lavender sky we crack open the eggshell crust and smother butter over the soft white centre before dunking it into bowls of milky coffee. The Pacific sun that will torment us later rises slowly over the lagoon, breathing life and shape into the lumpy green coastline and sending shards of light prancing across the water's surface. All around, other crews are stirring; scrubbing decks, coiling ropes, mending lines.
Many of the entrants are professional racers but I've joined a group of French, Australian and Japanese amateurs on a charter boat for the three-day race. Skipper Renaud does his best to teach me the ropes but I'm no Popeye; I'm here to explore the lagoon. Not only is it the biggest in the world, it's also one of the most beautiful. In 2008, it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for its beauty and diversity of corals and marine animals. Comprised of six marine clusters, it is also one of the most extensive reef systems in the world. Yet it is little-known and receives few visitors.
Race organisers are hoping to rectify this. While the regatta is an international event catering to serious sea dogs and beginners alike, it is much more than that. The event aims to showcase the riches of the reef, its islands and coves and the diversity of its ecosystems, all within a party-like atmosphere. The regatta also allows visitors a sneak peek into a sailing culture that is a little bit French, a little bit Polynesian and a whole lot of fun.
Part of the fun involves learning the ropes - trimming, turning and tacking - but passengers can do as little or as much as they like. After breakfast when the talk gets too technical I pop a couple of travel sickness tablets and head to the front deck. Tourlourou is a 14-metre catamaran licensed to sleep 10 passengers in comfort and relative luxury. Compared with the functional single-hulled racers, ours is a glamour girl.
At 10am we jockey for position on the starting line. A flag goes up, a horn sounds and finally, with sails flapping like bed sheets, we are away, pulling winches, tightening ropes or hanging on for dear life, depending on our abilities and courage. After a lot of jibing and jostling, Lagoon streaks to the front with BlackMamba and Bayou in hot pursuit, while the remaining 20 or so yachts string out behind like a line of colourful flags.
Once the frantic start is over Renaud lets the captain take the wheel and joins me on the bow. A yachtsman of more than 30 years experience, Renaud began sailing in the Caribbean with his father when he was three years old. "The diversity of marine life is better here than anything I've seen in Egypt, Cayman Islands, Tahiti or the Caribbean," he says proudly. "We've even got more variety of corals than your petite [Great] Barrier Reef."
As he talks Renaud peels an orange, in the slow, deliberate manner of someone without a worry in the world.
"When I'm out here, I feel like a kid again," he says, tearing at the orange and handing me a piece. "And the entire ocean is my playground."
We follow the coastline from Noumea, past the fog-shrouded Le Mont-Dore (the Golden Mountain), the mouth of the Pirogues River and Prony Bay, site of a former prison colony, before rounding the southern tip of the main island of Grand Terre and tacking towards Canal Woodin.
The wind picks up and suddenly we're racing, skimming across the aqua water and heading for the finish line near Ouen Island.
Lagoon snatches first place, while Sahmara II and Bayou battle for second and third. The rest of us arrive in a colourful heap before dropping anchor and enjoying a late lunch in the sheltered bay.
Some of us take a Zodiac ashore to Ouen Island, home to a traditional tribe that live in the small village of Ouara. This pretty island was once famous for its jade deposits, which the Kanaks used for jewellery, sword and blade making. From the beach we climb a trail through paperbarks and palm trees to a crest overlooking Turtle Bay and the coral reef known as Plateau of Five Miles.
"The channel between here and the mainland is very deep and the fish are plentiful," Renaud says, pointing to patches of cobalt blue in a sea of turquoise silk. "Migrating humpbacks come in here every year between July and September to breed". Renaud explains the arrival of the humpbacks is very important to the Ouara tribe as it marks the beginning of the yam season, which is their main source of food.
We descend again to the sandy beach and waste no time diving headfirst into the clear water before swimming back to our yacht for a quick nap in preparation for the pirate party that night.
Under the cloak of darkness and dressed in our piratey best, we paddle ashore to join the other crews for a feast of paella cooked in an open pit on the beach. After several fortifying rounds of Premieres Cotes de Blaye we dance barefoot in the sand to everything from Bob Marley to Lady Gaga. "This is a festive regatta," says race organiser Herve Moal, swirling me around. "We have something for everyone." Moal plans to make the 2012 regatta part of a week-long celebration incorporating an underwater film festival, together with photography competitions and art displays.
The following morning we motor carefully through Five Miles Channel for the start of the second day of racing. The channel weaves through two coral reefs where we see local Kanaks fishing by hand from their small boats. I have visited New Caledonia twice before but having never left the cafes and boutiques of Noumea I knew little about the indigenous people or their way of life. The old Proust line about "how the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" has never been more true.
A brisk 15-knot north-east wind soon has the fleet streaking across the lagoon towards Ilot Kouare. By mid-morning I abandon all pretence of being useful and idle the day away, writing in my diary and photographing the passing parade of dainty horseshoe reefs and small islets that dot the calm waters inside the lagoon.
As dolphins glide by, Renaud and I talk about our love of the ocean and our fear of it being spoiled by development and overfishing. "We are very fortunate in New Caledonia," he says. "Our small population and small fishing industry means the waters are still pristine."
On the horizon two yachts take off on a tangent in the wrong direction. "They must be Aussies," Renaud says with a laugh.
We learn later that these truant sailors headed off for a spot of fishing, successfully collecting bonus points for their team.
The race finishes at Ilot Kouare, a small islet ringed by white sandy beaches and azure waters. Oblivious to winners or losers, most people dive overboard and strike out towards the beach. The moment I enter the water an enormous sea turtle, estimated by Renaud to be more than 100 years old, approaches us for a bit of a look, then the dashes away. As I float over colourful corals and schools of fishes, I wonder if life can get any better than this.
Over the next 24 hours it does; welcome drinks aboard a navy ship, another beach barbecue, an exhilarating six-hour race back to Noumea and finally a cocktail party and awards presentation at Le Meridien on Anse Vata Beach. When the local favourite Lagoon is announced the winner, the crowd cheers and raises their glasses. "To Lagoon," we all say.
Somehow it seems we are toasting the great lagoon itself, not simply a yacht with the same name.
The writer was a guest of New Caledonia Tourism.
Aircalin flies 10 times a week from Sydney to Noumea, prices starting from $850 including taxes. (02) 9264 4866, aircalin.nc.
Le Meridien Noumea is on the beachfront overlooking Anse Vata cove, a 10-minute drive from the city. Rooms from 18,448 South Pacific francs ($200), +687 265 000, lemeridien.com.
The 2012 regatta is from May 26-28. It costs 16,500 francs to enter a yacht and then 5500 francs a person. Charter costs are additional and can be organised through local companies including Noumea Yacht Services +687 24 01 23, noumeayachtservices.com or Dal'Ocean Charter www.daloceancharter.nc.
- The Age