Finally in July 1959 the plans were completed. Thirty faithful Tahitians had worked, saved, and sacrificed to raise the money necessary to finance a trip to the Hawaii Temple. It had taken much work to bring the Paraita (literally the Big Chief), the mission yacht, into dry dock, to repair it, and to repaint it. Then there had been the problems with the French government. The officials had argued against the proposed boat trip to Hawaii. They questioned why the Mormons didn’t want to head southwest to New Zealand to attend the temple there. “You like the Americans,” they taunted. “That is the only reason why you want to go to Honolulu.” Raituia T. Tapu (the skipper of the mission yacht and later the first stake president of the Tahiti Stake) had difficulty convincing the French officials that the trip north over the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii would be safer than the trip across wide expanses of open water to New Zealand because of the many islands that could be used as shelter in case of storms. When Brother Tapu insisted, “I will have 30 passengers with me, and I won’t take them to New Zealand and face the weather that way,” he convinced the harbor master and the two of them convinced the French governor that the Saints on the Paraita should be allowed to sail to Hawaii.
Brother Tapu not only obtained permission from the French officials, but he also wrote to Salt Lake City to get permission from President David O. McKay. That permission had been granted and everything was ready.
Then a fateful call came from the mission office. Everyone anticipating the voyage was to gather for a meeting at the mission home before the departure.
The president of the French Polynesian Mission, Ellis V. Christiansen, was nervous about the forthcoming meeting. True, permission to take a group of Saints to the temple in Hawaii had been granted by President McKay, but that day a special messenger, Ernest C. Rossiter, a former president of the French Polynesian Mission, had arrived direct from President McKay in Salt Lake City. The news he brought was stunning. The Saints had been asked not to make their long-sought voyage. According to Brother Tapu, President McKay gave no explanation. He merely asked Brother Rossiter to “go and stop them. They won’t make it, and if we allow them to come, we’ll be in trouble with the [French] government. We’ll be responsible for them. So you go and stop them.”
In the mission diary, President Christiansen wrote expressing his anxiety about telling the Saints who were ready to embark:
“I was much concerned and felt I needed the Lord’s help to assist me in giving an explanation to these humble, faithful members, who had such high hopes of receiving their endowments in His Holy House. I fasted and prayed about it. I called a meeting of the priesthood members for July 15, 1959, at 8:00 o’clock, and also asked six of the faithful brethren to come to my room at 7:30, and with the help of President Rossiter we told them of the decision that had come from the First Presidency, and told them that we desired their faith and prayers in presenting the message to the members of the priesthood who would assemble at 8:00 o’clock. After President Rossiter and I had finished talking to these men, they in turn spoke briefly their thoughts, and as I listened a great joy swelled inside me as they told their desire to obey the counsel of our prophet here upon the earth.
“We went to the meeting with the priesthood members. After hearing the message from the First Presidency, [they] expressed their convictions that if this word had come from the leaders of the Church then it must have come through the inspiration of the Lord, and the only way to show their love and appreciation for the blessings He had given them was to be obedient to the counsel given. I then called for a vote, and all hands were raised accepting the decision of the First Presidency.”
So the voyage was cancelled, and neither President Rossiter, nor President Christiansen, nor the faithful Tahitian Saints really knew why the prophet of God had told them not to go. They cancelled the voyage because they had faith in the prophet.
Later, Brother Tapu, the skipper, returned to his boat where a mechanic told him that a small gear was damaged and would only provide 100 to 150 more hours of service. This fact notwithstanding, the boat was launched and anchored. Then, according to the skipper, Brother Tapu, “I layed off everybody except my first mate. I left him on board and told him to keep an eye on the boat and to repair the sail.
“Well, a couple of days later I got a call. I was over here at the mission office working on our local Church magazine. The call was from the harbor master. He said, ‘Hey, your boat’s sinking.’ And I said, ‘What, I just got it out from dry dock!’ He still said, ‘Your boat is sinking. Hurry!’ So I rushed to the harbor and the boat was halfway down. My first mate was underneath the boat checking what was going on. He found that the exhaust pipe from the kitchen was rotten. The repairmen had painted over some very rotten wood and rusty pipe. It had broken and the water went in.
“So what would you say if we were two or three hundred miles away on a lifeboat? If we had sailed according to schedule, we would have been that far on our way when the rotten pipe and wood gave out.”
At the time when the Saints in Tahiti had accepted the counsel of the prophet, they could not understand President McKay’s reason for concern. But now they understood the ways of God. Brother Tapu expressed this knowledge when he said, “That’s why I always had a testimony of President McKay, a true prophet of the Lord.”
This story is well known among the Saints and missionaries in the Tahiti Papeete Mission. Some misconceptions have grown concerning this incident. One is that President McKay told the mission president to sell the boat at the same time the warning was given, and this being done, the boat soon sank. According to Brother Tapu, this is not true. The Church actually bought a new engine fairly soon after this event and kept the boat for about three years. Then the ship was sold and used for about two more years. At that point the government inspectors declared it unsafe for further use. It was then sailed to the other side of the island from Papeete where it rotted and finally sank. It died a very natural death.