CROSS­ING THE BIG BLUE

HEAR THE CALL OF THE EX­OTIC SOUTH SEAS? WITH A LIT­TLE PLAN­NING AND TIMELY ROUT­ING, YOUR VOY­AGE ACROSS THE VAST PA­CIFIC OCEAN CAN BE PURE MAGIC.

Cruising World - - Contents - by AL­VAH SI­MON

Use the sea­sons, wind and cur­rent to your ad­van­tage when sailing the vast wa­ters of the Pa­cific Ocean. By Al­vah Si­mon

THE DEF­I­NI­TIONS AND DELINEATIONS OF A SEA VER­SUS AN OCEAN ARE COM­PLEX, CON­TESTED AND BEST LEFT TO THE LEARNED GEOGRAPHERS TO DE­BATE. FROM A SAILOR’S POINT OF VIEW, EX­CLUD­ING LAND­LOCKED BOD­IES OF WA­TER, THE REST OF THE BRINE IS A CON­TIGU­OUS PATH TO GLO­RI­OUS GLOBAL AD­VEN­TURE. HAV­ING SAID THAT, WE DO HAVE OUR FA­VORITES. WHILE THE DREAD­FUL GRIND OF THE ICE PACK IN THE FAR NORTH AND THE TOW­ER­ING GRAYBEARDS OF THE SOUTH­ERN OCEAN HAVE THEIR DEVO­TEES, MOST SAILING FAN­TASIES TURN TO­WARD THE SE­DUC­TIVE STRUM OF THE UKULELE, THE SWAY­ING PALMS AND THE WHITE-SAND BEACHES OF THE EX­OTIC SOUTH PA­CIFIC.

Fer­di­nand Mag­el­lan may have been a bit op­ti­mistic when he named a body of wa­ter that en­com­passes nearly one-third of Earth Mar Paci­fico (peace­ful ocean), for, like all oceans, it de­pends. The very size of the Pa­cific presents unique chal­lenges, but so too do its strong cur­rents, pow­er­ful storms, haz­ardous coral out­crops and re­mote low-ly­ing is­lands.

VOY­AGE PLAN­NING

A suc­cess­ful Pa­cific pas­sage will rely on metic­u­lous plan­ning, based on cur­rent in­for­ma­tion tem­pered with flex­i­bil­ity, be­cause, by na­ture, cruis­ing has it va­garies. But be­fore one gets into the minu­tia of de­tails, they should first step back and con­sider the bigger pic­ture.

Is the ves­sel truly stem-to-stern, keelto-mast­head ready? Re­mem­ber, a day’s work at the dock is worth a week’s un­der way. Is the dream and de­ter­mi­na­tion shared equally, or will the plan un­ravel with the first gale? Does a west­ward pas­sage com­mit one to a cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, or are there strate­gic exit points? Does the voy­age rely on a fi­nan­cial struc­ture sub­ject to change? Are you most com­fort­able as part of a rally, with a “buddy boat” or as a lone wolf?

Next is the pa­per chase. Gone are the whim­si­cal days of let­ting the winds blow An­chor lights are just com­ing on dur­ing a glassy calm evening in Mus­ket Cove, Malolo Is­land, in Fiji’s lee­ward Ma­manuca Is­lands. you where they may. The mod­ern cruiser must be pre­pared in ad­vance to face a host of le­gal re­quire­ments. First, en­sure that ev­ery crewmem­ber’s pass­port is as cur­rent as pos­si­ble. Many coun­tries will not is­sue visas to pass­ports within six months of ex­piry. Next, list ev­ery coun­try that you may wish to stop in and those in pe­riph­eral wa­ters. Check the visa re­quire­ments care­fully be­cause the devil is in the de­tails, es­pe­cially if you have a multi­na­tional crew. Many coun­tries re­quire no visas if your stay is rel­a­tively short, or is­sue visas upon ar­rival. But some, such as Aus­tralia, will hit you with a hefty fine for show­ing up with­out one. Al­beit in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive, cruis­ing per­mits are nor­mally ob­tain­able upon ar­rival, but check the cruis­ing web­sites and fo­rums for cur­rent and ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion. Make very high-res­o­lu­tion pho­to­copies of your pass­ports and ship’s pa­pers. Bu­reau­crats love the pomp and splen­dor of shiny pa­per, and your precious original boat doc­u­ments can stay safely on the ves­sel. If de­part­ing di­rectly from U.S. wa­ters, be aware that U.S. Cus­toms does not nor­mally is­sue a zarpe, or out­bound clearance pa­pers, yet these are re­quired for en­try into nearly any other na­tion. Down­load CBP Form 1300 and in­sist on a gov­ern­ment stamp, any stamp. Be sure to have clear doc­tors’ pre­scrip­tions for ev­ery drug in the ship’s med­i­cal kit. What might be an over-the-counter med­i­ca­tion in one coun­try can be highly pro­hib­ited in an­other. In­creas­ingly, for­eign mari­nas de­mand third-party li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance. If you hope to fur­ther in­sure for dam­age and loss, check care­fully the caveats re­lat­ing to sea­sons and ar­eas. If you plan to rent cars for tour­ing, it is best to ob­tain an in­ter­na­tional driver’s li­cense be­fore de­par­ture.

Fa­mil­iar­ize your­self with the ba­sic el­e­ments that will shape your course and sched­ule — the di­rec­tion and tim­ing of the pre­vail­ing winds, sig­nif­i­cant cur­rents, cy­clone sea­sons, the po­si­tion­ing of the in­tertrop­i­cal con­ver­gence zone and the South Pa­cific con­ver­gence zone. As­cer­tain if the year of pas­sage has been deemed an El Niño or La Niña year be­cause these phe­nom­ena can af­fect the above.

West Coast sailors may de­part from as far north as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near Seat­tle, or dally south to Cabo San Lu­cas, Mex­ico, while await­ing the pas­sage sea­son. For Euro­pean and East Coast sailors, the Pa­cific launch­ing point is ob­vi­ously the Panama Canal. The de­tails of a canal tran­sit are com­plex enough to war­rant an ar­ti­cle of their own, but rel­e­vant here is do not as­sume a quick pas­sage, be­cause dur­ing peak pe­ri­ods there can be sev­eral weeks of de­lay. Also, build in time to en­joy both the San Blas Is­lands, on the At­lantic side, and the Las Per­las Is­lands, on the Pa­cific side.

COURSE CHOICES

Al­though the of­fi­cial win­dow for de­par­tures from Panama ex­tends from Fe­bru­ary all the way to June, the trade winds tend to sta­bi­lize and strengthen as the year pro­gresses. How­ever, an early exit

has many ad­van­tages. Leav­ing it un­til June al­lows only six months to tran­sit up to 9,000 nau­ti­cal miles be­fore be­ing forced to exit the cy­clone belt at the west­ern edge of the Pa­cific. This trun­cates the time to linger in fa­vorite an­chor­ages or tend to in­evitable break­downs and de­lays. Leav­ing as early as late Jan­uary might tech­ni­cally put one out into the Pa­cific dur­ing the of­fi­cial cy­clone sea­son, but the sta­tis­ti­cal chances of a storm de­vel­op­ing this far to the east are slim.

There are count­less per­mu­ta­tions of a west­ward pas­sage, but the path dubbed the “Milk Run” is the most pop­u­lar. Re­gard­less of one’s plan for the west­ern Pa­cific, this route passes by or through the Galá­pa­gos Is­lands, the Mar­que­sas, Tuamo­tus and So­ci­ety Is­lands (Tahiti).

The ini­tial stage presents a chal­lenge be­cause the winds can be light and the cur­rents con­trary in the Gulf of Panama. It’s ad­vis­able to head slightly east of south when head­ing out of the Gulf; the west­ern promon­tory is aptly named Punta Mala (Bad Point) due to its pen­chant for con­fused cur­rents and squally weather.

Once well clear of the Gulf of Panama, fash­ion a south­west­ward course with a pro­nounced south­ern belly to­ward the Galá­pa­gos group. I once sailed a direct course for the Mar­que­sas Is­lands that passed over the north­ern edge of the Galá­pa­gos. I paid for this fool­ish­ness by spin­ning in lazy cir­cles for five ex­cru­ci­at­ingly long days. Given the early time of the year, I would have been better served by pass­ing sev­eral de­grees south of the is­land group. Be­cause the in­tertrop­i­cal con­ver­gence zone (better known as the dol­drums) is widest in the east­ern Pa­cific, it is best crossed at the least oblique an­gle rea­son­able.

On an­other Pa­cific pas­sage, I chose to head south for Bahia de Caraquez in Ecuador. Not only was the cruise down the Ecuado­rian coast fas­ci­nat­ing, the pas­sage to the Galá­pa­gos from Sali­nas pro­vided stead­ier winds than had we de­parted di­rectly from the canal.

The cost and con­di­tions of a stay in the Galá­pa­gos are for­ever chang­ing. As an ad­mit­tedly stub­born form of protest, I sailed right by them on two dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions. On the third, my wife, Diana, put her sea boots down and de­manded we stop. Even with a lim­ited stay and re­stricted ac­cess, we were treated to one of Earth’s most unique and fas­ci­nat­ing nat­u­ral habi­tats.

The 3,000-mile pas­sage from the Galá­pa­gos to the Mar­que­sas will prob­a­bly be the long­est of your sailing ca­reer. If you can fo­cus on the jour­ney in­stead of the des­ti­na­tion, it might also be the most mem­o­rable. Many mod­ern sailors tend to fill the Pa­cific void with a fre­netic sched­ule of ra­dio nets, emails and ob­ses­sive nav­i­ga­tional up­dates. Oth­ers soak up the rare op­por­tu­nity to com­mune deeply with na­ture, and ex­pe­ri­ence a rare soli­tude and reaf­firm­ing self-re­liance, which I be­lieve to be the core virtues of blue­wa­ter sailing.

Coun­ter­in­tu­itive to the land­lub­ber but ax­iomatic to any old salt is that the rhumb line is of­ten not the quick­est route to a de­sired des­ti­na­tion. Fa­vor­able winds mean speed, and the ex­tra dis­tance in search of them is usu­ally well re­warded. When tran­sit­ing from the Galá­pa­gos to the Mar­que­sas, by first head­ing south-south­west down to 3 to 4 de­grees south lat­i­tude, one should reach the up­per lim­its of the south­east trade winds, al­beit pos­si­bly spo­radic at this point. But as you pro­ceed west-south­west to­ward 6 de­grees south lat­i­tude and 100 de­grees west lon­gi­tude, they should in­crease in both strength and con­sis­tency. As you straighten course to­ward your cho­sen port of en­try in the Mar­que­sas, you should be­gin ex­pe­ri­enc­ing your best noon-to-noon runs be­cause you will still have a southerly com­po­nent in the trades. This puts you on a broad reach, a point of sail most boats ex­cel in. The far­ther west one heads, the more east­erly the trades be­come un­til you are even­tu­ally run­ning dead down­wind. This tends to be a touch slower, with ex­ac­er­bated rolling. Be sure to carry light-wind sails for the early por­tions of this jour­ney, and equip­ment and sails suit­able for down­wind sit­u­a­tions. That for­tu­nate dis­crep­ancy you will no­tice be­tween your speed on the log (i.e., through the wa­ter) ver­sus the GPS speed (over the bot­tom) is com­pli­ments of the South Equa­to­rial Cur­rent, which for­ti­fies with the stead­ier trades.

There is only one shoal area along the route, which is well-charted (8 de­grees 5 min­utes N and 139 de­grees 35 min­utes W), and the is­lands are high and eas­ily sighted from afar. En­trances to the main ports are open and well-marked, thus safely ap­proached, a bless­ing for a fa­tigued crew. What the Mar­que­sas Is­lands might lack in terms of white-sand beaches and aqua la­goons is more than made up for with a ge­og­ra­phy so dra­matic as to be some­what fore­bod­ing — tow­er­ing rock spires, dense jun­gle and pre­cip­i­tous wa­ter­falls. These is­lands have been pro­tected from ram­pant de­vel­op­ment by a crush­ing re­mote­ness and there­fore ar­guably re­main the cul­tural heart of Poly­ne­sia.

Pas­sages be­tween the is­lands are mostly clear and well-charted, but po­ten­tially windy. The an­chor­ages tend to be open road­steads, so anti-roll tac­tics and equip­ment come in handy. Yachts can clear in at Hiva Oa, Ua Pou or Nuku Hiva. Those first stop­ping in Fatu Hiva have met with mixed re­sults, rang­ing from spot fines to of­fi­cial clearance. Yachts are no longer re­quired to rush to Tahiti to ex­tend their ini­tial 30-day The weather pat­terns of the Pa­cific (op­po­site, top) dic­tate the com­mon cross­ing routes (op­po­site, bot­tom). On from Tahiti, sailors have many choices when de­cid­ing where to go next.

visa. Thus, with 90 days in pocket, you can di­vide your time be­tween the Mar­que­sas, Tuamo­tus and So­ci­eties more evenly than in years past.

En­com­pass­ing an area larger than West­ern Europe, the Tuamo­tus are the long­est chain of atolls in the world. His­tor­i­cally, they were known as the “dan­ger­ous ar­chi­pel­ago,” and right­fully so due to a baf­fling maze of poorly charted reefs, low-ly­ing is­lands and di­a­bol­i­cally un­pre­dictable cur­rents. Even with the best of mod­ern nav­i­ga­tional equip­ment and weather fore­cast­ing, they de­mand the mariner’s ab­so­lute vig­i­lance re­gard­ing watch­keep­ing, en­try and exit from atoll passes, and an­chor­ing tech­niques.

Those in a hurry to reach Tahiti tend to pass through the wider chan­nels at the north­ern end of the chain, per­haps vis­it­ing Ahe, Manihi and the main cen­ter of Ran­giroa. Oth­ers, with more time, make land­fall far to the south and make their way up the chain via Makemo and the beau­ti­ful Fakar­ava La­goon, en­joy­ing a better an­gle off the wind on the short sail to Tahiti.

The So­ci­ety Is­lands are di­vided into two groups: the Wind­wards, in­clud­ing Tahiti and Moorea, and the Lee­wards, with Huahine, Ra­iatea, Taha’a and, per­haps the most beau­ti­ful of them all, Bora Bora. They are all lush, high and ringed by azure seas. If early in the sea­son, all are worth vis­it­ing. If time is short, be sure to at least at­tend the amaz­ing group-dance com­pe­ti­tions held in the buzzing cap­i­tal of Papeete, cel­e­brat­ing Bastille Day on July 14.

NORTH OR SOUTH?

In Tahiti, the Milk Run di­vides into myr­iad pos­si­bil­i­ties. There is the north­ern route, for those plan­ning to cross through the Tor­res Strait or into the North­ern Hemi­sphere for the com­ing cy­clone sea­son, and the south­ern route, for those drop­ping south of the dan­ger into New Zealand.

Al­though the ma­jor­ity of the South Pa­cific is­lands would re­main un­ex­plored, Tahiti is the ear­li­est cutout for those need­ing to re­turn to North Amer­ica be­cause its east­erly lo­ca­tion al­lows for a vi­able star­board tack through the south­east and north­east trades to Hawaii. The long but log­i­cal route from there is wheel­ing over the top of the North Pa­cific sum­mer high and back south into U.S. West Coast wa­ters.

While the land mass of the Cook Is­lands is a mere 100 square miles, its eco­nomic ex­clu­sion zone cov­ers nearly 700,000 square miles of Pa­cific Ocean. One can only hope to draw a thin line through this scat­tered na­tion. For those on the south­ern route, the four- to five-day pas­sage to Ai­tu­taki or Raro­tonga of­fers a pre­dictable beam-to-broad reach right on the rhumb line.

En route to Niue lies one of two op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­pe­ri­ence the eeri­ness of an­chor­ing in the mid­dle of a fea­ture­less ocean (the other be­ing the Min­erva Reefs be­tween Tonga and New Zealand). Bev­eridge Reef is a sunken atoll with not a sker­rick of land awash at low tide, yet it of­fers an­chorable depths within.

Niue is a raised coral atoll and ge­o­graph­i­cally rare in the South Pa­cific. As an­chor­ing depths are pro­hib­i­tive, deep moor­ings are avail­able. Keep in mind that it is an open road­stead vul­ner­a­ble to dan­ger­ous swells. If the wind even hints at go­ing west, as it oc­ca­sion­ally does, get out im­me­di­ately.

To break up the 1,200-nau­ti­cal-mile haul to Amer­i­can Samoa from the So­ci­ety Is­lands, the north­ern fleet usu­ally takes a break in the re­mote and un­in­hab­ited atoll of Suwar­row, also known as Su­vorov. The pass is chal­leng­ing, as is the an­chor­ing. But those who dare will be treated to one of the wildest places left on this planet.

From this point west, both the north­ern and south­ern fleet en­ter into the South Pa­cific con­ver­gence zone, a dan­gling arm of the in­tertrop­i­cal con­ver­gence zone that ex­tends from the Solomon Is­lands in an east-south­east di­rec­tion. The South Pa­cific con­ver­gence zone drifts with some sea­sonal pre­dictabil­ity (more to the north from De­cem­ber to May and the south from June to Novem­ber), but is also in­flu­enced by larger weather anom­alies. It tends to shift to the north­east in El Niño years and south­west in the La Niña phase. Gen­er­ally, it is an area of en­hanced con­vec­tion re­sult­ing in a frus­trat­ing mix of cloud cover, line squalls and calms.

The list of in­ter­est­ing stops from here west in­cludes Tonga, Wal­lis and Fu­tuna, Fiji, Van­u­atu, New Cale­do­nia, Tu­valu, Solomon Is­lands and Pa­pua New Guinea. Nev­er­the­less, those plan­ning to sail di­rectly through Tor­res Strait into the In­dian Ocean can­not af­ford to dally.

They should be through the Tor­res by late August or early Septem­ber in or­der to cross the en­tire In­dian Ocean into South Africa be­fore the cy­clone sea­son be­gins some­time in late Novem­ber. A pop­u­lar al­ter­na­tive is to pass south to a good cy­clone hole on the Aus­tralian coast, such as Cairns or Port Dou­glas, and back­track up to the Tor­res Strait at the be­gin­ning of the next safe sea­son.

Keep in mind that an east-to-west cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion does not de­mand a route through the Tor­res. I once cir­cum­nav­i­gated by pass­ing north of Pa­pua New Guinea, avoid­ing the South­ern Hemi­sphere cy­clone sea­son, tak­ing in Palau, the Philip­pines, and Bor­neo be­fore drop­ping back into the South­ern Hemi­sphere for the In­dian Ocean pas­sage to south­ern Africa. Any des­ti­na­tion north of 10 de­grees south lat­i­tude will keep you out of harm’s way, al­beit with­out the steady as­sist of those lovely trade winds.

Those on the south­ern route can linger through Tonga or Fiji un­til well into Novem­ber and still safely make New Zealand shores be­fore any trop­i­cal de­pres­sions threaten. Most cruis­ers head­ing for New Zealand do not ven­ture as far west as Van­u­atu or New Cale­do­nia on the as­sump­tion that they can eas­ily fetch them on their way north the fol­low­ing sea­son.

Unan­i­mous ac­claim for the beauty of the north­ern Ton­gan groups of Niua, Vava‘u and Ha‘apai makes some time here manda­tory, which harks back to my original ad­vice to head out of Panama as early as safely pos­si­ble. The south­ern con­tin­gent usu­ally drifts south to­ward Nuku‘alofa, the cap­i­tal, un­til it likes the long-range fore­cast for the pas­sage to New Zealand. Many plan to hole up in Min­erva Reef, get­ting a head start on the 1,100 miles to New Zealand, and de­part there with the ab­so­lute lat­est weather pre­dic­tions.

The rep­u­ta­tion of this leg has more bark than bite, but it can­not be de­nied that trop­i­cal weather events drift­ing down from the Coral Sea and cold fronts com­ing up from the South­ern Ocean have dra­matic po­ten­tial. One can ex­pect winds from nearly ev­ery di­rec­tion, start­ing with south­east trades on de­par­ture and po­ten­tially deep lows with strong south­west­er­lies shift­ing to north­west­er­lies when ap­proach­ing New Zealand. Thus, the usual ad­vice is to fall off the south­east trades and make some west­ing in an­tic­i­pa­tion of that south­west-to-north­west change. Not to be a con­trar­ian, but I have made this pas­sage more than a half-dozen times and be­lieve it is better to hold to the east as far as wind and waves al­low be­cause if that south­west change does not oc­cur, you might find your­self on the wrong side of North Cape, New Zealand, with con­trary winds and con­fused cur­rents. Al­though Nor­folk Is­land is not a fully pro­tected an­chor­age, many ves­sels that find them­selves west of the rhumb line with foul fore­casts to the south will shel­ter here un­til con­di­tions im­prove.

It’s pos­si­ble, al­beit te­dious, to re­turn to North Amer­ica from New Zealand. Ves­sels head out to the east from as far south as Tau­ranga hop­ing to catch the northerly lim­its of the west­er­lies un­til they fetch the lon­gi­tude of the Aus­tral Is­lands, then turn north for Tahiti. From there, they fol­low the route as pre­vi­ously de­scribed. From the out­set of their voy­age, some have planned to sell their yacht in New Zealand or Aus­tralia rather than carry on with a cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion or a very lengthy sail back to the United States, es­pe­cially if they are East Coast res­i­dents. Im­port du­ties, bro­ker­age costs and cur­rency ex­change rates must be fac­tored into this strat­egy. Is it heresy to sug­gest that an­other op­tion is to ship the ves­sel back home? The ini­tial es­ti­mates might seem stag­ger­ing, but once com­pared to the es­ca­lat­ing ma­rina and main­te­nance costs, and the many wind­ward months and miles home, the hor­ror sub­sides.

What­ever your plan from here, through a com­bi­na­tion of wind and will, you have done it. You, your crew and your splen­did craft have spanned the might­i­est body of wa­ter on Earth. You have im­mersed your­self in millions of square miles of salty soli­tude and sel­f­re­liance. You have ab­sorbed the ex­otic cul­tures of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans, Poly­ne­sians, Mi­crone­sians and Me­lane­sians. And now, as only a sea­soned mariner can, you truly un­der­stand why they call it the Big Blue.

Con­tribut­ing editor, Al­vah Si­mon, and his wife, Diana, are presently sailing New Zealand wa­ters on their cut­ter Roger Henry, with oc­ca­sional voy­ages to the South Pa­cific is­lands.

Diana Si­mon takes in the view from the bow of Roger Henry. With most an­chor­ages boast­ing clear turquoise wa­ter and gor­geous scenery, it’s no won­der a sail through the South Pa­cific is the stuff of cruis­ing dreams.

Even with all the mod­ern nav­i­ga­tional con­ve­niences, plot­ting a course through the Tuamo­tus re­quires ex­tra vig­i­lance and care. As you ap­proach the Mar­que­sas (be­low) and set­tle into the trade winds, you will need good down­wind sails and sys­tems for han­dling them.

The cul­tures through­out Poly­ne­sia have long been an al­lure to sailors, and many are re­luc­tant to leave at sea­son’s end.

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