Immense and diverse, the expanse of the Pacific offers some of the finest tradewinds cruising you’ll ever experience and a wealth of friendly cultures. Dan Bower explains how to prepare and where to sail
Highlights of the Pacific crossing are Suwarrow, a delightful stop and a part of the larger chain of Cook Islands. Tonga, meanwhile, offers wonderful short-hop cruising. You cross the International Date Line on the approach so you’ll lose a day. Tonga is made up of three island groups, and the northern one, Vava’u, has protected waterways with lots of safe and straightforward anchorages, unspoilt bays and friendly locals. If you’re there at the right time you can even snorkel with the whales and their calves.
Fiji is a huge cruising area and you could happily spend a whole season here and not do it justice, but if you’re going to pass through quickly, be sure to research what you are looking to do or you’ll barely scratch the surface of these amazing islands.
You can experience the flavour of India in bustling towns, head off to deserted bays and beaches or visit the Fijian villages and take part in kava sessions with the local chief. You can visit 5-star resorts and go diving everyday, surf world famous breaks, kite surf or escape into the mountains. It is also a good place to get work done and it’s a popular place to hole up or haul out for the cyclone season, with good links to the outside world.
Vanuatu, with its amazing volcanoes and local people and customs, so far removed from our society, makes an interesting stopover. Make sure you leave plenty of time for exploring all the islands – the volcano on Ambrym is the best. It’s an incredible feeling looking deep into the earth seeing a boiling cauldron of lava; we felt like we were looking into hell itself. Be sure to get to know the locals and visit some festivals and feasts – you’ll be made most welcome and it will be an eye-opening experience. Vanuatu is reputably the happiest country on earth and, to be sure, everyone greets you with a smile.
Whether your onward destination is Asia, Australia or New Zealand it is hard to leave the Pacific behind, and for us nowhere else beats it for easy pleasant sailing, lovely people and the best underwater scenery.
Preparations and practicalities
The big challenge of sailing in the Pacific is the remoteness, the distance from chandleries, supplies and expertise. If money is no object you can fly in pretty much anything and anyone, but for most people this is cost-prohibitive and realistically you can only expect to make repairs in Tahiti and Fiji.
The bigger issue is lost cruising time while repairs are made. Whether you’re on a rally or sailing independently you’ll likely have a schedule to keep. All this means boat preparation is key and you should replace anything suspect before you head off.
Consider that living systems are likely to see more use than usual, so take spares of water pumps, toilets and filters. Even new systems can fail so try to identify single point failures and build in redundancy for essential systems, for example, charging, refrigeration and watermaker.
Small marine generators are notoriously unreliable, so reduce your reliance with other means of charging. On passage we found the hydrogenerator to be invaluable. We also changed our 110V watermaker to a 12V one, meaning any excess power can be turned to water and we are not reliant on a generator.
Try to be as self-sufficient as possible, take time to understand your boat and systems and overhaul anything suspect. Carry a wide range of essential spares and materials for simple rigging repairs like rivets and thread repair.
Investing in new rigging gives for peace of mind, and it’s likely to be cheaper to replace everything at home rather than fix a few small issues on the way. Riggers advise that wire stays should be replaced at 35,000 miles – which is a circumnavigation – so if you’re going onwards round the world you probably need to do it at some point and that may as well be at home.
For sails, buy super-basic Dacron before you leave, as the UV and ocean sailing will kill anything exotic quickly.
Prepare for a huge amount of downwind sailing. Pad spreaders and have patches on sails and batten pockets to reduce wear. Pole fittings, gooseneck and vang attachments take quite a bit of punishment and can really slow you down if they break so consider upgrading any parts before you leave and keep the old as spares.
Communications become tricky as you’re often far away from wifi and phone signal for long periods of time. Your onboard comms can become the main system for staying in touch and receiving weather. Buying big bundles of satphone minutes works out cheaper.
SSB is good to have: you don’t have to be part of a rally to join in on cruiser nets to chat about weather, things to do or for advice. Local SIM cards for data are available in most places. Connections are not always great, but good enough for basic use.
You’re likely to spend around four months without seeing a shop bigger than your average newsagents, except in Tahiti which is madly expensive. It’s not often that you plan to spend so long away from a supermarket and since your comfort and contentment depends on the quality and variety of food that you eat, it pays to plan and provision in advance.
We were often surprised how little research cruisers had done on their next destination. If you have a time constraint, having a plan before you arrive will give you more time to get out and explore. Buy your guidebooks and pilot books to read in advance – other great books for an overview are Paddling the Pacific (Paul Theroux), Getting Stoned with Savages (J. Maarten Troost) and An Island to Oneself (Tom Neale).
Other cruisers’ blogs are a great source of information and there are compendiums available online written by other cruisers giving masses of practical information from local advice, to tours, restaurants and anchorages. Governments and yachting groups in French Polynesia, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu produce their own free cruising guides, which are well worth downloading. Pilot books for the Pacific tend to be somewhat out of date.
While in Fiji and Tonga, we became great fans of using satellite imagery to create charts. This proved to be essential in many places and generally just useful everywhere else. Some chart packages have a satellite overlay – ut usually just for the land – so it’s worth becoming familiar with how to make your own, or download them from cruisers’ networks.
Oh yes, and learn French.
About the author
Dan and Em Bower run Skyelark, an S&S-designed Skye 51 taking 12 guests. They are regulars on the ARC transatlantic rally, have taken part in the World ARC and cruised tens of thousands of miles while sailing across the Pacific. They wrote and presented our Bluewater Sailing Series, which gives hints and tips on ocean sailing, from downwind sails to fishing on board.