For half a circumnavigation, Max Campbell was chasing his Pacific dream. And now French Polynesia is everything he hoped it would be
Beside the quiet, sun-bleached Mexican town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle lies a busy anchorage on the north side of Bahía de Banderas. Humpback whales cruise nonchalantly through the bay, unconcerned about the nearby boats. The combination of good shelter, cheap restaurants, and marine stores has led to a large community of cruising sailors.
Throughout March and April, the eager group of ‘puddle jumpers’ gather in the town’s sail loft. Amid dusty spinnakers and used paper charts, they chat about weather windows. Over beers and tacos they share knowledge about the 2,800-mile passage from Mexico to French Polynesia.
The crossing is similar to a transatlantic in distance, but without the three-week promise of tradewinds. We’re taught the right approach: wait for a low to push a few days of consistent northerlies down the west coast of North America. This allows a yacht to sail away from the usually benign Mexican coastline. A little over 500 miles offshore lies the island of Clarion, where we’ll find the north-east tradewinds.
From Clarion, it’s all downhill to the equator and the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Here, we can expect a few hundred miles of light, variable winds. Finally, we’ll pick up the south-east trades before making landfall in the Marquesas.
In the second week of April, we leave Puerto Vallarta on a close reach, slicing through the brisk downflow from California and the Sea of Cortez. On board, I have two friends, Alex Thompson and Chloë Peglau. With two reefs in the main, we follow our instructions and cut our way through the short, steep sea towards Isla Clarion.
During the moonless nights, Elixir’s bow pierces through jet-black waves. The inky water cascades over everything, igniting the phosphorescent plankton and peppering the deck with bright-green sparkles.
For two days, solid water flows over the deck like a river. It surges past the cockpit coamings before pooling around the scuppers on the leeward guardrail. Small flying fish and squid land on the deck gasping. The lucky ones wash overboard with the next foaming crest, while the rest remain to be peeled from the deck.
Despite the wet conditions, a boobie manages to land on the pulpit, where it stays most of the night. Occasional squawks reach us from the bow. I can make out its round form clinging to the rail as the bow plunges into the grey sea.
Each day we crack the sheets a little more. We pass the island of Clarion and, for the first time, the wind falls behind the beam. For the next few days, the wind remains between 10-15 knots. We set Elixir’s stripy symmetrical spinnaker, and sit beneath our improvised bimini staring up at the bulging sail. The brilliance of the shimmering sea around us is almost too much.
Occasionally, the blue sky is broken by light, fluffy clouds, and there’s no doubt that we’ve reached the tradewinds. After catching a yellowfin tuna, we establish a routine of three-hour watches, reading, and creating meals from our dwindling provisions.
Settling into a routine
On night watch, we sit beneath a gleaming haul of stars. I’ve forgotten the sense of connectedness that comes with offshore passages. Away from the artificial distractions of modern life, the rhythmic passing of days at sea allows a deep part of human nature to come forward. The perfect silence allows for deep thought and long conversations.
We discuss our dreams, secrets and silly stories. They all seemed as if they have leaked from some abstract world, and our lives on land feel very far away.
After a succession of peaceful days, running with the spinnaker and relishing the light tradewinds, a cluster of grey clouds appears on the horizon. Then the first rain we’ve had since the end of the wet season in Mexico over six months ago.
We’re nearing the convergence zone, and expect the tradewinds to dwindle. We manage to drop the spinnaker and reef the main before the first coarse gusts come whistling over the sea surface. The torrential rain washes away our leisurely morning and, as the wind continues to build, we decide to drop the main.
An hour later a steep sea has built up and everything is shrieking. One particularly violent wave throws Elixir onto her beam, damaging the wind vane. We’re forced to hand steer until conditions calm enough for us to repair it.
The blow lasts for a few hours, but by sunset we’re back to full sail and a lumpy sea. We creep within a few hundred miles of the equator. We must be in the convergence zone now, surely?
Instead of glassy seas, a steady wind fills in from the east. For a few days, we tear south beneath a clear sky. The doldrums are non-existent and we feel like the luckiest sailors in the world. We fly across the equator with one reef in the main. Dressed up and listening to dance music, we offer up a collection of gifts to Neptune and fling them over the guardrail. Elixir is in her element, and it seems as if she’s as excited about the southern hemisphere as we are.
Polaris disappears into the horizon behind us, and I wonder when I’ll see it next. The Southern Cross rises ahead of us. We are in a whole new hemisphere.
With 1,000 miles to go, an obnoxious cloud puts a gloomy end to our streak of sunshine. A succession of squalls lasts for four days. Each grey cloud brings bouts of wind, rain and lightning. Sometimes the suffocating rainfall lasts for hours.
Maintaining a conversation in Elixir’s exposed cockpit is a struggle. After the torrent ceases, we wipe a veneer of mould from inside the cabin and seize the chance to air out our wet weather gear.
In that final week, we follow a ruler-straight line across the chart, under a constant, steady tradewind. After 23 days we spot Fatu Hiva. The distant island is delicately etched into the seascape. The endless run of empty horizons has finally broken. We spend the morning fixated on the foreign land, emerging from the haze.
On the untamed windward shore, impossible volcanic formations stand defiantly against the prevailing winds. How can this alluring place exist in the middle of the Pacific? The island reaches into the sky, crowned by a collection of clouds that obscure its highest peaks.
As we round the northern tip, floral-scented gusts come down from the dense, forested hills. On the leeward side, the steep cliffs fall into the ocean. We switch the engine on, and motor the final two miles through the wind shadow, before dropping the anchor in the Bay of Virgins. Finally, everything is silent.
The scenery is otherworldly. This is an unbelievable place to make landfall. We’re surrounded by giant palm trees and steep, volcanic pillars. It appears that the ground is so fertile that even the rock itself has started to grow. We’re elated to be here and, for a moment, all we can do is smile, dance and hug each other.
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The valley of Hanavave cuts a slit through the centre of the island and ends in a small bay, providing a tight anchorage for a handful of yachts. We step ashore, awestruck by the beauty of everything. A friendly local at the dock invites us back to his house and gives us as much fresh fruit as we can carry. Others do the same and, within a few days, we have more bananas, oranges, limes and grapefruit than we know what to do with.
There’s a distinct Polynesian flavour to everything around us. After 23 days of salty air, we fill our lungs with the floral aroma of land. Manta rays, sharks, and dolphins pass through the anchorage. They seem unfazed by the fleet of foreign yachts and their noisy little tenders.
We sail on from Fatu Hiva to Hiva Oa, Tahuata and then Nuku Hiva. Each island is as spectacular as the next. We cruise past impossible rock formations rising above lush hills, never losing the scent of the iconic tiaré flower.
Each day we learn more about the fascinating Marquesan culture. Polynesia has a strong history of voyaging and navigation. The first inhabitants of these islands arrived on voyaging canoes, using purely empirical navigation techniques. I’m in awe of them.
I’ve often felt uneasy, as a European, arriving in remote exotic places on a yacht. Yet the Marquesans are some of the most welcoming people we’ve met. It seems everyone has a complex, geometric tattoo, often covering their whole body. Each tattoo is unique, incorporating a variety of patterns that are symbolic of aspects of Marquesan life.
We visit a site of ancient stone tikis. These mythical figures of Polynesian culture represent a half-human, half-god entity and are believed to be the creators of human beings. The stocky statues appear everywhere. The enlarged heads, bulging eyes and expressive faces of the tikis appear to always be watching.
When checking into French Polynesia, we receive a 90-day visa. Our aim is to spend a month in the Marquesas, a month in the Tuamotus and a month in the Society Islands. French Polynesia consists of more than 100 islands and atolls, spread out over an area approximately the size of Europe. As a result, overnight and multi-day passages have become the norm.
With barely a taste of the richness and enchantment of the Marquesas, we reluctantly lifted the anchor and set off on the 450-mile passage to the Tuamotus.
Among the atolls
Unlike the steep, volcanic islands of the Marquesas, the Tuamotus are a chain of atolls. The largest stretch up to 30 miles, a fragile ring of coral and sand that protects a turquoise lagoon from the Pacific swell. Some atolls are completely closed off to the surrounding ocean. Others have one or more navigable passes, allowing sailing yachts to enter the sheltered lagoons.
Although we relish the shelter of the atolls, navigating through the islands proves more complex than expected. Often, the entire atoll empties through a single small channel. Despite having a tidal range of less than a metre, the tidal flows regularly exceed six knots in the passes. This flow accelerates with a large swell, as even more water is pushed inside the lagoon by the breakers.
Once inside the atoll, navigation requires careful weaving through uncharted coral heads or bombies. We discover the best way to navigate is with the sun overhead, and a crewmate sat on the spreaders. Thankfully, the shimmering yellow patches of coral make a distinct contrast to the deep blue inside the atoll, and we arrive safely at our first anchorage.
The land hardly rises above sea level and is decorated with a thin line of coconut palms. While at anchor, we feel every gust of wind that comes in from the Pacific. The sandy bottom is punctuated with an assortment of coral heads. After even the slightest shift of wind, we swim down to find the anchor chain has made a round turn and two half hitches around the nearest bombie.
To overcome this problem, cruisers tie fenders at intervals along their anchor chain. These floats hold the chain off the seabed, allowing the yacht to swing free of the coral heads and, as long as the wind stays light, it’s surprisingly effective.
Below the surface
A greedy low pressure rolls by to the south of us, consuming all the wind within a thousand miles. As a result, conditions become glassy for a few days.
I’ve never seen water so clear. It feels as if we are somehow levitating above the seabed. Below us, a diverse assortment of reef fish go about their daily business. Reef sharks circle Elixir, and it takes a moment for me to push past my fear of sharks and feel comfortable in the water. In the Marquesas, the islands’ beauty is to be found in the landscapes. In the Tuamotus, it’s underwater.
While anchored in our third atoll of the island chain, the wind strengthens and swings around to the north. As a result, a choppy sea builds up over the 30 miles of fetch. We struggle to free up the anchor chain as the pesky little waves cause chaos within the anchorage. In the Tuamotus, we felt like we had found the perfect Pacific anchorage 10 times over. Yet with almost no protection from the wind, faith in our ground tackle has been essential.
After a two-day passage from the Tuamotus, we arrive in Tahiti, the biggest island in French Polynesia and the beginning of the Society Islands. The morphology of these islands is a combination of both the Marquesas and the Tuamotus, with both striking volcanic scenery and a barrier reef.
We anchor inside the lagoon, close to the capital of Papeete. We’re in civilisation after three months of ocean passages and remote, tropical islands. We celebrate our arrival with an espresso, a frozen yoghurt and a haircut, before moving to the neighbouring island of Moorea.
We sail to the northern side of the island where two deep bays lie side by side. The steep sides offer protection from almost every wind angle. Several scenic hikes weave between dramatic hills and pineapple fields. Moorea offers a compromise between the busyness and amenities of Tahiti and the remote beauty of the outer islands.
As well as the dwindling days on our visa, the looming cyclone season encourages us to look west towards the Cook Islands, Tonga and New Zealand. Three months has given us a taste of cruising in French Polynesia. It’s easy to see how some boats spend years here.
Its location, in the middle of the world’s biggest ocean, has a big part to play in its unique cultural identity, marine ecosystems and powerful landscapes.
Like many sailors, my bucket list has always had French Polynesia on it. It’s a revered destination, yet you don’t have to sail far from the well-trodden path to find an empty anchorage. After almost half a circumnavigation I’ve found my Pacific dream in French Polynesia and, as our time comes to an end, a big part of me wants to stay.
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