Chris and Helen Tibbs sailed across the pacific as part of the World ARC and revelled in the cultural diversity, amazing wildlife and incredible generosity of the people
It’s big, the Pacific – very big. When we crossed from the Galapagos to the Marquesas Islands, we made a passage that is longer than a transatlantic, but ahead of us lay nearly 6,000 miles to Australia.
The immense distance brings with it much diversity – culturally and geographically – along the tradewinds route, from the towering peaks of the Marquesas to the lagoons and atolls of the Tuamotus.
The appearance of the islands depends on their geological age and the indigenous and migratory populations that inhabit them. The numerous languages reflect the colonisation of the islands by the Spanish of South America in the Galapagos, to the French then English as you head further west.
Pacific islanders speak a mixture of their local language as well as the official language. We found that helping others was part of the culture everywhere and that people were genuinely keen to communicate with us. It would be a mistake to group all the islands of the Pacific as they are so varied. On our adventure we got but a taste of this immense stretch of ocean.
Many cruisers will return year after year and still not claim to remotely know the Pacific. Rallies such as the World ARC can in reality only scratch the surface, but it suited us perfectly and the time we had available.
After a cruise around the Marquesas Islands we were off to the Tuamotus. The Marquesas are high and wet and some form of rainwater catchment linked to our sun awning would have filled our water tanks many times over.
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A watermaker certainly comes into its own and it saves the continual searching for potable water. Even where water is available, the quality can be suspect, and except for the rare occasion when we did fill our tanks at a marina, we were self-sufficient.
Having seen many plastic water bottles washed up on beaches or floating on the ocean we try not to buy bottled water and add to the problem. Watermaker water is good, and it is a luxury not being restricted in taking showers. The rain and squalls continued on our first night out.
Lightning occasionally broke the pitch dark. A couple of reefs and a poled out jib kept the sail plan small and we drove by instruments. It is on nights like this that you appreciate a moon and a clear sky.
When cruising, we live by the sun and moon, waking at sunrise and trying to plan our longer passages to coincide with full moons. This first night, we took our boots out for only the second time since St Lucia and we were quite relieved when dawn arrived.
The rest of the passage continued in moderate conditions and we arrived at Tikehau in the Tuamotus for a dawn passage through the reefs.
The Tuamotus used to be known as the ‘Dangerous Islands’ and were often passed by as they are low lying atolls with a reef that can be heard almost before it is seen. A few coconut palms increase the visibility but without the accuracy of GPS they are not an easy place to navigate.
We checked out the islands with radar. This picked up the trees, and once we were happy with their charted position we felt confident to continue.
French Polynesia is, we found, well marked and charted. Some markers go missing after hurricanes and we were quite conservative when we were passing through reefs and into anchorages, always making sure the sun was behind us to help with eyeball navigation.
Passing through the reefs can be quite exciting and although we tried to plan it by negotiating these on a slack tide, the tides are not as predictable as we are used to, and vary greatly on how much water flows over the reef into the lagoon. Big swells will fill the lagoons, making the outflow or ebb considerably longer and stronger than the flood.
It was in the Tuamotus that we were introduced to drift snorkelling – hanging on to the dinghy as we were taken by the tide through the passes. The islands are remote so we only did this on the incoming tide and usually in the company of another crew in a dinghy. The number and variety of the fish was amazing. Our favourite place for this was the south pass in Fakarava.
The lagoons are big and are often 20 miles across, so the idea of having a reliably sheltered anchorage once in the lagoon is never the case; you have to move with conditions. We generally stayed in areas that were reasonably well visited by yachts, although we did discover some very remote anchorages that were fun to explore. Nowhere was it busy and a few other yachts constituted a crowded anchorage.
At first we were nervous about swimming as there were sharks around, but after a while we got used to it. I am still careful and don’t swim at dawn or dusk, or in cloudy water where they might confuse me with their dinner, but snorkelling with sharks became a daily occurrence.
The Tuamotus are poor and there is a declining black pearl industry, but the poorer the islands the more generous the people were, particularly with their time. Judged by their friendliness, they are wealthy.
At no point did we feel pressured to buy anything or give gifts. As a group, the World ARC sailors do give some small presents, particularly to islands that have been devastated by hurricanes.
Most of time we were at anchor. Some places are beginning to put down moorings to protect the reefs. These vary from very good to unacceptable, and it is common practice to dive and have a look at the ground tackle.
When anchoring, lumps of rock and coral can be a problem. If the wind drops and the yacht drifts around, the chain can wrap around the coral and then get caught. This effectively shortens the scope and brings you up hard in any waves.
With no stretch in anchor chain, you have to let out more scope until it can be unwound, and that usually means someone has to go into the water guiding the yacht under engine to unwind the chain.
I have read about buoying the anchor chain to lift it off the bottom to avoid this, which sounds like a good idea. There is a strong case for carrying a small air bottle and dive gear for occasions when you might foul your anchor. I have been a fan of trip lines but after having to swim and clear it from the keel or rudder a few times I became less keen on them.
After the atolls of the Tuamotus come the more sophisticated islands of Tahiti. You go from island shops with very little to full French supermarkets within a couple of hundred miles. We were wide-eyed in amazement at the range of foods – and the prices!
Normally we budget for a spend of around 10-20 per cent more than in the UK, but with the diving value of the pound we were paying more. So we ate local produce as much as possible and stocked up where it was cheap. For the passages through expensive French Polynesia we did some big shops in Colombia and Panama.
Eating out and paying for drinks and alcohol drain the budget so we tended to limit eating out to special occasions, saving our funds for a local feast or special dish. Alcohol can be expensive and mixers hard to get, so if you must have a gin and tonic think about mixer concentrates.
Some boats carry a SodaStream, but it can be difficult to recharge the gas. An alternative is to buy fizzy water and dilute the concentrates. As an aside, we found that aluminium cans do not last well and end up leaking in the bilges.
Tahiti and its neighbouring islands were as lovely as we expected and the only disappointing part was the general level of workmanship of contractors. Maybe a rally overloads facilities. A number of crews had problems, particularly with engine servicing and repairs; one yacht lost all its engine oil as the filter had not been properly fitted.
This does underline that, even if you are not able to do the work yourself, do check, and don’t assume that the level of expertise is what you expect. To add insult to injury, a disputed bill will prevent you clearing out!
Bora Bora has got a reputation for petty crime and one friend had flip flops stolen from the dock while filling with fuel, another had some fishing gear taken off the deck at night. There was nothing very serious, but compared with our experiences in the rest of the Pacific Islands, this was disappointing. I would not miss out Bora Bora, but would not spend much time there.
Continuing west led us to Suwarrow in the northern Cook Islands. The remains of a tropical storm had left a trough over the route and once again out came our full oilskins and boots as squall after squall hit us. They were not dangerously strong but they were tiring. Still, the wind was from behind and Suwarrow beckoned.
In general the sailing across the Pacific was great. It was downwind and, having skippered a BT Global Challenge yacht around the world the ‘wrong way’, I have had enough of beating. Over the whole route from the UK to Australia, we were only upwind for a couple of hours.
Uninhabited for much of the year, Suwarrow is an atoll with a small main island. When we arrived, it was deserted. It is difficult, if not impossible, to get there by any other transport and feels – and is – wonderfully remote.
For the World ARC it was like having a private island for ourselves and our friends and although we only stayed for three days it was magical. We snorkelled in pristine waters and had a party ashore each evening. In many ways it was the highlight of our voyage.
A stone oven on the island was turned into a pizza parlour by Lars, a fellow participant, and it became (probably) the most remote restaurant in the world. Sitting by a driftwood fire, lit by a full moon, with our toes in the sand… this is what cruising is all about.
Island followed amazing island, all a bit different, as we meandered towards Fiji; it is easy to see why boats return and sailors spend years here. I celebrated a significant birthday in Tonga. Most of the crews came along and we danced on the tables in a scene reminiscent of student days rather than a party of sailors of whom many were close to retirement age.
But this is what is nice about a rally – likeminded people exploring and enjoying the experience. There were a number of occasions when the group rallied around to help one another. One yacht dragged onto a reef damaging their rudder. Two other yachts escorted it to harbour. The divers in the fleet removed the rudder and it was rebuilt ashore. A couple of days later it was back on board and off we all went.
Heading west, charts become less accurate among the reefs and a different approach to navigation was needed. I had previously read about using Google Earth and referencing on openCPN charts. This is a very powerful tool and there are also apps that will work on iPad and Android.
We used Motion X, as recommended by some New Zealand friends. It is like eyball navigation from satellite; you can identify areas of shallow water by the colours. Much of Fiji is served by good cellphone coverage, although getting the right SIM card can be a challenge. You download and save the satellite images to show them either on open–CPN or a tablet.
We could then build a route through the reefs. Once I was satisfied that the route was safe I would transfer it to the chartplotter. This was time consuming but by comparing the different sources of information we were able to explore areas with limited surveys.
Our electronic charts were the latest Navionics release, which seemed better than most, but not perfect. The local paper charts were quite limited in the extent of surveys and it is an area where satellite pictures and community updates of charts are quickly adding information to give safer navigation.
On the subject of charting, there are still yachts running aground through not using the correct zoom levels. There are a lot of reefs in the Pacific and ocean passages may seem clear when zoomed out on the chartplotter, however zooming in makes extensive reefs suddenly appear and it is imperative that a high zoom level is used to check a route. Paper charts should still be carried as mistakes are hard to rectify if sitting on a reef!
After Fiji we were off to Australia and the end of our adventure. We have sailed over 17,000 miles since leaving Plymouth in 2016. Some interesting facts: we have now used the engine for 742 hours and consumed 1,250 litres of diesel. Most of our sailing was downwind with a poled out headsail. We occasionally flew a spinnaker when the wind was light but most of the time it was strong enough not to bother.
All good things come to an end. Australia was our final destination but our delivery south to Brisbane turned into a lovely cruise during which we saw exceptional wildlife. We enjoyed the Great Barrier Reef but Frasier Island gets our top vote.
One night at anchor we were awoken by the shallow water alarm – strange, as it was calm with minimal tide running. We went up on deck and heard a whale blowing and were treated to the most incredible show.
Taistealai was loaded onto a ship in Brisbane to be shipped back to northern Spain. What had taken us nearly two years to achieve was reversed in just six weeks. This was not without drama, though, as the ship only just avoided a hurricane on the way, and smoke from forest fires darkened the sky as we launched. We have never used a yacht shipping service before and it was a relief to find the boat in great condition.
Next year we look forward to a different type of sailing. The Spanish Rias beckon and maybe we will take a quick trip to the Azores if we feel the need for blue water.
About the author
Chris Tibbs has taken part in the Whitbread Race and BT Global Challenge. He and his wife, Helen, left Plymouth on Taistealai, a Wauquiez Centurion 40s, in 2016 and crossed the Atlantic with the ARC rally.
First published in the January 2018 edition of Yachting World.