A Pacific Ocean crossing can be spectacular, but also daunting. Kate Ashe-Leonard has advice on what you need to know before you set sail across the Pacific
Coffee in hand, I gaze out from our cockpit across the flat lagoon of the palm-fringed coral atoll in Fakarava. We are in the Tuamotus, French Polynesia. Yesterday we swam with hundreds of sharks, this afternoon will be spent kiteboarding. It’s a destination we dreamed of long before we had a boat to bring us here.
Inspired by the many adventurers, authors and sailors who came before, we wanted to spend at least a year in French Polynesia, taking our time to explore this country’s many delights, before continuing on across the Pacific. But making the decision to enter the world’s biggest ocean was not taken lightly.
For many cruisers on the Atlantic side, deciding to transit the Panama Canal and enter the Pacific seems like a point of no return. The Canal’s imposing gates closing behind you are symbolic: the end of one journey leading to the beginning of another. Entering the Pacific is a huge milestone in a global circumnavigation.
We spent some time soul searching to determine if we were ready to take on some of the longest ocean passages in the world together. Our planned route from Panama to the Marquesas was 4,000 miles, with an optional stop at Galapagos, 1,000 miles in. That meant many days and nights at sea – for us, sailing double-handed – and a lot of potential wear and tear on our Catana 47. We also had to consider the sheer distance from home: French Polynesia is some 15,000 miles from Europe, making it more complicated and expensive to get back, or to have guests.
Planning the Pacific leg made us re-examine our longer-term goals too. Were we really doing a full global circumnavigation, or entering the Pacific to explore one last ocean before eventually selling up in New Zealand or Australia? With 12,000 miles under our belt so far, we felt ready, and still wanted to complete a circumnavigation. After our year in French Polynesia we will cruise the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia and then Australia.
Get ready to sail across the Pacific
When making the decision of whether to take on a Pacific crossing, the significant practical challenges and costs had to be weighed up too. At a minimum we needed to factor in a haul-out in Panama, arrange a long stay visa in Panama, transit the Panama Canal, with all the agent service fees that incurs, and organise a three-week stop at the Galapagos islands.
We needed to ensure that both we and Polaris were set up for remote cruising so as to reduce our dependence on the people and places we’d encounter. We’d need plenty of spares and be certain that we’d acquired the experience, knowledge and confidence to be capable of fixing breakages. We had to liaise with our insurance company to agree terms and coverage for sailing the Pacific and staying in French Polynesia during cyclone season.
After a month exploring Colombia by land and another month cruising Panama’s San Blas islands, we sailed to Shelter Bay Marina where we’d spend five weeks preparing ourselves and Polaris for the biggest passages of our lives. We had Polaris’s bottom paint redone, some through-hulls changed, we installed new rudder bearings and had two of our four sails serviced. We inspected all rigging and checked every system on the boat. We also began to prepare for our visit to the Galapagos by working through the list of requirements, as sent by our agent there.
Provisioning for both ocean passages, with enough supplies to last many months after our arrival in French Polynesia, was a gradual process carried out over multiple trips using Shelter Bay Marina’s free shuttle bus and later, after we transited the canal, via taxis which took us all over Panama City.
We arrived in Shelter Bay in late February, which is peak time for traffic transiting the canal. Like us, many boats had sailed to Panama after the Caribbean hurricane season ended in November and were making use of the marina’s good amenities as they made final preparations.
There are numerous rallies on tight schedules going through around then too. In fact, we ended up behind both the Oyster World Rally and the Grand Large World Odyssey while waiting to secure a transit date. With many dates block-booked we couldn’t even get an appointment with the ‘Admeasurer’ to come and measure the boat until the busiest time had passed. Next time around we’ll find out which rallies are transiting and endeavour to get in ahead of them.
In parallel to all this we began the process of applying for Jim’s long stay visa for French Polynesia as the three-month visa offered to non-EU nationals would not be enough time to take in this vast country. The visa must be applied for before arrival in French Polynesia, so we applied while in Panama. The application lead time seems to vary but the whole process took us five weeks, including three visits to the French embassy in Panama, but resulted in the vital EU visa stamp in Jim’s passport. Once in French Polynesia copies of the same documents have to be resubmitted to secure a hard copy of the document known as a ‘Carte de Sejour’, a resident’s permit allowing up to 12 months stay with option to extend.
A route across
We opted to arrive via the more well-travelled path, taking the traditional southern route to the Galapagos, staying there for three weeks to explore, before arriving at the Marquesas rather than the lesser visited Gambiers.
Anyone planning a Pacific crossing will be well advised to read Jimmy Cornell’s voyage planners. He advises that skippers choosing to sail direct to the Marquesas are faced with a sometimes tough choice of whether to take the less popular northern route (staying north of the equator initially before crossing the equator further west), or to sail south immediately from Panama, cross the Equator and continue south of the Galapagos. While the northern route has, on average, more reliable winds earlier in the year (February and March), it rules out a stop in the Galapagos if those winds do not materialise and additional fuel, for example, is needed.
The other key decision is when to leave. Cruisers who plan to leave before cyclone season in French Polynesia tend to arrive as early as possible in the year to maximise their time there. You need to allow enough time to explore this extensive cruising ground while factoring in the time needed to cover the large distances to reach New Zealand or Australia by November-ish, the start of cyclone season. However, we planned to stay a year and remain in French Polynesia during cyclone season, so weren’t under the same time pressure. We knew departing a bit later would also increase our chances of stronger tradewinds, which are at their best in the southern hemisphere winter, but were also keen to get going. So we opted for a compromise: we’d leave Panama for Galapagos around mid-March, and leave Galapagos for the Marquesas mid-April.
On the first leg to Galapagos we were not expecting much wind because the route would take us across the inter-tropical convergence zone, the area of low variable winds which are known to be even less reliable in February and March. We were prepared to motorsail most of the way and refuel in Galapagos. The second leg, however, we hoped would be very different as it would be a month later and, once south-west of Galapagos, we’d enter the trade wind belt.
There was one last thing to do: on arrival in Galapagos our yacht would be met by a team of officials including two divers. If the underside is not found to be clean enough, officials will mandate that you sail 50 miles offshore, get in the water and clean it. Knowing this, we stopped off in Panama’s Las Perlas islands for a few days to give the bottom one last scrub in crystal clear waters.
Our passage to Galapagos took seven days. We spent three glorious weeks exploring the islands of San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz. We swam and dived with hammerhead sharks, manta rays and sealions. We encountered the blue footed booby, enormous land tortoises, penguins and marine iguanas. We surfed waves and hiked dormant volcanoes. The vast majority of sites and activities are led by tour operators so incur extra costs but, as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities go, we didn’t regret spending a single cent.
We left Santa Cruz after some last-minute provisioning in the local markets. The weather forecast was for ideal downwind conditions, and we anticipated a fast passage to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. It didn’t take long for Jim and I to slip back into our familiar ocean passage routine of three-hour rotating watches.
The passage was a lively one, taking 18 days, but arriving in Nuku Hiva the sense of achievement felt unprecedented: we were on our way to becoming transpac sailors. We also arrived with lots of things to fix, including a mainsail that had torn itself from leech to luff below both the first and second reefing points, a gennaker to restitch and a halyard to resplice. Checking in took just a few minutes at the Gendarmerie and we were soon free to explore, prioritising finding baguettes, croissants and freshly caught tuna. We noticed many yachts were covered in the same green slime as we had picked up during our long ocean passage, and fondly watched a couple of older sailors strolling the seafront promenade arm in arm, listing sideways as though they had been on a port tack all the way from Panama.
With five archipelagos to choose from in French Polynesia (the Society Islands, Tuamotu archipelago, Gambier Islands, Marquesas Islands, and Tubuai Islands) we initially felt overwhelmed by the options of where to sail in which months. We decided to spend our first two months, May and June, in the Marquesas, then July until early September in the Tuamotus, which is windy season and so great for kiteboarding. The next three months we spent in the Societies, where we swam with humpback whales during their migration season, and stocked up for our own onward journey west.
We first headed back to the Tuamotus for peak cyclone season, December to late February. Then, from March until May, we plan to cruise between Tahiti and Maupiti, from where we will depart French Polynesia. Some cruisers venture further, to the lesser travelled Australs archipelago to the south, or Gambiers to the east.
These days many skippers opt to spend cyclone season (November-April) in French Polynesia. The occurrence of cyclones here compared to the Caribbean is fractional. In the highest risk area of French Polynesia (the Society islands and Northern Tuamotus), only 13 cyclones were recorded between the years 1969 and 2010. In comparison there were 286 hurricanes in the same time frame in the North Atlantic basin, with the Antilles the most affected.
In French Polynesia the main factor to consider when estimating the likelihood of cyclones is the El Niño condition. This year we are in the third La Niña year and so the outlook is good for very low chance of cyclone activity. In an El Niño year a cautious owner might consider either leaving the region for New Zealand, taking their vessel to the Marquesas (which is completely out of the zone), hard standing it at one of the boat yards in the Societies or Tuamotus, or hunkering down in one of the hurricane holes on Tahiti or Raiatea.
For insurance purposes we needed to be no further west than the Tuamotus or we risked not being covered for damage caused by a named storm. The weather so far has surprised us a little: it was cool in May when we arrived in the Marquesas, and we had many cloudy and unsettled days. We often struggled to top up our batteries sufficiently with solar and lived on strict water rations. In the Tuamotus in July it was cool at night, and from September and November in the Societies we experienced record high rainfall levels. Since cyclone season, however, we have thankfully had only a handful of stormy days.
A growth experience
Our plan has always been to sail around the world, so we didn’t want to linger too long in the Caribbean. We were ready to push out of our comfort zone and head to the Pacific. The passages to Galapagos and onto Nuku Hiva were challenging but manageable, and we’re proud of how we handled them together. French Polynesia, meanwhile, has taught us how to slow down again. The lack of development in the places we stop gives us space to enjoy simple pleasures, and our days are spent reading, bread and yoghurt making, hunting for coconuts. We swim, snorkel and fish. If there’s wind we kiteboard, and if we have mountains nearby, we hike. The reefs are teeming with fish and larger pelagic species aren’t hard to find. The water can be the clearest and cleanest imaginable.
The beauty here is delicate, and we enjoy more and more the challenge of making do with what is available. Cruising the Pacific has made us become more self-sufficient than ever before, with the tools we have on board and the skills we have acquired to use them. We need nothing more.
If you enjoyed this….
Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.