Pacific Passage Notes
Introduction: Routing advice abounds on all the Pacific routes we will sail and much of it from far more authoritative sources. Thus, there is no reason for us to try to duplicate it. However, one does stumble across some new bits of info or an unaddressed issue from time to time, and that's the purpose of these notes, which I will relatre to each of our major legs.
For the Bocas, Puerto Cristobal and/or the San Blas Is.
(~ 1300 NM)
There are two basic choices, one via the
Yucatan Channel (along with the ports and islands of the Western
Caribbean) and the Windward Passage (via the
With these goals in mind, we chose the
- Multiple protected anchorages to choose from as each frontal system approaches. We used Biscayne Bay, the inside anchorage at Norman's Cay in the Exumas, Acklin's Bight in between Crooked and Acklins Is., and the wonderful protected anchorage at Port Antonio, in each case monitoring weather systems and immediately leap onto the planned rhumb line as the fronts passed and when fair winds arrived.
We were starting from
The choices of protection are
more evenly spaced than the
This route offers a bit more
consistent access back to
As it happened, we had three tough frontal
passages on this run, had good protection for two of them and
would have had so for the third if I hadn't been too eager to
leave Port Antonio.
For the circumstances we were trying to address, this was I
think the right route to choose, and if leaving sooner we could
have included some delightful
(~ 900 NM)
The main tasks at hand are to deal
effectively with crossing the ITCZ and avoid being headed by the
initial SW'ly winds on the ITCZ's southern side, as one might
not even find the SE Trades by the time
the latitude of the Galapagos reached.
A task of a different kind is to adequately anticipate
the clearance procedures imposed on yachts by the islands'
varying restrictions and what kinds of food and fuels are
available for restocking.
After all, the next leg takes one into pricey French
Polynesia and the less well resourced islands further west...so
if it isn't in the Galaps, it needs to be found in
With those tasks at hand, here are a couple to not-widely documented resources to consider using:
Karsten Staffeld is a Danish
sailor and long-time resident of
A very useful tool for all SSCA
members – and this applies to every one of these long Pacific
passages – is to use the Member Locator tool on the members'
side of the website (www.ssca.org).
By zooming into the two clearance ports on
It's also worth noting another
SSCA benefit when discussing
- It's hard to imagine that crews who plan to sail to the Galapagos don't know about at least one of the two Yahoo 'interest groups' that offer a wealth of cruising information on this island archipelago. But we met some, so it's worth mentioning these resources. Visit yahoo.com and select 'Groups' from their list of services. 'Southbounders' and 'Pacific Puddle Jumpers' are the two groups you are looking for, and both offer many folders of files on everything from cruising guides to email exchanges with A's to your many Q's.
(~ 3000 NM)
Here are a set of informational notes that
seem to fill some common needs among the gaggle of boats doing
(~ 400 NM)
These notes relate to lessons learned while cruising in the Marquesas and Tuamotus ('Toots). The topics are:
- Tuamotus' passes, the trickiest part of the 'Toots in this age of GPS
- 'Time' and its growing influence on the fleet
- Weather: Useful forecast sources for French Polynesia
- 'Timing a Pass' in the Tuamotus: Now that GPS is available to help boats transiting to and through the Toots, the bigger concern is about entering (or exiting) an atoll's pass. It is claimed (by the locals) that tides in FP are 'solar' and all high tides occur at approximately noon & midnight, altho' that is not what the tidal stations in various tidal programs reflect nor was that consistently our experience. For a good discussion on judging what to expect at a given atoll's pass – and whether or not to attempt using it – we suggest you download the current version of the Tuamotus Compendium, which you'll find in the 'Files' section of SOGGY PAWS website (svsoggypaws.com). By the way, this is by far the best single resource on cruising the Tuamotus that is available at this time...and a great example of how cruisers help one another to safely visit this formerly feared part of French Polynesia.
- Time: This begins to be one of the most discussed subjects that surfaces among crews by the time they arrive in French Polynesia. The Marquesas are beautifully striking, varied and appeal for a long visit. But the Tuamotus, with their classic South Pacific scenes, clearer water & better diving – not to mention more settled anchorages - are already beckoning. And then there's the superb provisioning, boat parts, international shipments from back home, and the general appeal & glamor of Tahiti (not to mention Moorea, Hauhine, Raiatea, Bora Bora and so forth). In short, it is becoming clear that less time is available (or we need more of it for the places we want to visit) than originally appreciated. And so each crew is re-examining their time lines and prioritizing their future destinations – both for FP and for the other island nations further down the line.
There is another reason this happens. For most crews, the starting gun for departing to FP was the end of the southern hemisphere's cyclone season. Prior to that Feb-March time slot, crews are typically prepping their boats with no particular time crush. But now we have all felt the impact – on the time available to visit the South Pacific islands – of the time demanded to get to them. Those leaving from Mexico needed 4 weeks (or 5, or even 6) to reach FP. And boats leaving Balboa ate up 2 – often 3 or 4 – weeks when sailing to and visiting the Galapagos, before needing another 3 or 4 weeks to reach FP. And of course each passage consumes not just time enroute but often a bit more, while crews watch weather on the front end and do repairs after arrival. We can see this in our own 'plan', as we'd hoped to visit several of the northern Cook Is. but have now ramped that down to one (Suwarrow Is. - we think). And the weighing of destinations will no doubt continue as the realities of logistics, boat work and stays that are extended beyond what was planned (due to weather & sheer pleasure) all make their mark on the calendar.
What does this mean for you? If you are doing the Puddle Jump, start as soon as you feel it is safe. You'll never have enough time, once you arrive.
- Weather Information: It's been interesting to see how many boats cruising in FP rely solely on GRIB files for their weather planning...and yet gripe about how they aren't accurate. Let's save the discussion on GRIB forecast accuracy for another time and instead look at some useful weather forecast products which are available for cruising FP and how to get them.
[Weather Puzzle for the Day: While not as consistent as the Atlantic trades, this area of the South Pacific is known for its east and southeast trade winds. They certainly are the dominant influence on the routing choices everyone makes and the anchorages we usually seek. So how is it that ALL the major weather systems – the highs & the lows plus the troughs and ridges they generate – are coming from the west? How can weather systems marching relentlessly eastward produce easterly winds? Look for the answer later on...]
How to Get Weather: For boats with either a SSB radio & Pactor Modem or a satcom system like Iridium, obtaining weather products from the Saildocs service is ideal. What's Saildocs? Saildocs offers text-based document retrieval and subscription services from the internet. There are currently two services offered, a document retrieval service which will return documents from the Internet, and a subscription service which will send Internet documents (for example weather reports) at scheduled intervals. Saildocs is supported by Sailmail (www.sailmail.com for more information) but can be used by anyone who agrees to its terms and conditions. So keep in mind: While you may not be subscribing to Sailmail, you are still eligible to use Saildocs. Also: Saildocs will 'strip' any web page of its text content and send the text to you, so e.g. you can request the daily BBC news summary, as well.
What Weather Products to Get: For the French Polynesia area, here are the weather products that we've found helpful along with some related comments. I'll include the file names Saildocs recognizes, as using these file names will make retrieval almost immediate. What you do is simple: Address an email to 'firstname.lastname@example.org' and put 'send filename' in the email's text for each file you wish to receive. That's it.
· Daily French Polynesian Forecast, issued at 1400 local time out of Papeete, Tahiti and valid for 24 hrs. ('send fr.poly') This covers all of FP, from the Marquesas down to the Rapa Is. Two references will help if your French is a bit weak: a list of French/English weather terms (there are many available on Yahoo's PPJ site but the best single source we've found is Kathy Parson's 'French for Cruisers') and a graphic presentation ('map') of the FP 'weather sectors' (as this forecast is given sector by sector). Dig up a copy (digital from the PPJ files or paper from one of your guides, e.g. Bob McDavitt's 'Metservice Pack') to refer to. Short-hand tip: The sectors are numbered in relationship to their longitude and in latitude 'slices' of 5 degrees each, so some notes in the nav log may be enough to keep you abreast of the sector you are in).
· Nadi Fleet Code, issued by the Fiji Met Service out of Suva ('send fleet.nadi') - and BTW Nadi is pronounced 'Nandy'. This is a very small file of number blocks, so you need a piece of software to 'read' it...but it somewhat magically produces a full South Pacific synoptic picture (which can be advanced up to a max of 24 hrs) plus some text info. The two (free) software programs used by this year's Puddle Jump fleet are WIAC and PhysPlot – visit the PPJ site and/or the Yotreps site (pangolin.co.nz) to collect and install these programs. Also keep in mind that dragging the address header of the saildocs file (e.g. from Airmail) on top of this plotting software's icon will auto-open it. Very clever. Finally, it's worth noting that this is the only graphic representation I've found of the South Pacific Convergence Zone (aka: The Beast), which is well worth keeping an eye on when it's in the neighborhood.
· Nadi South Pacific Forecast, a daily forecast that's somewhat a partner to the Fleet Code, as it discusses the weather features you will find on the Fijian synoptic map ('send nadi.sopac') This is for the same geographic area as NOAA's SoPac forecast but disappointingly covers only a one-day period.
· NOAA's High Seas Forecast for the South Pacific, issued daily out of Honolulu, HI and which (bless them...) attempts to forecast a 3-day period for the area 0 – 25S and 120W – 160E ('send FZPS40.PHFO')
There are other forecast products available, from wxfax charts to GRIBs to Sat pics. However, the above products have seemed sufficient for our needs here. Of course, NONE of these forecast products tell the whole story, only one product prepared by a forecaster looks beyond 24 hrs., and no one seems fully satisfied with what they are using. But that's the nature of cruising in a vast, remote area of the world with a fairly dynamic climate of weather systems, manufactured in part by relatively unstable air masses. Welcome to the South Pacific.
The 'weather puzzle' answer: The SE'ly and E'ly trade winds in the South Pacific are being generated by an area of high pressure in the mid-latitudes and off the west coast of South America, in a fashion simila to how the NE'ly trades are created in the North Pacific. These E & SE Trades are relatively shallow or 'surface' winds – only a few thousand feet in elevation. The dominant weather systems which all march from west to east lie above this 'ground floor' trade wind system, although that doesn't stop them from interfering with the trades periodically.
(~ 300 NM)
- Is Tahiti (& French Polynesia) Expensive? Well, yes and no. Just like Florida, its tax scheme is built around being a tourist destination. There is no personal income tax here but rather a consumption (VAT or sales) tax. In addition, much of what is here is imported so duty is levied on almost everything. The government only subsidizes a handful of food products (baguettes, milk and such) to insure an affordable, acceptable level of nutrition, so the basics are somewhat costly for everyone, islander and yachtie alike. However, we continue to find the food selections in the grocery stores to be diverse and appealing, and many a Californian has told us the prices they are seeing are not that much different than 'back home', if that helps calibrate things a bit.
Having said that, the amount of serious cash that is dropped in Tahiti by the cruising community is a bit breath-taking, much of it being generated by two realities: gear at sea wears out and/or breaks, and what wasn't aboard the boat when it left Mexico or Panama costs a LOT to get aboard the boat now. In fact, airplane flights home can pay for themselves if enough electronics, yacht supplies, engine parts and other such kit is carried back in one's luggage. Sadly, that doesn't make it cheap, just a bit less expensive than if it were all shipped in. With the remote Cook Islands ahead, and Tonga's limited marine supplies after that, the Society Islands are the place to fix what's broken or badly worn unless the boat is intent on sailing NW to American Samoa. WHOOSH's expenditure on repairs to date has been $30 USD, the cost of installing a new set of rectifiers in our Aquair water generator, so for us Pape'ete has been a very cheap date. But this will soon catch up with us as we too have some 'wear & tear' expenses coming our way in American Samoa: a new mainsail (the 8 yr old one is now very fragile), a new Netbook (due to a flaky keyboard on the current one), and a LPG tank (both our tanks' OPD valves have failed in the last two months). The wind may be free...but boat ownership isn't.
- How to Use the Internet: These days, access to the internet is as integral a tool for cruisers as wrenches for the engine. And for boat crews and every other kind of tourist, there are usually multiple wifi vendors located where the tourists gather. But that hardly means you'll have acceptable internet service. Here are a few tips when arriving at the next downwind island:
1. Don't assume signal strength = bandwidth. You may find it very easy to connect to the vendor's router and submit your payment details, but then discover the bandwidth available for access to the internet is poor. So ask around first, especially among young travelers and other cruisers, which vendor seems to offer at least serviceable bandwidth.
2. Look for contact details before subscribing, in case you later lose minutes or find unacceptable service and want an adjustment. E.g. in French Polynesia the 'Hotspot' vendor offers no contact details, so any problem goes unaddressed. 'Iaoranet' on the other hand, equally available around the islands, offers multiple ways to reach the net manager, including an email address.
3. Trial a vendor first by purchasing a single hour of connect time, even tho' the subscription rates will strongly encourage you to buy multiple hours.
4. Most boats now carry some kind of 'special' wifi pick-up – perhaps an amplified WAP and a high-gain omni antenna. This will increase your anchoring options, tho' ultimately it may make no difference on the level of bandwidth you receive from the vendor.
5. Plan to use the service during low-use time periods, perhaps early mornings or during the local evening meal times, to make the best use of the bandwidth offered by your system. (Some crews routinely got up at 0300 to do work on the more demanding websites).
6. Despite the above tips, expect to be less than pleased at times with your internet experience. So think about 'fall back' options should the internet you've been lusting after is suddenly not available. Multiple bank cards (should one suddenly 'fail' for some reason), a tri-band cell phone and an Iridium handset are all examples of such redundancy.
© Jack Tyler – July, 2010