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
You can lose a lot of friends when you’re sailing across the Pacific. After the first couple of photos you post posing next to giant tortoises, swimming with hammerhead sharks your popularity will wane. You’re in the Galapagos among the sea lions, enjoying the sun, while your friends are in the midst of a European winter. And that’s just the start of a voyage of a lifetime across the world’s largest ocean.
A cruising sailor’s blog, newsfeed or Instagram account from the Pacific is an onslaught of images and videos of every flavour of paradise from the green, dramatic and rugged landscape of the Marquesas with its huge waterfalls, the coral atolls and blue lagoons of the Tuamotus, to Tahiti and Bora Bora, the volcanic eruptions and cauldrons of lava in Vanuatu, the breaching whales of the Coral Sea… Enough already, as they say!
The Pacific Ocean is by far and away the most diverse for cruising. The scenery and culture varies between each country but everywhere there is a welcoming and genuine hospitality – and the sailing is excellent.
What to expect when sailing across the Pacific
When examining planning charts and contemplating sailing the Pacific Ocean, it looks huge. It is 8,000 nautical miles from Panama to Australia (you can cross the Atlantic in 2,200 miles) and, because of the scale of the charts and the size of the islands, it appears to have little land. But zoom in on the chartplotter and the islands and island groups are plentiful.
You must make one very long crossing, the 3,000 miles from the Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas, but this is usually fast sailing with a favourable current bringing the passage time down to one similar to a transatlantic crossing. We’ve made this Pacific passage three times, and we reckon it’s easier sailing than on an average ARC. There has been less swell, more regular winds and no squalls, and after you arrive in the Marquesas you’re rarely more than four days from your next destination.
With an eye on the weather there are plenty of protected anchorages throughout the Pacific, and there are all-weather ports in most island groups.
But sailing across the Pacific is not without its challenges. There are tricky coral passes to negotiate, and it helps to speak French, but time spent preparing and planning can help make it plain sailing and, in my experience, the cruise of a lifetime.
Sailing through the Panama Canal
When you enter the Pacific from the Panama Canal you can feel this is a different ocean. The blue, warm waters of the Caribbean are replaced with the decidedly chilly, much darker nutrient-rich ones brought from Antarctica borne by the Humboldt Current. Its favourable effects can be felt under your keel as you head towards the Galapagos, and make for a bracing first swim. The 6m tidal range can also come as a bit of a shock.
Choosing your route
The passage to the Galapagos should pose no major problems but you will probably have to sail through The Doldrums and you will cross the equator. The national park in the Galapagos is sensitive to foreign species and so you can expect to have all your fresh food removed when you arrive. The authorities also don’t like any growth on your hull – they can turn you away or make you go out of the park to have your hull cleaned (an 80-mile round trip), so it’s worth pressure washing in Panama and getting all through-hull fittings thoroughly cleaned if you’re unsure.
From here you depart on the main passage to the Marquesas Islands and ahead the expanse of French Polynesia opens up. This ocean leg is the Pacific Ocean proper, with approximately 3,000 miles of what should be tradewind sailing at its best, a mile-melting broad reach and an equatorial current beneath you. Depending on the position of the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) you may be able to sail down the rhumb line or, if not, head a bit further south for more stable conditions.
Arriving in the Marquesas is a pleasurable culture shock and is as dramatic socially as it is scenically. Away from the small towns it is a great place to cruise to quiet bays with beautiful beaches, trade odds and ends with the locals for the most delicious fruit and explore the interior with its wonderful waterfalls and archaeological remains.
Once you’ve had your fill of green and lush beauty (yes, it rains) and have filled the boat with Pomello grapefruit, mangoes, coconuts and pineapples, it’s time to push off to the Tuamotus. The hardest part about this leg is deciding where to go – there are 80 atolls to choose from.
Sailing the South Pacific
On arrival you need to get the tide times right to navigate a narrow pass, but the reward is a calm, clean and incredibly blue lagoon. Snorkelling is the highlight here and the lagoons are home to the prettiest and most diverse coral I have ever seen. The adventurous can drift snorkel through the passes on an incoming tide, and you can effortlessly glide amongst sharks and large fish feeding.
The Marquesas and Tuamotus are, in my opinion, the best bits of French Polynesia. It is tempting to rush off to the Society Islands (which include Tahiti, Moorea, Raiatea and Bora Bora) and tackle the inevitable jobs list, but most people regret it. The Society Islands have an interior like the Marquesas and lagoons like the Tuamotus, but neither are quite as good. However if you’re lured there by civilisation, Papeete is a city replete with a Carrefour supermarket, chandleries and most other things you could need. It can be a welcome stop to reprovision and attend to any outstanding jobs on the list.
Onwards from here you are never far from the next anchorage. Seas are gentle with long, lazy swells and, apart from the very rare trough reaching up from lows in the south, it is settled tradewind sailing. Now is the time to choose how long you wish to stay in the Pacific as that will dictate how much time you have on the way in order to make sure you’re in the right place for cyclone season.
It’s possible to make it to Australia and onwards if that’s your plan, but many cruisers fall in love with the region and cruise there for many years. If that is you, then it’s worth slowing down and enjoying more of what Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu have to offer. We’ve done three tours of the South Pacific and would happily go back – in fact we might return in 2020.
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.