Pacific Planning Advice
Published: 2013-03-26 00:00:00
Topics: Pacific Ocean West , Pacific Crossing , Pacific Ocean East , Pacific Ocean South , Cruising Information
Countries: Australia , Cook Islands , Easter Island , Ecuador , Fiji , French Polynesia , Galapagos , New Zealand , Niue , Panama , Pitcairn Island , Tonga , Venezuela
Having passed through that symbolic gateway – the Panama Canal – the whole Pacific Ocean is suddenly beckoning, a vast area that covers one third of the globe. In spite of the long distances that lie ahead, with careful planning this could be the most pleasant part of a long voyage. Below is an outline of the most important criteria that anyone planning such a voyage should bear in mind.
As the safe sailing season in the South Pacific is well defined, and the weather is usually fairly benign in the eastern part of this vast ocean, the most critical decision concerns the time of arrival in the first tropical island group. Most boats transit the Panama Canal before the onset of the hurricane season in the Caribbean (June to November), with the busiest time for Canal transits in February and March.
Those who plan to sail all the way across to Australia in one season need to reach the Marquesas (French Polynesia) not later than May, although an April arrival is better as it allows more time to sail the remaining distance. In French Polynesia the cyclone season lasts, at least on paper, from late November until the end of March, but as the Marquesas are very rarely affected by tropical storms one can take a calculated risk and arrive there early in the season. This normally means transiting the Panama Canal early in the year (February) so as to have enough time for a stop in the Galapagos. From there, the 3,000 mile passage to the Marquesas can start early in March so that the Marquesas are reached in late March or early April.
One serious drawback of the above schedule is the need to leave the Caribbean at what is the best time there, so an alternative is to stay in the Caribbean until the end of the safe season (June), then cruise leisurely through those places that are not affected by hurricanes (Venezuela, ABC Islands, Panama’s San Blas Islands). Having transited the Panama Canal one can sail to mainland Ecuador where Puerto Amistad and Puerto Lucia provide a safe and convenient place to leave the boat while visiting the interior of South America or to just wait until the time comes to sail to the Marquesas. This timing also allows the option of not sailing the traditional route to the Marquesas, but make a detour to Easter Island and Pitcairn so as to arrive in French Polynesia via the Gambier Islands. As in the case of the Marquesas, those islands should not be reached before the end of March and the start of the safe sailing season in the South Pacific.
The onward passage to Fiji can be sailed any time during the safe season. Its timing will depend on your onward plans once you leave there. There are many interesting island groups to explore en-route: to the north the northern Cooks, then either Tonga or the Samoas; to the south the southern Cooks, Niue and Tonga.
As most yachts sail to the Cook Islands from the east, a good time to plan one's passage is after the 14 July celebrations in Tahiti are over, as the first week of August is the time when the Cooks put on their own festivities around Constitution Day. Most of the action is in Rarotonga, but the other islands can be visited afterwards.
Once you reach Fiji it’s decision time: to head to New Zealand or Australia for cyclone season; or continue to Vanuatu, the Torres Strait and beyond to the Indian Ocean. If circumnavigating and taking the Cape of Good Hope route, it’s important to pass through the Torres Strait by early September, giving sufficient time to reach South Africa by early November (before the start of the cyclone season in the Indian Ocean).
If however your desired route is to the northern Indian Ocean and SE Asia, then passage through the Torres Strait can be delayed until October.
Most boats follow the traditional route across the South Pacific that sweeps in an arc from Panama to the Torres Strait. Favourable south-east trade winds are a usual feature of this route during the winter months. However, normal weather conditions can be affected by various factors, such as the El Niño or La Niña phenomena (warming and cooling of the ocean surface across the eastern and central equatorial Pacific). The latest El Niño episode occurred between 2009 and 2010. The latest La Niña in 2011 contributed to severe drought in East Africa and to Australia's third wettest year in its 112-year period of record..
Even at the height of the winter season, consistent winds are only encountered at the two extremes of this route, between the Galapagos and Marquesas, in the east, and in the Coral Sea, in the west. Between these two extremes, sailing conditions are often a matter of luck, with long spells of steady trade winds in some years, or an alternation of short periods of two or three days of steady winds followed by a spell of unsettled weather with squalls, thunderstorms and variable winds.
A constant feature that affects weather conditions throughout the tropical South Pacific is the South Pacific Converge Zone. The SPCZ stretches in an ESE direction from about 5°S, 155°E to 20°S, 150°W, and can influence weather conditions all the way from the Solomons to Tahiti, although its effects are particularly felt in the area between French Polynesia and Tonga. The location and movement of the S.P.C.Z. are monitored by the Fiji meteorological office.
The Ecuadorean authorities, who administer this archipelago, are now more tolerant towards cruising yachts than in the past and will allow short stays. However, those that plan an extended stay here definitely leave with incredible memories, more so than those who only have time to visit one island. According to the current regulations, yachts arriving in the Galapagos without an official permit pre-arranged, can stay up to 20 days in the port of entry (no movement allowed). If a permit (autographo) is arranged in advance, yachts can choose to visit between 3 and 5 islands, or, multiple islands (which does require hiring a National Parks guide). Expect to pay (for a yacht with 2 people on board) approximately US$600 for a 20 day one island visit, US$900 for a 3-5 island visit, and an additional US$200 a day (guide hire) for a multiple island visit. If you have more than two people on board, allow an extra $US100 per person for the Galapagos park fee.
It is mandatory to use an agent to check in with the port captain for any stay of more than 1 day. Not only can the agent ease clearance, but can also help book excursions and obtain diesel and fresh provisions.
There are three official ports of entry: Baquerizo Moreno (Wreck Bay) on the island of San Cristobal, Puerto Ayora (Academy Bay) on Santa Cruz and Puerto Villamil on Isabela. All three may be used to clear in and if only a short stop is possible many cruisers recommend Isabela as the “one-island visit” as it is less commercial and laid back than the other 2 islands and has good shelter. Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is the main starting point for excursions to the outer islands, so it is always crowded with local boats. It does however have better shops and facilities. San Cristobal has a lot to do ashore without having to take commercial tours and is not as commercial as Puerto Ayora. The anchorage is also more sheltered. In all 3 ports it is possible to join day excursions to the outer islands to view wildlife, hike and go snorkelling and diving.
French Polynesia (FP)
To really see the South Pacific islands properly, many cruisers choose to spend two winters here. Some leave the tropics for the cyclone season, sailing south to NZ or Australia or north to Papua New Guinea and Micronesia. Others remain in the tropics for the summer finding shelter in one of the safe harbours or all-weather marinas (see cyclone shelter notes below).
The good news is that the FP Customs have seen the error of their ways, and the length of stay for French and foreign yacht crew was modified from a maximum of 185 days per calendar year to 18 months (as long as their visa or visa extension permits this length of stay) on March 27th 2013. This is renewable after an exit from the Territory of 6 months minimum.
Formalities in French Polynesia for yachts and sailors who are not from one of the countries of the European Union have been tightened up, especially regarding visas. Also, those who arrive without a visa and cannot show a return airline ticket to their country of residence, may be required to post a bond equivalent to an open one-way ticket to their home country. The money is returned when checking out of French Polynesia.
For the long term cruiser Papeete. (Tahiti) has one major advantage: due to an active local yachting community its repair facilities are the best this side of New Zealand. Provisioning is just as good, even if the prices are quite high. The only other centre with extensive repair facilities is on Raiatea, where two charter companies have their base. Facilities are on a par with Tahiti, or even better, and have the great convenience of being grouped together.
For those prepared to stay in the tropics during the critical cyclone period (mid-November to May) there are a number of hurricane holes conveniently spread out across the South Pacific. Only some of them are fully fledged hurricane shelters and because of the large distances that separate the various island groups, running for shelter if a cyclone is predicted may not only be a hazardous affair, but one may also find that there is no space left when one gets there. The best tactic is either to stay close to a chosen shelter, or cruise on the edges of the cyclone belt, so as to be able to possibly sail out of danger, for example by sailing north from the Marquesas towards the equator.
Looking at those shelters from east to west, the Galapagos and Easter Island can be dismissed at they are not affected by cyclones. On rare occasions, a cyclone has reached as far east as Pitcairn or north-east to the Marquesas, although the latter are very rarely hit by a full cyclone. The outer island groups of French Polynesia (the Gambier and Austral Islands) can be affected but the risks are lower than in the Tuamotus, which are not only more exposed but their unprotected lagoons provide no shelter in a cyclone.
The Society Islands attract fewer cyclones than the island groups further west, but should perhaps be avoided during the critical period. The few marinas are full with local or charter boats, so the only possible shelters in Tahiti are the landlocked lagoon at Port Phaeton on the south-west coast, which has a small marina and good anchorage, or the anchorage behind the reef at the Tahiti Yacht Club in Arue, east of the capital Papeete. On the island of Raiatea, boats can be left on the hard at one of the two boatyards, but during a cyclone several boats have been blown over and suffered extensive damage.
The Cook Islands are best avoided during cyclone season.
Neiafu Harbour in Tonga’s Vava’u group is very well protected and experiences fewer cyclones than Fiji and there are several operators who rent cyclone moorings for that season which conform to insurance standards. Some will also provide an excellent, reliable caretaker service.
More secure places are to be found in neighbouring Fiji, where several cyclone-proof marinas have been built, although these do fill up quickly with local boats so early bookings are advised. As a result of this many sailors have been persuaded to spend the summers in Fiji. On the island of Vanua Levu two of the marinas at Savusavu (Waitui and Copra Shed) have laid down a number of strong moorings, all of which have performed very well when cyclones have passed through. On the west coast of Viti Levu the marina at Lautoka, Vuda Point. offers good protection in a circular basin that can be entirely closed off by an anti-surge barrier. For added protection, boats left on the hard at this marina have their keels dropped into a trench. A cyclone shelter has also been created in a land-locked basin at Musket Cove on the island of Malololailai.
Even further west, the land-locked natural harbour of Port Vila in Vanuatu offers adequate protection in a cyclone as does Port Moselle Marina at Noumea in New Caledonia. In the Solomons the best shelter is reported at Tulagi opposite the capital Honiara.
The above list is by no means exhaustive and there are small sheltered spots in most island groups that may be known to locals.
Pacific Marinas, Harbours and Boatyards at a glance
Bounty Yacht Quay: full service marina
Tahiti Nautic Center: full service marina & boatyard
Papeete Harbour (Quai des Yachts): Basic services & on busy town centre quay
Tahiti Yacht Club: full service marina
Taina Marina: primarily for resident motor cruisers
Tahiti Nautic Centre, Taravao: small but full service marina and boatyard
La cale Uturaerae: marina if work being done by Chantier Naval Raiatea
Marina d'Uturoa: full service marina
Marina Apooiti: a popular charter base
Mai Kai Marina & Yacht Club: full service marina
Bora Bora Yacht Club: mooring buoys and facilities ashore
Marina Vaiare: full service marina
Atuona Port: not a marina, but the port provides good shelter
Niue Yacht Club: safe moorings for visiting yachts & facilities ashore
Neiafu (Vava'u): http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Tonga
Neiafu : protected harbour with moorings
Nuku'alofa (Tongatapu): http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Tonga/Nukualofa
Nuku'alofa: moorings in Faua harbour
Musket Cove (Western Fiji): http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Fiji/MusketCove
Musket Cove: marina and moorings
Copra Shed Marina: full service marina
Savusavu Marina Village: full service marina
Waitui Marina: mooring buoys with services ashore
Port Denarau Marina: full service marina
Vuda Point Marina: full service marina
Port Denarau: http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Fiji/PortDenarau
Port Denarau Marina: full service marina and boatyard
Royal Suva Yacht Club: full service marina
Tradewinds Marina: small resort marina
Port Moselle: full service marina
Port du Sud Marina: full service marina
Marina de Ouenghi: small marina 25nm from Noumea
Bayswater Marina: full service marina
Gulf Harbour Marina: full service marina and boatyard
Half Moon Bay Marina: full service marina and boatyard
Orams Marine: full service marina and boatyard
Pier 21 Marine Centre: full service marina and boatyard
Pine Harbour Marina: full service marina and boatyard in East Auckland
West Harbour Marina: full service marina and boatyard
Westhaven Marina: full service marina in Downtown Auckland with moorings
Gisbourne Marina: small basic marina with haul out facility
Gulf Harbour: http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/NewZealand/GulfHarbour
Gulf Harbour Marina: full service marina and boatyard
Opua (Bay of Islands): http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/NewZealand/Opua%28BayofIslands%29
Opua Marina: full service marina and boatyard
Whangaroa Marina: small marina with facilities
Kerikeri Cruising Club Marina: full service club marina
Tauranga (Bay of Plenty): http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/NewZealand/Tauranga%20%28Bay%20of%20Plenty%29
Tauranga Bridge Marina: full service marina
Tauranga Marina: full service marina
Riverside Drive Marina: full service marina and boatyard
Marsden Cove Marina: full service marina & Port of Entry
Whangarei Marina (Town Basin Marina): full service marina
Tutukaka Marina: full service marina
Whangaroa Marina: full service marina
Panama Canal agents: http://www.noonsite.com/Countries/Panama?rc=Formalities#ClearanceAgents
Arnold's Net (South Pacific) 14.318 MHz at 0400 (UTC)
California Hawaii Net (Pacific E, NW and Hawaii) 14.340 MHz at 1600Z
Coconut Breakfast Net (French Polynesia) 8188 KHz at 1730Z (English)
Coconut Breakfast Net (West of French Polynesia) 12353 kHz at 1830Z (English)
Confusion Net (Pacific) 14.305 MHz at 1900 (UTC)
Far North Radio (Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, NZ) 1800-1900 hours New Zealand daylight time - 6.516MHz and 1900-1930 hours New Zealand daylight time - 4.417MHz.
French Net (French Polynesia) 13940 kHz at 0300Z (French)
Harry's Net (W & S Pacific) 7.095 MHz at 2000 (UTC)
Magellan Pacific Net (8155 @ 1330Z): Set up to facilitate comms between boats from Panama to French Polynesia, via the Galapagos.
N Zealand Wx Net (New Zealand) 7.080 MHz at 2000 (UTC)
Pacific Inter-Island Net (Micronesia & up to Hawaii) 14.315 MHz at 0800 (UTC)
Pacific Maritime Mobile Net (East Pacific) (HAM) 14300-14313 kHz 24h/day in different languages
Pacific Maritime Net, 21412 kHz at 2200Z
Pacific Seafarers Net, (HAM) 14300 kHz at 0300Z
Panama Pacific Net, 8143 kHZ at 1400 UTC daily. Can cover from southern Mexico (Chiapas) down to Ecuador and out to the Galapagos. Net Controllers needed.
Rag of the Air Net, (SW Pacific) 8173 kHz at 1900Z (0700 or 0800 local time in Tonga/Fiji/Samoa/NZ)
Sheila Net (NE Coast of Australia, New Guinea, Louisiade Archipelago, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Noumea) 8161 kHz daily at 2200Z
Namba Net (sister net to the Sheila Net with similar coverage but with more relevance to yachts in New Caledonia, Vanuatu and north to the Solomons) 8101 kHz May to October 0815 (local time Vanuatu)
Sonrisa Net for Sea of Cortez, 3.968 MHz (3968 LSB) at 0730 PDT
Hawaii: WWVH in Hawaii gives storm warnings for the entire Pacific at 48 minutes past each hour on 5000, 10000 and 15000 kHz
French Polynesia: Weather forecasts in French are available from Meteo France, Tel:(689) 36 65 08, Fax:(689) 80 33 09, www.meteo.pf
Weather forecasts for the next 24 hours are broadcast every day on VHF channels 27 (Windward Islands) and 26 (Leeward Islands) at 1100, 1200, 2040,2100 local Tahiti time.
Mahina Radio forecasts for French Polynesia on 8803 kHz at 2100Z (also on VHF channels 26 and 27). Warnings at 0640Z and 1800Z.
Fiji: Suva Radio forecasts for tropical SW Pacific on 4372.9 and 6746.8 kHz at 0033, 0433, 0803, 1203, 2003Z
Fiji Meteorological Service http://www.met.gov.fj/
New Zealand: Russell Radio, located in the Bay of Islands, provides weather information for the Western Pacific and runs a maritime net on 13101 kHz (16:30 to 17:30), 6516 kHz (18:00 to 18:30), 4445 kHz (18:30 to 19:00) and 4417 kHz (19:00 to 19:30).
VHF Ch. 63 Marine weather broadcast at 08:00, 09:30, 13:30 and 17:50.
New Zealand and South Pacific weather: http://www.metvuw.com/
New Zealand Metservice : www.metservice.co.nz
Taupo Maritime Radio (New Zealand) forecasts fort subtropical SW Pacific on 6224, 8297, 12356, 16531 kHz at 0903 and 2103Z