South Pacific Cruising Notes: April to November 2013

The Bright family on their cutter-rigged sloop Yindee Plus have been cruising the world since 2009. They left Panama in the middle of April 2013 and arrived in New Zealand at the beginning of November 2013.

Published 10 years ago, updated 5 years ago

We went to The Marquesas, The Tuomotus, The Society Islands, Suwarrow, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. We highly recommend it. We loved every place we visited. The anchorages are beautiful, the snorkelling incredible and Polynesian culture is fascinating.

Charts and other Sources of Information:

There are three standard texts for the whole South Pacific: The Pacific Crossing Guide, South Pacific Anchorages and Landfalls of Paradise. Each has some merit and together they provide lots of useful information but no one of these does it all; you need recent editions of all three and then more to do this trip.

We found that the best cruising guide of all was a very old copy of Charlie’s Charts of Polynesia. This gave detailed plans and information for virtually every anchorage from the Marquesas to the Cook Islands. Sadly it doesn’t cover the whole route.

Besides the books, we had tons of digital information that we had either downloaded from the internet or obtained from other cruisers, and we made good use of a lot of this. Especially helpful were Noonsite info. on each country; google earth images of anchorages; and online cruising guides or blogs. We still had holes in our knowledge sometimes though. On the way to Fiji, we realised that we only had a lat / long for Savusavu, a new port of entry, but eyeball plus chart, in good light got us in fine.

We’d heard from chart experts at the Annapolis Boat Show that electronic charts for the South Pacific were worthless but, after toying with the idea of using paper only, we decided to buy the Navionics Gold one as we can overlay our radar and AIS on it. We expected the land reference points to be inaccurate but in fact, on the “Milk Run,” it was accurate to within 100m and sometimes spot on. This was plenty good enough for most of our cruising as we always eyeball reef entries anyway. You can’t rely on the electronic charts for more remote places though; in the northern Lau islands of Fiji, for example, it was wildly off and our track showed us motoring across the middle of land masses.

We always carry paper back up charts but didn’t want the expense of buying new ones (no point anyway as the data hasn’t been updated for over a century in most cases). There were some opportunities to buy second hand (consignment stores or from other cruisers) but it would have taken some time to gather the whole lot. We bought from Bellingham, USA. Their professionally photocopied 2/3 size is a fraction of the cost of new charts and they ship them anywhere in the world.

There are some chart stores in the major centres (Papeete, Va’vau in Tonga and the ports of entry in Fiji) but you can’t guarantee they’ll have what you need. There is an excellent chart and pilot book shop on the Pacific side of Panama for any last minute purchases you need.

We also used the Lonely Planet South Pacific guide and Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. We wished we’d bought a guide for sea creatures too though.

Anchorages: Rolly or Not?

We hardly spent any time rolling at anchor on the Milk Run, thankfully, but we didn’t visit the Galapagos, Pitcairn or Easter Island. Most of the island groups have coral reefs which protect from swell but the Marquesas are newer geologically and don’t. We had planned to spend most of the three weeks in Nuku Hiva, where there are two non-rolly anchorages (Daniels Bay and Anaho Bay). The port of entry there, Taiohae Bay, was terrible though; we had to put the lee-cloths back up to stay in bed!

There are plenty of good, safe anchorages within each island group, apart from the Southern Cooks which we chose to avoid for this reason. Many are deep (20m or more) and if you have 100m or more of anchor chain you’ll have more choice. Having said that, a couple of boats we know carry only 60m of chain and they managed to find places shallow enough (or picked up moorings) at every island they visited.

Costs of Cruising the South Pacific:

Everyone said that the Pacific was extortionately expensive, but we actually managed to spend less money cruising here than in the Caribbean.

Getting through the Panama Canal presents fixed costs, and French Polynesia and the Galapagos are ludicrously expensive, but it gets cheaper as you go west.

We skipped the Galapagos completely after calculating that a week or so there would cost about $1000 (including tours etc). In French Polynesia, there’s no charge for European boats to clear in and anchorages are free. The key to spending little else while you’re there is to provision massively before you leave Panama. We stocked up in the USA, Grand Cayman and Panama with enough food for six months; it saved us a fortune in the long run. We also stocked up well with alcohol and our copious supplies of Cuban rum, Panamanian beer and South American wine lasted until we got to Fiji, which is cheap. Carbonated mixers are expensive so use coconut water or Tang sachets instead.

If you have bikes on board then you can save yourselves money on transport costs. Most of the islands have coast roads which are level and well maintained.

Coin-op laundries are almost non-existent and the service washes are very expensive. If you have a watermaker then you’ll be able to launder whenever you like by hand. We don’t, so did ours when there was access to shore taps (Anaho Bay in Nuku Hiva, Papeete Town Quay; Cooks Bay in Moorea; the marina in Apia, Samoa; and the marinas in Fiji). We carry 900L of water in our tanks and can make this last 8 weeks (it helps to have three males on board who don’t like washing!) and this was fine for our needs. We had hoped to catch rainwater, especially in the Marquesas, but we had hardly any rainfall while we were at anchor during the whole six months.

If you spend longer than one season in the Pacific and need to do serious re-provisioning then Pago Pago in American Samoa is apparently the place to go (lots of big supermarkets with USA prices). Tonga and Fiji also have supermarkets with cheaper food, but the range of goods isn’t as extensive.

We’d been told that fresh fruit and veg was hard to come by in the South Pacific, but that wasn’t our experience at all in most places. You’ll be disappointed if you want apples, strawberries or oranges, but grapefruit, papaya, limes, coconut, pineapples and mangos are plentiful in season. Local people will often sell their surpluses outside their houses and this will be cheaper than the markets. There wasn’t that much fresh produce in the Tuomotus, but it was easy to provision first in the Marquesas (good market in Nuku Hiva).

Duty-free diesel is available at most of the major centres and will save you money. We didn’t see duty-free petrol anywhere.

Surprisingly, the few marinas that exist in the South Pacific were much cheaper than we expected. Apia in Samoa was the only island we visited where it was obligatory to go into the marina, but it was only about $20* a night. The cheapest berths of all were in Fiji ($15 a night, or $5 for a mooring).  Even inexpensive French Polynesia, the town quay in Papeete was only about $50 a night. *Prices in US dollars.

Propane/butane was available in every large centre, but it got progressively cheaper as we went west. Avoid filling in French Polynesia if you can, to save money. The most convenient filling point was Vuda Point in Fiji as the propane station is right next to the marina.

Kids and Kid Boats

We’d heard that there were plenty of kid boats in the Pacific and it’s true. Shelter Bay Marina in Panama was teeming with them and Wilf and Sid have had very few periods without friends to play with in this ocean. Most kid boats seem to be following the regular milk run route westward and it’s easy to keep in touch or travel together. Once you get to Tonga and Fiji, there are NZ families cruising in their ‘backyard’ and even more opportunities for kid social life. That continued in New Zealand as a large chunk of cruisers heads there for the summer.


The Internet is available in the main centres but not at great speeds and it’s expensive. We expected this and did without it for chunks of time until we got to Fiji where we enjoyed great Vodafone coverage and a cheap dongle.

We used the SSB modem for simple emails and weather grips and wouldn’t have been without it. An SSB radio is one piece of kit we think is essential for cruising in this region. Joining an ad hoc radio net can really enhance your cruising experience. A small group of us started one when we left Panama (the Southern Cross net); it lasted all the way to NZ by which time it had gathered 83 participants! Thanks to Alan of Tuatara for being the ‘Father of the net’.

Temperatures and Weather

While we were provisioning in sweltering Panama, we worried that the tropics here would simply be too hot for us, but as soon as we had sailed away from there the heat relented. Apart from Samoa, where it was very sweaty (but worth it), we were comfortably hot most of the time. It was often cold in the sea though. I had to wear a wetsuit for snorkelling trips and needed a windproof jacket for the dinghy rides back.

A new ocean brings a whole new batch of weather to adjust to. The South Pacific has the most complex weather patterns we’ve experienced so far. If you have an Atlantic passage behind you then don’t expect the south-east trades here to act like the northeast trades there. When we crossed from the Cape Verdes to Barbados a couple of years ago, we set up the sails and hardly touched them for 16 days. Our passage from Panama to the Marquesas couldn’t have been more different. We made constant sail changes and adjustments to deal with winds from the east, northeast and even north, but hardly ever from the south-east! The light winds were tough on the sails and rigging. Most boats arrived with sail repairs to make, and some had rigging issues to deal with too.

After French Polynesia, the weather becomes much more unpredictable! The trade winds do blow for long periods but are often accelerated because they’ve been squashed by other weather systems. Most of us sat tight in anchorages while the winds blew 25 – 30 knots and the seas built up, but once they moderate the airs become light pretty quickly; we burnt a lot of diesel over the six months.

The South Pacific Convergence Zone is another weather phenomenon to get to grips with. You can read whole chapters on it in the guides, but the basic rule is to know where it is (it moves around) and expect unpredictable wind, squalls and rain.

In fact, probably the only stressor for us over this season has been the weather. You have to watch the forecasts all the time. Fortunately, most of the passages are of 5 days duration or less, so you’ll have a reasonable idea of what to expect before you leave and if you pick a route with lots of protected anchorages then there’s always somewhere safe to wait for weather.

Good sources of weather info have been Passage and when the internet has been available. Otherwise, gribfiles via SSB can be supplemented with various weather forecasts through saildocs. Bob Mcdavitt’s Sunday weathergram was always a hot topic of conversation between the boats.

The passage to New Zealand is at the back of everyone’s minds. There is a wealth of information about this and you would do well to read lots of it. We felt a lot happier about the prospect of the passage once we’d worked out what we needed to do to make it comfortable. Our objective for the trip was ‘no scary weather’ and we managed that just fine. Contrary to the horror stories you tend to hear, we met Kiwi cruisers in Tonga who’d made the trip countless times and never seen more than 25 knots, although of course, we did meet some others who’d been bashed up on the trip. We had a slow passage (10.5 days from Fiji) with headwinds, no winds, adverse currents and squalls, but we didn’t have anything that we hadn’t experienced before, and neither did most of the other boats on our net. To the majority of us it seemed like any other ocean passage; good days and bad, some breakages and equipment failures but nothing extreme. We did manage to bend our Hydrovane shaft on the way from NZ to Australia six months later, however, but that’s another story!

We were more scared of getting caught up in an early cyclone in the Pacific actually. While we were in Fiji in late October there was the threat of a revolving storm forming and we did some panicky investigations into bolt holes. The truth is… there aren’t that many and the best one, Vuda Marina, was full. We were glad to get south.

Time Spent in the South Pacific:

Six months is a very short period of time to cruise the South Pacific. About twelve weeks of that were passage making and there were sometimes several days of waiting for weather windows before each one. It doesn’t give a huge amount of time to visit each country and even less time to relax. If we could then we’d have spent another season here at least.

Another season would have given us the time to get off the beaten track a little more too. We’ve had an amazing social time with the other cruising boats, but have sometimes yearned to be in those exotic locations alone and in a position to really get to know some locals.

If you stayed longer then you’d have to consider a cyclone plan. Many boats go south to NZ or Australia, (or to the Gambiers) but you could go to the northern South Pacific islands instead. If you stay in the cyclone belt then you could go to Tahiti or Fiji. Fiji has a couple of really good hurricane holes (Vuda Marina or Savusavu) but is much more likely to suffer a direct hit. Keep an eye on the El Nino situation though. In those years, the cyclones can affect land as far east as the Marquesas.

Clearing In and Out:

The South Pacific was a breeze after the hassles of Latin American procedures. Without exception, all officials were polite, friendly and efficient (although not always quick). At no point did we, or any boat we know, have food taken off them until we got to NZ. Most boats were boarded somewhere in French Polynesia by the customs officials. We were embarrassed when we were asked to produce our alcohol. It looked like an enormous quantity when it was piled in the saloon. They were cool about it though.

Long Passages:

We did the following:

  • 35 days Panama to Marquesas (yes, that’s 5 weeks!)
  • 4 days Nuku Hiva to Tuomotus
  • 3 days Tuomotus to Tahiti
  • 5 days Bora Bora to Suwarrow
  • 5 days Suwarrow to Samoa
  • 2 days Samoa to Tonga (NTT)
  • 2 days NTT to Va’vau, Tonga
  • 3 days Tonga to Fiji
  • 10 days Fiji to New Zealand

You just have to get into a different mindset from cruising a region where the distances between places are smaller.

Boat Preparation:

Make sure your sails and rigging are in tip-top shape before you start. The thread holding the UV strips on the sails seems to perish easily in this area and once the UV strip starts coming off it has a tendency to rip shreds out of the sail too.

Our other best bit of kit, besides the SSB radio, was our Hydrovane wind steering system. It’s no joke hand-steering for thousands of miles and we met several people who had done due to auto-pilot failure. If you have to use an electronic system to steer the boat then bring along a whole bunch of spare parts, and know how to fit them.

Best Bits:

We loved it all and it’s hard to choose. Many people told us that French Polynesia is the best bit but we don’t agree necessarily. It’s very beautiful and the diving etc. is spectacular, but culturally we felt that the Pacific west of this was much more interesting.

We really enjoyed learning about the region’s geology and seeing different stages of atoll formation in the places we visited. It was great to find out about local economies too; copra production, black pearls, vanilla and sugar cane to name a few.

Our highlights were:

  • Hiking in Nuku Hiva
  • Snorkeling in the Tuomotus
  • The Heiva Festival in July in Tahiti
  • The Tuila Festival in September in Samoa
  • Suwarrow Nature Reserve
  • Chilling out in the Va’vau group of Tonga
  • Curry and all things Indian in Fiji

Miscellaneous Tips:

When stocking up with beer cans, buy ones completely wrapped in plastic rather than with the ring plastic at the top: over long periods of time the chafe between the cans causes them to leak beer!

Fiji has strict rules on alcohol imports so keep tabs and drink most of it before you get there.

Samoa is now on the New Zealand side of the International Date Line, but American Samoa is not.

There are about 60 uncharted reefs/shoals between Tonga and Fiji.   Put them on your charts before you make the passage. Uncharted Reefs in Fiji – Tonga. We heard a tale about a boat hauling in a fish they’d just snagged, only to find that they could see the bottom when they went to pull it over the transom – mid-ocean!

The cheapest place to buy black pearls is at the pearl farms in the Tuomotus. This is technically illegal so some creative stowage may be advisable. We didn’t buy any as we don’t like to do anything illegal, but if you have some, you can get them made into lovely jewelry in the back streets of Papeete.

The baguette is subsidized in French Polynesia, so you’ll be able to afford as much as you like!

Susan Bright
SY Yindee Plus

The Bright family on their cutter-rigged sloop Yindee Plus are in Indonesia at the time of posting, having begun their extended cruising from the UK in 2008. Their blog has lots of interesting reports and twin sons Sid and Wilf have their own blogs also.

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