Over the last 35 years, this three-time circumnavigator has undertaken four voyages to the Pacific Ocean, roaming its waters far and wide, from southern Chile to Alaska and from Easter Island to Papua New Guinea, with visits to every island group in between.
A voyage to the islands of the South Seas figures in most sailors’ long-term plans, but their remoteness, which is one of their main temptations, keeps them beyond the scope of the average voyage. This is why, despite the proliferation of yachts worldwide, the number of boats cruising in the South Pacific Ocean is still relatively small and isn’t likely to increase much in the foreseeable future.
No other part of the world offers so many cruising opportunities and diverse attractions as the South Pacific, from French Polynesia’s spectacular anchorages in the Marquesas to the turquoise lagoons of the Tuamotu Archipelago, from the giant statues of Isla de Pascua, or Easter Island, to the traditional villages of Vanuatu, the sheltered waters of Vava’u, in Tonga, and the remote island communities of New Zealand’s Tokelau and the nation of Tuvalu. The vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and the great distances that separate most island groups, make long passages a normal feature in this part of the world. The islands’ isolation and scarcity of facilities require that boat and crew be well prepared and self-sufficient.
The safe sailing season in the South Pacific is well defined, with the weather usually fairly benign in the eastern part of this vast ocean. For sailors arriving from the east, the most critical decision concerns the timing of one’s 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 most transits occurring in February and March. This is also the time when boats sailing from Mexico and Central America should start leaving for the South Pacific. Those who plan to sail in one season all the way to Australia or to the Torres Strait north of it need to reach the Marquesas not later than April to be able to cover the considerable distances ahead of them in only five months. Those with more time on their hands may decide not to sail the usual route from the Galápagos to the Marquesas but to make a detour to Easter Island and arrive in French Polynesia by that route. From Tahiti, in French Polynesia’s Society Islands, the classic trade-wind route continues to the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Australia, with countless worthwhile diversions en route.
For sailors starting from the eastern coast of the United States or Canada, a voyage to the South Pacific may be easier to accomplish if it’s planned as part of a complete circumnavigation, because the prevailing conditions are then used to best advantage. Sailors hailing from the U.S. West Coast who aren’t tempted by a complete round-the-world voyage have the choice to return home by way of a shorter Pacific circular voyage. The turning point of such a voyage can be either Australia or New Zealand, from where the return route must dip south to make the necessary easting in the area of prevailing westerly winds. Having reached the Austral Islands, the southernmost island group in French Polynesia, sailors on this route turn north to Tahiti and continue via the Line Islands to Hawai’i and eventually home again to the States.
Weather and Seasons
As in other tropical areas of the world, the best weather conditions in the South Pacific are a feature of the winter months, May to October, and for this reason, most sailors plan to arrive in the Marquesas in late March or early April. Although officially the South Pacific cyclone season lasts from November to April, the Marquesas are very rarely affected by tropical storms, and such an early arrival can be considered to pose a low risk. The main attraction of such an early arrival, especially for those on a tight schedule, is the opportunity to use the safe cruising season to its full extent. Despite the huge distance between Panama and the Torres Strait, boats regularly cover the 9,000 miles in one season.
Most boats follow the traditional route that sweeps in an arc from Panama to the Torres Strait. Favorable southeast trade winds are the 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.
For centuries, the people of the fishing communities in northern Peru and Ecuador have used the term “El Niño” to describe an annual warming of the offshore waters during December. Because this phenomenon usually occurs around Christmas, it was called El Niño, or the Holy Child, Current. El Niño is now used to describe extensive warming of the ocean surface across the eastern and central equatorial Pacific. It’s now accepted that El Niño affects weather far beyond the South Pacific. The latest El Niño episode occurred between 2009 and 2010. When the ocean temperatures revert to a colder period, it’s now commonly referred to as La Niña. During a period of La Niña, sea-surface temperature across the equatorial eastern Pacific Ocean can be lower than normal by 5 F to 8 F.
During a La Niña episode, a mass of cold water from the eastern South Pacific is pushed westward by the easterly winds and accumulates in the western part of the South Pacific. The rapid evaporation of the cold water as it collides with the warm air mass can cause widespread climatic disturbances. This happened during the current La Niña episode, in January 2011, when torrential rains caused disastrous flooding from Queensland, Australia, to Sri Lanka, off the southern coast of India.
A constant feature that affects weather conditions throughout the tropical South Pacific is the South Pacific Convergence Zone. The S.P.C.Z. stretches in an east-southeast direction from about 5 S, 155 E to 20 S, 150 W and can influence weather conditions all the way from Tahiti to the Solomons, although its effects are particularly felt in the central area between French Polynesia and Tonga. The S.P.C.Z. moves northeast during El Niño and southwest during La Niña events. The location and movement of the S.P.C.Z. are monitored by the Fiji meteorological office.
The route from Panama to the Torres Strait passes through some of the most attractive cruising destinations in the world, with a choice of alternative itineraries all along the way. There are three major alternatives to reach Tahiti from Panama, each with its own attractions. Those who are keen to reach the South Seas as quickly as possible have the choice of sailing the direct route from the Galápagos to the Marquesas. While this is the fastest way to reach Tahiti, a tempting alternative is to sail a more roundabout route that swings south from Galápagos to call at such rarely visited places as Easter Island and Pitcairn. The latter is still home to the descendants of Bounty’s mutineers, and visiting sailors are always assured of a warm welcome. By this route, landfall in French Polynesia is made at the Îles Gambier, where, as in the case of arrivals in the Marquesas, those islands shouldn’t be reached before the end of March as, occasionally, cyclones, or at least their effects, have been felt as far east as the Gambiers and even Pitcairn.