Where We Explore: Pacific Ocean

The enduring appeal of the South Pacific is among the trends that have surfaced in the latest global survey.

Whitsunday Island, Australia

Whitsunday Island, AustraliaMark Pillsbury

This vast and much ballyhooed cruising region of the world is where the numbers hint at significant change. The total number of boats cruising in the South Pacific has increased, and one reason may be the lasting attraction of the much-fantasized South Seas as well as, in the last couple years, safety concerns about other parts of the world.

Also, compared to the past, when many boats in the South Pacific continued on a circumnavigation, close to half of the North American boats and others now appear to view the Pacific as the destination, and therefore take time to explore the islands.

The Panama Canal continues to be a valuable indicator of yacht movement both between the Atlantic and Pacific, and on a global level. The peak transit time for yachts is in February and March, when waiting time on the Caribbean side can be two weeks or longer unless expedited by boat owners using local agents.

The number of transits shows an increase compared to 2000, with a total of 1,177 in 2010 compared to 790 a decade earlier. The proportion between the two directions has remained unchanged at an approximate ratio of 2 to 1, with 771 boats bound for the Pacific and 406 for the Caribbean in 2010 compared to 532 and 258, respectively, in 2000. About two thirds of the westbound boats turn north, toward the west coast of Central and North America, and the rest turn left for the South Pacific.

The restrictions applied to visiting yachts in the Galápagos Islands are still in force but since the use of a local agent has become compulsory, entry formalities have been streamlined. Visiting yachts are now granted stays of up to 20 days by the port captains in the two official ports of entry: Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (formerly known as Wreck Bay) on Isla San Cristóbal, and Puerto Ayora (Academy Bay), on Isla Santa Cruz. Compared to 180 yachts in 2000 and 120 in 2006, the number of cruising yachts has seen an unprecedented increase with a total of 395 boats having called at the Galápagos Islands in 2010. March continues to be the most popular arrival time.

While the majority of yachts continue from Galápagos along the classic trade-wind route to the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti in French Polynesia, every year a few boats make a detour to Easter Island and continue from there via Pitcairn Island to French Polynesia. They made up just over half of the 44 boats that called at Easter Island in 2010, the rest being boats en route to the Chilean canals and South Atlantic Ocean. Most boats sailing west from Easter Island stop at Pitcairn, which had 12 visitors in 2010 and 20 by August 2011.

The boats that transit the Panama Canal and head for the South Pacific are joined in the Marquesas and Tahiti by boats that have sailed from Mexico, the U.S. West Coast, or Canada. It’s estimated that approximately 150 American and Canadian boats arrive every year in French Polynesia.

As alluded to previously, about half of the North American boats now turn north from Tahiti. It’s reckoned that about 80 boats sail the circuit from the U.S. West Coast to Tahiti and Hawai’i, a circle that some attempt to complete in one season. Those who sail the longer loop to New Zealand return to Tahiti in June and continue to the mainland U.S. via Hawai’i. Those who limit themselves to the shorter loop sail north from Tahiti at the end of the safe season in the South Pacific, and either spend the winter in Hawai’i and sail home the following spring, or return to the South Pacific for another season of cruising. The number of arrivals in Tahiti is usually a good indication of the movement of cruising boats in the Pacific basin; 2010 figures supplied by the port authority of Tahiti show a steady increase in recent years, with 826 in 2010 compared to 694 in the previous year, 350 in 2006, and 442 in 2000.

According to the Tahiti Yacht Club, the figures for 2010 may be slightly high, as they refer to all recorded arrivals and therefore also include boats that have visited Tahiti more than once. Based on the figures from destinations west of Fiji, the individual arrivals in Tahiti were probably closer to 600, still showing a significant increase over those recorded in 2000.

Sailing west from Tahiti, there are several possible detours from the main route, and figures for 2010 show a significant increase in the number of boats going off the beaten track. Once a rarely visited place, Palmerston Atoll attracted an unprecedented influx of 108 boats. Another popular place, also in the Cook Islands, is Suwarrow, an uninhabited atoll where a caretaker is based during the peak arrivals time; the caretaker welcomed a total of 107 boats in 2010. Tonga’s Vava’u Group—a longtime favorite among sailors roaming the South Seas—saw a staggering 553 arrivals, an all-time record.

As Fiji is the main cruising hub in the southwest Pacific, it’s an ideal place to assess the extent of the cruising traffic in the South Seas. According to the Royal Suva Yacht Club, the Fijian capital, Suva, on the main island of Viti Levu, was visited by an estimated 400 boats during 2010. A perennially popular destination is the Musket Cove Yacht Club on the island of Malololailai, just west of Viti Levu. The owner of the Musket Cove resort founded an informal yacht club that has become the most popular watering hole in the South Seas. Altogether, 266 yachts dropped by in 2010.

Most cruising boats leave the tropics during the cyclone season and normally sail to New Zealand or Australia. Although ports in South Queensland and New South Wales, Australia, are attracting an increasing number of boats, New Zealand continues to be the favorite destination.

While the South Pacific continues to draw most of the yachts undertaking an extended voyage, the North Pacific saw comparatively fewer boats with only an estimated 30 foreign-flagged yachts calling at Hawai’i in 2010, compared to 25 in 2006 and 39 in 2000.

U.S. boats were not included in those statistics, although Hawai’i does attract many mainland American boats, and most of the yacht movement in the eastern part of the North Pacific continues to be made up of U.S. and Canadian boats commuting between North America and Hawai’i. It’s estimated that Hawai’i is visited every year by between 200 and 250 boats. Some sail from there to French Polynesia, and a few continue west toward Micronesia and the Asian mainland.

There was much more movement in Asia proper, with 88 arrivals recorded in Hong Kong, a considerable increase over the 20 arrivals in 2000, although the port authority pointed out that some of those may have cleared in more than once. However, only 10 foreign cruising boats visited mainland China, where formalities for visiting yachts continue to be both complicated and expensive. What is showing a change, however, is the rapid increase in the number of Chinese-owned yachts that are visiting neighboring countries.