Sailing Totem: South Pacific Cruising in 2021

Should you set of for the South Seas this year? Well… that depends.

January 25, 2021

Another day, another boat talking about heading to the South Pacific this year.

What are they thinking?

That’s my first reaction, anyway. To be clear, there are some scenarios that make sense. I’ll get to that: more generally, it does not make sense for most boats at this time. But it seems that the hope of vaccine availability, and perhaps unbridled or uninformed hope, has prompted many plans to head that way regardless.


Stepping back: right now, there are exactly two countries conditionally open to foreign yacht arrivals in the South Pacific. Both require advance permission, which is not assured. Let’s review.

First: some context. The Pacific Ocean is ^%#*ing HUGE. When people get to French Polynesia and crow “we’ve crossed the Pacific!” – no. They are about one third of the way. There’s a lot of ocean not yet “crossed.” Ballpark, in very round numbers: it’s about 9,000 nautical miles across, and Panama (or Mexico) to the Marquesas is about 3,000 nautical miles.

ocean tracking map
Crossing the Pacific Behan Gifford

Second: let’s look at those two countries that offer the possibility of arrival: French Polynesia and Fiji.


French Polynesia’s maritime borders remain officially closed. Permission to enter is by application to DPAM (a department for maritime affairs; not related to the consulate). Many have been allowed, but plenty boats from a range of flags have been declined. (It does seem that local yacht agents may have better luck with the process. We had a great experience with an agent in 2010, and had contacted Tahiti Crew for services last year before COVID blew up. Kevin Ellis at Yacht Services Nuku Hiva has assisted others.)

For crews who obtain permission to arrive in French Polynesia, the duration of stay allowed is based on nationality. 90-day visas are granted; French Polynesia stopped issuing Long-Stay Visas (LSVs) last year. EU nationals are able to stay longer. In our experience those 90 days will fly by, although that’s not unreasonable for a boat planning to get all the way across to Australia in one non-cyclone season.

Marquesan anchorage
Niall spots Totem’s path into a Marquesan anchorage; 2010 Behan Gifford

Fiji’s Blue Lane initiative has, like French Polynesia, provided for conditional access to cruising boats. You must apply and have approval before embarking for Fiji. Application is made through one of few approved yacht agents. Crews must provide an advance COVID test (and another after arrival) and meet other requirements such as insurance, visa, and biosecurity. At least sea time is counted towards the 14-day quarantine! It adds up: for our crew, I priced the cost to enter at $2,140 (not including the additional required marina stay).


SO we’ve got French Poly, and Fiji. That means some big @$$ passages. It skips Tonga and the Cook Islands, Samoa and Niue too, on the way to Fiji; it means no stopping at Vanuatu and New Caledonia. All shuttered for arrivals. And then… where do you go from there? This leads us to…

Third: hurricane season options.

Since the pace of vaccine distribution suggests that 2021 will not reach levels allowing other countries in the Pacific to open their borders 2021, destinations for hurricane season are limited. But let’s focus on typical off-season cruising destinations for the South Pacific: Australia and New Zealand. Both offer distant possibilities, neither can be counted on unless you are a repatriating national. For the non-nationals:

  • Hope that Australia provides “emergency” access again. After the scare of a big cyclone tearing through Fiji this season, some boats did go on to Oz. They were required to quarantine in a hotel room selected (and serviced: here’s breakfast!) by the government, at the yachties’ expense, while the boat is (also at their expense) in a marina. Expensive.
  • Pony up for a New Zealand refit. Commit to spending $50,000 NZD (about US$35,000) in New Zealand on vessel refitting and maintenance work, and you can apply for entry. It is not a guaranteed pay-to-arrive, boats have been turned down; but it is one gating factor that opens it as a possibility for non-NZ crews. Damn, this is actually near the level of our annual budget!

Why are people going?

I mentioned at the beginning that there are a few circumstances where it makes sense to set off. Below are the scenarios, but the crews I read about looking to cross … mostly don’t fit into the criteria for following through on them. Basically: the options aren’t horror shows, but they are either quite expensive (fine if you’ve got it), quite inconvenient, or quite significant passages.

  • Exit and return to French Polynesia. Leave the boat at a marina French Polynesia and fly out. After 90 days outside the country, your visa clock is reset and you are granted another 90 days. This may be a hardship for many ‘typical’ cruisers who don’t have a land base waiting for them, but it is an option.
  • Route to Hawaii (if immigration status permits) and from there, back to the North American mainland – or back south to French Polynesia again after spending the requisite 90 days outside of the country. Must have immigration status that allows entry to the USA and love long passages. And once you’re there, anchoring permits cost more than a marina in Mexico and marina waiting lists are real. So not many choose this path because, well, it’s harder.
French Poly to Japan
Cool bonus option: sail the 5,400 miles from French Poly to Japan! SV Maple
  • Make a North Pacific loop to Japan. Friends on the Leopard 384, Maple, have made plans to sail from French Polynesia to Japan (then, onward home to Canada), which frankly sounds pretty sweet although it may be thwarted by a leaky fuel tank. We’re rooting for them!
  • Nationals repatriating as is the option available to Aussies and Kiwis – who are still subject to quarantine. (That’s over $6k per person in New Zealand!)

Since the rest of the South Pacific (and most of the North Pacific) is closed, and offers NO indication of opening anytime soon (regardless of protocol, regardless of vaccines – in fact, Vanuatu and New Caledonia just doubled down to be 100% clear on their we’re-not-open status), it is baffling to me that there’s so much murmuring about plans for the Pacific.

2010: will never forget these friendly Fijian boys who showed us a trail to the ridgetop. Behan Gifford

I suppose that’s a little like wondering why back in our home country so many activities are opening up despite transmission risks being pretty much worse than ever. Pandemic fatigue is real! If one were to believe that vaccination distribution will occur widely and quickly (despite all evidence to the contrary), it might be possible to have this hope. But it’s not happening quickly, and vulnerable countries have no more incentive to take the risk now than they did in 2020. I really don’t know what most people making plans are thinking.

Here on Totem, we just keep on keepin’ on. You bet we want to be back in the South Pacific, and into the North Pacific, but… oh well!

Gifford family
We had such a great time with Niall on his winter break from college. Miss him terribly, although Siobhan likes having her cabin back! Behan Gifford

Our 2021 plans? Safe to say… they don’t include any big Pacific passages. Even if it weren’t for my view on the probabilities of countries opening up, we’re staring down big engine work.

Bernie meme
We got into the #berniesmittens meme – could not resist! Behan Gifford

Meanwhile, this week the memory care home where my mother is a resident had a COVID outbreak. Seventeen cases, hopefully no more, but it remains to be seen. Every single one of the residents who tested positive for COVID already had their first vaccination shot. There is plenty of reason to remain more cautious now than ever. And four known COVID variants… We hope every day to see this through without the pain in our family, as we have seen in our friends and their families, to suffer from the disease’s direct impact.

So much going on!

Join us this coming week at the Seattle Boat Show! You can register for as little as $5; Jamie and I are offering several seminars and joining the salty crews from Mahina and Kaiquest for our annual offshore panel.

Diesel engine
Diesel engines – coming to TOTEM TALKS Behan Gifford

Diesel engines – coming to TOTEM TALKS: Register here for Sunday, Jan 31st at 3pm Pacific / 6pm Eastern. What does a dumb sailmaker know about marine diesels? Come find out! The truth is that after 13 years of full-time cruising, it’s a surprising amount – and that’s out of necessity. A reliable engine is part of safe cruising, so cruisers should all know about engine care and maintenance. This session will start with a zoomed-out view of component parts, then discuss DIY maintenance including priority and commonly overlooked procedures.

Thanks to everyone who joined us for the Toronto Boat Show this past week! If you registered for seminars, ours can be replayed at leisure.


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