Cruising Tips for South Pacific

Kelly Wright
Thu 7 Jan 2010 15:44

Kelly Wright’s overview of cruising in the tropical South Pacific



For those of you who are considering cruising on a yacht in the South Pacific, I thought I would offer a sort of summary of our experiences that might assist you in making your own cruising plans.  People not dreaming about undertaking such a voyage will probably find this of little interest, especially the long section about equipment.


To begin on a downbeat, the idyllic islands of the South Pacific are just about overrun with tourists.  It is hard to find an isolated anchorage without some form of common tourism like a resort or a cruise ship stop or a dive shop interfering with your desire for isolation and a sense of achieving something unique, which motivates many of us cruisers.  In many ways, we cruisers are no more than tourists ourselves, only using a different form of transportation.  Occasionally, however, you do find the isolated anchorage, especially in places like the Tuamotus in French Polynesia, with no footprints on the beach or even any other boats in sight.  Locals mostly treat all foreigners alike, so don’t expect favored treatment just because you traveled on your own boat.


Also, most islands now try to milk cruisers for as much as they can in the way of fees:  harbor or anchoring fees, customs fees, immigration fees, health department fees (H1N1 inspection is done in every country now), agricultural quarantine fees, trash disposal fees, etc., which can add into the hundreds of dollars.  As a cruiser you are treated differently from regular tourists in the extent of bureaucracy you have to endure – for cruisers it is not at all like the efficient processing of tourists at the airport by customs and immigration.  Usually you have to go to one department’s office, then another, and yet another, filling out forms and paying fees, and often you must be inspected on your boat by rather resentful officials who would rather be elsewhere, but want coffee or tea or Coca-Cola and a look-around.  There may be requirements for you to check in and out with officials when you travel to different ports within the same country.  And if you don’t process your entry or departure during regular working hours, Monday through Friday, you have to pay overtime to the officials.  There are a lot of inefficiencies and ridiculous regulations you have to contend with when dealing with most bureaucracies, and you must have patience and be polite with their personnel.  It is wise to print and have aboard at least 20 crew lists with passport number, date of expiry, birthdates, and addresses and it is also wise to have aboard a somewhat lesser number of photocopies of your boat’s registration certificate.  Having both to present saves a lot of time and seems to please the officials, apparently because it makes your boat’s file better documented.  Copy machines are rare.


Weather has been a disappointment this year, which is an El Niño one.  The last time I cruised in the South Pacific – it was 2002 and 2003, I think – I remember the weather being outstanding, maybe too warm.  This year, though, I would estimate that at least a half of the days have been overcast, and there has been a high percentage of rainy days and blustery winds, and often too cool at night, at least with the wind cutting through.  At anchor we have had to hunker down quite often, waiting for better weather so we can leave the boat and snorkel or go ashore, and sailing has often been quite vigorous, the seas uncomfortable.


The best part of cruising in many ways is the actual sailing – being at sea, passagemaking – when you set your sails and cut through the water for days and even weeks on end, studying the wind and the waves and the sky above, watching the seabirds and occasional pod of dolphin and flying fish, facing both long periods with little to do and the occasional short-lived crisis.  If you don’t like that part, I don’t see how cruising could ever be rewarding other than, perhaps, achieving a goal.  I personally get a bit bored just visiting islands and hanging around with other cruisers, and soon long to make a passage.


I tend to avoid most cruisers, surprisingly.  I find most conversations with them centered on sailing and boats, naturally, and somehow the same old things are repeated over and over.  Living on a boat makes me less interested in discussing such topics, I suppose.  Also cruisers are clannish as is common among any interest group, whether golfers or quilters, and use a specialized vocabulary that excludes nonmembers of the group, and I find that tiresome, even rude among non-cruisers.  Of course, fellow cruisers can pass along essential information about such things as destinations and
weather, but overall I have found that on this trip I have enjoyed non-cruisers more than cruisers, like several French people who lived and worked in Tahiti and some wonderful Kiwi vacationers we met in Aitutaki and Niue, as well as just about all the native people we have met along the way.  Cruisers are often a bit too self-assured and gabby, the latter perhaps a result of so much time at sea without company to chat with.  The worst are the singlehanders, all of whom, save one nice guy, were arrogant know-it-alls, macho, eager to prove their superiority.  There is a denigration hierarchy you find when cruising:  singlehanders belittle cruising crews, crews put down charterers, and charterers scorn regular tourists.  I hope that I am not becoming an old codger or anti-social, but I am afraid I just haven't met on this voyage many cruisers I have clicked with, although I have definitely become, I hope, fast friends with a few.  It's probably my own fault. 


There is the tough part of seafaring that all cruisers have to master, the times when it is difficult to move around the boat or use the toilet because of the rolling seas, or when you must go on deck and trim the sails in howling winds and rain, or when your main halyard breaks at two in the morning and you must get your mainsail back onboard, or any one of a thousand different crises or inconveniences.  But you get used to it – I used to be mildly susceptible to seasickness, but apparently have developed an immunity, knock on wood – and while you do not look forward to it, the tough part adds drama and builds character and when your cruising life ends, you can look back with some pride on the fact that you endured it all.  The tough times make the difference between cruising and normal tourism.


A tip about personal care:  the gastro-intestinal system apparently tends to tighten in rolling seas, almost as if the body goes into conservation mode, and regularity is affected so it is a good idea to have a supply of laxatives aboard.  A sort of opposite yet similar effect also usually occurs when passagemaking in lumpy weather:  you lose a lot of your normal appetite.  Cruising can be good for losing weight.


And a tip about personal grooming:  I have never had a boat where the mirror in the head shows as much as the mirror in the bathroom back home – apparently something to do with the difficulty in close inspection while swaying, but also because of the generally poor lighting aboard boats – so bringing along a handheld or shaving mirror that sways with you can aid the hunt for errant hairs and other grooming tasks.


And finally, a tip about personal hygiene:  often you do not run an engine for many days on end so that you have no hot water, so it is wise to bring along a backpacker’s solar shower that, if it is a sunny day, you fill and put on deck in the morning and use in the afternoon.


One of the more irksome things that plagues a cruiser is that most islands are poor and therefore have poor or even non-existent navigational aids.  Night landfalls are mostly unwise because of that.  Aids that appear on charts are often no longer to be found, victims of storms and a government unable or unwilling to replace them.  French Polynesia, is often lambasted because of its high costs, but the French are the only ones who have first-rate nav aids, as is apparent in the waters around all French-controlled islands, including not only the vastness of French Polynesia, but also New Caledonia, where I cruised before, and Wallis and Futuna, near the International Dateline.  And if there is any one foreign language that a cruiser should brush up on before setting sail in the South Pacific, it is French without doubt.  Cruisers learn a lot of local phrases in the many native languages, of course, such as “bula” and “vinaka” – hello and thank you – in Fiji, but you will never learn enough to read their native-language weather forecasts, and the French offer great weather info which you can learn to decipher without too much trouble.  But generally you can get along just fine with English alone.


Having started off with the negative, let me leaven it by saying that most of the people you encounter on every single island are very friendly and polite – even occasionally the officials – and the scenery is mostly spectacular, and even with the negatives, cruising the South Pacific is definitely worth the effort, the time and expense.  And even in those places with a heavy dose of international tourism invading your space, you are still much freer than tourists who arrive by plane or ship.  On Tahiti I would say you find the least friendly people, largely because it is heavily populated and the inhabitants suffer tourist overload.  On the whole, however, cruisers find that it is very refreshing to meet people who actually like and welcome Americans and Westerners in general, unlike the impression I often had when cruising in the Caribbean.  Although the physical environment out here is outstanding, the social environment makes the difference.


Security is hardly a concern, for one thing.  We take ordinary precautions most of the time, but sometimes none at all, even leave the boat with door open and expensive equipment lying about in open view, and we have never lost as much as a fish hook.  When walking about in the towns you don’t run into gangs of sneering young men who look dangerous, even if not.  And just about everyone is not just friendly, but polite and generous and eager to be of assistance.  Most of the native cultures take pride in being hospitable, and it definitely shows.


The Pacific was named by Balboa because from his vantage point in what is now Panama the seas were calm when he became the first European to lay eyes on them.  I think that in today’s violent world, the South Pacific is the quietest, most peaceful area on Earth, with hardly any strife, little crime, no terrorism and no piracy, and so is aptly named because of its social calm, and not because of its oceanographic qualities – especially considering the occasional tsunami.


I certainly have not visited everywhere in the South Pacific, having missed some countries close to the equator especially, but of all those places I have had the good fortune of visiting, I enjoyed Fiji the best and may well return when starting our next sailing season next April in New Zealand.  Not only are the people extraordinarily friendly – no more so than the Samoans, however – but the country has an exceptional number of islands and interesting places to explore, the reefs were generally in good condition, and the prices relatively cheap.  Having a large Indian minority with their colorful Hindu temples and exotic Islamic mosques with towering minarets just spices up what is already a great place.  A person could easily spend an entire cruising season in Fiji.  Independent Samoa I liked next best, then the Cook Islands.  One reason I favor these places over French Polynesia is that English is spoken everywhere, even on the most remote island. 


Money is occasionally a problem in the South Pacific.  ATMs are rare, so it is wise to bring as many $20 bills as possible to change at banks or currency exchange businesses.  Often locals will accept US currency if you don’t have the local tender.  Credit cards are useful at tourist hangouts, but often not at grocery stores, fuel stations, or local, non-tourist restaurants.  Moreover your credit card company will charge you a 3% fee for any transaction in a foreign currency, and it is common for local businesses to pass their 3% credit card fee on to you so that often you are paying a total of 6% extra for the convenience of credit.


Now I turn my attention to equipment, but please compare my recommendations with advice from Practical Sailor magazine, which is the Consumer Reports for sailors and takes no advertising, and other reference materials.


My boat Anna is a simple, yet sophisticated one, but one geared for the South Pacific.  While we do not have a generator or air-con or microwave oven or even an electric toaster, nor electric toilets or even an electric sump pump in the showers, we do have a satphone, an SSB, laptops, a watermaker, a wind generator, photovoltaic panels, a chartplotter/radar with AIS, an EPIRB, a PLB, a power windlass, and two power winches.  To some we may appear on the verge of camping, while others consider us living in luxury.


I would not want to go cruising out here without a good chartplotter, which does not have to be very expensive or large to prove extremely useful.  It can be a stand-alone model like we have, or it can be simply a laptop with chartplotting software and a GPS connection.  For dedicated chartplotters C-Map cartography, we have heard, is superior to Navionics, but that opinion is only from a couple of persons, while MaxSea appears to be the favorite among software-run charting programs.  We use C-Map cards and are fairly happy with them, but sometimes the data is very scanty like in some of the Fijian outer islands where our chartplotter can only go down to a range of four miles instead of the normal eighth of a mile, and what it displays at such range is very angular and unnatural and sketchy.  Any chartplotter needs to have the facility of “chart offset”, so that you can tune it by finding a fixed mark and changing the display of your boat’s location in relation to that mark.  Many times we have found our display showing our boat on land or otherwise located in a wrong position, and we then correct this using the chart offset function.  Fixed chartplotters can be very small and monochrome, and use hardly any current.  We only use our chartplotter about half the time, often turning it off during long passages when all you see is a blue field with the icon of our boat’s position on it.


Our chartplotter/radar is a Furuno NavNet 2 model, which offers a great deal of information beyond just what a normal chartplotter and radar combination does.  In tide reporting ports, an icon of a “T” appears that, when clicked, presents tidal information in a bar chart on which you can change the date and move the cursor to the exact time of day you are interested in.  And occasionally – but nowhere in the South Pacific I have found other than Tahiti and New Zealand – there is an icon of a camera that, when clicked, presents a photograph of the harbor entrance.  When outfitting this boat, the Furuno dealer wanted me to buy the most recent chartplotter system, the NavNet 3D, but when I checked their cartography – I received an email message from Furuno confirming what I had found – they had no cards that covered the Central Pacific, even though Furuno has been touting NavNet 3D for at least two years!  I therefore went with the older, but more than adequate NavNet 2 system with which I was already familiar. 


We subscribe to MovingWeather for our weather information.  It is easier to use than sending requests for GRiB files, but it has a subscription fee.  We create our request, send an email through our satphone with the request attached, then wait a few minutes, reconnect with our satphone, and receive a reply with the weather info – very similar to using regular GRiB files, except that creating the request is easier with MovingWeather and the info we receive is broken down by the hour instead of by the day with GRiB files and is more detailed.  However, just recently in the last couple of weeks I have had service issues with MovingWeather and can only recommend them with reservation.  It is best to have alternatives when it comes to receiving such important information.


We have an AIS (automatic identification system) receiver tied in with our chartplotter which displays on the chartplotter monitor other vessels that are equipped with AIS transceivers – usually only commercial vessels and megayachts – showing their position with an icon and, in a box with text, stating their name, MMSI number, length, beam, speed, course, closest point of approach, time to closest point of approach, range, and bearing.  It is occasionally useful by identifying a boat you didn’t even realize was there, and is always interesting by allowing you to read the specs of a vessel.


We also have backup paper charts for navigation.  We use Bellingham Chart Printers who re-print official charts in a monochrome in complete sets for different areas of the world and at a great discount in price.  Paper charts are necessary as a backup to electronic navigation, of course, but also serve for planning passages and anchorages and getting a better sense of the larger picture.  We have a sextant but never use it.


A cruiser absolutely has to have a reliable autopilot.  We use ours 99% of the time.  It’s a Furuno model and popular with fishermen, but we have seen it perform some crazy stunts, like doing a 180-degree turn for no apparent reason.  We have had to re-tune its heading sensor a couple of times by pushing some buttons on the control unit to set it up and then slowly turning fairly tight circles until it self-corrects.  This re-tuning can only be accomplished in calms.  Wind-vanes work great on keelboats when there is wind, but in light wind you may still need an electronic autopilot.


Communications is a very important consideration for a cruiser because all your weather information is dependent on the system you choose.  We use an Iridium satphone, which is fantastic in many ways but very expensive – sending and receiving lots of email and daily weather forecasts easily runs into a couple of hundred dollars of connect time each month, not including the expensive capital cost of the satphone itself.  Most cruisers who are on a more limited budget than we are (I am a very lucky person) use an SSB (single sideband radio) and a TNC (terminal node controller, which is a modem) connected to a computer and get their weather info free.  I have done this on a previous boat and while it is a frustrating hassle at times, and sometimes reception is very poor, there is a certain satisfaction you get by handling all the dials and controls that you don’t get using a satphone – especially when you know you’re saving hundreds of dollars in connection costs.  And using the Iridium is hardly stress-free, the connection often poor, even breaking off during transmission of data.  Nowadays most people subscribe to Sailmail or other services and get GRiB weather files instead of weatherfax charts from governmental sources, which often take 30 minutes or more to download and have skewed resolution.  Email, of course, is also sent and received through the SSB-TNC-computer connection. 


There are some active cruiser nets in the South Pacific that you can actively participate in or just listen in to, such as the Rag of the Air net, that can be useful and a good diversion.  Unfortunately our whip antenna – 17 feet long – snapped within the first month and although we repaired it as best we could, it does not receive well.  The SSB whip antenna on my previous boat also broke, and I do not recommend them – much better using an insulated stay, if possible.


A smart accessory for those who depend on radio broadcasts for weather information:  a small digital recorder so that you can record the broadcast and re-play as needed to write down the relevant information.  The broadcasts are notorious for being read in an attention-killing monotone and quickly spouting out the positions of various fronts, making it just about impossible to write down the particular information you need on just one, sometimes barely audible, iteration.  Also a folding paper map of the Pacific like you buy in a bookstore is invaluable when listening to radio forecasts that spit out lat-lon positions since it allows you to quickly pinpoint the area referred to.  We have also used our paper map – now frayed and requiring replacement -- a great deal as a quick and handy reference for general route planning. 


Everyone has a laptop nowadays and wants to stay in touch via email and check the internet when possible.  Finding wireless internet connections is now surprisingly easy in much of the South Pacific.  Every major anchorage has a wireless connection, sometimes with competing choices, but with rare exceptions it is something you have to pay for, from a low of about $25 a week to a high of about $20 a day.  We were lucky in one location – Port Denarau, Fiji, near Nadi – where a shoreside restaurant offered free wireless and we were able to pick it up easily at anchor, so that all three of us could surf the internet simultaneously without any cost.  To subscribe to fee-based wireless sometimes you have to go ashore and arrange it, or sometimes you can just sit in your boat and do it online with a credit card.  To boost reception, we have an external wireless omnidirectional aerial that boosts only a bit, but I would recommend it anyway (RadioLabs Wave RV & Marine).  I am not sure how a router would work with the paid wireless services:  I don’t have one and do not know if it would allow several people to simultaneously and independently surf the internet based on one subscription.  I will buy one in New Zealand and try it.  I suspect that dividing up the limited bandwith of a wireless line coming in would make a generally slow system even slower, but again I do not know.


Laptops are great for showing movies, too.  We have only done it once, and that with a borrowed DVD, but some cruisers have hundreds of films loaded on their computers and regularly watch.  And since most cameras now are digital, a computer is necessary to download photos and edit them, which also serves as a fun diversion.  Other software that I would recommend are ones that display the stars for your location and date, like The Sky or Stellarium (the former much, much better than the latter, but the latter is free);  a program that helps in long-range passage planning named Virtual Passage Planner;  a tide chart software like TideComp;  and software that converts imperial to metric measurements, such as This-to-That.  Translation software such as Babylon is useful to translate French or other foreign language forecasts.


Another helpful use of computers while cruising is keeping track of time zones. Since Chile we have crossed the International Dateline and I think been in nine time zones, and by finding a nearby city on its list the computer clock helps make clear which time zone you are in.  We also have two clocks, a practice I highly recommend:  one for local time, which we change as we enter a new time zone, and one that is permanently set for GMT.   As I write we are 18 hours ahead of Central Time in the US, 12 hours ahead of GMT.


I have on my laptop Garmin BlueCharts for all the areas I am cruising in.  I have a Garmin handheld GPS that I download the charts to and displays them and that we keep as a backup chartplotter, but it also can be useful to look at the charts on the laptop itself for planning purposes and to double-check the info provided by the C-Map cards.  But I have rarely found the least bit of difference.


It is not a bad idea to have a portable printer for your computer, too, to print up extra crew lists and log sheets, if for no other reason, and copies of other documents like passports that you should have copied to your computer before leaving.  And maintaining a backup drive is smart as well. 


The glare from a computer monitor ruins night vision, so if you can find an accessory  program, an applet, that will turn the computer display reddish -- a function found with every star viewing program -- you are much better off.  I had such an independent accessory on my laptop when I cruised previously but could not find one to install before I left on this journey.  You can use a red plastic film for wrapping gifts as a substitute, but it is awkward to put on and remove.


AT&T cellphones supposedly have the most widely spread international coverage through agreements with myriad other telcom companies.  I have one but, preferring the written word to the oral, am not a telephone person, so have hardly any experience and cannot advise.  I have been able to make local calls with my cellphone but have not been able to call home (for that I use the Iridium satphone), but it well may be I just don’t know what I am doing with the cellphone.  There are cellphones absolutely everywhere in the islands – it is much cheaper to put up cell antennas than to lay landlines – and so cellphone use is theoretically readily available to all.  You might have to buy a SIM card from the local provider, but again, I don’t know how that would work on a non-local phone with foreign area codes and numbers programmed in.  But if you plan ahead you should be able to use cellphones just about everywhere but the most remote anchorages, and sometimes even there.


Because of all the personal electronics everyone carries now – laptops, cellphones, digital cameras, and IPods for each crewmember – a boat needs to have several charging stations.  It is best to get 12v chargers for all such accessories rather than run them through an inverter, but a Radio Shack vehicle sort of inverter is a good idea to bring along, even if only as a backup to a built-in inverter which will occasionally fail, as ours has.  International travel plugs are a smart addition to your electronic supplies, too, especially if you plan to travel ashore and spend time away from your boat.


One piece of electronic equipment that we rarely ever use, and find little need for in these islands, is radar.  In certain situations it might prove extremely useful, to be sure, such as squall finding, but we and most other cruisers in this part of the world never seem to encounter those situations.  We always try to make landfall in the daylight, for one thing, and in this part of the world the climatic conditions are such that there is no fog.  If I were trying to cut capital costs for sailing solely in the tropics, I would consider cutting out radar, but assuming you will not always be in the tropics, you will likely need radar elsewhere, such as in New Zealand where fog abounds, even though a radar is not required there to meet their stringent Category I safety requirements.  Our radar is tied in with our chartplotter and uses the same display and can even overlay over the chart, although we have found it very difficult to tune it in sync with the chartplotter – the chart shows the headland here, and the radar shows it over there, hundreds of feet away.  We hope we can find a Furuno technician in New Zealand who will help us resolve this.  I hired one in Tahiti, and it is better than it was but still not what it should be.


For scanning the sea for vessels in the dark, I suggest instead a night vision scope which amplifies light and allows vision on the darkest night.  I would suggest at least a Generation 2 model, but a Generation 3, which is expensive, is much better.  I bought mine on E-bay, and it is a used monocular Generation 3 and is amazing.  A night vision scope also is excellent for looking at stars – it literally pulls millions out of what otherwise seems black sky.  Night vision also would be invaluable for searching for a man overboard at night.


Another item I recommend without hesitation is a pair of stabilized binoculars.  On a pitching boat they perform much better than regular binocs and, moreover, because they are so steady you can increase from the standard seven power to eight or ten power.  The Canon models are cheaper, work great, but are still not as good as the more expensive Fujinon models, which are, on the other hand, heavier and with a poorly designed handhold.  The Fujinon is waterproof, the Canon not.  We have both and invariably the lighter Canon is the one we grab.


For a dinghy we use an Achilles model (an RIB with big tubes that help keep us dry and a tough fiberglass bottom) with a Yamaha 2-stroke outboard, and have found both outstanding.  We prefer the 2-stroke for its light weight, and an inflatable for its stability and the fact that it won’t bang against the hull, although it does not row as well as a hard dinghy.  Not only do you need a good dinghy to get to shore from your anchored boat, but often it is absolutely necessary when you have to set additional anchors or try to free a stuck anchor.  We have great davits that allow us to easily pick the dinghy up and deposit it on our aft deck for long passages, where it sits on a pair of custom-made braces, ensuring that it does not move in a rolling seaway.  Having a folding grapnel anchor for your dinghy allows you to anchor in reefs and snorkel or dive there, and to secure your dinghy on a beach where there is nothing to tie to. 


Most of the time re-fueling the engines consists of taking our six jerry cans to shore in the dinghy, filling them at a gas station, then returning to the boat where we refill the main fuel tanks by siphon hose.  Fuel docks are very rare.  I do not suggest trying to fill the tanks from the jerry cans by pouring – often the deck is pitching up and down and, moreover, the jerry cans are heavy when filled and bending over trying to pour them is backbreaking.  We instead use either of two systems for siphoning – one, we place an end of a one-inch hose into the bottom corner of a jerry can then blow hard into the jerry can opening, pressurizing it so the fuel flows into the fuel tank from the other end, and two, we use a dedicated siphon hose that has a one-way valve in one end that you simply jab back and forth in the jerry can until it creates the siphon.  Either way is very easy – just sit back and let the siphon do all the work.  And we never spill a drop.


Anchors can be debated forever, but you will need at least two, better three, of different designs for the different bottoms.  One should be a plow type like a Bruce for hard bottoms, and the other a fluke type like the Fortress for soft bottoms.  Any anchor that you must set by hand – that is, not on a windlass – is best connected to a multi-plait nylon rode instead of three-strand, which is much harder to flake and stow and is rougher on the hands.  I suggest that everyone have a tripline ready to deploy with the anchor, which requires a float and line that can be varied in length for the different depths, both in order to pull a stuck anchor out backwards and to let others know the position of your anchor.  We rarely use ours but have found it quite handy on a couple of occasions for both reasons mentioned.  Another good way to recover a stuck anchor is to attach a short length of chain – five foot or so – around the anchor rode and tie a line to this chain.  You go out in the dinghy with the line, letting the chain loop sink around the anchor rode, pull on the line at the opposite angle from the direction the anchor is set from the boat in order to set the chain around the stuck anchor, then haul away, using the dinghy motor if necessary.  That often works, but not always, when you must resort to scuba diving – which we did once with a shovel!


We have a small scuba compressor that is incredibly loud to run, so we are loathe to use it and try to fill our bottles at dive shops instead.  But having a scuba certificate and gear aboard including at least one full bottle for emergencies is a very good practice.  In many ways I prefer snorkeling in coral reefs to scuba, but scuba has its place, especially in emergencies.


Part of the allure of the topics, of course, is the outstanding aquatic environment, and cruisers should definitely take advantage of it.  The reefs host some of the most interesting and beautiful colors and shapes that nature offers.  Besides the red fan corals and the impressive coral heads and the manta and eagle rays and the shoals of brightly colored fish and other large displays, there are many objects, both fauna and flora, at a more micro level that are even more fascinating and luxuriant, and a person can spend hours in a small area absorbed in surveying them all.  If you can’t even swim, then you at least need to get a glass-bottom dinghy.


A good downwind sail plan is vital for cruising these islands, as most winds are easterly.  I can’t remember more than a couple of times when we’ve had to beat into the wind.  A whisker or spinnaker pole, or even a pair of poles for duo headsails, is a smart addition, because then you can extend the clew of the sail and secure it for long periods.


Because of the heat, a bimini and other awnings for times when you are anchored are essential, too.  Unlike most cats, we do not have anything fixed in order to save weight and so we must raise and lower them, which takes only a couple of minutes.  The giant one over the aft deck has a drain hole in the middle to which we can attach a hose and collect rainwater if we want, although we never need to because we have a watermaker that desalinates seawater at roughly 30 gallons an hour.


We have a very impressive wind generator – the SuperWind – which churns out lots of amps and is amazingly quiet, and that coupled with four photovoltaic panels on the pilothouse roof make us energy independent – that is, we never need to run an engine to charge the batteries.  That is a little misleading, however, because our watermaker is engine-driven and so when we are making water we are also charging the batteries, and occasionally, of course, we run the engines because of lack of wind or because we are entering a harbor.  Having LED lights as we do helps to reduce electric demand, of course, and I recommend them highly.


Safety supplies I won’t discuss in detail.  Besides the safety gear mandated by regulation – flares, life preservers, etc. – each boatowner must take into consideration the unique characteristics of his or her boat and determine the safety needs of the crew, such as whether jacklines or even a life raft are necessary.  I don’t have a liferaft since my boat won’t sink, for example.  (I once was on a friend’s 45-foot catamaran in South Africa, built similarly with positive buoyancy, and although it sprung an inspection port for a daggerboard tackle that was below the waterline and let in a torrent of water through the six-inch-diameter hole, it only sank to deck level, and we were towed about ten miles back to shore with hardly a hair out of place on our persons, although the boat itself was a disaster.)  It would be foolish, though, not to have an EPIRB.  Bungs for failed through-hulls and a ditch bag with survival supplies and handheld communications are also good ideas.


Buying yacht supplies or having serious work done on your boat is not easy in the tropical South Pacific.  Fiji seems to be a very good place as they are deliberately trying to build up the yacht support industry and have several spots where you can haul out (depending on your size), a few chandleries scattered about, and cheap labor.  Tahiti has a lot of resources, but I only heard negative reports about the quality of the work.  Raiatea, just a day’s sail from Tahiti and also in French Polynesia, is a much better place to have work done, although the selection of supplies is much more limited.  Most everyone will try to get to New Zealand or Australia to undergo serious work.


When cruising you need to have something to occupy the long periods when you are making a passage or are merely sitting at anchor in bad weather.  Reading is what I like to do, and instead of buying boxloads of books, I use a Sony Electronic Reader that I have downloaded over a hundred books to and which I can read, magnify the print, do word searches, etc., and which saves untold bulk and weight (but is another item to keep charged).’s Kindle is another example of this kind of reading gadget.  Other people, as I mentioned, prefer to watch movies, some practice playing a musical instrument, and some even crochet or engage in other hobbies and crafts.  It is important to have ways to keep yourself busy because cruising entails an incredible amount of free time.  At anchor usually you can at least swim or snorkel, and often take interesting land tours, either by foot, bicycle or rented vehicle, but on long passages, you must entertain yourself.  An IPod or MP3 player can add a great deal of enjoyment, as can the simplest shortwave radio.


Underway we kill some time by trolling a couple of lines trying to catch fish.  One line is  a rod and reel with 100-lb test line, and the other is a yo-yo – about a foot-wide spool, open in the center where you hold it, around which the line is wound – which has 170-lb test line and to which we attach a bungy cord to the trailing line which, when extended, notifies us of a catch.  No doubt for the hundreds of dollars of fishing gear – especially lost lures – that we have purchased, we could have bought several times the amount of fish we have caught and filleted, but nevertheless fishing is a fun and interesting diversion, allows us to view fish up close we would never see otherwise, and provides us with a lot of good protein.  To see a mahi-mahi change colors so drastically from the water through dressing out is really quite fascinating.  We make or put together a lot of our own lures, which adds more interest and time consumption.  I suggest a tuna stick for a rod because it is both tough with roller-guides and short for easier storage and handling, and a big reel that allows you to use at least 100-lb test line, and best with a spool-guide for rewinding.  We have a two-speed reel but rarely ever use the low gear, and would not recommend the extra expense.  Our largest catches have been a seven-foot striped marlin, which we released since we only catch to consume, and a five-foot wahoo, which we ate.  Mahi-mahi is the best eating fish you catch while trolling, and they favor surface lures, while wahoo, the second in taste, prefer diving lures.


A fishing tip:  use a spray bottle to spray rum or other alcohol into the gills of landed fish and it knocks them out so they will not thrash around on deck, which can be dangerous with sharp-toothed species like wahoo and barracuda.  In a similar vein, in processing our catch we occasionally found roe, and it can be fried up in a skillet like eggs, which is what of course it is.  I like it best with onions, salt and pepper, and a touch of a salsa picante atop a piece of toast.


Fishing from the dinghy is a lot of fun, but not often successful for us.  You use smaller tackle and catch smaller fish (you hope) but landing them and getting them under control in an inflatable can be tricky without doing harm to the dinghy itself, and I would advise getting a rodholder for the dinghy and a landing net to make things easier.  Wet newspaper is adequate to keep the catch cool. 


The best book for cruisers wanting to learn about fishing is Scott Bannerot’s “The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing”.  It is also advisable to get fish identification books, both for reef fish and pelagic fish like tuna, mahi-mahi, wahoo, and billfish.  We don’t have one for pelagic fish and often do not know what sort of tuna we harvest.  Another wise addition to your book shelf is one on seabirds because no matter how far from land you are, you will see shearwaters and petrels and other seabirds and will want to identify them.  I have a book from the ‘80s entitled “Seabirds – An Identification Guide”, written by Peter Harrison, that is outstanding, loaded with illustrations and distribution maps and more explanatory text than you will ever need.  You can find it through, I believe.


Food has proven no problem at all.  At just about every island we can buy enough provisions to keep us going for a long time, although the variety may not be great.  There are local products we have not been familiar with and most have turned out at least fair, like breadfruit and yams.  John and Glen love to cook and both are good at it, so I rarely even have to pitch in over the stove anymore.  Fresh greens are difficult to come by – although cabbage and onions are generally plentiful – so we make sprouts almost continuously when we are underway.  They serve as a salad or as a garnish.  Fresh fruit is usually in abundance in the islands, especially coconut, bananas, papaya and mangos.  Baking bread is a pleasant and useful activity, filling the boat with a wonderful aroma, and although bread is usually readily available in stores, there is nothing quite as good as bread warm right out of the oven slathered with butter.  A yoghurt maker is an addition to the galley I plan on when reaching New Zealand.  Shopping for us Americans was best by several degrees in American Samoa, or Pago Pago as most refer to it.  There was a good selection in case quantities and the prices were low.


For clothes you will need little.  Some communities, however, expect conservative dress so men should have a pair of long trousers and women mid-calf, non-revealing dresses. The new synthetic materials that do not absorb body odors and that wash and dry easily are far better, in my opinion, than cotton.  Cheap light foul-weather gear is all that is necessary, and you do not need foul weather boots or Wellingtons.  I never put on my foul weather bottoms, but we have a helm station inside as well as in the cockpit, so we can duck out of foul weather easily.  Hiking shoes, flip-flops or sandals, and something to wear to church are all you need in the way of footwear.  I wear a pith helmet aboard because the brim is stiff all around, it is lightweight, and I found it cheap online.  I added an easily adjustable sliding chin strap to it to replace the original cinch strap.  Everyone else wears those ubiquitous Tilley-style hats, but I find their brims not stable enough in fresh winds.  And I like being unique.


I have emphasized gear but, really, overall the key to having a successful cruising season, besides having a reliable and safe boat – and I cannot emphasize this enough – is having good crew.  I would list requirements for crew in the following order of priority:

·         Have good values, be easy to get along with, be polite and considerate, be willing to compromise and share, and be a good team member

·         Have an upbeat, positive attitude

·         Like adventure and have resiliency, stamina, and endurance (that is, can’t be easily scared, can perform in unexpected moments, and can make it through long passages)

·         Must enjoy and be curious about the sea, nature, and foreign cultures