Pacific Ocean Passage to French Polynesia
After three years our Pacific crossing loomed
By March 2022 Jim and I had sailed over 12,000 nautical miles. Starting in the South of France in August 2018 we’d sailed east to Sicily where we spent our first winter and then to Greece where we sailed for four months in the Mediterranean summer. We headed west stopping in Malta, Sardinia, Spain, Gibraltar and then onto Lanzarote where we prepared for our first ocean crossing. We crossed the Atlantic to Antigua via the Cape Verdes islands in December 2019 however the Global Pandemic slowed us down and we spent two years in the Eastern Caribbean, with 12 of those 24 months in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. We then sailed to Dutch 'Sint Maarten' for three months followed by Bonaire spending five months there and finally by November 2021 we spent time in Colombia followed by Panama. When we heard that French Polynesia was fully open to yachts once again after the restrictions of the Pandemic, we were keen to sail there and continue to progress westward as part of our circumnavigation.
Atlantic vs. Pacific
Setting out to cross the Pacific felt much more intimidating than crossing the Atlantic. In crossing the Atlantic you have shorter passage options and when you arrive where most do on an East to West route, in the Eastern Caribbean, you are back in an environment which is well set up to help boats fix things, get parcels and is generally well connected for outbound travel and to receive visitors. In getting ready to cross the Pacific you are mentally preparing for a longer passage, anything from two to five weeks (depending on whether or not you stop en route to the Galapagos, boat characteristics and weather conditions) and you are also aware that when you arrive, the islands will be very isolated in every way. The conditions too are different from an Atlantic crossing. Generally speaking, the trade winds in the Pacific are less stable and so you are more likely to have less consistent and less favourable conditions for sailing. And as usual with life on a boat, things are likely to break partly due to the hostility of the salty environment, and this is magnified on a passage across the largest ocean in the world where your boat may be under considerable pressure for a long-sustained period.
Preparing Ourselves and the Boat
Living on a boat means we need to maintain everything all the time and on a longer passage there’s a lot to keep in check: have we provisioned adequately for the passage taking into account scenarios with serious delays?, is the rigging that holds up our sails in good order so everything doesn’t fall down?, are the lines we use to both hoist and shape the sails ok or could they chafe through and snap?, are the sails in good shape?, are the winches we use to wrap those lines around to manage our sails in good working order?, do we have any leaks that could be a cause for concern?, are we creating enough power to run fridges?, enough to keep our food cold so it doesn’t spoil?, enough to use our water-maker so we always have water to drink?, enough to run our autopilot so we don’t have to hand steer for many hours on end plus all the other power draws we have from the technology we use onboard. And do we have contingencies for if any or all those things fail. Above all, are we in good health? Is that minor stomach-ache appendicitis or indigestion? How will we cope if something happens to one of us? Are we both individually capable? Do we have everything we need to deal with a stomach upset, a broken toe or something much worse? The list of things to manage, monitor and worry about is a long one and so the decision to leave and start crossing the Pacific is made when there is a high level of confidence in the condition of the boat and its crew. On the other hand, realistically there may be things that are a slight concern but which we decide to live with and manage: a calculated risk taken because of a weather window or seasonal motivation to leave coupled with not having a means to fix the issue at that time in that place.
A passage to French Polynesia via the Galapagos
We decided to sail first to the Galapagos islands off the coast of Ecuador which was about 1,000 miles from our departure port of Panama. We would spend a few weeks exploring and learning about the islands, its creatures and their impact on Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. The passage there was uneventful and took six days in light wind. We split our time between three of the main islands: San Cristobal, Isabela and Santa Cruz. We hiked glorious trails along sheer cliff edges and beside enormous volcanic craters, we swam in pristine, cool swimming holes along those hikes and visited endemic species in their habitat such as the Galapagos Penguin, the many species of Galapagos Land Tortoise, the Galapagos Marine Iguana, the Blue Footed Booby and the Galapagos Shark. We were also lucky enough to dive with some Hammerhead sharks. In addition, our boat became a kind of hotel, lounge area and toilet for the many Galapagos Sea lions who visited and this meant we could appreciate these gorgeous but smelly creatures up close and personal, try as we did to politely deter them. We saw rays of every type imaginable too including Manta Rays, Mobula Rays, Sting Rays and Golden Rays. We also body-boarded and surfed on a beautiful stretch of beach on the island of Isabela. But, after three weeks in these protected islands it was time to leave again, this time for the longer leg of the trip, about 3,000 miles to the Marquesas islands in French Polynesia.
Last Minute Issues
Finally, we did the last three rounds of provisioning and checked out. Knowing this might be the longest ocean passage of our lives, we were apprehensive and silence filled the space around us. In our naivety and innocence years earlier, we imagined doing this passage with all aspects of the boat in perfect working order. However, anyone who lives on a boat full time will know that keeping everything working all the time is a constant battle and the reality was, we were in the isolated Galapagos islands and we had to leave despite the fact that our generator had stopped working. Our generator is our backup means of charging our batteries if there isn’t enough sun for the solar panels to do the same. We need our batteries to run all electronics on the boat including the instruments and autopilot. But our time was up, and we had to leave. Jim managed to do a temporary fix although we were unconvinced it would last. In addition to that breakage, our starboard engine was also damaged from a botched job during our recent haul out in Panama so, if we needed to motor any distance or manoeuvre upon arrival, we would use only our port-side engine. We had to accept that we were starting this passage on the back foot and that is part of sailing and living onboard full-time: you adapt and improvise.
Departure at last
As we pulled up the anchor the constant squalls that had been circling the islands raged on furiously showing no signs of abating. We couldn’t see more than what seemed like 100 feet in any direction. It looked and felt as bleak as could be, an ominous start to say the least and a far cry from the idyllic departure we envisioned. But we tried to focus on kick-starting our on-passage routine feeling pretty sure it was just a matter of getting into it and getting on with it. After all, this was to be about a three-week passage and there were bound to be good days and bad days. What difference did it make if the first day was a bit of a downer? As is often the way on the sea though, the dark clouds soon gave way to bright blue skies as we got about two miles away from the islands and before we knew it, we were sailing into the sunset with a hot dinner on the table now that the sea had also calmed making for a surprisingly smooth start. The first days were all about Jim and I trying to settle into our three-hour watch rotation and this was made easier by the fact that with such light wind there was little noise to disrupt the sleep of whomever was off watch. I was getting through the books I had downloaded on my Kindle too and so despite a rocky start we were quite content except for the fact that we were motor sailing south (using our port-side motor only) to try and pick up the trade winds. But pick them up we did and by the end of the second day we turned off the engine and were sailing quickly at an average speed of nine knots.
Not all plain sailing
Before we left Galapagos we swapped satellite email addresses with a group of boats leaving for the same destination. Sending and receiving daily updates within this group was a great lifeline to stay connected with people undergoing similar challenges. On our fifth day we received a shocking email from one of these boats to say that they had just been dis-masted that morning. That's another story and not ours to tell but it was a reminder to us of our vulnerability. We didn’t need to wait long until we had an issue of our own although a less fundamental one. I was sitting at the cockpit table and Jim was at the helm. The wind was blowing no more than 13 knots however we were getting continually whacked by side swell and we got one whack too many which caused our already fairly tightly sheeted-in boom to jerk violently. We heard a pop and then a tearing noise. I saw white thread raining down on Jim like snow as he looked up to see its source. The Main Sail had torn itself from the leech to the luff (the entire horizontal width of it) close to its widest part just under the first reefing point and now the separated part began to whip around wildly. We quickly furled the Gennaker so that I could then hold the boat into the wind while Jim put the first reef in the Main Sail to protect the ripped segment and so that we could continue to use the now smaller sail. At first, we were a little shocked but as is necessary you accept these things because you have no choice. The new reality meant we would have to sail with one reef in the Main Sail regardless of how light the winds became, and we would need to have it repaired on arrival, a costly breakage but not the end of the world.
The Challenges continue
Two days later as I stood at the port helm, I noticed a little sunlight shining through one of the seams in the Main Sail and sure enough there it was: the beginning of the next seam was also about to give way. These sails are the original ones and so is their thread. After ten years the UV damage was taking its toll and so we were forced to repeat the routine and put a second reef in the Main Sail thereby reducing the sail area further, leaving us with only half of the Sail and a bigger repair job on our hands. This was particularly annoying because we had gone to the trouble of removing it and our Genoa in February for a sail loft to inspect, advise and reinforce where necessary. A few days later we heard an almighty bang and simultaneously saw our enormous Gennaker falling from its attachment point on the mast into the water. Cue another emergency sail manoeuvre; we rounded up into the wind to slow ourselves down and then both ran to the bow where, after some effort, managed to scoop the sail out of the water and back on deck. As soon as we did, we could see a significant tear in the sail itself caused by it impacting the water. Its nearly new halyard had chafed through. Jim had inspected it only a few weeks earlier and there was no sign of deterioration. I started to ponder what would happen if the remainder of our Main Sail ripped and our Genoa too. That would just leave the Spinnaker, a sail we are not usually willing to use at night due to the drama of getting it down- so, our means of getting to our destination would be severely impaired. But it wasn’t that bad yet. We did still have half the Main Sail and we did still have our trusty Genoa and Spinnaker. We were now simply looking at a slightly slower journey and sadly more expenses to worry about later on. Again, it could have been much worse. We had a few more comical but thankfully minor mishaps too which included: Jim’s cabin getting flooded with rainwater from a table where it gathered and sloshed into his window (twice) while he tried to sleep, one of the ridiculously expensive but crucial winch handles getting pinged out of its holster and into the ocean by the one of the Main sheets, the life raft nearly falling out of its emergency compartment into the ocean and the wooden bow-seat getting ripped off but thankfully bounced across the trampoline when the Spinnaker-Guy got caught under it for a moment or two. At this point I began to look at the boat in a new way, every creak a potential disaster waiting to happen.
We were now well into our passage though and aside from the drama so far things were good. In fact, we were sailing fast at between seven and eight knots although we couldn’t help but realise that we would probably be going much faster with our full sail selection. Nights were not so peaceful, the broad reach angle which had us going so quickly also meant we had a big loud sea hitting us side-on every night making sleeping difficult. Random waves like missiles hit the side of the boat causing Jim and I to literally jump from where we lay during our respective sleeping times. On passages like these it really does boil down to the simple things; are you drinking enough water, getting enough food, mentally stimulated and are you getting enough rest. With rest probably being the thing most likely to suffer we did everything we could to protect our precious sleep and daytime napping was absolutely essential to avoid becoming too over-tired.
The Final Strait
Life onboard became steeped in a comforting routine, and we were coping well with what some would find a mundane existence by contrast to our recent ‘excitements’. In fact, on an ocean passage uninterrupted routine is a good sign. It means things are not breaking (anymore). When things break everything gets turned on its head and the actions taken to remedy whatever the issue is can be exhausting. No, I have no complaints about sitting in the dark under the stars clutching a cup of warm tea in between looking on AIS, radar and reading my favourite books. Later, watching the sun’s first appearance gradually as it emerges lighting up the once dark sky, the start of a new day once again has been witnessed. A true and simple privilege. And there is something soothing about producing a tasty meal which we both really want, need and enjoy, taking time over that meal to catch up before we go our separate ways, one downstairs to sleep for three hours the other in charge of keeping us and the boat safe. On and on it goes, this great rotation like ground hog day for days and days which somehow has the effect of seeming to make time speed up until there are probably only few more dinners on this passage, only a few more sunsets, sunrises, moon rises and sets. The original urgency to arrive is put on hold for a little bit while you savour things just as they are within these beautiful, perfectly balanced days which could have no place or purpose anywhere other than out there in the endless blue.
Of course, this kind of romance does get replaced by adrenaline as you reach land. At its first sight, tears to eyes spring, a little silent, private gasp. After 18 days at sea, it is my last watch, and the sun has risen again. The sky so bright and blue, a good omen I think for life in the Pacific to come. The spell is breaking, interrupted by the Polynesian mountains of Nuku Hiva there in plain view. Just around that corner is Taiohae Bay and the town I looked at on Google earth from a kitchen in London, now unbelievably within reach. Soon the Tiki buildings, tropical flowers and fishermen gutting their catch will be a reality, our new landscape. Finally, after all our dreaming , we are here. Our arrival feels momentous and is made even more so because as we pull into the bay, we are greeted by some of the first sailors we became friends with in the Mediterranean three years earlier. They bid us adieu when we left Greece as new live-aboards then and they are here now to welcome us over 16,000 nautical miles later. The nights and the days that follow are full as we share stories with these old friends and with new ones too. Arriving here is a kind of reset to me, it’s another important opportunity in our journey to take stock and decide the kind of sailors we want to be as we continue our journey west and try to learn something from what we have done and where we have been before.