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
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
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
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). Amazon.com’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 Amazon.com, 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
- 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
- Know something about boats
- Able to keep oneself occupied during long passages
- Doesn't panic during crises (getting excited is not the same thing as panicking)
Notice that being a good seaman is not high on the list. Without a doubt, the most important attribute of a good crewman is
to be a good, friendly person and have a positive attitude. If someone has those, the sailing skills can be taught easily. We
met this thirty-something Welshman, for example, who had decided to volunteer as crew and go cruising without any
experience whatsoever with boats, although he had participated in other adventuresome activities. He had a sparkling
personality, had learned to be a good seaman by the time we had met him (after crossing the Atlantic and most of the
Pacific), and was eager to learn more. He was enthusiastic, polite and considerate, eager to go out and explore, learn about
new cultures and new foods, and develop new skills, and overall was a lot of fun and would make anyone an excellent
crewman. A sullen or negative person can impart his or her attitude on the entire boat and turn what should be an enjoyable
experience into something you just try to endure. Good interpersonal skills are vitally important on a small boat, because you
are with the same persons all day and all night for months at a time.
Luckily that is exactly the kind of crew we have aboard Anna. I pinch myself every now and then and make sure I am not
dreaming that I have the crew I have – both are such great people, trustworthy, and fun to be with. They are both excellent
We have a rather democratic kind of operation on Anna, and although I am skipper because I am owner and have more
cruising hours and miles, I often defer to the others’ recommendations, suggestions and desires, because I know that three
heads are better than one, for one thing, but also because I want the crew to be happy. Both of them also are easy to
compromise and always willing to work as a team. Most often we have too many wanting to do the same job – trim the sails,
handle lines, etc. – and I usually allow them to do it, even though it may be something I would like to do myself, simply
because that is part of compromising with the rest of the team, because I want to promote eagerness to work, and because I try
to ensure everyone is content.
Our watch schedule is fixed – we do not alternate times because we feel that it is better to get into a set routine rather than
rotate the less desirable shifts. Glen has the 8-12 watch, both day and night, I have the 12-4, and John has the 4-8. Our day
watches are much more flexible than at night because everyone is awake most of the day so, for example, if I want to take a
nap from 1 until 2 in the afternoon, I ask and someone else – probably both of them – will take the watch for me for the time I
want to sleep.
I personally love the midnight-until-four watch. There is something about being all alone in charge of a boat cutting through
the water in the middle of the night that is rather exhilarating to me, especially when moon reflections illuminate a wide
stretch of sea, and the solitude after being with the others all day long is refreshing. Night watch is my very favorite time when
cruising. Full-moon nights with calm seas – like tonight as I write – are absolutely exquisite.
Watchkeeping entails, among other things, keeping a detailed a log at the top of each hour: we log latitude, longitude,
course, speed, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, sea state, percent of sky with clouds, battery charge, engine
hours, and total mileage (like an odometer). This information serves two main purposes: one, if our electronic navigation fails
we can begin using dead reckoning with a solid base; and two, it forces us to monitor the weather and key mechanical
A word of warning: with the prevalence of onboard computers and electronic gadgets, the person on watch can easily
become transfixed in a movie or a game or listening to music or writing a travelogue, as I am doing now at 3:15 a.m., and
forget to check for other vessels on a regular basis. Make a rule that every ten or fifteen minutes the person on watch must
scan the horizon. If the sails need trimming they will let you know by slatting or boat motion, but a vessel can sneak up on you
if you are oblivious. Out here in the South Pacific spotting another vessel is a very rare occurrence, and it is natural to
become lazy about fulfilling the number one task of the person on watch: collision avoidance.
I offer these details on cruising only in the hope that others will gain from our experience and head out to sea themselves. It
is an extraordinary experience, and I am having the absolutely best time of my life since my honeymoon. If I – somewhat
scatterbrained, perhaps even an ADHD sufferer, a history major little skilled in mechanics, and having never even set foot
aboard a boat of any kind until I was in college – can do it, so can you.