Over the last few months, we've had a progressive number of questions from friends who are getting ready for their own Pacific crossing. I've aggregated the most common questions, and provided some information based on our experience this year. These answers are in the context of our 2010 path from La Cruz, Mexico (near Puerto Vallarta) to Sydney, Australia. We went through French Polynesia, the Cook Islands (stopping only in Suwarrow), Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. It is far from exhaustive, but maybe it will be helpful for some of our pre-cruising or pre-Pacific blog readers. I know I had many of these questions in my mind during the year leading up to our departure. Additions, clarifications, and questions all welcome- please comment or email me directly.
Arriving in Sydney
Q: Is it complicated to check out of the country from Mexico? How does it work?
TOTEM: Our experience with clearing Mexico (from Nuevo Vallarta) was simple, but every port seems to do this a little differently. Talk to the Port Captain to find out the process where you are. In 2010, we were doing our pre-departure prep in La Cruz, but the Port Captain did not did not do clearances at that time. He directed us to Nuevo Vallarta, so we checked out and took the boat to the Port Captain's dock (his requirement). The Port Captain called immigration to come to his office and complete our immigration clearance. A few pesos later (a nominal fee based on boat tonnage was levied- they took Visa, we didn't need currency) and you're cleared to sail away. The whole process took about two hours, most of which was spent twiddlign our thumbs waiting for immigration to arrive.
Q: How much prep work is needed to understand all the laws and rules for checking in/out of country? Did you do a lot of prep work on check in and clearance procedures for each country before you left?
TOTEM: This is easy to prep. We compared our (sometimes out of date) copy of Landfalls of Paradise with the latest on Noonsite and of course, the coconut telegraph. For US and Canadian citizens, the ONLY place _we visited_ that required a visa in advance for the standard 1-3 month stay was Australia (which is readily completed online- no embassy visit required). There were only two countries were advance notice to authorities was required: Fiji and Australia. In both cases, basic information (ETA, boat stats, crew stats) is sent via email to a generic address, with a minimum number of days before your arrival. The details are well publicized via Noonsite, the country tourism site, and are generally well discussed between cruisers in the last port.
Q: Were you happy with the agent in French Polynesia?
TOTEM: Having an agent in F.P. was a good choice for us. It is a great alternative to the hassle (especially since we don't speak French) and expense (probably at least as much, after losing money on all the transaction fees among bond requirements for our family). When you look at it that way, Francesco is a bargain... and he deals with everything, so you can just enjoy being in a beautiful place.
Q: Have you found in your stops en route to Australia that you need Third Party Liability Insurance?
TOTEM: Not a single customs/immigration official ever asked us for insurance proof- I don’t think they care. The only place we were asked if we had a policy was at a marina in Denerau, Fiji, our first dock in ~6 months. The only other marina we used (in Noumea, New Cal) did not ask. In Fiji, they didn't care what the policy was or want to see it or need a policy number or anything. They just wanted us to check the box for 'yes', which is probably a requirement of their own liability policy.
Q: Did you find the 90 FP visa restriction cumbersome?
TOTEM: 90 days seems short now, but in hindsight, we would have spent less time in F.P. Once we decided that we were going all the way to Australia (an epiphany when we were in Tahiti)- suddenly, 90 days was way more than we needed to allocate to FP, and we would rather have had the days in Fiji or Vanuatu.
Q: Did you encounter any issues with the restrictive NZ laws when you went through the Cooks i.e. dumping meats, veggies, fruits, etc.
TOTEM: Our only stop in the Cooks was in Suwarrow. The resident caretakers in Suwarrow were very reasonable- be respectful and responsible, but don’t worry about having things taken from you there. I heard mixed reports from boats who visited other ports in the Cooks: some were inspected, many weren’t. It’s easy enough to plan ahead if you will go to a port that is likely to have an inspection, in which case, just don’t buy out the butcher before you leave Tahiti.
Q: Budgeting/Cruising kitties are obviously individualized but to many it is always a concern. What did you find along the way?
TOTEM: The budget question... this is the million dollar cruising question. You can do this very cheaply, or you can spend a lot of money. There aren't marinas to suck your budget- you'll be anchoring almost everywhere. You don't have to eat in restaurants (until you get to Fiji, where in many places it will be cheaper than cooking on board!). Food is pricey in most places, but we actually spent LESS in food this year than if we'd been in Mexico, because we anticipated this and stocked up on long term provisions... and being in remote places, I wasn't running to the market for my favorite things every few days. Fresh fruit & veggies were always the best deal. For the most part, we just ate what was on the boat (supplemented with fresh caught fish), and most of it was from Banderas Bay. You can spend a bunch of money renting cars and doing inland touring, or you can explore what's accessible by foot or public transport from the shore.
Q: Advance planning for cyclone season?
TOTEM: I think one of the bigger questions to consider is what you do for cyclone season. Do you know where you're going for the 1st year? 2nd year? I understand marinas in NZ may get busy and this is something that could be helpful to plan in advance... but if you don’t' know when you leave, it's something you can still work out (and may even wish to wait on to see where boats you meet are headed, if you want to stay in company). We booked our Sydney marina a few months ago but it would have been nice to research more when we had cheaper wifi in Mexico.
Q: What currency did you take?
TOTEM: We carried a bunch of US$ "just in case" but never needed it. Officials everywhere we went had practical ways to deal with the fact that nobody shows up with local currency. Most take Visa, and those that didn't let you run up to the nearest ATM. We still have all the US$ we left Mexico with! (Unfortunately it's worth a lot less in Australia at the moment...) Provisioning, it was almost all in local currency, but a surprising number of grocery stores took credit cards- even some of the tiny and relatively remote magazins in French Poly.
Q: What was your experience with trading?
TOTEM: We did some, but we could have done more (it’s not something we are cultured to!). I wish we'd started much earlier. We traded for pearls in the Tuamotus, for handicrafts in Tonga and Fiji. We even had friends barter for their tattoos in the Marquesas! Stuff that's desirable? The women handicraft sellers loved nail polish and lipstick. I had a bunch of hair accessories (basic bands and clips). Men often wanted used line from the boat. Condition didn't seem to matter much. We traded tequila for loose pearls in the Tuamotus; and our friends on another boat traded costume jewelry for the same. D-cell batteries are great because people living w/o electricity (more common outside FP) often ran small radios in their homes off these. Things we were asked for: wetsuits, any kind of snorkeling gear, VHF radios, or AM/FM radios.
Q: Internet access and scabbing wifi?
TOTEM: There is no free wifi. It's often available, even in anchorages (at least in FP, which had the most developed networks) but it's really expensive and typically very, very slow. We are heavier internet users, sharing photos and posting to the blog, and ended up spending at least $100 in most countries for internet access- this adds up fast. The only place it was cheap was Fiji: internet cafes were about $1/hour. Meanwhile, if you can anticipate anything you want to download, do it in Mexico while your access is good!
Q: Have you seen many cell phones and how do they work throughout the islands?
TOTEM: We don't have one, but lots of friends did, and found them useful. You need an unlocked phone that takes SIM cards. About $10 could get you a SIM cards in each country and provide phone use for the duration of your stay. If you don’t have a cell phone, don’t sweat it. We didn’t miss having a phone. The couple of times we wanted to make a call, there was always a way to deal with being without a phone.
Q: So how did you occupy your time and deal with the long passages?
TOTEM: Being in the ocean for so long was easy some days and tough on others... but the easier days vastly outnumbered the harder ones. Tough days for me were being seasick (I know better now than to try and "tough it out", but I used to think I could skip meds and deal with it), or coping with my gimpy shoulder. I strained my rotator cuff for my right shoulder the month before we left Mexico, the only Rx is to give it rest and not use it, but that's pretty tough when you are in a seaway and using both arms to hang on or move around. Staying busy helps. I used to knit a lot but the hot weather made it tough to get inspired to be handling wool or yarn. I could read for days and days and be pretty happy, although with three kids on board, I also had other distractions and priorities!
Q: What was the sea state on your PPJ to the Marquesas and beyond?
TOTEM: The sea state was interesting and not what we expected. Multi-directional seas (swell and wind waves) were the norm from Mexico on but I really have to wonder if that was particular to the conditions this year. I don't remember hearing about it from other cruisers before, and it's not what we experienced from Seattle through Mexico. There would be generally a primary swell, and a secondary from an offset direction (sometimes as much as 90/120 deg), which often meant one would be on the quarter and the other would come along and give a more beam-to slap now and then. The beam slaps are not really fun, since the movement can be more unexpected- especially at night. It's not like every day was like this, though. Most of the passages between island groups were like this also, but not all of them. It's hard to know what it's going to be like for you. Our hardest passage was the trip between Bora Bora and Suwarrow. Friends last year told us it was their best passage ever. It’s a box of chocolates, a la Forrest Gump, you could say.
Q: What were your anchoring experiences and need for 2 anchors?
TOTEM: We use only one anchor the overwhelming majority of the time. On the rare (count on one hand) occasions we've used two, it's been to set a stern hook so we could point into a swell or reduce movement in tight anchorages. If you arrive in Hiva Oa you'll be setting a stern hook for your first anchorage after the passage. Anchorages in the Marquesas were more likely to be rolly than anywhere else we visited, but it was still no worse being anchored in La Cruz. One anchoring trick we found really helpful in the coral reef areas (and especially atolls like the Tuamotus) was to rig up a system with fenders that floats your chain. It keeps chain from dragging on the coral and makes it harder to snag coral heads. This has been covered in Cruising World and Lat 38, and is probably in a file on Yahoo group site for the PPJ.
Q: Before you arrived in Australia did you need a transformer?
TOTEM: Because we didn't stay in marinas much (and there are so very few... don't count on it, anyway. Along the path we took, I can count the marinas between Fr. Poly and NZ on one hand), I can't make generalizations about dock power, but you have to be able to deal without plugging in anyway so I think it's kind of a moot point. We'll be dockbound for a while in Australia and will probably get a transformer here.
Q: How did you get your weather info especially since your SSB was down so often?
TOTEM: Getting weather via nets isn't great on the big crossing. We're really just getting the reports of localized weather at the locations of other vessels checking in. Useful, but not the big picture either. Other nets you'll participate in later often have weather. The net that evolved between cruisers after arrival in FP included a weather synopsis at the beginning. A handful of people traded responsibility for putting it together. It wasn't rocket science, just collecting and sharing the stuff available through the radio, but a huge help for boats like us that had lost communications. Farther west, nets like Fiji's Rag of the Air give grib updates to boats checking in based on their position.
Q: What was your experience with navigational aides and cruising guides?
TOTEM: None of the South Pacific Cruising type overview books have enough detail to be a day-to-day cruising guide (we are SO spoiled with the guides for Mexico!). Some are just plain abysmal in terms of organization and clarity, but it’s still helpful to have one of them on hand as a basic reference. We had Landfalls of Paradise, and it was adequate as a high level overview by country. Beyond that, to have any kind of good detail- especially with regard to anchorages- you may want to acquire a unique guide for each country you visit. Expect even the most recent of them to have dated information, but be sufficient as a reference for common anchorages.
For French Poly., the best we found was “The Guide to Navigation and Tourism in French Polynesia”. People say it’s out of print, but call around- it can be found. There is also a good, but older, guide for the Marquesas- I think it’s called Exploring the Marquesas. This one is on the PPJ site- print/bind in MX. If you think you’ll spend much time there, it’s worth getting. Charlie’s is fine.
For the Cooks… I don’t know. We had info from Charlie’s Charts for Suwarrow, our only stop in the Cooks.
For Tonga, if you spend much time there, you'll want Sailingbird’s cruising guide. I didn’t even know it existed until we got to Neiafu. Nothing else comes close. If you'll only visit the Vava'u group (which, if you're planning to go all the way to Australia in one season, is likely), then just print out the Moorings guide from the PPJ site. It's perfectly sufficient.
Incredibly, Fiji does not have a guide book that’s worthwhile. The existing books are based on 20-30 year old research with 10-20 year old edition updates. It’s pathetic! Cruisers share tons of stuff via the internet and thumb drives relevant to the S Pac once you’re out here (and somewhat in MX, and on the PPJ website- it’s just harder to find). For Fiji, people passed around MaxSea tracks. These were really helpful to get an idea for where other boats went and how people wove through the reefs… it is one big reef minefield there.
The best guides for Vanuatu and New Caledonia are actually computer-based programs to download, and not printed guides. I don’t have the URL handy for Vanuatu but it should easy to find by looking for “the Tusker guide” for Vanuatu. For New Cal, it’s www.cruising-newcaledoniTotem:com.