We have spoken a lot already about our plan to get to French Polynesia.
We have spoken even more about all the things we are doing in anticipation of this trip.
We haven’t spoken about how we will get there yet.
So, let’s talk about it today.
I’ll be straight: it’s far, very far. And that was one of the main reasons why we didn’t think of going there from the beginning of our Journey.
As you will see on the map below, French Polynesia sits roughly in the middle of the way on an imaginary straight line between Central America and Australia.
To get there, we will have to sail a distance of around 3,000 miles of open ocean (that’s just over 5,000 kilometers). It will be by far the longest passage we made … and probably remain so for all of our sailing career. Along the way, we will cross a long expanse of sea under the North Hemisphere Trade Winds, then some 300-500 miles of fickle winds and afternoon squalls known as “the Doldrums”, crossing the equator in the process, and then hopefully finding the South Hemisphere Trade winds for the final thrust towards landfall.
Right at the start of our Journey, I drove from Miami to Seattle, roughly 3,600 miles, and it took me 5 days and 4 nights to get there. As you know, mighty Pesto isn’t as fast as the green mazda, and the passage will take a little longer than that. I estimate it shall take us between 25 and 30 days from the moment we depart the coast of Mexico until we make landfall in Polynesia. And since the Sea isn’t paved and populated as the way between Miami and Seattle, we will do our passage non-stop.
As much as we have been living on Pesto for nearly 1.5 years now, we’ve never been without contact with land (and civilization) for that far. 25-30 days straight is a whole different ballgame, and it is interesting to see how things move up or down on the priority list on such scenario.
Provisioning, for instance, is something that becomes a big issue. We need to carefully select what to store onboard for the passage considering variables as conflicting as: dietary balance, individual tastes, shelf life, storage available onboard, energy needs to keep/cook the items … you get the picture. Adriana is owning this subject, and it is a major project, requiring her a lot of planing, research and thought.
One interesting item that acquires a disproportionate importance on such a passage is waste management. We hardly notice, but the fact is that Marketing and Mass Production together have transformed our everyday consumption into a waste-generation machine. Have you ever noticed how much trash your household generates? I am not even talking about Recycling here, just the sheer amount of stuff that is left over off packaging. Here on Pesto, we can usually fill the equivalent of a 40 ltr trash bag every two days (some of it is recyclable, some is not). Now, multiply that by 15, and even before you get the result, you already know we can not store that amount of trash onboard. And even if we could, I don’t think French Polynesia would be super excited for us to dump a large amount of foreign trash on their land right upon arrival. That will require us to minimize the amount of packaging we bring onboard before departing, as well as having a well defined and executed process to manage the trash that will be generated along the way.
And the list goes on. Seasickness – of which Raquel and I suffer the most – is something we are preparing for. Electricity management is also a big ticket. Weather Monitoring, Communications, Safety ….
Another major subject on the list is Pesto herself. The only way for us to get there is ON her, meaning she has to be sound all the way through. Someone said recently that this passage is the equivalent of ~5 years of “regular” usage on a yacht, from a wear-and-tear perspective. And whereas this number may or may not be debatable, it is indisputable that 25-30 days of continuous usage take an extreme toll on the equipment. In fact I have read many accounts of breakage during this passage, and we have been trying to do everything possible that we can envision beforehand to minimize the probability of breakages aboard (and maximize our ability to fix whatever breaks along the way).
“So, are you then crazy?” one might ask after reading about the hurdles of this passage? Well, clinically, we aren’t, and the answer to this question then becomes more of a relative term. Whatever we are, though, we are not the only ones. For the last many years, a contingent of 50 to 100+ sailing yachts depart the west coast of Central and North America towards French Polynesia every spring. This discrete seasonal phenomenon has even received a nickname – “The Puddle Jump” – coined by the editors of the Latitude 38 magazine many years ago. The same magazine also organizes a like-named Rally – The Pacific Puddle Jump, or simply “PPJ” – in which participant yachts get access to a number of benefits, including pre-departure seminars, negotiated discounts in French Polynesia, and fleet-tracking/communications along the way. On this 2016 season, we will be joining the other 105 yachts and their crews/families who have officially enrolled in the 2016 PPJ.
Latitude 38 in fact maintains a website with information regarding the current and past Puddle Jumps. The excerpt below shows some basic statistics about the passages made by the yachts of the 2014 PPJ “Class”:
As seen from above, the number of passage days seemed to hover around the 22-25 range, with yachts covering distances of ~2,900 miles in general. I compiled this information together with the data of other 4 PPJs available on the site, to a total of 50 datasets (only yachts that departed from the Puerto Vallarta area), and a few things stand out:
So, it does look like 22 days is more or less the average of these passages, and maybe my “official” estimate of 25-30 days is conservative. But well, I prefer to play on the safe side and anything that comes under that will be a bonus.
Another interesting fact from the above stats is the number of hours of engine usage. The average of the fleet is 50 engine-hours. If we stay around that average, that will be enough for us to re-fill our batteries (I estimate we will need an average of 1-hr/ day of power generation), and still consume just a fraction of our fuel tanks. Even if we beat the maximum usage, at 150hrs, we would still be well within the mileage we get of our full tanks. So, we should be fine about that.
Statistics and hard facts aside, one question that sticks out is what lures all these boats to do such a long passage every year? Well, one of the main and obvious reasons are the South Pacific Islands themselves. From the lush mountainous islands like the Marquesas to the pristine sandy atols of the Tuamotus, arguably this is the ultimate tropical cruising ground! But I dare say there is another enabling factor behind these numbers, and that is the fact that, despite its length, this passage is somewhat of a “conveyor belt”. Except for the Doldrums region, Trade Winds blow at the right intensity and right direction for the great extent of the passage. The chart below shows the average wind direction during the month of March, based on historical observations, nearly showing the winds blowing for most of the way from a fair direction respective to the route.
If done at the right time of the year, this is also an area of reasonably fair weather – no fierce storms, depressions or large seas. And this can be seen again on the table above. Of the data collected from 50 yachts, each spending 22 days at sea on average, the highest wind gust measured during their passages was, on average, 35 knots. While this is not exactly light, these are wind strengths we’ve been in already (we even had to motor against winds of similar strength once, at nigh and with our propeller partially fouled). Even the highest gust recorded, of 48 knots … whereas I truly hope to not be measuring something like this during our passage, this isn’t still too bad, particularly considering this was the highest measurement recorded over 1,000 days of observations.
In fact, one factor that weighed on our decision to “Turn Right” a few months ago was precisely that. Despite the distance, we started to compare the type of weather and winds we might get on this passage versus those we would face if we were to “Turn Left” and go to the Caribbean: first off, we would need to cross the infamous Gulfs of Tehuantepec and Papagayo. Right now, hurricane-force winds are blowing off these gulfs, making for a very daunting passage. Then once off the Panama canal, in order to reach the Caribbean we would need to beat upwind against some of the strongest winds and waves of the Atlantic Ocean for over 1,000 miles !!! That’s far more demanding on crew and boat than a 3,000 mile downwind ride to the Marquesas.
“Ah OK, is the passage easy, then? Are you guys feeling Cool about it?”
HELL, NO !!!
But this will be the subject of another post I will be publishing over the upcoming weekend, covering how we are feeling about this passage.