INTRO: We just completed 9 months of full time cruising in French Polynesia, having crossed from Mexico during the first half of April 2016. We stayed the first two months in the Marquesas, followed by four months in the Tuamotus and the remaining three months in the Societies. Follows some highlights of this cruise.
<This is the Second in a series of Four posts covering our Learnings and Experiences of one season of cruising French Polynesia. Click here for the previous post in the series, covering learnings from the Passage between Mexico and French Polynesia, and here for the next post, with an assessment of the risk of a hurricane approaching French Polynesia during the 2016/17 season>
LANDFALL: We made landfall in the Marquesas. Even though Atuona, in the island of Hiva Oa, tends to be favored by cruisers for landfall since it is more to the windward, we chose to stop in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva first. In hindsight, we were happy with this decision and here’s why:
- Taiohae, in Nuku Hiva, is a large anchorage. Atuona is small and a breakwater splits it in half, creating an even smaller inner bay where local fishing boats, a plethora of sailing yachts and even fully fledged supply ships are crammed together. Outside of the breakwater it is very roly. We were glad to not have to deal with all this right upon arrival from the Pacific Crossing.
- The village of Taiohae – and all its shops – lie within walking distance to the anchorage. In Atuona, the village – and everything else – is some 3 or 4 miles away. There’s no public transport. Also, the dinghy landing is challenging to say the least, making it – in my opinion – a far more difficult stop to reprovision than Taiohae.
- While we had a great time in Nuku Hiva, we found that the islands further to the SSE – particularly Tahuata and Fatu Hiva – were the highlight of our cruise in the Marquesas, both in terms of friendliness of the local people and nature. We were then glad to save the best for last.
- Finally, by stopping at Nuku Hiva first, we were kind of against the main cruising traffic, and often had less crowded anchorages as a consequence.
- There were two disadvantages to arriving to Taiohae first:
- From there, we had to sail upwind to reach the southern islands. Unfortunately we didn’t pick a good weather window to do the overnight passage from Nuku Hiva to Tahuata and it ended up being an uncomfortable upwind slog.
- Taiohae is a bit too convenient, particularly after a large ocean crossing and, in hindsight, I think we ended up staying there for longer than necessary. Were we to do it again, I would stay less there and have more time to visit more of the Marquesas.
- we applied for the Long Stay Visa, and that required quite a bit of document work beforehand and also upon arrival in Nuku Hiva. We used the services of Tahiti Crew, who then subcontracted Kevin of Nuku Hiva Yacht Services to facilitate the process for us in Taiohae. I understand it is possible to do all paperwork by oneself, but we were glad to use the agents – from their knowledge of the local processes to the ability to translate from French to English. We also never regretted having applied for the extended visa. It did entail quite a bit of paperwork and required some patience on our side, but we really didn’t want to be limited to three months in French Polynesia after all the hard work to get there.
- In the Tuamotus I visited the Gendarme in Makemo and asked whether it was necessary to do any additional formality and was informed it wasn’t. Afterwards we heard from a fellow cruiser that the Gendarme in Fakarava expects oncoming cruisers to visit and pay a fee to cover waste disposal, but we can’t confirm if it was true.
- It was not necessary to do any additional paperwork when we arrived to Tahiti, nor as we moved from island to island in the Societies.
MONEY: while still in Mexico we were uneasy with the ideal of arriving to French Polynesia without local currency for the first day’s needs. But we were able to get it right upon our arrival to Taiohae, via an easy-to-access ATM. We were also positively surprised with Credit Card acceptance. Here’s the detail
- Marquesas: there were ATMs in both Taiohae and Atuona. The Credit Card was also well accepted at restaurants, supermarkets and for fuel. Cash was used whenever dining outside of these cities, and to pay for some of the clearing in processes.
- Tuamotus: there are ATMs at the post offices. At least in Fakarava I know it works. Credit card is accepted only at supermarkets. In Fakarava we were able to use it at some restaurants as well. Fuel on the other hand, could only be bought with Cash.
- In Tahiti the Credit Card is widely accepted. Banks and ATMs are also easy to find. Cash is needed for transportation.
- In the other islands of the Societies, the card can not be used as much – particularly in Huahine, and we felt it prudent to keep a reserve in cash, which was used.
TELEFONE/INTERNET: we bought a local cell phone with a prepaid line plus a data chip upon arrival to the Marquesas. Mobile signal is available near the main towns along FP. OK for voice, but the Data chip never worked – waste of money. Internet is an issue in all of FP, normally accessed via the few hotspots available. There are some in the Marquesas (mostly Atuona and Taiohae) and almost none in the Tuamotus. In the Societies, hotspots are slightly more prevalent – usually in the most popular bays in each island. Nevertheless, bandwidth is ALWAYS very limited, same for speed.
PROVISIONING: varies widely in availability and variety depending on the place
- Marquesas: Both Taiohae and Atuona have a handful of Magazins – local mid-sized grocery stores – with decent assortment of provisioning supplies, including some tasty European treats. Ironically veggies are not widely available, found at times in Fresh Markets (once we had to wake up at 4AM to get Lettuce in Taiohae !). The islands are rich in local fruit, which are also found on Fresh Markets or from locals. Outside of these two towns, provisions are more difficult to find, if nonexistent.
- Tuamotus: there are four magazins in the town of Makemo, one of which is surprisingly large (relatively speaking) and well stocked. But the anchorage off the village can get dangerous. Fakarava has a handful of magazins as well but their assortment was less great and a bit of hit-and-miss. Having said so, it IS viable to keep on cruising off the provisions of these places, except for fresh produce, which was almost nonexistent in the Tuamotus.
- Societies: there’s excellent, world class assortment at the immense Carrefours and even some local magazins in Tahiti. Fruits and veggies are also well available and very tasty. In the other islands provisioning is down back to magazins or stands on the street, but assortment is still generally better than in the Marquesas and fruits/ veggies aren’t difficult to find.
BOAT SUPPLIES & SERVICES: there is any in the Marquesas and even worse in the Tuamotus. In the former, we saw some fellow cruisers import parts with the support of Nuku Hiva Yacht Services. Apart from the cost of logistics, delivery seemed efficient. In Fakarava there is also an excellent team – Fakarava Yacht Services – and we know they are well used to importing stuff for the mega yachts that call in there. One advice we took and I don’t regret was to take my own supply of engine oil from Mexico … I never saw engine oil of a grade I would like to use in either the Marquesas or the Tuamotus. Tahiti has chandleries, in addition to the majority of boat services one might expect of a destination cruising center.
FUEL: the places we saw where one can moor a sailing boat next to a fuel pump were in Tahiti and BoraBora (we haven’t been to Raiatea/Tahaa and I can’t comment). Other than this, diesel is taken by the jug.
- Marquesas: there’s fuel pumps within 200-300 mts of the dinghy docks in both Taiohae and Atuona. Theoretically it is possible to moor a yacht by the concrete wharf of Taiohane and fuel directly from there. But personally, given the constant ground swell in there, I would never, under any circumstance, attempt doing so.
- Tuamotus: we were able to get diesel at the large magazin in Makemo, but had to lug the empty jugs to there (~1km walk). They gave us a ride on their truck on the way back to the dinghy. In Fakarava, fuel can be taken directly from the supply ship. It’s actually an interesting experience, if not a bit laborious. In neither of these occasions were we able to use our fuel exemption letter and had to pay the full, local price
- Anyway, it is very important – almost fundamental – to have jugs to carry fuel in FP.
CHARTS & GUIDES: We used up-to-date Navionics charts on our chartplotter and the iSailor app in the iPad as a back up and didn’t find any relevant inaccuracy. Only in the Tuamotus, particularly in Makemo, some of the smaller coral heads were not captured in either of these charts. The “Compendium” guides, downloaded for free from the Soggy Paws website, were extremely useful. Highly recommended. We also carry the latest version of Charlie’s Charts, but didn’t use it much.
WEATHER & FORECASTING: Books are probably written on this subject alone. I will try to share what we experienced, bearing in mind that the 2016 cruising season was during a Strong El Nino year.
- Marquesas – April to June: the weather was mostly in a trade wind pattern. Weeks of E winds and the eventual squall followed by some days of heavier rain and bigger swell. We basically used GFS gribs then and found their prediction to be from satisfactory to very good. The problem started when we moved on.
- Tuamotus – June to September: Calm, blue sky days came by every 15 days or so and lasted between 2 and 5 days. Then it would start blowing again. Normally between 15 and 25kts. Still sunny, but windy. At times, it would also blow for days in the 25-35kt range. These higher wind spells became more prevalent and lasted longer during August and especially September. It is important to note that for the 4 months we were there it NEVER blew from a direction with a West component. The light winds tended to come from the N-NE, medium intensity winds from the E and the stronger ones from the SE. Rain-wise, we must have gotten 3 or 4 spells of rainy days within the 4 months we were there, each lasting for a week more or less. One issue in the Tuamotus was predictability, or lack thereof. At times, the GFS Gribs were accurate, but then they would go completely off. What we noticed was that whenever there was some system stalled above our location (high pressure or a front), then forecasting got very imprecise. Over time we learned to complement our GFS grib info with two other sources:
- French Forecasting: done from the Societies, we downloaded an automated English translation via saildocs. I like the fact that there is local human input in these forecast, and they often complemented well the purely digital info of the Gribs.
- NOAA Forecasting service in HI: it provided me with a broad view of all systems affecting our macro-region. I used it to anticipate large fronts or high-pressure systems, or – more importantly – to know whether one of these systems was stalled over us, thus causing the Gribs and French Forecasting to lose predictability. The one problem I found with this service was consistency. At times, relevant systems were overseen by some editions, or would “disappear” from one to the other.
One final comment regarding weather in the Tuamotus: from my daily observations of the forecasts, I noticed that conditions tended to be much rougher below 20 degrees South. Above that line, it’s essentially what I described above. Below it, strong storms were frequent, at times with winds of up to 50kts, and often blowing from a westerly direction. Something to bear in mind if planning a visit to the Souterhmost atolls of the Tuamotus, or the Astrals or Gambiers.
- Societies – October to December: we found weather in the Societies to be less unstable than in the Tuamotus. But, to be fair, the peak of the Trade Winds had already passed (September). During October we saw the first occurrence of Westerly winds both in the Societies and Tuamotus as well. It also started to get very warm. By December it got hot, and it started raining more often. Forecasting-wise, the same aspects highlighted for the Tuamotus are valid in the Societies. One thing to highlight is that most islands in the Societies offer better shelter options than the Tuamotus. In Huahine, for instance, we moved around the island according to the forecast winds and were always well sheltered. In the atoll of Fakarava, on the other hand, there is little to no protection from winds with a Westerly component.
TIDES: knowledge of tides is fundamental in the Tuamotus. The passes should only be navigated during slack tide. Even a few minutes after or before slack tide can be enough for the currents to accelerate to a couple knots or more. We had the opportunity to see Makemo’s and Fakarava’s passes in between the slacks and they looked like rivers flowing into the sea. The same passes at slack time were flat and easy to navigate. Before departing Mexico, I downloaded the app Tides Planner to my iPad and purchased the data pack for French Polynesia. It provides tide information for some atolls, but not all (for instance, it has Makemo, but not Fakarava). I then complemented it with the Tides Guestimator spreadsheet available for free at the Soggy Paws website. This is our experience:
- Tides Planner was accurate for Makemo
- The Guestimator spreadsheet requires some time getting used to, and moderate familiarity with Excell. Also, the 2014 version, which was the one available last year, required some work:
- It is necessary to find and download daily tide predictions for Rangiroa in 2017 from the NOAA Website. The data then needs to be formatted and input correctly in the spreadsheet
- One of the Tabs is missing formulas for the months of September through December – I believe it was on the tab “Rangiroa Tides Reformat”
- The last step is then to calibrate the output for the year 2017. I did so by comparing the Guestimator’s predictions for Makemo and comparing to the results of the Tides Planner app.
- By doing so, we were able to predict the tides for Fakarava accurately
- I suggest allocating one full day before departure from Mexico to get the Guestimator Ready for use (which includes, downloading it, finding and downloading 2017 Tide data for Rangiroa, auditing the spreadsheet for missing formulae, calibrating the output with a known source of tides in the Tuamotus),
NAVIGATION & PASSES: seamanship and good ship control go a long way in FP.
- Marquesas: there’s no coral around these islands and we found access to most bays to be straight forward. Navigation in the Marquesas is important in watching the weather and seas to pick anchorages and also select the times to transit in between the islands. Ua Pou, for instance, is an island which is hard to be visited whenever there’s any significant swell going, for all of its bays are very roly. And the passage from Nuku Hiva to Hiva Oa or Tahuata can be uncomfortable when the Trade Winds are well established.
- Tuamotus: these are very technical from a navigational perspective, rivaling to the river bars of the US NW Coast. To start with, the atolls have Passes. It’s the only way to enter them. The currents in these passes can reach significant speeds, and often create large standing waves. Then most of them are narrow and surrounded by reef, offering little margin for error. All atolls are low-lying and can only be seen from a short distance, and most passes can only be identified within a mile or so from outside. What we found in practice was that the approach to an atoll could only be made safely when all these criteria coincide:
- Medium to Low swell breaking at the face of the atoll where the pass is
- Winds of no more than 20kts to enable enough maneuverability while traversing the pass
- Good visibility, so that we could see the coral around and under the boat
- No more than 30 minutes before or after the predicted slack tide
These required reliable forecasting conditions, accurate tide information and quite a bit of planning. Having said so, we always stuck to these criteria and never had a problem traversing a pass.
But traversing the passes is really only the beginning. Once inside the atolls, coral heads are a relevant hazard. Some are large and easy to be seen. Others are small and very sneaky – even with optimal visibility conditions. Visibility is also safe only during a portion of the day, approximately between 10AM and 3PM, depending on the direction travelled. Rain, overcast skies and zero winds also affected visibility negatively. Having said all this, Fakarava is well marked and not too difficult to navigate. Makemo, on the other hand, was a minefield.
– Societies: after spending four months in the Tuamotus, we found the Societies to be easier to navigate. All islands are surrounded by reef and have passes. However, tide variations in the Societies is minimal and currents in most passes aren’t an issue. Some of them are narrow, tough, and attention needs to be taken regarding the swell height and orientation. We never saw swell breaking across the passes we navigated there, but it isn’t difficult to imagine this happening, particularly in the height of the southern winter, when large swell comes from the higher latitudes. It was our experience that a good, reliable chart can be a HUGE help in navigating inside the lagoons. Again we found our Navionics charts to be very accurate in there.
ANCHORING: this is another element with different aspects of difficulty in each of the island groups.
- Marquesas: anchoring is mostly on mud-sand bottoms on anything between 25 to 50 ft of water. With few exceptions, we found anchoring there to be straight forward.
- Tuamotus: one of the most difficult places we’ve anchored ever. Most anchorages have coral heads on the bottom. In some, it may be possible to select a place with fewer coral, but most often the anchor’s chain will be exposed to it. We had our chain wrap badly around a coral head once in 40ft depth. Moreover it was blowing a good 20kts that day. It was difficult to get us free (not to mention the bruises on the coral and the chain). After that, we started floating our chain with fenders, with increasing success. In addition to the coral heads, it is important to know what type of bottom there is. In almost all of the places we anchored, the bottom was of a fine white sand, and the anchor held very strong in it. But some places are tricky. In Makemo’s village, for instance, the layer of sand is very thin and there’s coral underneath. The anchor doesn’t dig deep enough and gets prone to resetting. This happened to us once. Finally, there’s generally little protection from the winds of any direction in the atolls, for they are very low lying. And some anchorages can be affected by wind waves inside the atoll. Three rules of thumb we learned to apply there: (a) always dive in a new anchorage and check the bottom where the anchor is set, (b) don’t be shy to re-anchor and/or float the chain if necessary and (c) continuously monitor the weather – we did once a day at least, twice or 3x whenever there was something relevant nearby.
- Societies: the lagoons are generally less technical to anchor than the atolls. The bottom is usually of good holding, there is less coral heads to wrap the chain. There are a few caveats though: (a) in the lagoons it’s often either too deep or too shallow. The sandbanks – ideal holding and no hazards – are most times shallower than 8 ft. Catamarans use them at large, but we can’t. And outside of these, depths are often around 90ft. We always managed to anchor at depths of 25-40ft, but it required careful study of the charts, and long, tedious scouting of the anchorages. In many times we had to redeploy the anchor 2 or 3 times until finding the “right” spot. (b) because of the height of the islands, most anchorages have downdrafts (gusts of winds that accelerate down the mountain slopes). In some places such gusts can be unnerving. In BoraBora, for instance, we tried anchoring on the lee of the Hilton’s motu during a windy day and were forced to leave. The gusts would accelerate from 5kts to nearly 40kts almost instantly, causing shockloads to the chain.
- Finally, one aspect that caught me by surprise in French Polynesia was anchoring etiquette – the lack of it. In countless occasions we had boats anchoring too close to us (or other boats). In a few of these cases we ended up having to move Pesto to be back to safety. And in one occasion we had an actual collision. This problem was particularly bad in the Marquesas, and then somewhat in the Societies.
- The Marquesas are a feast to the eyes and senses. Dramatic topography, with steep cliffs, spires, lush forests, and sparsely inhabited. Really breathtaking. We drove inland of Nuku Hiva one day and it was an unforgettable experience, one which we can’t recommend enough. Most bays are easy to reach and anchor.
- The Tuamotus, to me, are like a Trophy … hard-won, they reward you with a one-in-a-lifetime experience of being in places truly unspoilt. The atoll of Makemo, in particular, is a place where Solitude can be experienced at its best. It is still my absolute favorite place of all we have ever experienced on this journey. Fakarava, in contrast, is slightly more populated. It is also more easily accessible and navigable. In fact, some of the best sailing I have ever had in my life happened inside of this atoll. Toau is beautiful but, perhaps because of the harsh weather we got while there, it wasn’t as unforgettable as the other two for me (but many cruisers we met rave about it).
- The Societies are somewhat of a blend of the Marquesas and the Tuamotus. High-rise islands surrounded by colorful lagoons. It took some time for us to get used to the urbanity of Tahiti, but it is charming and worth visiting. Not to mention the convenience of supplies, internet, etc. I confess that I wasn’t expecting too much of the Societies, thinking that the fact they are more populated and commercial might spoil the experience. I was COMPLETELY wrong. Yes, the Societies are more populated than the Marquesas and the Tuamotus and, Yes they are more urbanized. But I can’t emphasize enough how beautiful this place is. It is also where we found the friendliest people of all the places we visited in FP. We had some of the best time of this season cruising Huahine and Bora Bora. A cruise to French Polynesia would never be complete without spending enough time in this island group.
- Taiohae (Nuku HIva) has its merits as a port of landfall as compared to Atuona (Hiva Oa)
- It was possible to get local currency from ATMs in Taiohae, Atuona, Makemo’s village, Fakarava’s village, and the main towns in the Societies
- Provisioning is OK in the Marquesas, Sketchy in the Tuamotus and Excellent in the Societies (except for prices)
- There are NO chandleries and no boat supplies in the Marquesas and Tuamotus. It is however possible to import parts in Nuku Hiva (using Nuku Hiva Yacht Services) and Fakarva (using Fakarava Yacht Services).
- While we are on this topic, we never regretted taking our own supply of engine oil (good for two years of usage).
- Jerry jugs are key for taking fuel in the Marquesas and Tuamotus.
- The Compendium Guides available for free at the Soggy Paws website are an excellent source of information. The Avionics and iSailor charts were very accurate in all places we visited.
- Download all data you will need for the cruise (Charts, Databases, Apps) before departing – internet in the Marquesas and Tuamotus is hard to find and super slow
- Make sure you have good Tides information for the Tuamotus
- Bring a good, trustworthy anchor
- We found that the extra work to get the Long Stay Visa was well worth the effort.
There you have it – the highlights of our 9 months of full time cruising in FP. We hope it is useful in some way.
Fair Winds !