Thursday, November 9, 2017

Terrapin's rough guide to a Pacific Ocean crossing and beyond

In the year of preparation to cross the Pacific Ocean and sail through the South Pacific we failed to find any concise resource that could help us prepare for what to expect after the initial crossing. Here is our attempt to provide a comprehensive resource for those considering crossing the Pacific. All information provided is from our own experiences from the year we crossed the Pacific, keep in mind that information provided may have changed since the publication of this blog post. Click here for some photos of our crossing.

SV Terrapin crossed the Pacific ocean in 24 days.

The best time to cross the Pacific Ocean is from February - May, departing from the west side of the America's. You can easily cross the Pacific without joining a rally, however joining the Pacific Puddle Jump sponsored by magazine Latitude 38, will help you navigate the requirements upon arriving in French Polynesia. Most boats entering French Polynesia are required to post bond that will not be returned until departure of French Polynesia at which time the bond will be returned in francs, a useless currency once leaving the area. By joining the Pacific Puddle Jump rally (free of charge) you can obtain a bond exemption and not have to worry about posting bond or getting reimbursed. Anyone, excluding European Union citizens, are given a 90 day visa to enjoy all of French Polynesia. One can apply for a long stay visa, however this must be done before entering French Polynesia and takes a few weeks to obtain. For further information regarding how to obtain a long stay visa, see this website. 

Health Insurance

A requirement upon sailing to French Polynesia is health insurance. Upon entering French Polynesia you will be required to provide evidence of health insurance for the duration of your stay. Our proof of insurance was given to the Pacific Puddle Jump agent at the time of requesting our bond exemption, something done before setting sail across the Pacific. Like many cruisers, we chose a high deductible plan to fulfill the insurance requirement, and after price shopping, chose to go with a Patriot Insurance plan with a $2500 USD deductible per person for roughly $108 USD per month. Hull insurance is not required to enter French Polynesia. If you're looking just to fullfill the health insurance requirement, an emergency evacuation policy with DAN would suffice. Hull or health insurance is not required anywhere else in the South Pacific.

Anaho Bay, Nuka Hiva

Provisioning before setting sail

We wished we had known more about the availability and price of provisions once in French Polynesia before sailing across the Pacific, we would have provisioned differently. Everything is more expensive in French Polynesia in particular; condiments, alcohol, eggs, toiletries, and cleaning products. Knowing what we know now, we wouldn't have wasted space on flour and rice and would have packed more black and pinto beans....which become more scarce to nonexistent the more west you sail.

New Zealand butter in a can. Guaranteed to be some 
of the best butter you've ever eaten.

Items such as mayonnaise (or ketchup) can easily fetch $10 USD for a tiny jar, a small bottle of cleaning product (Ajax or similar) will cost $20, toiletries like toothpaste, deodorant, and feminine products are extremely expensive.  Maple syrup costs over $20 for one regular sized bottle, (the cost for instant pancake mix is absurd). A bag of Doritos will cost $8 USD. The cost of alcohol is downright laughable. I saw $80 USD for a box of wine. Things you don’t really need to provision heavy with; oil, flour, butter, yeast (most baking goods), ramen, pasta, and rice. Unless you’re really particular about the brand you use, these items are readily available and at a reasonable cost in the South Pacific. The subsidized grocery items in French Polynesia all have a red label on them, look for the red label and you'll save some money. 

Your first opportunity to provision with Costco type items is in Tahiti at Maxi's near the Papeete Marina. For an amazing grocery store experience (we literally stood in awe at the mounds of fresh produce) visit one of the many Carrefour stores in Tahiti. Sailing further west, American Samoa has one of the best opportunities to provision with Costco and  American type items. A Cost U Less (mini CostCo) can be found in Suva, Fiji.

Rarioa, Tuamotus

Beer onboard

We broke one of the most important boat rules by bringing cardboard on the boat. But it was for the sake of beer! We had heard horror stories of people loading up their boats with large amounts beer, only to have soupy bilges midway to French Polynesia. Others had lost half their beer with the chaffing of cans along the passage. We decided to keep our cases of beer in the cardboard boxes, putting two cases together in one large construction type contractor bag in the event of leakage. We figured if any beer cans chaffed, the beer would collect in the contractor bag, which would be an easier clean up than an entire compartment full of beer. Our plan worked, we only lost about 4 beers out of 200 to chaffing and (knock on wood) there were zero coach roaches found on the boat. 

Spare parts to have before crossing

Latitude 38 has compiled and published years worth of Pacific Puddle Jump statistics including days of crossing, engine hours, highest wind speed seen and items broken. Over the past 6 years with roughly 163 boats reporting their breakages and breakdowns, here is a snapshot of just some of the most common items broken during the Pacific Ocean crossing.

While preparing our boat for the Pacific crossing we paid close attention to the previous years breakages and concluded it was a good idea to add a second autopilot, new halyards and have our sails restitched before leaving. Finding spare parts for anything that has broken during the crossing can be a real struggle, particularly in the Marquesas which is where boats make first landfall. If in doubt, buy a spare before you leave. Here's a look at our Pacific passage preparations while still in Mexico.

Guides to the South Pacific

For anyone who has cruised Mexico with the help of  Sean and Heather's beautifully bound Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser's Guidebookyou'll be disappointed that there is nothing in the South Pacific that remotely resembles these types of cruising guides. There are however the Soggy Paws Compendiums. Dave and Sherry have logged years worth of information into neat compendiums as helpful guides for the rest of us. While their information isn't always up to date (although they make a diligent effort) the compendiums provide great insight into the different areas. 

While crossing the Pacific, why not get a head start and read some of the different compendiums, which you can easily download on your tablet. Here's a few to get you started.

   Marquesas Compendium                    Tuamotus Compendium           Society Islands Compendium

Other guidebooks we found useful were


Equally important as provisioning before crossing the Pacific is getting reliable charts together. Updating electronic charts with reliable WiFi before crossing the Pacific, is an absolute must. In addition to Navionics, OpenCPN is a free chart plotting program available on Windows, Mac and Andriod. OpenCPN can be used in conjunction with Google Earth Charts which provides more accuracy in areas where other charts (Navionics) are not reliable (such as Fiji). In the event your electronics go out you'll want to ensure that you have paper charts on board and know how to dead reckon. 

Redundancy is key! In addition to our chart plotter we have 2 Android tablets that have Navionics and OpenCPN on them. Since sailing the South Pacific we have heard several cruisers who's Ipad's needed to connect to WiFi (in the middle of the ocean) in order to update, making their tablets inoperable. We've yet to have any issues with our Android tablets and highly encourage you to buy extra tablets (with waterproof cases) before crossing. For about $100 USD per tablet, you can easily have spares.  There is nowhere to purchase a tablet until you've sailed another 1000 miles west into Tahiti. As long as you're buying spare electronics, don't forget to purchase extra chargers

Moorea, Society Islands

Ditch Bag

The hardest part for me in getting ready to cross the Pacific Ocean, was the preparation of our ditch bag. Stuffing items into large dry bags in the event our family found itself floating in the middle of an ocean awaiting rescue, made my stomach hurt. Here's a list of items we put into our ditch bag.

In addition to our ditch bag items, we have our EPIRB, DeLorme and Inflatable PDF's with personal locator beacons in them that would have come with us in the life raft. 

Cell service, WiFi and Sat Phones

Throughout French Polynesia there are various restaurants where one can purchase unreliable WiFi. Only once did we come across free internet. The best (free and fast) WiFi was at the Custom's Building in Tahiti within walking distance of Marina Taini. 

American Samoa was the first place where getting a SIM card and using our Iphone as a hotspot made sense, as their WiFi was a bit more reliable. In American Samoa the SIM card was free and it was about $25 USD for 5 GB, same as Tonga. Here in Fiji we pay $25 USD for 100 GB....yup, 100 GB.  Most SIM cards purchased are for data OR voice use only. We found it was best to purchase the data SIM card for internet usage and to use Skype as a way of talking over the phone. Because we're staying in Fiji for an extended period of time, we wanted a Fiji phone number and purchased a separate voice SIM card to use in an unlocked cellphone we bought in Mexico.

An easy way to always have a  "American" phone number is to get one from Google Voice for free. We receive calls on our unlocked Iphone using the purchased SIM card of which ever country we are in whenever someone calls our American phone number.  If we are not available, people can leave us a voicemail for us to retrieve and listen to in addition to receiving a transcript of the message left via email. For outgoing calls we typically call out on Skype. There is a setting within Skype that allows you to use your Google Voice number, so that family and friends will see "your" number coming through and know it's you.

Special note for homeschoolers- WiFi in the majority of the South Pacific is expensive, hard to find and unreliable, making online schooling near impossible. Check out our Nance Academy page regarding how to build your own curriculum without purchasing the overpriced "school in a box" programs or needing to rely on Wifi.

In the event you're in the middle of the ocean or without any reliable WiFi, either the Garmin InReach or the Iridium Go is useful for communicating. We used the Garmin InReach to text family, friends and other cruisers during our passage. We have a basic plan for about $55USD per month, which works perfect for us. We can pull a basic version of weather,  send/receive texts from the device and also report  our  real time location on both a webpage and our blog.. The only advantage to having the Iridium Go (as we see it) is to have access to Predict Wind. With access to weather nets and  the availability of GRIB files through saildocs via SSB modem, we couldn't justify spending an addtional $100 a month just to have marginal internet access and Predict Wind.  We sailed 2 years in Mexico just fine without any satellite communication device.

Fakarava, Tuamotus

Visas and Advance Notice of Arrival

Each country is a little different with the amount of time they give visiting yachts and whether or not they require an advance notice of arrival. Us, along with many other cruisers stressed over whether or not we had the latest version of the advance notice of arrival or if the email addresses we were sending our forms were accurate. Don't worry! We used to locate the "latest" forms and email addresses. Almost 100% of the time, the forms were either outdated, something had changed,  the email addresses were wrong or the  recipients email inbox was full. Our suggestion based off of what we did, is to take a screenshot of your sent email (sometimes we sent one email to 6 different email addresses, just to cover our bases) to prove your effort to comply. In the Cook Islands (Suwarro), the park rangers never asked if we had sent our forms and in Fiji they just asked if we had sent the forms and then asked us to fill out new forms upon arrival. As long as you tried to comply with the rules, you'll be fine. 

Cook Islands -  Advance Notice of Arrival Required. Initial visa is good for 31 days and can be extended month to month for a total of 3 months. Suwarro National Park-  boats intending to visit Suwarro need to submit their advance notice of arrival (don't be surprised if you find 3 different email addresses to send your form to), a fee of $50 USD is required to enter and visitors are welcome to stay for 2 weeks. The only stop we made in the Cook Islands was Suwarro, which is not a port of entry. If you decide to visit Suwarro and an additional Cook Island, you will need to complete additional forms and pay additional fees. 

American Samoa- No advance notice is required and American yachts are welcome to stay as long as they wish. American's are also welcome to seek employment in American Samoa. The fees to enter American Samoa are all over the place, meaning if you asked 6 different boats what they paid to enter, you would receive 6 different answers. A complete write up about American Samoa is here. 

Tonga- No advance notice is required. Initial visas are good for 31 days with the opportunity to extend for an additional 6 months. During our time in Tonga there were changes being made to visa extensions...check on yourself for the most up to date information. Boat are issued a 4 month visa.

Fiji- Advance Notice of Arrival Required. Initial visa is good for 4 months with the option to renew for an additional 2 months. After the additional 2 months is exhausted another renewal can be purchased for an additional 6 months, giving cruising a total of 12 months. Boats are issued an 18 month visa. 

Money Matters

We use our ATM card to pull out local currency in every country, with no ATM fees! Every month Charles Schwab directly deposits a reimbursement of all ATM fees. We also use a credit card with zero international fees that gives us cash back with every purchase. Check out a previous blog post of how we set up our accounts to minimize loosing money while sailing.

Cost to Cruise

We had always heard that sailing the South Pacific was going to be extremely expensive. We've been pleasantly surprised that although cruising the South Pacific is indeed more expensive than Mexico, it's not a total budget buster. We post all of our expenses on a monthly basis, down to the last penny, and have provided years worth of expenses located on our Cost to Cruise page.

Our top 3 stops

In no particular order here are our family's top 3 places we've sailed to this season.

Fakarava, Tuamotus- Do NOT sail all the way to the South Pacific and miss this amazing stop. As soon as we grabbed a mooring ball near the south pass and could see a swarm of sharks circling the boat, we knew we were in for a real treat. Check out our Fakarava blog post and discover why we loved it there. 
Fakarava, Tuamotus

Mopelia, French Polynesia-  Mopelia lies 135 miles west of Bora Bora, and technically speaking after checking out of French Polynesia, cruisers shouldn't be exploring Mopelia. If you're willing to risk the butt puckering pass at the entrance of Mopelia (and ignore the fact you really shouldn't be there) it's an amazing paradise. The highlight to this amazing stop was the family who hosted 18 crusiers (proof many boats make this stop) for a sit down dinner. See our Mopelia blog post for more.

Tonga - Not sure why, but we didn't hear much about Tonga (good or bad) from other cruisers. We weren't really sure what to expect, but instantly fell in love. The Vava'u group was one postcard perfect anchorage after another, all within a few hours of each other. While we all agree that Tonga was one of our favorite spots, we can't agree on what we like most about Tonga. Was it the delicious Tongan feasts, swimming in caves, or the humpback whales swimming through the archipelago?  Our only regret was that we didn't extend our visas and stay longer. Visit our blog posts about Tonga and see for yourself. 
Swallows cave

Items wanted to trade

Trading is a common practice throughout the South Pacific. In Rarioa we traded a headlamp for a handful of pearls. In Toau, our friends off Cape D traded swim trunks, hats and t-shirts for their own handful of pearls. Local villagers are looking to trade for headlamps, snorkel gear, t-shirts, hats,  swim shorts, sunglasses, batteries and flip flops. Save your money, the villagers want items money can't buy ...if the local's don't have access to certain items, neither would you, think about this while buying spares of items before you set sail. 
Some of our pearls in exchange for a headlamp

What we would have done differently

We wished we had known more about just how wet and humid it was going to be in the South Pacific. Silly us, we had grown accustomed to rained 2 times in the 2 years we were there. I wish I had vacuum sealed my masa corn flour used to make tortillas. I practically cried dumping over 20 kilograms of masa into the ocean as each bag had become infested with larva.

Things we did right;

Bought sunscreen in gallon size. Sailed to the South Pacific with a dozen bottles of deet-- there's lot of bugs out here! Left Mexico with a years supply of peanut butter-- a small jar of peanut butter out here can cost $25 USD, no thanks! We packed the boat with enough beer and wine ---5 months after we left we're still finding bottles. 

We will be staying on our boat in Savusavu, Fiji for cyclone season. We are still not sure of our plans after cyclone season, which ends in April. 



  1. So much great info. - thank you!!!

  2. Great info, thanks for writing! After Mexico, the South Pacific is on the horizon in about 2 yrs. Enjoy and please say hi to the Del viento crew! s/v Bliss, currently in Ohio

  3. Thank you so much for this post. Our family is heading west from Costa Rica in March!

  4. Awesome! Thanks Guys for this post!

  5. Grateful for the time you put into this extremely useful post!!

  6. Great info. Thank you so much for the write-up. Appreciated.