Cyclone Strategy

We anchored Elan, our 41-foot aluminum sloop, in settled conditions in Taaoa Bay, Hiva Oa, Marquesas, just after nightfall in early June 1995. We were waiting for daylight to enter tiny Taahuku Bay and perform clearance procedures at Atuona. Billowing white clouds with darkened underbellies, backlit by a bright quarter moon, enshrouded the rugged peak of Mount Temetiu. We drank in the reflections of the moonlight on the surface of the bay, giving way to the slow rhythm of surf breaking on the rocky shoreline, and the dark profusion of coconut palms beyond. Combined with the deep, mixed aroma of sweet jungle and cooking firesafter nearly a month at seaour memories were indelibly etched on this first evening in French Polynesia.

Yet the South Pacific cyclone season clock was already ticking. Two months of adventure in southern Costa Rica, Cocos Island, and the Galapagos after transiting the Panama Canal in March had placed us behind more traditional timetables. The bulk of voyaging sailors were departing for points west, most planning on reaching New Zealand or scattered equatorial cyclone refuges by October or November. However, a careful study of pilot charts, sailing directions, planning guides, and oceanographic texts, plus a strong desire to linger and more fully explore the vast territory of French Polynesia for the entire six months of our cruising permit, induced us to take a completely different approach. We planned to take our time in French Polynesia, head north to spend cyclone season in the Line Islands, and then return for a second season of voyaging in the tropical out-islands of the central-eastern South Pacific.

This strategy allowed time for six weeks of unhurried explorations and development of friendships in the Marquesas after many sailboats had left. Anchorages crowded a short time before were empty or had plenty of room. Marquesan friends joined us for offshore fishing and sailing expeditions and for social evenings aboard, and they invited us to join them ashore for kaikai (feasts), hikes to more remote paepae (platforms of ancient homes) and tohua (ceremonial grounds), and a local wedding. We lingered another six weeks in lightly traveled areas of the middle Tuamotus, where we did not see another voyaging sailboat the entire timein some cases due to remote locations, but mostly due to the fact that the vast majority of sailors were rushing west-southwest on time-worn, conventional South Pacific itineraries.

Diving and exploration

The first 10 days in the Tuamotus were spent in utter solitude, anchored in placid lagoon waters behind uninhabited motus crowned with coconut palms and lined by white sandy beaches. Our waking hours developed into a natural rhythm of free-diving for meals of fresh seafoods, explorations of crystal-clear reef shallows, and tranquil beach walks, the quintessence of remote South Pacific voyaging. At another atoll, a black pearl farmer invited us to join him for a fascinating day of performing underwater maintenance and learning about his operation. We put this knowledge to use when we visited a man named Mauati, the lone inhabitant of an isolated atoll. We helped him recover valuable pearl lines lost in a storm the previous year. For nearly two weeks we lived with and learned the ways of an independent Tuamotun out-islander.

Eventually we met Mr. Mauati’s family (he had lost his wife to cancer years ago), including Tahitian cousins who welcomed us like relatives when we finally arrived in Papeete in September. He took us commercial fishing for skipjack tuna and to “secret” waterfalls and swimming holes in the interior and invited us to a Tahitian wedding. By this time only a very few stragglers of the annual voyaging sailboat fleet were left, and the ham and SSB airwaves were filled with those bemoaning self-imposed imperatives to depart the vast territory of French Polynesia well before they wished, having allotted time to explore only a small part of the area.

We finally moseyed west to the Leeward Societies near the end of the cyclone-free winter sailing season in time to haul out briefly prior to departure from Bora Bora for the Line Islands in November.

Voyaging between French Polynesia and the Line Islands can involve contact with several distinct atmospheric regimes (the South Pacific Convergence Zone, the equatorial dry zone of easterly trade winds, and the Intertropical Convergence Zone) and at least four major ocean surface currents (South Equatorial Current, South Equatorial Countercurrent, Equatorial Current, and North Equatorial Countercurrent). How a voyager plays these conditions will greatly influence the effectiveness and comfort of his or her passage.

The South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), a persistent arc of low pressure lying from east of Papua New Guinea to approximately 30° S, 120° W and maintained by the confluence of equatorial easterlies and southeast trade winds, becomes more active with the advent of the South Pacific wet season in late October and early November. At this time, the SPCZ bulges more frequently northeastward from the Southern Cook Islands toward the Society Islands of French Polynesia. Weak areas of clockwise-rotating tropical convection start developing along the SPCZ early in the season and generally move southeast, their arrival to the Societies heralded by northwesterly winds.

Heading north

We departed Bora Bora just before the arrival of one such area, taking advantage of the initial light northwest breeze to sail northeast towards a rhumb line between Rangiroa, Tuamotus, and Kiritimati Atoll (Christmas Island), Republic of Kiribati (“ti” is always pronounced as an “s” in Kiribati). The goal was to set ourselves up for a heading farther off the anticipated east-northeast winds of the equatorial dry zone during the passage to Kiritimati and for visits en route, conditions permitting, to uninhabited Caroline and Malden islands (both also belonging to Kiribati).

We intersected the Rangiroa-Kiritimati rhumb line 320 nautical miles from Bora Bora on a course made good of 30° true after four days of mostly light and variable winds before being overtaken by an area of strong convection not shown on the weatherfax, featuring 22- to 35-knot northwesterlies, dense squalls, and poor visibility. Having made the desired easting, we hove-to on a port tack for 21 hours to let the worst of the system pass before hoisting sail for a 12-hour port tack to compensate for westward drift due to the South Equatorial Current (SEC). At 0100 on December 3, we embarked on a comfortable, windvane-steered starboard tack that would take us to Caroline and Malden islands and Kiritimati Atoll.

We cautiously approached Caroline Island (British Admiralty chart 979) the next evening under a nearly full moon and clear, starry sky, having attained an initial radar return at 17.6 nautical miles and confirmed the accuracy of the position given in the U.S. Sailing Directions (Publication 126). We hove-to in the lee of the southwest corner just after midnight, carefully reconnoitering the entire leeward margin of this steep-to, passless atoll from the crow’s nest the next day, finally settling on what appeared to be the longest coral spur extending out from the reef crest. We dropped our 42-pound CQR on a 3/8-inch chain rode in 92 feet of water at the outermost tip of the spur, allowing the transom to swing clear of the reef shallows should conditions change, the hull settling over a depth of 300 feet, near the northwest corner of the atoll. As an additional precaution, we attached the end of the chain rode to a length of 3/4-inch nylon terminated by a poly ball, set up so that it could be quickly thrown off and recovered later in case another unexpected northwesterly created the need to vacate quickly.

However, settled conditions and a full moon allowed us to enjoy the undisturbed magic of this isolated island overnight, replete with mating sea turtles, thousands of nesting sooty terns, boobies, and other seabirds, and frequent sightings of the dorsal fins of juvenile blacktip reef sharks plying the shallow lagoon against a backdrop of dense coconut palm and pandanus forest, bordered by high, luxuriant, white sandy beaches.

Tempting but dangerous

Caroline Island is a lovely, tempting, but ultimately dangerous maiden, having claimed several vessels, including recently a voyaging sailboat and the ocean-going tug summoned from Tahiti for the rescue. Both hulls now adorn the reef near a cul de sac or blind pass on the southeastern side of the atoll, stark reminders of what can happen when a marginal anchorage becomes an untenable lee shore. We used this knowledge and the sight of the wrecks to reluctantly extricate ourselves from the strong attraction to stay and explore further. Near sunset we departed for the 435-nautical-mile passage northwest to Malden Island, another uninhabited outlier far from civilization.

This leg of the voyage featured steady, east-northeast trade winds of the equatorial dry zone, with the westerly setting SEC weakening and eventually giving way to no discernible or possibly light easterly sets of the South Equatorial Countercurrent (SECC). Note that this current is not mentioned by name in the U.S. Sailing Directions (Publication 126) or depicted in the Planning Guide (Publication 122) current charts, or any British Admiralty equivalents, due probably to a combination of lack of ship traffic data from this area and the current’s variable nature. The SECC is described in more detail in many oceanographic texts, and is shown on some recent charts (for example, chart NZ14051, a joint production of the U.S., Britain, and the Hydrographic Office of the Royal New Zealand Navy). The scientific literature also describes the occasional rise to the surface of the easterly setting Equatorial Undercurrent (EUC, also called the Cromwell current) near the equator east of the dateline, normally submerged from 300 to 600 feet below the surface underneath the westerly flowing Equatorial Current (EC). These easterly sets can assist northbound voyagers by allowing a broader reach than would be feasible with a westerly set, and, more important, necessary easting for southbound sailors returning to French Polynesia.

We also managed to arrive at Malden (Admiralty Chart 979) in the middle of the night, after a pleasant four-day sail. We hove-to off of the northwest corner of the island under a bright moon and clear skies to await sunrise before anchoring. The anchorage was far more tenable than at Caroline, though subject to a significant wrap-around swell. We anchored again on a coral spur, in 66 feet of water, considerably farther from dangerous shallows and with more room to swing than at Caroline; the boat was held out to an average depth of 180 feet by the prevailing trades. The desert-like appearance of this island, in sharp contrast to Caroline, was evidence of the chronic lack of rainfall at this latitude. The anchorage also featured a large, very aggressive population of gray reef sharks that took swipes at our oars when we rowed ashore to view the remains of the late 1950s-early ’60s military camp used by Britain and the U.S. during atmospheric nuclear testing. The sharks also developed the habit of circling the boat every evening, as many as 30 visible at any one time, snapping up scraps of fish or other debris and ramming the rudder with their snouts on several occasions. We stayed five days before embarking for Kiritimati Atoll, 330 nautical miles along the rhumb line to the northwest.

Just south of the equator we encountered the strong westerly set of the EC, which increased to a maximum as we traversed the accelerated flow squeezing around the southern margin of Kiritimati. We rode this around the southwest side, still experiencing constant east-northeast trades as we did throughout the voyage from Caroline, dropping anchor in the low-profile, 45-foot-deep reef edge and settling back over sandy bottom in 75 feet of water at the outer anchorage for the atoll. That was near midnight December 19, after 14 days of offshore travel and eight days anchored or exploring the lee side of atolls.

The strategy for returning south

Kiritimati Atoll is an official port of entry for the Republic of Kiribati, which customarily grants the voyaging sailor a renewable (monthly) stay of up to four months. Later, a stamp of the passports from the manager at Palmyra Island (a privately owned, unincorporated territory of the U.S.) seems to be acceptable as an official exit from Kiribati, enabling a renewed entry at Kiritimati (in effect, an extension beyond the initial four-month limit). This can be a factor when returning to French Polynesia since immigration there requires the boat to be out of their waters for six months in between cruising permits.

Our original intention at Kiritimati was to clear in, use mail and communication facilities, possibly get limited provisions, and move on to the more protected anchorage at Tabuaeran Atoll (Fanning Island). We ended up staying for more than three months instead, finding the people very friendly. Plus, the long-wavelength swells periodically arriving from northern Pacific winter storms were not a serious detriment to the comfort of the anchorage. The fishing, diving, marine mammal and bird watching, and, from time to time, surfing, were superb.

Finally we departed for points northwest in late March, quickly sailing 360 nautical miles to Palmyra Atoll, boosted by the west-northwest set of the EC from Kiritimati to a position north of Tabuaeran. We slowed down for spectacular, close “sail-bys” of both this beautiful atoll and Teraina (Washington) Island. The easterly flow of the North Equatorial Countercurrent (NECC) was strong (estimated at 1.6 knots) from Teraina to the vicinity of Palmyra, duly noted for the planned return voyage southeast. Increased levels of annual rainfall are clearly reflected by the progressive increase in the lushness of island vegetation north from Kiritimati, which is normally quite dry, peaking at densely forested Teraina Island and Palmyra Atoll. The southern margin of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) frequently enshrouds Palmyra, sometimes creating limited visibility and squalls gusting occasionally to more than 40 knots.

The 1,460-odd nautical mile return voyage from Palmyra to Bora Bora, the nearest official port of entry for French Polynesia, may seem more daunting than the journey north, because it involves 620 nautical miles or so of easting, mostly against the prevailing winds and currents commonly depicted in the standard pilots and sailing directions.

Four factors described in oceanographic literature exist that can make the trip more feasible and comfortable than one might think: 1) the NECC; 2) “current shadows” of various islands; 3) possible easting due to surface elements of the Cromwell Current (EUC); and 4) probable easting available from the SECC, particularly since the most desirable April/May time window for the trip south conveniently overlaps the end of the time period the SECC is likely to flow the strongest.

Working the current shadows

Our first intention upon departing Palmyra was to use the NECC to gain initial easting. This plan was soon doused by the combined presence of significant east-southeast trades and severe squalls and thunderstorms visible to the north of us along the southern margin of the ITCZ. This combination made a starboard tack unattractive. We sheeted in and motor-sailed on a port tack southeast as close to the wind as possible, got limited help from the NECC to just north of Teraina and significant relief from the westerly EC in the current shadows behind (west of) Teraina and Taburaean. We would have continued non-stop and sought further easting south of the equator had it not been for the wind dying completely, apparently in association with a southward shift of the ITCZ, at our position approximately 80 nautical miles west of Kiritimati. This allowed us to motor straight up the sizable shadow cast in the strong westerly flow of the EC by this large atoll, against little detectable resistance.

Despite our excitement about a second sailing season in French Polynesia, including a projected return to the Marquesas and Tuamotus, and the fact that the South Pacific cyclone season was essentially over for that area, our “homecoming” to friends in Kiritimati still took five days. We did manage to top up on diesel before departing at midday on May 2 for French Polynesia, with the flexible goal of playing oceanographic conditions for a landfall as far east as possible.

The SECC, or possibly a surface element of the EUC, began to make its presence felt at 1° S and helped us hold a rhumb line for Ahe, 85 nautical miles east-northeast of Rangiroa, through mid-afternoon of May 6 when, at latitude 3° 30′ S, we experienced an abrupt change from northeast to east-southeast winds, increasing in velocity to 28 knots and above for much of the next 48 hours.

It continued to blow 18 to 22 knots for 24 hours longer. Thus, between 3° 30′ S and nearly 9° S, over most of the potential width of the SECC, the north side of an uncharacteristically strong anti-cyclone (for this time of year and latitude) stuffed our hopes of trailblazing a path to the southeast, and relegated us to a humble landfall at Bora Bora. Our passage time from Kiritimati was 11 days and six hours. This, however, turned out to be a wonderful excuse to re-visit all of the Society Islands and again traverse favorite atolls of the middle Tuamotus as we played the cold fronts and wind and current shadows of the islands back to the Marquesas. We were greeted warmly throughout the passage by everyone from surprised gendarmes, and customs and immigration officials, to old friends from the preceding sailing season. Upon our arrival to Nuku Hiva, many commented that we were the only boat they could remember returning for consecutive seasons to the Marquesas. It was taken as a personal compliment by all, to a much greater degree than we could have anticipated, and the welcomes we received were at times unbelievable.

After nearly a month, which included a second consecutive exuberant July Fete in the Marquesas, we turned our transom to the trades and sailed back to the Tuamotus, picking up our old friend Mr. Mauati en route and giving him a ride to visit relatives in Tahiti. We had plenty of time for the Leeward Societies before heading west for intensely interesting stops at little-visited western French Polynesian outposts, Maupiti and Mopelia, before sailing to Suwarrow, Cook Islands, and on through American Samoa and Tonga to New Zealand. We had plans to return at least as far east as Tonga in the near future.

We had sailed the length of French Polynesia three times and had a great adventure and exposure to Micronesian culture in Kiribati in between. We found it hard to believe that voyaging sailors would consciously choose to ignore this strategy, and, in the course of our many conversations across the Pacific during the last two and a half years, discovered that usually it was simply not considered, understandably lost in the vast array of potential destinations to the west or in some cases discouraged by inaccurate portrayals of equatorial oceanographic conditions.

Important factors

While not for everyone, we believe that the rewards of visiting the Line Islands between successive cruising seasons in French Polynesia are easily worth the patience and flexibility required to take full advantage of the atmospheric and oceanographic conditions available to assist the voyage. Increased awareness of the SECC and other means of gaining easting with minimum discomfort will, we hope, eventually encourage a significant proportion of the annual fleet to consider this option. To this end, we summarize some important factors for making the right decision and for successful execution of this voyage.

Kiritimati is the only place in the Line Islands that you should count on for (limited) services and supplies. Diesel, gasoline, and kerosene are readily available, at significantly less than French Polynesian prices, but they must be transported out through the pass to your vessel. Propane is generally not available, although it may be possible to talk one of the very few locals with a bulk tank out of a refill. Good drinking water is limited in the equatorial dry zone, which includes Kiritimati; thus, a water maker is a decided advantage. Beer and basic provisions (rice, flour, bread) are normally available at moderate to reasonable prices. Potatoes, cabbage, various canned goods, and hard liquor are available but expensive. Availability of most articles fluctuates according to vagaries of supply freighter and flight arrivals. The best idea is to fully provision before you depart French Polynesia. Telecommunications (voice and fax), mail service, and direct air service to Honolulu are usually available, and parts and U.S. catalog orders can be executed.

Surf at Kiritimati is heaviest from November to April, making transit of the pass into the lagoon and settlements anywhere from interesting to impossible on the few days when it breaks completely across the inlet. This normally limits safe transit to daylight hours and motorized dinghies. Anchoring inside the lagoon is possible for drafts to five feet given local piloting and settled pass conditions but will put you on a lee shore with a 25-mile fetch. Few would choose this option after they see the situation. The outside anchorage is reasonably comfortable. The greatest motion there comes when the trades trend more northeasterly along with a northwest storm swell. Fortunately, this is not very common and can be remedied by an anchor bridle (we have a hard chine and were never bothered by the sea state).

Do not expect medical or dental care of any kind the local clinic is minimally staffed and supplied. You must possess a thoroughly prepared, complete medical kit (especially a full range of antibiotics) and know how to use it. The airstrip at Kiritimati makes emergency evacuation by the U.S. Coast Guard possible. (See Chartroom Chatter, Issue No. 76, July/August 1996).

The best anchorages in the Line Islands are the lagoons of Tabuaeran and Palmyra Atolls. Tabuaeran offers exposure to more traditional Micronesian culture and pandanus dwelling architecture, less evident at Kiritimati. Teraina is untenable for all but brief visits. Palmyra is the most protected anchorage, has the greatest frequency of strong squalls and rain, and arguably has the most lush natural beauty. The Palmyra Corporation requests a signed release form and one week limit to your stay, although sometimes longer durations can be arranged after arrival.

Escape the clutches of the SPCZ on the northward voyage from French Polynesia by getting north of 10° S as efficiently as possible. Depart in late October or early November before the annual convection activity along the SPCZ gets strong, particularly during El Niño conditions. Getting to a rhumb line between Rangiroa and Kiritimati as far south as possible will save you from a potentially harder beat to windward later on. One way of more easily accomplishing both objectives would be to depart from Tahiti rather than Bora Bora.

Use the NECC to gain easting for the voyage south from the northernmost Line Islands, ITCZ conditions permitting; alternatively, use island current shadows to best advantage. Departing from the northern Line Islands Kiritimati if possiblelook for easterly sets from the equator south, possibly provided by surface elements of the EUC, and, as far as approximately 9° S, from the SECC. If winds are light and you find a latitude of significant easterly set, consider motoring due east prior to encountering possibly more southeasterly trades and the SEC farther south.

The return trip to the Marquesas from the Line Islands will almost certainly involve arriving somewhere to the southwest in French Polynesia, most probably the Society Islands, and playing conditions to advance to windward within the territory. This is routinely accomplished by numerous sailboats annually, especially Australians and New Zealanders arriving from the west via more southern latitudes.

Upon departure from Mopelia for points west in September of the second sailing year, we began to fully grasp the magnitude of increased understanding and enjoyment derived from multiple-season voyaging between the Line Islands and French Polynesia. Considering the vastness of the region, and the different cultures, languages, and natural histories it contains, one seasonor, worse, part of a seasonsimply does not seem like enough time to really experience this fascinating and beautiful ocean world.

Scott and Wendy Bannerot are currently based in New Zealand. Scott is a Coast Guard-licensed captain with a Ph.D. in marine biology. Wendy is a marine biologist and private pilot.

By Ocean Navigator