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  • Writer's pictureTom

2023 Pacific Crossing by sail: The Highlights

diving in Bonaire with turtle
Diving in Bonaire. The turtle is cleaning it's shell by rubbing it against the sharp coral. (Photo courtesy of Larry, Bonaire scuba)

In 2023, we have earned two more swallows, a shellback and a Golden dragon. At least, we would have if we were 'into' tattoos. It has been a 'full on' year. Crossing the Caribbean and Pacific in one season by sail leaves little time to take a break. However, now that Skyfall is safely put to bed for the year and we have flown out, we finally have time to relax a bit, sit back and review our favourite memories from this amazing year. Here goes with our highlights:

1. The Sea Life

The British army have an ex-Clipper race yacht which a skipper sails with a changing bunch of non-sailor squaddies. The idea is that the challenging environment will teach the soldiers to work better in teams, etc. We met the skipper, who had been doing this for years, in Grenada. He had been to the Galapagos multiple times. When we told him a visit was on our itinerary, his advice was, "The Galapagos are great but 90% of what is great is under the water. Make sure you can dive before you go." As we had Bonaire, a diving mecca, as our next stop, we immediately booked our PADI course. Annick declared it was, 'Probably the best thing I have ever done'.

Although diving, without your own equipment, can be expensive, we dived extensively in Bonaire, The Galapagos and also in Fakarava.

Fish hiding in coral
Fish hiding in coral

We have seen turtles galore (see top picture), hammerhead sharks on multiple occasions, schools of manta rays, eagle rays, stingrays and many, many sharks. Not to mention a menagerie of reef fish of every shape and colour. Finally, to cap it all, we had the 'swimming with whales' experience in Tonga.

Our 'sea life experiences', from both snorkelling and diving, stand out as our #1 memory of 2023.

2. The Cruiser community

We have met a huge variety of 'Long Term Live Aboards' (LTLA's) and people sailing around the world. From retirees (like us) fulfilling a 'bucket list' dream, younger sailors surviving on shoestring budgets, those working 'from (boat) home' to finance their sailing, and Youtube vloggers who make sailing videos as a full-time job.

Apart from a love of sailing, the community has several common traits: a willingness to share their knowledge and time with anyone who needs it, to selflessly help out, donate or fix problems for less able cruisers and, most importantly, the desire to promote, participate in and enjoy an active social scene around the anchorages. One consequence is that, if you want to go and explore, there is usually another boat with which you can share the costs/experience.

The crew of SV Zoria and SV Skyfall
We toured Nuka Hiva with Greg and Jeb, who we first met in Linton Bay, Panama. Just one example of the many friendships which we formed this year

Let me recount just one story. We arrived in Fatu Hiva, Marquesas where there is no ATM and we had little cash of any currency. We could acquire most of what we needed through bartering. But not everything. One day SV Parlay Revival arrived and anchored behind us. We did not know each other (although they have a Youtube channel with 250k subscribers). Colin asked what Fatu Hiva was like. I explained our experiences and my own stupidity at not having cash with me. He immediately offered to loan me money (which I could return to him sometime by bank transfer when I had internet). Although I did not accept, I remember recounting the story at a cruiser pot-luck barbecue and how impressed I was with Colin for his generosity. Another cruiser shrugged his shoulders and commented, " Yeah, but you'd have to be pretty unlucky to get stiffed by a cruiser". In how many other communities would this be true?

We have met so many great people and made so many friends. We owe several special thanks (see last section).

3. The Sailing challenges Our Round the World odyssey takes in five Oceans (N. Atlantic east to wast, South Pacific, Indian Ocean, South Atlantic and North Atlantic west to east). The Pacific is actually regarded as one of the two easiest legs. Therefore it may seem strange to highlight the sailing challenges. That is because, although many things are straightforward, they are not necessarily straightforward the first time you take them on. And this crossing threw up many new challenges for us.

SV Skyfall sailing from Makemo to Tahanea in Tuamotus
Sv Skyfall sailing from Makemo to Tahanea (Tuamotus). Photo courtesy of Lars, SV Seawind

a) Preserving diesel We had been told that diesel in The Galapagos could be suspect. Therefore, I planned to get to Nuku Hiva before buying diesel. Yet the legs most likely to be windless and require motoring are the legs from Panama to Galapagos and leaving the Galapagos (as you are close to the Equator and pass through the doldrums). It was necessary to carefully pick the weather window, pick the best route and focus on making the boat sail in light airs. We are fortunate to have an excellent Code 0 and 'Little Pinky', our outsized asymmetric. We had filled up in Linton Bay, on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal. We only consumed around 30% of our tank going through the Panama Canal and sailing the 4000nm first to the Galapagos and then on to the Marquesas.

SV Skyfall sailing with fluorescent pink asymmetric
Deploying Little Pinky in lighter airs helped us to preserve diesel and still make good time

b) Provisioning for long distances The Pacific is the biggest Ocean in the world. Yachts have a certain speed and the leg to the Marquesas (from Panama or from Galapagos) takes time. Our friend Patrick, sailing SV Triton, (which is significantly slower than Skyfall) provisioned for a 'worst case' forty five days. I have never seen so many tins of Spam and corned beef in such a small space! We wanted to live on a healthier diet but decided, on the longest leg, to provision for 23 days (although we reached the Marquesas in only 17). There are many tricks to keeping food fresh, from turning eggs regularly, to washing fruit in water diluted with vinager before drying and wrapping in paper. We did our research but are still beginners compared to some.

c) Tuamotus: Negotiating passes and anchoring among bommies We thought that the hard bit about the Tuamotus would be the reef passes. And the 'first time' certainly is a bit nerve-racking. But it turned out to be quite simple to judge when it was safe to enter so, even if you arrived at the wrong time, with a bit of patience it was not too hard to get in. We found the greater challenge to be choosing the right place to anchor and not getting the chain wrapped around bommies. Obviously, it depends where you want to go. There are easy anchorages. But some of the more 'sought after' places can be hard and picking the spot, letting out the chain properly and floating the chain are all skills we had to learn.

d) The leg to New Zealand

The passage from Tonga to New Zealand, was potentially the most difficult one of the year. Instead of being blown along by the southern trade winds, we had to head south into areas where the winds are determined by weather systems emanating in the Southern Oceans. The key is to miss these systems. We made it difficult for ourselves by booking flights with little margin for errror so ended up taking a non-ideal weather window. But, thanks to the help of an excellent weather router, we reached New Zealand in one piece.

We crossed the Pacific unscathed. I do not wish to convey that it was really hard, or particularly dangerous. (The Indian ocean still awaits!). Conversely, for us it was not trivial. For each leg there was preparation, apprehension, followed by relief and celebrations. And the celebrations will not be forgotten!

4. Galapagos

Of all the places we visited, The Galapagos is probably the most special. The wild life in general was amazing. From the sealions who sought out the most comfortable place to sunbathe, to animals that had absolutely no fear of humans and went about their business ignoring our presence to the abundance of large sealife. We also liked the fact that the local government had succeeding in managing the islands and cultivated tourism in a sustainable way without any support from the Equadorian government.

I am not sure if I would recommend going by boat though. It is expensive and stressful to be granted access - and then only to three anchorages. It is certainly cheaper to fly in from Equador. Given that the best diving is supposedly in places which you cannot visit with your yacht (e.g. Darwin Rock), a small ship cruise on a diving boat may be a better option.

Skipper diving in close proximity to a shark
Close encounters with 'bigger sealife', including hammerheads, made the Galapagos special

5. Samoa

One of the motivations to travel is to explore new places, discover new cultures and exchange experiences with the local people. We enjoyed varying degrees of interaction on our travels but it was in Samoa that we received the warmest welcome. If you wish to experience Polynesian culture then Samoa is the place to go. Maybe it is because they were the first Pacific nation to gain independence from their colonial masters but they are especially proud of their traditions and keen to share them with you.

We spent some days in Savaii, the smaller of the two main islands. One evening we decided to walk around the bay from our hotel to a restaurant that had been recommended. We passed three villages on the way. As we entered each village someone came to greet us, to welcome us to their village and to chat as they accompanied us along the road to the other side of their 'territory'.

Food preparation the traditional Samoan way.
Food preparation the traditional Samoan way.

In addition, it was one of the prettiest islands we have seen and the whole island was virtually spotless and well-maintained. We particularly enjoyed the giant clam sanctuary, and the volcanic lava coastal walk.

6. Panama Canal Transit

The Panama Canal is a tremendous feat of engineering and a fairly unique experience. As the largest contributor to the Panamanian GDP it is a slick and relatively efficient operation. As each ship passed us by, that was another seven figure sum contribution.

We will remember the stress (there are large fines if things go wrong and you upset the schedule), the skill of the pilot boat skipper delivering our advisor, the finality leaving the Caribbean and seeing the lock gates closing behind us, the huge ships in the locks so close behind us, seeing our first crocodile sunbathing on the Pacific side of the canal and, finally, passing under the Bridge of the Americas at the end of the day.

7. Sunsets and Sunrises

Our favourite part of the day was usually 17.00. Time to relax after a good sail, day out exploring or whatever. Sometimes in a bar but, more often than not, on Skyfall with a drink watching the sun go down. I won''t go into the wide variety of sundowners we experimented with in 2023!

When on passage, alcohol is not allowed on Skyfall. However, sunrise and sunset still remain some of the best parts of the day. Sailors never got bored watching the sun 'do it's thing' at the beginning and end of the day.

Sunrise on passage from Galapagos to Marquesas
Sunrise and sunset on passage are usually special

8. Spending time with each other

Annick and I met in 1985, almost 40 years ago. With many years of marriage and three children we are not strangers to each other. But never before have we spent every minute of every day in each other's company. We worked at different places. We learned early on in our relationship that we had different interests and that it was best to give each other space to do things apart as well as together.

(In the early months we tried doing things together. But Annick was not one to stand on the side of a football pitch with the other girlfriends cheering on their men. Similarly, I never enjoyed sitting on grandmother's terrace in the summer trying to stop the napkins blowing away as the trees bent in the breeze whilst I thought of how good the windsurfing would have been).

As live-aboards, there is little space to give each other! Everything is done together. Always. There is nobody more surprised than ourselves how well it went. So, last but not least, we will remember the last year (18 months actually) as probably the most 'together' we have ever been as a couple.

Special thanks

We have already described above our admiration and love of the cruiser community. No review of 2023 would be complete without giving special thanks to certain boats......

For help when we needed it

a) SV Hippocampe For diving to rescue our anchor wrapped around bommies in Makemo

b) SV Cerulean

For the NZ 'things to do' info pack, 'bits' to connect my new starter battery and great company during the second half of the Pacific crossing

c) SV Susimi For help with refrigeration issues

(Paul is a great peron to know because, apart from being very knowledgable, he carries every conceivable tool on Susimi. I was recounting this at a barbecue and made the mistake of describing him as 'well-equipped'. Hazel (his wife) overheard and asked, 'How do you know!')

d)Sister Sheila

For organising spare parts shipped to Tahiti

Then there are the 'professional' fishermen who donated Fish every time we saw them

a) SV Sipi

b) SV Mai Tai

Finally, we have appropriated photos from several sources for our blog. Thanks for allowing us to us them;

a) SV Seawind

b) SV Plan B

c) SV Idifix

d) SV Freya

e) SV Cerulean

f) SV Balance 3

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