We left La Paz, Mexico in March 2015, sailed south and set off for French Polynesia from San Jose del Cabo. In hindsight, here are a few of our ideas for what we would do differently if we were doing it again.
We suggest you get as much work done in Mexico as possible before leaving. Labour is more expensive in the South Pacific and is it not as skilled as in Mexico. Stainless work, sail repairs, engine tuning, as well as sewing extra cushion and settee covers and sun shades are better done in Mexico.
We also suggest you contact all your land-based friends and relatives two weeks prior to departing. They may inadvertently make you anxious about sailing across the ocean. They will remind you about potential storms, illnesses, breakdowns, etc. The week before you depart, try to limit communications to other cruisers. They will get you excited and looking forward to the crossing.
We provisioned many items for just the crossing. Fresh bread, fruits, fish, cookies, crackers, chips, and canned stews are widely available in French Polynesia with Tahitian brands being less expensive. Flour, sugar and long-life milk are readily available in French Polynesia, however it may be easier to purchase and store 6 month quantities in Mexico. Cheese and wine are available but more expensive than Mexico and there is less variety. Pasta is available but it isn’t the best quality, so if this is critical to you make sure you stock up before leaving Mexico. We also provisioned 6 months of coffee as we were not willing to risk a reduction in quality for this critical beverage. The one thing we ran low on was vegetables which are not easy to find.
Joining a “Fleet”
We joined the Pacific Puddle Jump (PPJ) mainly for the access to expedited check-in procedures, duty-free fuel in French Polynesia, and to participate in the daily radio net. We liked the freedom to be able to leave when we wanted from where we wanted. We were one of the few boats that left from the Baja Peninsula. When we arrived in French Polynesia, we realized that the boats that left from Puerto Vallarta or La Cruz, Mexico had already formed fast friendships and social networks. If you are a very social boat, you may want to consider departing from the mainland of Mexico. The PPJ encourages cruiser parties, hosts seminars, and provides cruisers there with PPJ burgees, t-shirts, and detailed information on procedures in French Polynesia. None of that makes it to the Baja.
Although we were not the only boat that left from Baja (one or two others arrived weeks later), after 20 days on the PPJ radio net, our boat and voices were known. We managed to make new friends and were welcomed to join floating potlucks and hikes to waterfalls. If you have not already met your fellow cruisers, we suggest that once you are in an anchorage in the Marquesas with other boats, pick an evening and put a call out inviting everyone over for sundowners. It is a great way to put faces to voices and boat names. These are the people you will be crossing paths with over the next 6 months.
If you stocked up, like we did, with good Chilean wine before leaving Mexico, invite everyone over for a glass of red wine. They will arrive with snacks and other drinks. It is also common to just offer your boat as the gathering spot and guests will arrive with their own drinks and appetizers. Speaking of appetizers, there are many evenings when a variety of appetizers really is the evening meal. A variety of appetizers will make your life easier. Our tortilla chips from Mexico lasted over two months, and we still have salsa. However, April and May are not avocado season in the Marquesas so the intrepid cruisers who found a way to freeze guacamole were always popular!
Prior to leaving La Paz, we rushed to get our HAM radio licenses. We wrote the American test and acquired American Technician-level licenses. What we did not know is that the American Technician license is equivalent to our Canadian Maritime Mobile Radio Station License. We needed to take the next level American Ham test in order to access HAM frequencies. Fortunately, the PPJ radio net uses SSB frequencies open to all radio license holders and anyone can participate, not just registered PPJ’ers.
The daily PPJ net was fun and frustrating. It is important to remember that this is a volunteer run net. It is a social net and for many of the participants it is their first time using a radio. Therefore latitude and longitude were often cited as “15.25 degrees North” when they meant “15 degrees, 25 minutes North.” Wind speed was reported as both apparent and true and sea state was often considered unimportant. This makes it difficult to get a clear picture of conditions from boats around you. It made it even harder was when boats would report their course and speed but fail to mention they were motoring and not sailing.
Checking-in and Visas
Through the PPJ, we purchased the services of Tahiti Crew for expedited check-in to French Polynesia. We sent all the required paperwork from Mexico and secured our Bond Letter and other information before leaving. Once we arrived in Hiva Oa, the Tahiti Crew agent met us at the dinghy dock, drove us to the police office, and handled all the 15 minutes of paperwork, then pointed out stores, restaurants and told us about internet, laundry and island tours. We understand other cruisers had trouble with Tahiti Crew, but it often sounded like they had not sent in proper insurance information and had not received email confirmations or their Bond Letter prior to departing.
We considered the process of obtaining a long-stay visa, but discarded the idea once we understood how long the process could take. We were lucky in that the French Embassy in Mexico City had agreed to process our application for the long-stay visa when normally one must apply at a French Embassy or consulate in their home country. Since the applications had to be sent to Papeete (pronounced: pa-pay-eh-tey), the process could take two to six weeks. We were not prepared to postpone our departure an additional 6 weeks or more if we ended up on the longer end of the range. Once in French Polynesia, we met two American couples who stayed in Nuka Hiva for approximately 8 weeks each waiting for their long-stay visas to be finalized.
Although we probably would have explored a bit more around Nuka Hiva and Ua Poa, and we definitely would have stayed longer in Tahanea in the Tuamotus, we have found the 90 days to be reasonable. After checking out of Bora Bora, we have thoroughly enjoyed Maupiti and Mopelia, where we are currently stocking up on fish and coconut milk.