When the COVID-19 Pandemic struck, the impacts on people around the globe were immediate and significant. Economies were shuttered, people died by the hundreds, global travel stopped overnight with borders closing, and countries imposed restrictions on internal movement. Cruising sailors were not immune to the impacts. To this day, borders throughout the Pacific Islands remain closed to travel, a situation that has led to some in the sailing community crying wolf about a looming “humanitarian disaster”.
The so-called crisis that has been identified is the inability of yachts in French Polynesia to flee the cyclone zone and find weather refuge in New Zealand or Australia. Now, I know that the very idea that the plight of world sailors may reach the level of humanitarian crisis is concerning. However, a closer look shows there are many things wrong with this argument.
The risk of being hit by a significant storm in French Polynesia is, in reality, low. The islands are known by cruisers to have a much lower risk of cyclone activity than other parts of the South Pacific, so much so that each year, increasing numbers of cruisers apply for long stay visas to allow them to remain beyond the typical three months, and hundreds of vessels spend each cyclone season in the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Society Islands. Although remaining in the Tuamotus and Societies carries a somewhat greater risk, the Marquesan Islands are generally accepted to be free of risk from cyclones in all but the strongest El Niño years. See Livia Gilstrap’s excellent article on the risks of cyclones in Ocean Navigator.
In addition to the normally low risk of cyclones, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Centre has said that the 2020/21 cyclone season has a 60% chance of being a La Niña year, due to ocean temperatures that are cooler than normal. This suggests that storms will be less frequent and less severe. In an article for the Bluewater Cruising Association, Panache and the South Pacific Cyclone Season, Price Powell crunched the numbers and, of the 20 cyclones that even came close to French Polynesia in the last 50 years, only 2 occurred in La Niña years.
While much is said of the risk of cyclones in French Polynesia, New Zealand is not necessarily the safe haven one might assume. Yes, it is technically not a tropical location so not subject to tropical storms like cyclones, but strangely enough, cyclones don’t know where the borders to their zones are and sometimes extend themselves to become post-tropical storms. In fact, using the same data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology as Price accessed, we can see that a total of 18 storms tracked within 300km of Auckland, just two fewer than approached Tahiti.
The plight of sailors on their boats in the South Pacific does not approach the level of humanitarian crisis, and any increased risk from remaining in French Polynesia is not significant enough to claim that life or limb is at risk.