Random thoughts for aspiring offshore sailors and coastal cruisers alike
Words by Hugh
A common idiom among boaters in the Pacific Northwest planning on sailing offshore is that if you can handle a circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, you can handle any conditions thrown at you during a circumnavigation of the globe. While I have not yet completed either circumnavigation myself, I feel that my lifetime of sailing on BC coast qualifies me to take up on this adage as it relates to cruising the South Pacific thus far. From our experiences since we left Mexico in June, I would say that cruising coastal BC is a far cry from sailing offshore and in the South Pacific.
What are some of the differences?
Firstly, security when at anchor. Around BC you are rarely more than a couple of hours away from a protected anchorage; somewhere to wait out a gale or spend the night. It doesn't matter the wind direction or swell (swell, that's another thing!), you can pretty much always sneak into a protected bay to wait it out. Out here it's a different story. Many islands have 1 anchorage that is protected from 1 or two wind directions at best. If you arrive and the wind has changed direction, or there is a new swell running, the next place to offer protection many be 20, 30 or 100 miles away.
Once in that protected bay in BC, you are likely dropping your anchor on a relatively shallow sand or mud bottom; the most secure 'holding ground' for an anchor. In the South Pacific the holding ground is often made up of patches of sand and coral. The sand is wonderful holding if your anchor lands on it. If you catch the coral, you might hold, or maybe the boat will swing, pull the anchor in the opposite direction and un-wedge it, setting the boat adrift. So it's a bit of a lottery most of the time. Not to confidence inspiring when the wind picks up to 30 knots!
Let me describe anchoring off the atoll Faaite in the Tuamotu's. We opted to spend the 1st night anchored outside the coral lagoon on a shelf that extends 100m off the reef, is was about 300m wide and 12 - 15m deep. Beyond the reef, to the North East is a coral strewn beach and the palm trees of the motu. Since the trade winds blow consistently from the east/south east the atoll provides some shelter from the winds and wind chop. Gusts are at most 20kts. There is nothing but wide, open ocean behind us, if we drag we have a few hundred miles of sea room until we run into Tahiti, or past it a few thousand to New Zealand! The wind holds us off the reef and the breakers. If the wind were to shift to a westerly direction I'm not sure our swing distance on the anchor chain would have kept us safely away from the shore. The predominant swell is 4 - 5' from the south, with a bit of the easterly trade wind swell wrapping around too, so the waves breaking on the reef are fairly large. Needless to say we had all depth and GPS movement alarms set!
One reassurance is the water is so unbelievably clear we could easily see the anchor solidly wedged between two pieces of coral. In 12m of water it feels like you can reach out and touch it; even in 30m of water the bottom is still visible. We considered attempting to enter the lagoon, but were nervous because slack water lasts about 20 minutes and outside of that time the current runs up to 6 knots around numerous uncharted coral heads with the rising and falling tide.
Other boats - in bays in BC boats at anchor all tend to lay in the same direction because either the wind is blowing strong enough to hold them, or the tide is the predominant influence and is holding boats in the direction of its ebb or flood. Anchored behind a coral reef is again totally different. Waves coming into the lagoon along with tides create difference currents everywhere. Boat swing around their anchors at random. This makes placing your boat a safe distance from others very difficult. At one moment you're happily bobbing 50m away, the next you can step into the next boats cockpit. We discovered this the hard way one evening and ended up moving our anchor at 10 o'clock after lightly nudging another boat.
The second big difference we've encountered so far is the availability and reliability of weather forecasts. In BC one has access to regular, relatively reliable weather forecasts courtesy of Environment Canada over the VHF radio. These forecasts are updated every 4 hours by real meteorologists. If anything, they overestimate wind strength and sea-state. I can't tell you how many times I've encountered 10 - 15 knots when channel 21 is calling for 25 - 30. In fact, the ubiquitous "Georgia Straight - Small Craft Warning" is issued earlier on long weekends and in the summer when more boaters are likely to be on the water!
During the Pacific Crossing and in French Polynesia, our main sources of weather information are GRIB files and a text forecast for the middle portion of the South Pacific. Grib files are computer-generated predictions of air pressure, wind speed and wind direction. These predictions are based on a computer model generated from atmospheric pressure and other data collected by satellites. No actual meteorologist goes over the data or has any input. Not so accurate. The files usually predict the wind direction fairly well, but to get a good idea of the wind speed, the common rule is to double the predicted speed for an accurate picture of the actually conditions you will encounter.
The forecast for the mid portion of the South Pacific, known to us as the SOUTHMIDPAC covers, well, the area as the name suggests; thousands of square miles of ocean! It is issued by the US National Weather Center in Honolulu, compiled by an actual meteorologist. However because of the huge forecast area, getting information about any more than general trends or big systems is almost impossible.
All this means is that you always have to be prepared for any weather that might come up. And despite all I've said, I still think sailing in BC is an excellent test of skills and boat. If you can handle the chilly temperatures and wet weather in BC, a few unannounced squalls and crowded anchorages in the South Pacific will be a pushover!
More comparisons and contrasts to come! Like cooking.