The temperature at "picnic island" in the Majuro Atoll of the Marshall Islands is a pleasant 80 degrees and fluffy, northeast trade-wind clouds frame the azure sky between passing squalls. Our 33-foot Roger Simpson-designed catamaran Imani
spent Christmas anchored off the paradise-postcard islet. Cruising in this region of the world puts a priority on dealing with the Pacific version of hurricanes, the cyclone. Our plan for the Southern Pacific cyclone season is to stay above the equator to avoid entering Mother Nature's version of the blender. We are not alone in choosing Majuro. There are currently more than 20 boats here for the season. In the past, the atoll would perhaps see as many boats pass through over an entire year, but each year an increasing number of cruisers decide not to go to New Zealand, the traditional choice of the first-year cruiser taking shelter from the cyclone season, and opt for a number of other destinations.
|"We also have our cat, Sam, to consider. New Zealand has very strict and expensive animal quarantine laws that would eat heavily into our cruising budget."|
There were a number of factors in our decision to head this way, from Northern Tonga. We opted to stay in the tropics to continue swimming and cruising, which is not possible in New Zealand during their summer, not without wetsuits, sweaters, socks, not to mention shoes. After 12 chilly summers in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are still thrilled not to wear sweaters every time we step outside. We also have our cat, Sam, to consider. New Zealand has very strict and expensive animal quarantine laws that would eat heavily into our cruising budget. So as we crossed the South Pacific this season, the whole family engaged in the process of finding a place to pass the cyclone season and keep on cruising.
Our research started with the US Defense Mapping Agency's North and South Pacific Pilot Charts. After consulting these, we determined that we wanted to stay in the tropics, and not stray more than 10 degrees north. Staying close to the equator means avoiding cyclonic activity. Another important factor for us was rainfall, because our rain-catching awning is our only watermaker, we had to find a place with adequate natural water resources or rainfall levels.
We then continued our research with Microsoft's Encarta99 Encyclopedia where we read up on the climate, rainfall, and other useful facts about our prospective havens. We then poured through the last seven years of Seven Seas Cruising Association Bulletins. Incredibly informative, these monthly newsletters contain firsthand accounts of cruisers' experiences all over the world. There you can find such specifics as yacht check-in and clearance procedures and where to find boat gear in remote locations. The farther we venture off the beaten path, the more we depend on these timely and invaluable sources of information. We also explored Earl Hinz's Landfalls to Paradise, which has a considerable amount of info about all of Micronesia, the Marshall, Caroline, and Kiribati Islands.
Finally, wrapping up our reading research, we looked through the Lonely Planet Guide to Micronesia and Moon Publication's South Pacific Handbook to get a sense of what exploring opportunities awaited us.
There is no substitute for firsthand experience, and for this we also talked to cruisers we found on the SSB radio nets. We made contact with others who had been in Kanton, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands from December to May via the Coconut Milk Run net (12.365 upper sideband, 1900 UTC) and on the Pacific Islanders net (80161 upper sideband, 1930 UTC). Armed with all this information, we made our decision to head to the Marshall Isalnds.
The Marshall Islands are only one of the several options available for sitting out the cyclone season. Many cruisers want to spend a full six months exploring French Polynesia and choose to leave their boats on hard at the Raiatea Carenage boatyard. The chance of cyclones in the Society Islands is slim in non-El Niño years, so cruisers leave their boats and return home to work or visit family, then resume their cruise in April or May. Others, after their six months in French Polynesia continue cruising north, close to the equator, to the Line Islands of Kiribati-Christmas, Fanning, and the US possession, Palmyra.
For those who end up spending a lot of time in the Cook Islands and enjoy the simple tropical atoll life, Kanton in the Phoenix Island group is a logical option. Another alternative is to carry on to American Samoa. Although located within the South Pacific tropical cyclone belt, Pago Pago Harbor forms a natural hurricane hole. There are plenty of moorings available for the season and most Americans typically find employment to bolster the cruising kitty.
The other large natural hurricane hole in the South Pacific is Neiafu, in the Vava'u Island group, kingdom of Tonga, which also lies within the tropical cyclone belt. Staying in Vava'u over the off-season, offers the additional bonus of being able to continue cruising the numerous picturesque anchorages without the crowds of peak season, just make sure to monitor the Moorings charter company's daily forecasts for cyclone warnings.
Likewise, Fiji lies in the tropical cyclone belt, yet offers cyclone-season options. For example, Savusavu, on green Vanua Levu is a natural hurricane refuge where the Copra Shed Marina rents moorings during the cyclone season. There are also numerous mangrove rivers to tuck into. This part of Fiji is very lush and less touristic than the western end of the archipelago. Yet the west offers more off-season options. In Lautoka, you can leave your boat on hard or leave your keel buried in a hole at the Neisau Marina. The full-service Vuda Point Marina also offers these two options, plus such amenities as toilets, showers, washers, and dryers.
If you head north of Fiji and Tonga to get out of the cyclone area, the Gilbert group of Kiribati, lying just above and below the equator, is a popular option for those who enjoy immersing themselves in island culture. The life there is simple yet richas long as you don't judge the country by the look and feel of Betio, on Tarawa, the main port of entry. The outer islands and atolls tell the real story. Many of the Pacific's best sailors can be found here on the numerous traditional sailing craft that ferry people about or fish the passes.
As you can see, tropical cyclone season options are numerous and, with a little research, you will find the location that best suits you. With their plentiful rainfall, the Marshall Islands, a former US territory now in free association with the US, made sense to us. Our base, Majuro Atoll, offers $6 an hour Internet access; US Postal Service to order new charts, boat gear, and other goodies from home; a multiplex cinema for our teenage daughter; and beautiful islands to explore just hours away. We will spend three months here before we continue west using the northeast trade winds to explore the Caroline Islands of Kosrae and Pohnpei.
Gifts from the Rain Gods by Doreen Gounard
Holing up for a Hurricane by Liza Copeland
At Odds with the Weather Gods by John Kretschmer
SailNet's Buying Guide - Hi-Frequency Radios