When I crossed the equator for the first time last May, I paid tribute to the ocean by pouring out a tipple of precious rum. I’d brought just one large bottle for the trip, because I’d heard that cruisers are only permitted to have a total of six liters of alcohol aboard when they arrive to French Polynesia. I don’t regret sharing my favorite libation with the sea deities, but just like so many things I’d heard before departure, the six-liter rule was a bit of a myth, and one of many lessons that my newbie cruiser friends and I learned during the 2019 Pacific Puddle Jump. From rum shortages to engine issues, our hard-earned knowledge will help other first-timers prepare for the challenges ahead, and avoid sinking into low spirits.
Many of us Puddle Jumpers in the 2019 fleet were new to full-time cruising, with perhaps a Baja Ha-Ha under our belts, or a few years of experience in Mexico or the Carribean. The long passage across the Pacific into remote islands was a wholly new experience. At 3,000 to 4,000 nm, the journey is one of the longest bluewater crossings a cruiser can do, and lands you in far more isolated places for a longer stretch of time, demanding a different approach to preparations. Despite reading the accounts of experienced cruisers and attending helpful seminars, we still faced challenges that could have been eased with a few minor adjustments to our preparations. There were some general trends in learning among the 2019 PPJ fleet, especially when it came to provisioning, mechanical issues, and keeping the crew and skipper happy.
“Everyone says there’s nothing available in the South Pacific,” says Cody Heath of Zoe from Houston, Texas. “That’s not true; there is everything — help, parts, food — it’s just different from what you’re used to, and may be expensive.” Depending on your budget, provisioning most of what you need before leaving the Americas can be the difference between a successful, happy experience and feeling miserably deprived in the South Pacific.
If you’re budget-conscious, you may find the “good stuff” too pricey for purchase in the South Pacific. “Take as much as you can of the things you like or have an attachment to, especially your favorites,” says Flo Benincasa of Flocerfida, echoing the sentiments of many 2019 alums. “Plan to have enough to last you until you reach a really big port, like New Zealand.” (She notes that even Tahiti falls short of the price and selection in Mexico or the US.)
Where did Flocerfida go wrong? They skimped on one of their favorites: whiskey. “Alcohol is expensive in the South Pacific, and, even in New Zealand, it’s $32 US for a bottle of whiskey,” says Benincasa, who wishes they’d stocked up before leaving Mexico. Not only is hard liquor pricey in Polynesia, but the cheapest wine is around $10 US, and even local Tahitian rum is never priced below $18 US per bottle. The prices skyrocket quickly for even slightly better-quality booze. The official rule that you can’t enter French Polynesia with more than six liters of alcohol seems to go completely unenforced, so “bring 10 times the amount of alcohol you expect to consume,” says Heath of Zoe. “Everyone entertains!”
Puddle Jumpers need to provision not only their favorites for the whole season, but completely different foods for the long passages. Kathy and David Bennett, of Pacific Destiny from Alameda, shared an experience echoed by many in the 2019 fleet; “We typically don’t eat much processed or prepared food, but on the long passages these became extremely important, because we could still have a balanced meal even when we didn’t want to turn on the stove.” Everyone seems to agree that pre-cooked foods got them through the unavoidable bad weather, and nearly every sailor admitted that cookies, crackers, and other snacks seemed essential to night watches (even for those who typically don’t eat these things). Other popular “quick” foods included:
- sandwich bread
- large tortilla-type wraps
- cooked lentils
- cans of pre-made soup
- UHT pouches of prepared rice or curries
- parboiled or quick-cook grains (quinoa, couscous)
When it comes to stocking up on favorite provisions, everyone has their own preferences. I love honey, and I’d heard it was expensive in French Polynesia. But while honey was pricey, it was also readily available, delicious, and often locally made. There are other hard-to-find treats, though, so you’ll want to bring them with you. These include:
- muesli, oatmeal, and chia seeds
- maple syrup
- coffee beans
- sprouting seeds
- whole-wheat flour
- regular yeast packets (quick-rise is available but behaves differently and spoils quickly)
- shelf-stable meats like jerky, pepperoni, salami, and sausages
“But don’t overstock the basics,” warns Elizabeth Stacey of Irwinish from Miami, “because these foods are subsidized throughout French Polynesia [even on rural atolls] at prices comparable to the US or Mexico.” Subsidized foods have their prices marked in red, and include: flour, canned vegetables, cream crackers, lentils, beans, grains, pasta, tomato sauce, powdered milk, butter, instant coffee, and fresh baguettes.
Don’t be afraid to try different foods in the French supermarkets, because some are actually better than in the Americas. When Jan Alexander of Hanna (Wappingers Falls, NY) had me over for dinner, she served French mashed potatoes that were so good I had no idea they were instant. Canned butter from New Zealand is also surprisingly tasty, and French baking chocolate tastes like good dark chocolate (and costs less than regular chocolate bars).
Don’t forget your favorite household items. “We didn’t bring enough marine toilet paper,” says Audrey Toal of Wild Orchid from San Diego, who prevents head plumbing problems by flushing no other kind. I found myself searching for fly tape to deal with the proliferate Polynesian fruit flies, but couldn’t find it anywhere.
Along with chemical-free pest-control products, other household items that cruisers forgot included machetes for coconuts, empty water jugs, insulated drink bottles that don’t overheat in the sun, and plenty of topical benadryl or hydrocortisone to treat rashes and bites.
But even if you provision well, you’re still going to find shopping in Polynesia to be quite a different experience. The best piece of advice I’ve heard was from Elizabeth Stacey of Irwinish: “The key to a happy cruise is to let go of the idea that you can have everything just as you do at home. The faster you can let that go, the better off you’ll be.”