What’s Why We Miss the (Eastern) Caribbean…
…and Why Not
by Liesbet Colleart
“You guys should come this way. You will really like it!” wrote our cruising friends, sailing from one intriguing, exotic island in the Pacific to another.
“The Caribbean is great and everything is so easy here,” our dearest friends loving the Eastern Caribbean and spending their time indefinitely in these islands uttered.
Before the idea of switching oceans was even a nanosecond of a thought, Mark and I decided to dip Irie’s hulls into the Western Caribbean — mainly the San Blas islands in Panama – for a while. We had been cruising up and down the eastern island chain for three years and were ready for something different. After another year of living the good life in the marvelous islands of Kuna Yala, the idea popped up of possibly transiting the Panama Canal and heading further west. Should we stay or should we go now? Always open to new experiences and expanding our horizons, we went.
Venturing into the South Pacific had never been our plan or our “dream” — on the contrary — so we were a bit apprehensive about this new challenge and adventure. Initially, we missed the familiar Caribbean Sea, islands and life a lot and even after ten months of floating in the midst of the biggest ocean in the world, spending most of our time in French Polynesia, we think back about our four happy years there with a smile and a hint of regret. Here’s why…
Availability of goods and services
We might not have realized as much back then, but cruising in the Caribbean is made easy by the availability of almost everything a boater needs. Finding a modern, well-stocked supermarket is trivial; vegetable markets, chandleries, hardware stores and fuel stations abound (compared to the Pacific); haul-out facilities are within reach when needed. When systems fail or parts break, you don’t have to add creativity and jerry rigging to your expansive repertoire of boat skills. Your propane tank can get filled on nearly every island and you are able to use self-serve washing machines. It is also possible to go out for a drink or a meal... and afford it! A doctor, dentist, or even a hospital is never far away and public transport can bring you to different parts of the islands. For Europeans and North Americans, the logistics for you to fly back “home” or for friends and family to come for a visit are manageable. These are all things we took for granted in the Caribbean, but that are absent, impossible or hard to come by in the South Pacific.
Cost of living
“Cruising in the Pacific is expensive!” Everyone seems to agree on this one. There are ways around spending a lot of money in this part of the world when you plan accordingly (before the crossing most people are able to stock up on enough cans, alcohol and favorite items for the duration of the trip), adjust your eating habits to the local scene (free fruit is abundant, basic items in French Polynesia are subsidized by the French government) and realize that life becomes cheaper farther west, in Tonga and Fiji. But, there is no doubt that most products and services in the Caribbean are more affordable on top of being available, especially alcoholic drinks. Mark and I have resorted to making our own now. Being so far away from everything, flying to Europe or the US is out of the question, unless you have thousands of dollars to spare. What we miss most is taking a break from the daily cooking and dishes by going out for a cheap meal or a happy hour drink. And that brings us to…
Believe it or not, there is a serious lack of restaurants and especially bars in French Polynesia. Alcohol is extremely expensive, even in the stores, so owners of establishments have to charge a fortune when selling beer, wine, or mixed drinks. Without the usual Caribbean bar scene and happy hour delights, socializing is done on each other’s boats or an insect-infested beach. During the high season (the non-cyclone months of April to November) there are more “parties” and get-togethers, because of the greater number of boats being on the same schedule, but during the summer we have to make do with a relaxed dinner invitation here and there. It is harder to meet new people this way, and to stay awake past 9:00PM.
It might sound like a funny thing to miss, but the truth is that in the Caribbean, tradewinds played a bigger part in our lives than we realized. Not only are these winds we could count on during sails between islands or during longer voyages, but our boat, like many others, is set up for easterly trades. Not pointing our bows to the east when at anchor means less sun on our solar panels, in turn providing us with less electricity. Not having wind at all makes the wind generator useless. Tying the dinghy behind our catamaran was never an issue in the Caribbean, but because of the fluky winds and opposing wind gusts, is impossible now. The result would be a line tangled around the rudder or prop with heaps of expensive bottom paint getting removed, or a dinghy straying between the two hulls or under the bridge deck, while the outboard happily bangs against the fiberglass. A lack of tradewinds causes different boats to do different things at anchor, so you need to count on a lot of swinging room and a 360-degree radius.
Gone are the days in which we enter a harbor, drop the hook in relatively shallow water with a sandy bottom, float peacefully and flatly on a calm sea and stay just as long as we wish to. Of course, not all Caribbean anchorages provide such comforts, but many do, compared to the Pacific. Especially outside of the mellower South Pacific summer season (i.e. Caribbean winter), the main reason we move anchorages is because they become uncomfortable or even treacherous because of the weather. When the swell is high, many anchorages in the Marquesas become unusable. Their mountainous geography creates unpredictable winds, fluky and adverse, accelerated along the land or bluntly onshore. And who likes to be on a lee shore?
Rolly anchorages also mean difficult dinghy landings. Floating docks are non-existent; concrete docks are sometimes inaccessible because of the tides, always tricky to jump or climb onto, and usually require a stern anchor for the dinghy. If there is a dock. If not, you either find a way to land the dinghy on a rocky shore, time it right through the surf of a sandy beach, or anchor the dinghy off and swim in (this is called “the Marquesan way”). Other options are to forget about shore activities, wait until calm conditions arrive or move anchorages. Some bays have breakwaters or are famed for their comfortableness. Anchorages are generally deeper than we are used to in the Caribbean, contain (dead) coral and rocks, and in the Marquesas are often murky.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that the distances to get from one place to another are far greater in the Pacific than in the Caribbean. You’d better enjoy sailing once you swap oceans! Long passages are exhausting and challenging: the boat and the crew are pushed throughout different stages of wind speed, wind direction, sea state, weather systems, discomfort, tiredness, sail trim and times of the day. Stuff will break more often on extensive trips. Weather forecasts are less reliable the longer the journey.
Positives about the Pacific
That being said, there is no reason to burst the bubble of all those cruisers dreaming (and talking) about sailing the South Pacific. Mark and I are enjoying the great things this area has to offer and that lure and have lured sailors from all over the world. The wildlife is amazing, the fishing is great (after the gear has been reinforced), the lagoons offer amazing snorkeling and diving, the locals are very friendly and hospitable, the scenery is often spectacular, and the hiking rewarding. Not that we felt unsafe in the Caribbean, but safety is a non-issue in French Polynesia. No need to lock your dinghy when going ashore or to lift it up at night. The presence of a strong Polynesian identity and intriguing culture is a bonus and the absence of “the crowds” is one of the reasons we came this way, at this time of the year. Spending weeks on end in remote anchorages all by yourself is easier to do in the vast Pacifc than the increasingly popular Caribbean.
As I mentioned before, Mark and I have only been cruising in the South Pacific for ten months, “barely” making any progress west and only covering a small region so far. Our experiences are based on time spent in the Galapagos, the Gambier and the Marquesan islands, which we explored extensively. The journey has been unique and gratifying in many ways and we can see experienced and/or adventurous cruisers make the jump as well, in search of authentic cruising grounds or exotic and varied stopovers on a tour around the world. But, when it comes to long-term cruising and a convenient, social, comfortable, and easy life aboard in the tropics, the Caribbean cannot be beaten!
Follow Liesbet’s adventures at www.itsirie.com.
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