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The Coconut Milk Run

March 2002

This page gives an overview of Pacific island cruising. For the color commentary, be sure to visit The Admiral’s (that’s Signe) Version of the Coconut Milk Run (click to open).

Bora Bora lagoon (Felicity photo) - 111KWell, we said we were going to do it, and the time is getting close. This is our year to make the longest bluewater passage on the planet, 2,750+ miles from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to Hiva Oa or Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.

Pacific Cruising

Pacific cruise map 2 - 225KHere’s a map of the vast Pacific Ocean, and the route we expect to take among the islands. Click on the map to see a larger, easier-to-read version. This well-traveled path is affectionately called The Coconut Milk Run. Several hundred cruising boats, mostly from the US, Canada, the UK, and Continental Europe, cross the Pacific this way every year. It’s a bit like doing the London-Paris-Rome thing for the first time: everybody goes to the most visited places, but there are really good reasons why they’re the most visited, so you just have to do it!

We are, however, planning to maximize our . . . Oops, sorry. That just slipped out. A bit of leftover jargon from business meetings with facilitators, white boards, and colored pens. Beg pardon. Won’t happen again.

Marquesan kids (Felicity photo) - 112KAhem. We’re going to spend as much time as possible in French Polynesia during our first season in the Pacific. That’s because the people are fascinating, islands are magnificent, and it’s really hard to sail back to them after spending the cyclone season in New Zealand. Most boats cruise on to Tonga and Fiji their first year, but we hope to spend more time there in future years.

Felicity in the Marquesas - 71KNote: Most of the beautiful photos of the South Pacific islands on this page are courtesy of our friends Ken and Cathy aboard ‘Felicity’, who made the trip in 2001. Be sure to take a look at the terrific Felicity website, too. They’re good writers, as well as good photographers.


Landfall on Hiva Oa (Fel;icity photo) - 111KThe timing of any Coconut Milk Run cruise is totally determined by the weather. This is emphatically not the place to get creative with your cruising ideas. The time to cruise the South Pacific islands is April to October, which is winter in the southern hemisphere and the driest, least-humid time to cruise. Those months also entirely avoid the cyclone season, always an important goal for us cowardly cruisers.

Most of the South Pacific island groups are in the Southeast Trade Wind belt, which necessarily means that we all sail west through the islands, mostly downwind. (Winds are always labeled by the direction they blow from.) Because we cruisers just hate to sail upwind. The trades can be lovely ten-to-fifteen knot breezes, or Moorea rainbow (Felicity photo) - 115Kgnarly 25-to-35 knot white knucklers; it all depends. And this year the weather gurus say we may we be starting a new El Niño cycle, which usually means light winds and sometimes even reversed trade winds. We’ll tell you more as we move along the Coconut Milk Run.

The Big Passage

That first crossing, from Puerto Vallarta to the Marquesas, is going to be our real test. It should take us sort of, about, roughly two weeks and a bit more, give or take. Steve Dashew (famous bluewater passagemaker and designer of our boat) just emailed us that he thought we should make it in about 12 days. Jan’s more modest calculations, based on expected light trade winds this year, call for more like 15 or 16 days. In any case, we will probably get there much more quickly than most of the boats in the fleet, who usually spend three to four weeks at sea. The smaller the boat, the longer the passage, usually.

Raven is a fast boat with lots of waterline length (equals speed potential), and we’ll have a couple of extra crew to help keep her moving. Mark Lindeman and Mike Hudson, both from our crew in the Baja Ha-Ha 2001, will be with us lending their sailing skills. Mark will Tahiti - what paradise is supposed to look like (Felicity photo) - 123Kassume his usual positions as Chief Rigger (chef de rigueur?), Principal Deck Ape, and Sushi Chef, as well as Head of the Forepeak Department. Mike will again be Chief Helmsman and will also head the Fishing and Twelve-String Guitar Departments. They are disputing who will lead the Music Department, as Raven will carry at least 40 gigabytes of MP3 music files to make sure we are never bored.

Here are the various island groups, the mileages between and among them, and our rough cruise plan:

Puerto Vallarta to Hiva Oa, Marquesas 2,750 Early April
Maqrquesas to Tuamotus 450 May
Through the Tuamotus 300 June
Tuamotus to Tahiti 200 Late June
Tahiti, Bora Bora, Society Islands 170 July to September
Bora Bora to Rarotonga, Cook Islands 580 Late September
Rarotonga to Tonga 800 October
Through Tonga 200 October
Tonga to New Zealand 1,050 Early November

Total Miles Across the Pacific (minimum)  6,500

And that doesn’t even include the miles we’re going to sail while cruising among the islands, in and out of harbors, etc. The total will surely be closer to 7,500 miles.

The Islands

Each of the island groups, even within French Polynesia, has a distinct character of the land and the people that differs from all the others.


These are the remote high islands with beautiful sharp peaks. The inhabitants are thought to be the source of the Hawaiians, having traveled several thousand miles of ocean to find those other high islands. This is where Herman Melville jumped ship, to escape a brutal whaling captain, and stayed with the fierce Taipi tribe of cannibal Marquesans for several months, which resulted in his famous novel Typee.


Tuamotu lagoon (Felicity photo) - 118KIf there’s an opposite to the Marquesas, it’s the Tuamotus. They’re all huge, classic South Pacific atolls, where twenty feet above sea level is considered high ground. Sparse sand islands fringed with coconut palms – motus in Polynesian – surround vast lagoons, with coral reefs inside and out. Many of the islands have black pearl farms in their lagoons, but Signe categorically denies the accusation that they are the sole reason she’s agreed to sail across the Pacific. ALL of the cruisers buy or trade for black (gray, really) pearls, and I’m sure we will, too.

Tahiti and Society Islands

Tahiti Heiva dancers (Felicity photo) - 121KThese are the one you always see in the photos of ‘paradise,’ mountainous but with fringing coral reefs, too. It’s hard to beat the beauty of Moorea or Bora Bora. And since it’s all controlled by the French, you can always get wonderful baguettes, wine, and cheese! We hope to be there for part of the big annual Heiva festival in June and July.

Cook Islands

Rarotonga dancers (Felicity photo) - 132KA group of islands having a ‘treaty of free association’ with New Zealand, the Cooks are thought to be the origin of the Polynesians who became the Maoris in New Zealand. In fact, there are more Cook Islanders in NZ than in the Cooks. We’ll probably only visit Rarotonga, a high island with a surrounding reef, and the capital of the group. Other cruisers say the folks there are wonderfully receptive to foreigners.


Signs in Tonga (Felicity photo) - 127KThe Kingdom of Tonga was never conquered by the European colonial powers, and the King still reigns over a society that is both highly religious (Methodist, mostly) and highly stratified, with royalty, nobles, and commoners. Lots of coral reefs and interesting villages. By this time, we will be starting to get antsy to be out of the islands before cyclone season starts in November. We’ll probably sail away from Tonga by the end of October.

New Zealand

Every single American we know who visited New Zealand has fallen in love with Kiwiland. Including us. And cruisers especially like it because all those Kiwis are obsessed with sailing. Lots of places to Russell, New Zealand (Felicity photo) - 131Kcruise, plenty of fascinating shore excursions, and great people. Cheap, excellent services and repairs for boats, too, since the NZ dollar is worth only 41 cents US. Raven will spend November through April – the southern hemisphere summer – in New Zealand. We’ll probably buy a used car, like most cruisers, and ‘land-cruise’ the country for a couple of months at least. Then in May of ’03, we might well head back north to Tonga and Fiji. But that’s a long way down the road to plan for, and anyway cruisers hate planning things in advance.

Now . . . for the much more interesting color commentary, go to Signe’s page, The Admiral’s Version of the Coconut Milk Run (click to open).

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This page was last updated on 04/13/04.


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