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Cruising the Pacific- the Coconut Milk Run

by Nancy Knudsen - three days from Fiji on 23 Sep 2007
Coconut Milk Run boats in Daniels Bay Marquesas BW Media
It's called the Coconut Milk Run – pejorative term that. The Coward's Way Out, it says, the Easy Way across the Pacific. I am not sure who's saying it. Presumably all those who have done polar circumnavigations, rounded the Horn, or visited the Antarctic by sailing boat.

Every year there are estimated to be about 400 sailing boats that can be found crossing the Pacific from East to West, trailing after the sunsets and pursued by sunrises. It's the greatest down hill run of them all - about eight thousand miles if you're going to Australia, a little less to New Zealand.

If you say the route fast, it doesn't sound far or complicated – Galapagos, the Marquesas, the Tuomotus, French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu to Australia. (There aren't, I might add, many coconuts in the Galapagos, and if the Charles Darwin Foundation has its way, there won't be, at any time in the future.)

Boats heading for New Zealand then make the break for New Zealand in either Tonga or Fiji, wiling away time in either of these destinations, waiting for the weather to improve in that colder southern country.

While the weather naturally varies from year to year, the route avoids as much as possible the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), by crossing it quickly between Panama and Galapagos and the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) by not venturing too far north in the Western Pacific.

The goal, not always successful, is to keep to the route with the best weather and most reliable trade winds.

But who are these 400? Where are they coming from and why? The answers are many and varied, but some generalisations can be made.

To start on the Milk Run, they come from everywhere along the coast of the Americas – from US ports, from Mexico, Panama or Ecuador. Some 200 of them are circumnavigators; some are cruising the Pacific and will return to the Americas via a more northerly route, others are on a one-way journey, finishing in Australia or New Zealand.

The ages vary from broadly from 30 to 60, fairly evenly spread. In the lower age groups, young upwardly mobile executives with a yearning to escape the rat race take a year or so of sabbatical to do the trip of their dreams.

In the upper age groups there are many early retirees – successful careerists or entrepreneurs who similarly love sailing and are escaping the rigours of a modern Western existence.

Many couples are traveling with young children – these are families who take the chance to do some months or years of home study before the children’s schoolwork become 'serious'.

Of the non-circumnavigators, there's more than a sprinkling of Australians and New Zealanders. Many, in 2007, have acquired their boats in the USA or Europe and are sailing them home.

Such is the fame and lure of the South Pacific that of the Europeans, many, not wishing to do the lesser famed route across the Indian Ocean, intend to sell their boats in Australia or New Zealand and fly home.

Many change their minds along the way. 'Will we keep going? - or sell the boat and fly home? And where will we do it?' is a question that arises again and again in conversations.

Sometimes the relationship does not stand the test. There are more than a few single husbands, abandoned by their crew-wives, who are looking for crew in the most unusual ports, or simply going on single-handed.

Gossip among cruisers doesn't vary much from gossip anywhere in the world, and as this loose bunch of boats keeps bumping into each other along the way, an informal village atmosphere develops.

'Did you hear about x? Wife got off in Raiatea.'

'That's the yellow catamaran, isn't it? - ah yes we spent some good times with them in the Galapagos. What a pity but I am not surprised.'

' Well, he's not the only one – Y's entire crew left in Bora Bora.'

'Was that always the intention?'

'No, one was a long time girlfriend, and the rumour is that a new girlfriend was arriving.'

'O I heard differently – that he sacked them all in a fit of pique.'

Sometimes the stories are worse. One crew member has been arrested in the Marquesas on suspicion of pushing the skipper/owner overboard during the long 3000 mile sail from Galapagos.

But in general, these are a good bunch of citizens, always ready to help another cruiser with maintenance, navigation, weather, and hints on future ports.

Books are exchanged as an understood protocol between boats, DVD's lent, weather forecasts distributed, and bread delivered. Other conversations concern which are the best anchoring spots, supermarkets, hardware and electronic stores, laundries, tours, restaurants, and where the Wi-Fi is to be found.

People create informal nets on HF single side band radio, run by the participants. Run twice daily by a volunteering net controller while on passages, information shared is priority and emergency traffic, every boat's position, weather, miscellaneous info, and then the net is opened for individual boat to boat traffic.

The principal net this year is the Southern Cross Net, which has anything from 10 to 20 boats at a time registering during passages, and has totally recorded the ongoing positions of more than 100 boats this season.

On the net, in restaurants and walking the streets, one can hear multiple accents – European of all persuasions, English, American from many parts, Australian, South African and New Zealander.

On a per capita basis, Norway, which has a mere 4.5 million inhabitants, has by far the greatest number of sailing vessels out there this year.

A Mayday is always a sobering event. Other conversations stop, people stare blankly while listening. 'It could be me.' is the automatic thought.

The latest one of these was Timella, who reported flooding, and their position, then nothing more. We heard that two aircraft were searching the area, and then the crew of three were later reported to have been picked up by a ship – lucky, there are not many ships in these parts. Obviously, the boat sank, and as any cruiser listens, they identify, and silently sympathise. For many cruisers, their boat is their only home.

While it may be called the Coconut Milk Run, it's still not for the faint hearted. Along the way the distances are huge and there is little skill to be purchased when things go wrong.

Cruisers still depend greatly on each other for spare parts and assistance when serious problems arise with boat systems. The ports are small and ill serviced, there are very few marinas, and none with adequate maintenance facilities. The early passages are long, and not a few boats become stuck in remote locations while they have major spare parts and sometime personnel flown into repair some vital system.

Australian boat Fantasy I, after incurring serious keel and rudder damage when grounded in the Galapagos, was forced to return 1000 miles to windward with a jury rigged rudder to Ecuador, the closest maintenance point.


The rewards, however, for those who participate, live up to the expectations. Polynesia is a land, not of milk and honey, but of fish, bananas, mangoes, breadfruit, papaya, pineapples and, of course, coconuts.

These are plentiful, it's always warm, the breeze almost always blows and it rains frequently. The lagoons are luxurious, the sand as white as the brochures promise, and the locals as gentle as their surroundings suggest.

Bernard Moitissier, with a little help from Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson and several other luminaries, may have created the allure, but the reality never lets the legend down – the Coconut Milk Run is still the Greatest Run of All.

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