Passage Report: French Polynesia to Niue – The Complicated Middle
The area between French Polynesia and Tonga has been called “The Dangerous Middle” by one of the freely available online guidebooks (Mr. John's). This is, in large part, because of the unsettled weather in the region. We call it the complicated middle because there are a bunch of different weather phenomena at play in the region, each of which can occur without advance notice: fronts, the official South Pacific Convergence Zone, other convergence zones, etc.
If a new system suddenly appears, it changes the forecasted movement and strength of the other systems. It’s a place to keep a weather eye, and to take seriously. A week after we made landfall in Niue, when we wanted to leave, there was 5m swell and 35+ knot winds in the region. We waited. Another boat stuck on passage during that system took damage to sails, solar panels, bimini etc. in squalls and oversized waves. Later that same week a small depression showed up suddenly on the weather charts. Within a few days it was over Suwarrow and they had 40 knot westerly winds in an anchorage exposed to that direction. Sadly, a boat was lost that night when their anchor tackle failed somehow*.
With this in mind, although we wanted to sail directly from French Polynesia to Niue, we set off from Maupiti with our bow pointed much further north than the direct line, at Suwarrow. Suwarrow was about 5 days sail from Maupiti which is about as long as you can trust a weather window. Further, there was a front passing south of Suwarrow when we left and so sailing north of the rhumb line would both allow us the option of stopping in Suwarrow if the weather went wonky and keep us above the squalls, wind strength and wind directional shifts associated with the front.
As we were closing on Suwarrow, we saw another front passing Niue and knew if we took a direct line we would pass through the front. Having experienced rough weather in an atoll before, we thought we would rather be at sea sailing to Niue than inside an atoll (e.g., Suwarrow) during the front (in hindsight, this particular front missed Suwarrow, staying south and so things were fine there). We sailed directly for Niue, experiencing strong NW winds, a squally night with unsettled wind, 6 hours of being hove to waiting for the front to pass overhead, and then “frisky” SW-then S-then SE winds. All of that was as expected and we flew the last few days into Niue, running fast and wet ahead of a decent swell.
All of this tactical maneuvering took a 1050nm passage**, added a bunch of miles sailed extending the passage to almost 10 days – but we we very happy with our 10 carefully chosen days of within limits sailing,. Another passage with nothing broken on our bodies or our boat – cheers to that!
*So far this year we know two boats that have lost rudders, one that went aground, one that took shaft damage when a pearl farm line wrapped their prop, and the two boats described above. Oh, and the French Polynesian customs boat which ran aground on an atoll!
**This is our second longest passage sailed with only the Mexico to Marquesas run being longer.