Comparing Cruising Ground Vibes: Pacific Versus the Caribbean

My ongoing love affair with the eastern Caribbean has lasted over four decades, with no end in sight. The Lesser Antilles is particularly blessed. It is as if God and Walt Disney got together and said, “Let’s build a Paradise for yachties.” 

The islands, from Sint Maarten to Grenada, are only a daysail apart. You can make the open water passage between them, clear in, and still be able to make Happy Hour. 

The nor’easterly Tradewinds are the most consistent and benign in the world. 

Almost as good as the sailing, are the harbors. They are deep enough to accommodate almost any cruising vessel and yet shallow enough not to require excessive scope. The holding is excellent. And, mostly, they are free. 

Best of all are the inhabitants.

West Indians are generally laid-back and friendly. Ditto, most of the long-term cruisers—some of whom can still be found in the backwaters of Grenada, swilling cheap French rhum, and saying, “Why, I used to change Don Street’s diapers when I furst arrived in dese islands, me son!”

It’s true—the cruising grounds of the readers of All At Sea offer an embarrassment of marine geo-riches. 

…which has a plus and minus side. Let’s face it, the Caribbean was too conveniently placed in global relationship to Europe and the United States to stay undiscovered for long. 

Pacific Versus the Caribbean - Fatty and his Fijian cannibal fork which was used by the witch doctors to eat the sweet meats (brains) without actually having to touch the human flesh.
Fatty and his Fijian cannibal fork which was used by the witch doctors to eat the sweet meats (brains) without actually having to touch the human flesh.

When I first anchored in Great Cruz Bay in the 1970s, I was the seventh boat. Currently arriving vessels in that harbor have to anchor so far out they might be closer to Red Hook on St. Thomas than St. John. 

Part of the problem with the Caribbean is that it is just too perfect, too convenient, too accessible. The case could be made that its very success will be its undoing. 

The Caribbean is—in my humble, highly subjective view—sun-shiny. Contrast this to the smoky Pacific. It’s apples and oranges. 

A mysterious darkness clings to the lofty isles of the Pacific.

I think of shadows and secrets too devastating to share. It is as if the local gods that have fallen out of favor haven’t quite left yet. 

The Pacific broods. There’s always a hint of unspoken danger—of an isolated German ex-pat losing his mind, of a native running amok, of a murder at the waterfall. 

I’m not kidding—that’s the whiff I get. Of course, I’m a science-based guy firmly rooted in everyday reality but if someone told me that some geo-locations had just been proven to be haunted—I’d immediately think of Fatu Hiva. (I could only whisper there—and suppress a desire to run screaming back to my yacht.)

There’s a subtle but consistently mysterious and bone-through-the-nose vibe in the Pacific that is completely different than the straight-ahead reggae-beat of the eastern Caribbean. 

In the Pacific, the islands aren’t a few miles apart, they are a few thousand miles apart. And deep. (I often anchor in 70 to 80 feet of water.) Hurricane season isn’t nearly as well defined. And it is almost impossible to sail to New Zealand without encountering a gale or two. 

Earthquakes are common on the Rim of Fire. Ditto, the vast indifference and cruel randomness of the tsunamis. 

The gods in the Caribbean don’t seem angry (even if a bit sullen) but in the Pacific some ghost-like entities shrouded in the shaded valleys seems to be nursing a grudge. 

And many of the more remote Pacific islands are closer to their cannibal past than their Wifi’d future.

Vanuatu is still amazingly primitive—where else do men still dress in penis-sheaths (nambas) while hunting? Or bungee jump off high towers with vines wrapped around their ankles to see how close they can come to splatting into the ground? Or, in the local lingo, call helicopters “mix-master of the sky, Jesus Christ!” (A piano is “pound ‘em black teeth, pound ‘em white teeth—sing from belly.”)

Fiji’s National Museum features the shoes of early visitor Thomas Baker—the only part of him they didn’t eat. Yes, they formally, and politely, apologized to his family in 2003—but 136 years later seems a tad tardy.  

Sure, the Pacific is strange—with a harmonic of scary.

Take the Galapagos, for example. Sailors of yore used to call them the Enchanted Isles with good reason. There are strong and erratic currents in the area, with warm and cold waters colliding to make dense fog one minute and crystal clear skies the next. The whole place is a like an open air zoo. If your idea of a good time is watching a couple of harbor seals pooping up your dinghy while blue-foot boobies use your foredeck as a toilet—this is a place for you. 

The next leg for most west-about cruisers is Fatu Hiva. It is about 3,200 miles away. It has the loveliest harbor in the world—but the puritanical French authorities changed its name from the Bay of Penises to the Bay of Virgins. Thor Heyerdahl used to hang out here as a young man—until they threw him out for grave robbing. 

This isn’t nearly as weird as nearby (relatively) Pitcairn where nearly three quarters the male population has been convicted of sex crimes.

Less than fifty miles away from Fatu Hiva is Nuku Hiva—where a local fellow named Arihano recently killed and ate a yachtie, then returned to the harbor, clambered into the dead man’s dinghy, rowed out, and kidnapped his wife. (She survived, barely—tied to a tree.) 

My point is—these seldom-visited islands scattered across the vast Pacific are extremely remote—more remote and less visited than almost anywhere else on earth. They are hard to get to, still. They have only a tiny input from passers by. And that’s their attraction and charm. 

In between the Marquesas and Tahiti lie the Tuamotus, or the Drowned Isles as they were know. Most are only a meter or two above the water. There are over a hundred of them. The two most famous are Mururoa and Fangataufa that the French used for nuclear testing. (No, there is no truth to the rumor they still glow in the dark of moonless nights.) 

Perhaps the strangest place I’ve been is Tanna in Vanuatu—where the park rangers you have to pay to climb the (very active) volcano are so… so… unwashed… that I couldn’t get within ten feet of them despite repeated attempts while holding my breath and trying not to gag. (They wear their clothes until they rot off—an odiferous habit in the tropics.) 

This isn’t even mentioning the more sensational stories of the self-exiled Germans lurking on the outer islands of the Cooks or the modern day pirates of the Las Perlas, just west of Panama. 

Actually, my favorite ocean is the Indian but there’s no denying how interesting—and odd—the Pacific isles are. 

Bio note: Fatty and Carolyn are on their sixth year of Pacific cruising.

Cap'n Fatty Goodlander
Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and has circumnavigated twice. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com