By Capt. Frank Nitte
Every year, roughly 800 cruising yachts gather on both sides of the Panama Canal to prepare to cross the Pacific, a journey of more than 3,000 miles to the islands of French Polynesia and beyond.
Andy Turpin of Latitude 38 Sailing Magazine dubbed this annual migration the Pacific Puddle Jump, and it’s stuck.
Not really a rally, the yachts begin to gather in January and depart by early June from various points along the west coast of the Americas. The largest concentration of passage-makers depart from Balboa, Panama. There is no committee boat, nor are there mandatory daily radio check-ins, however, several radio nets always evolve, which are administered voluntarily by fleet members.
Although Puddle Jump voyagers set sail independently, they share information on preparation, weather routing, and inter-island cruising via radio nets and electronic communications before, during and after their crossings.
In honor of these cruising yachts, the Balboa Yacht Club on the Pacific side of the canal, and Shelter Bay Marina on the Atlantic side host parties each year. This year’s was the sixth annual Panama Pacific Puddle Jump Party, co-sponsored by Latitude 38 Magazine and Tahiti Tourisme.
Crews of about 80 vessels, including several superyachts, attended. Turpin, managing editor of Latitude 38, and Stephanie Betz of Tahiti Tourisme gave presentations about French Polynesia and answered cruising questions.
All yachts transiting in French Polynesia have to declare their crew at immigration, police, gendarmerie and customs at their arrival harbor, in Papeete, Tahiti, and on their departure island.
All non-EU crew need to pay a bond equal to the cost of an airline ticket to their home country to guarantee to local authorities that they will have enough money to leave the country.
All crew will have to show proof of medical insurance or coverage.
At their first port of call in Marquesas, Gambier or Tuamotu, yachts will have to contact the police office, which will normally provide a customs clearance. The original must be sent straight to customs headquarters in Tahiti.
French citizens can live and work in French Polynesia without a visa. And citizens of other EU countries can stay without a visa under certain conditions.
Non-EU citizens normally get 90-day visas upon arrival. Any extensions, or a long-stay visa, must be requested in the French Embassy or Consulate in a cruiser’s home country. Local extensions are only given in case of serious sickness or serious boat failure.
Even with the help of a Tahitian yacht agent, non-EU citizens cannot extend their visas after
they arrive in French Polynesia. Long-stay visa are usually for six months. An explanation of what is required can be found at www.consulfrance-losangeles.org, click on “Long and Short Stay Visas” and scroll down for information about long-stay visas for French Polynesia.
Cruisers must apply in person at a French Embassy in their home country or in Panama City, Panama, which will be the last place possible to apply. The process can take up to eight weeks but the average time in Panama this year has been four weeks. Of course, each embassy is different, so times may vary.
Non-EU voyagers who register for the Pacific Puddle Jump (www.pacificpuddlejump.com) can get a bond exemption. For the past few years, Latitude 38 magazine has brokered the exemption deal through its Tahitian partners. Tahitian agency Tahiti Crew offers a special package that includes clearance in and out of French Polynesia, the ability to purchase duty-free fuel beginning in the Marquesas, and the bond exemption for crew. There is no obligation to use the services of Tahiti Crew.
The Puddle Jump parties have turned into cruising calendar events. French Ambassador to Panama, Philippe Casenave, attended the Shelter Bay party and inaugurated a French Polynesian cabinet filled with information for voyagers passing through the Panama Canal en route to the region.
Yacht crew planning a passage to French Polynesia are welcome to join the festivities, as we’ll be hosting them again next year.
Capt. Frank Nitte of the 36-foot sailboat S/V Windsong is the Pacific Puddle Jump Party organizer at Balboa Yacht Club, Panama. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.