Tuesday, 8 September 2020

When the Covid-19 Pandemic struck the impacts on people around the globe were immediate and significant. Economies ground to a crawl, people died by the hundreds, global travel stopped overnight with borders closing and countries imposing restrictions on internal movement. Cruising sailors were not immune to the impacts. To this day borders throughout the Pacific Islands remain closed to travel, a situation that has led to some in the sailing community crying wolf about a looming “humanitarian disaster”.

The so-called crisis that has been identified is the inability of yachts in French Polynesia to flee the cyclone zone and find weather refuge in New Zealand or Australia.

Sunken refugee boats in the Mediterranean; a real humanitarian crisis

Now, I know that the very idea of the plight of world sailors reaching the level of a humanitarian crisis is hard to wrap your head around so let us take a look at everything that is wrong with this argument.

French Polyneisan Anchorage - February 2020
The risk of being hit by a significant storm in French Polynesia is, in reality, low. The islands are known by cruisers to have a much lower risk of cyclone activity than other parts of the South Pacific, so much so that each year increasing numbers of cruisers apply for long-sta
y visas to allow them to remain beyond the typical 3 months and hundreds of vessels spend each cyclone season in the Marquesas, Tuamotus, and Society Islands. While remaining in the Tuamotus and Societies carries a somewhat greater risk, the Marquesan Islands are generally accepted to be free of risk from cyclones in all but the strongest El Nino years. See Livia Gilstrap's excellent article on the risks of cyclones in Ocean Navigator.

    Image: NOAA Climate Prediction Center
In addition to the normally low risk of cyclones, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center has said that the 2020/21 cyclone season has a 60% chance of being a La Nina year, due to ocean temperatures that are cooler than normal. This suggests that storms will be less frequent and less severe. In an article for the Blue Water Cruising Association - Panache and the South Pacific Cyclone Season - Price Powell crunched the numbers and of the 20 cyclones that even came close to French Polynesia in the last 48 years only 2 occurred in La Nina years.

While much is said of the risk of cyclones in French Polynesia, New Zealand is not necessarily the safe haven one might assume. Yes, it is technically not a tropical location so not subject to tropical storms like cyclones, but strangely enough cyclones don't know where the borders to their zones are and sometimes extend themselves into post-tropical storms. In fact, using the same data from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology as Price accessed, we can see that in the last 48 years a total of 18 storms tracked within 300km of Auckland just 2 fewer than approached Tahiti.

Image: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

The plight of sailors on their boats in the South Pacific does not approach the level of humanitarian crisis, and any increased risk from remaining in French Polynesia is not significant enough to claim that life or limb is at risk.

Consider that as I write this, over 27 million people have contracted Covid-19 and nearly 900,000 have died. The Brookings Institute conservatively estimates that the number of people in the world living on less than $1.90 a day will increase by 50 million, and 2020 will mark the first year of this decade that the global number of people living in poverty has increased. In July, Oxfam estimated that over 12,000 people could die daily because of starvation caused by Covid-19 related economic disruption. The disease and its very real, very significant impact on the least fortunate in the world is the true disaster, and we would do well to remember it and respect the measures put in place to limit its spread and impact.