Is New Zealand Outside of the South Pacific Cyclone Zone? Yes, No and It Depends

Every year hundreds of boats transit the South Pacific, leaving from ports in North or Central America, and arriving in tropical paradise. By the end of the cruising season, after visiting a handful of Pacific Island nations, each boat has to decide where to weather out the South Pacific cyclone season. By far, the most common strategy is to reach New Zealow_highland in early November with plans to return to the tropics at the end of the cyclone season in April or May.

As we sit here swinging at anchor in Tonga, at the end of October, boats are in transit, already transited or waiting for weather to sail to New Zealand.

One reason New Zealand is the default option is because it is commonly considered to be outside of the cyclone belt...but is it?

Yes. By definition, a cyclone* ceases to be a cyclone the moment that it leaves the tropics. This exit is called an extratropical transition and the former cyclone is now called “a storm of tropical origin”. In addition to the fact that a cyclone has exited the tropical arena and reaches colder waters, it often (but not always) loses other physical characteristics such as the eye that are necessary to be considered a named cyclone.

No. Even though this storm of tropical origin is no longer accurately labeled a cyclone, mariners and news outlets usually continue to use the official cyclone name as a former cyclone approaches New Zealand because, semantics aside, the strength of the wind in the storm of tropical origin can be as extreme as any tropical based cyclone. Over a 27 year period (1970-1997), Northland averaged one storm of tropical origin, with cyclone strength winds, per year. In April 1968, Tropical Cyclone Gisele re-intensified near Wellington producing winds gusting to 145 knots and blowing the roofs off of houses as far south as Christchurch on South Island.  As recently as March 2014, Cyclone Lusi brought cyclone strength winds to North Island.


It Depends. These former cyclones, as they reach New Zealand, are usually rapidly weakening and for that reason don’t often reach very far down the North Island. While an average of one extratropical cyclone per year hit the area from Auckland north, the area south of there, between Auckland and the top of South Island averaged half as many. Still, extratropical storms of considerable strength, as described above, have reached all of the way down South Island.  Strangely enough, although El Nino is generally associated with increased cyclonic activity, the strongest extratropical storms affect New Zealand when the ENSO cycle is neutral, not El Nino.

In Sum. While the risk is still relatively low, New Zealand is not accurately described as being unaffected by cyclone strength storms of tropical origin. New Zealand has been directly hit by substantially more extratropical storms of cyclone strength than areas of French Polynesia (i.e., the Marquesas and Gambiers). It is more accurate to say that New Zealand is a low risk border region – albeit one with well protected harbors, stout marinas and facilities for repairing any damages.
*In this region a cyclone, among other characteristics, starts as a 10 min sustained wind speed of over 34 knots. 10 min sustained wind speeds of over 64 knots (a hurricane in other regions) are a Category 3 cyclone.


South Pacific Landmark Decoder



The power of a name is not unknown to the tourism industry. Certain names suggest landmarks and landmarks are things that tourists want to see. Simply by giving a place an exotic name you can increase the number of tourists who want to go. This applies to cruising tourists like us as well of course.

Here are three names we’ve seen a number of times and our decoding of what the names actually mean.

Bird Motu/Island/Rock – Ile Oiseaux: This will be somewhere with nesting birds and will give you a good chance to see baby birds and their parents up close. Quite often, the anchorage will reek of bird poop and be filled with the sound of screeching birds particularly at sunset and sunrise. If somewhere is called Bird Rock it will probably be a white (guana coated) rock that is picturesque… from a distance.

P1000725Blue Lagoon – This will be somewhere that is shallow enough to really showcase the natural colors of the lagoon. Often it will have a variety of shallow depths so you can see the beauty of the colors in contrast. Sometimes it will be enclosed, perhaps with a navigable entrance, or you may have to anchor outside. You can often locate it from a distance by the number of pasty fly-in tourists walking around on the beaches and the launches they came in will be moored nearby. Don’t worry if you are planning to anchor there, the tourist boats won’t stay long. There will often be somewhere else in the atoll/island just as pretty (or prettier) without a daily visit by tourist boats.

Pink Sands – Self explanatory, right? Except, sometimes the sand isn’t particularly pink (to my eye). And yep, again, sometimes there is pinker sand somewhere else in the atoll. The two pictures above are both at Fakarava but the sand was pinker at the place with no name.

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Logbook: Kenutu Island (Vava’u, Tonga)



P1040237Friends had told us this was their favorite anchorage in Vava’u and what good advice that was!

Kenutu has hiking, crashing waves (on the opposite side from the anchorage), a great beach, gorgeous water colors all around, lots of room for anchoring and good conditions for a solid night of sleep. Plus, as already discussed, it is a fantastic kite spot.

We hiked all over the island and still managed to miss a few trails that others told us about. We swam in the anchorage, organized a few beach fires, played with the crew of other boats and kiteboarded ourselves silly.

We visited three times, always when the wind was forecast to be strong, and the anchorage was perfect.


Video: The Value of Nowhere



This is not one of our videos but a video from the Cabrinha Quest - a charter/owner kiteboarding/surfer catamaran who does some really cool stuff schlepping around kiteboard pros and average kiters plus professional photographers and videographers. Pete Cabrinha wrote and narrated this video and it says so much of what I want to say myself about cruising/vagabonding.

The video is full of amazing footage worth watching but it is Pete's points about nature and remoteness that I feel like sharing with everyone.

You can go to the video directly on youtube here

There were many points that resonated with me. The two that really stick out are:

- The joy of unplugging from the internet. I love the internet, blogging and social media. I also love the fact that my life involves binges of internet and then periods where I am disconnected. I don’t think I would enjoy social media very much if I were always connected to it. The periods of time when I am disconnected are important to me deeply. People often suggest ways I can be more connected to social media while at anchor (e.g., buying local SIM cards, etc) and although I am certain I will occasionally do that, I resist that full-time, every day connectivity.

- The way that connecting with a person from a different culture via a sport is powerful. We made good friends on the water through kiteboarding and spear fishing while in French Polynesia and these connections with people living ashore felt more authentic for us than other connections we made because we shared a common passion with the person.

Logbook: Foelifuka a.k.a. Blue Lagoon (Vava’u, Tonga)



IMG_0329We spent a lazy several days bobbing about in the “Blue Lagoon” off of the island of Foelifuka. The colors were mesmerizing and it was one of those places where a main attraction is the cockpit view.

Although we walked the beaches and swam in the water, one of the nicest things about the place was sitting in the shade of our cockpit watching the scenery. Even Carol, my highly energetic husband, could properly chill out in this type of beauty.

It was the kind of weather and place that inspired lattes outside in the morning, cooking on the BBQ for dinner, long drawn out sundowners and every day sunset watching.

P1050093Tonga was a bit chilly when we arrived but the summer furnace is starting up and that is definitely no longer the case.

We had one day so calm that we were able to dinghy the miles over to the Coral Garden which was on the backside of another anchorage we had already visited.

I can give the coral garden a thumbs up. Not world class perhaps but if you are anchored nearby, a definite nice snorkel with a variety of live coral and lots of reef fish.


Logbook: Fonua Fo’ou (Vava’u, Tonga)



GOPR6399Outside of the main archipelago are a number of islets with anchorages for “settled weather”. We visited Fonua Fo’ou on one of those days. In total we were there for maybe 6 hours but it is one of those picture perfect stops that made a lasting memory.

We were anchored off a small motu with a reef on the windward side protecting us somewhat from the swell. In front of us what that swimming pool amazing water, amazingly clear because it is ocean water, white sand around palm trees and better coral than we’ve found in most of Vava’u. Because we chose to go in settled weather, it was flat and calm and we could hear the tropical birds on the motu and the sound of the waves on the reef.

We almost spent the night and probably could of given the conditions but with a slight roll and having spent our time there swimming and lazing about we moved on in the late afternoon.


2014 Vava'u (Tonga) Regatta Pictures

We had front row seats to the 2014 Vava'u (Tonga) Regatta because we were housesitting and our boat was moored right in front of the first buoy the racers had to round. Considering most boats were at the end of a season of South Pacific cruising it was quite competitive. We grabbed our long lens on our DSLR and shot a bunch of photos.

I posted the photos in an album. Enjoy!

Logbook: Fetoko Island (Vava’u,Tonga)



Fetoko Island is between Mafana and Ofu islands. Our dated guidebook says that the resort owners don’t want visitors which is the opposite of what is true today. Ben, Lisa and Billy of Mandala Resort were great hosts and we splurged on a nice dinner at their resort. We only stayed briefly because we wanted to take advantage of the lack of wind to explore some of the less protected outer anchorages but we would love to go back.


And yes, after seeing these shots from their DJI Phantom 2, we are totally jonesing for a quadcopter!

Logbook: Vaka’Eitu (Vava’u, Tonga)



Everything else we did in Vaka’Eitu pales in comparison to our whale encounter.

The anchorage was fine, a little deep. Our first attempt at snorkeling the nearby Coral Garden was a shut out because of large breaking SW swell on the reef you are supposed to dinghy/swim/snorkel over.

And then…One morning whales came to visit Estrellita. A huge mama and a tiny baby just larger than her pectoral fin. It was quite amazing to be in the water (again, so soon after Niue) with an animal that large and have it turn her head and look at you with that huge eye. It basically killed any motivation we had for a whale watching tour. We have heard repeatedly that the tours here are quite good (and we believe it) but after those two, solo (plus Craig – see his post about Niue and our whale encounter), absolutely amazing encounters, we just didn’t want to muddy up our memories with anything else.


Oh, also, we shared this anchorage with Webb Chiles – some of you might know who that is ;)

Tropical storm scales

I confused everyone, including myself, in the last post because although I have a good handle on the definitional issues for tropical storms in the South Pacific I did not have as good of a handle on the definition of typhoons as I thought I did. That plus some sloppy editing on my part made things more confusing than they needed to be.

If you want to learn more about the various definitions Wikipedia does a pretty good job of comparing the various tropical storm scales in use by different agencies.

In short, besides the physical characteristics and geographical limitations imposed, from purely a wind speed definition, the most common definitions of cyclones start at >34 knots, and both hurricanes and typhoons at >64 knots.

Be careful however, as I learned, agencies vary in their usage of the term. The reports I was reading about typhoons were using >34 knots as their wind speed definition and so I inaccurately copied their term. In the Marshalls, >34 knots is where tropical storms start and so if I count all storms >34 knots I am including both tropical storms and typhoons. It’s a good definition to use to compare with the South Pacific cyclone data but is not an accurate definition of typhoon. I’ve edited the last post to try to make that somewhat more clear.

Typhoons, El Nino and the Republic of the Marshall Islands

Editor's Note: To compare across regions of my own personal interest, I am using the common definitions of cyclones in the S Pacific as >34 knots and comparing them to tropical storms-and-typhoons North of the equator (>34 knots). If I use the phrase 'typhoon' without explanation below you can assume I am saying "typhoons and tropical storms" because on its own 'typhoon' implies >64 knots just as 'hurricane' implies >64 knots.


While trying to understand the various tropical storm regions in the Pacific I kept reading contradictory statements about the Marshall Islands (RMI). The Marshall Islands are North of the equator and thus outside of the S Pacific cyclone best. Of course, that doesn’t mean they are exempt from tropical storms because the RMI is at the edge of the typhoon region. When you talk to cruisers who are going north to avoid the South Pacific cyclone season, they often will describe the Marshall’s, and Majuro (the capital) in particular, as outside of the region because the country is so far east. Further, besides being outside the typhoon belt, many cruisers will also mention that they will not be in the Marshalls during the peak of typhoon season (i.e., the Boreal summer, July-Aug-ish).

While doing my advance reading, I came across a statement in our copy of Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes that indicated that the most dangerous time for the Marshalls from a typhoon perspective was actually the Boreal winter (Dec-Jan ish). (Note: I recently saw his newest edition in which he changed that statement to August to early April.)

So, given that we have been planning to head to the Marshalls for the South Pacific cyclone season, and given a possible impending El Nino, I was quite interested in whether the Marshalls are hit by typhoons-or-tropical-storms or not (and if so, how frequently and at what time of year), and whether the possible impending El Nino has any effect on the Marshalls and tropical storm activity.

Here is what I found out…if you love data (like me – another woman who likes math), read on. If you want just the punch lines, skim over the bolded sentences.

1) When is the most risky time of year for tropical storms and typhoons in the Marshall Islands?

Having been a data collector in a previous career, I went as directly to the source as I could. An article published by Spennemann and Marschner (1994) collated typhoon data for the Marshall islands. There are many holes in their data set but it was the most complete that I had access to, and as far as I know the most comprehensive available.  Note: It is not completely clear whether they are including tropical storms in their data or only severe tropical storms and typhoons. I took their data and sorted it by month to create the following
Marshall Islands Typhoons by Month

These data are fairly clear and support Jimmy Cornell’s statement: Contrary to the rest of the typhoon zone, the highest risk in the Marshall Islands historically speaking has been between November and January with the summer months being the lowest.

Two obvious questions come to mind: 2) Do these data depend on El Nino? And, 3) as the Marshall Islands cover a large region, do these data support the common conception that the southerly portion of the Marshall’s, including Majuro, are safer than the northerly portion.

Spennemann and Marschner (1994) conducted an El Nino analysis and concluded that El Nino increases the risk (almost triples) of a typhoon coming to the Marshalls. Their reported probability of a typhoon in the region are actually .27 in a non-El Nino year (12 out of 34 non-El Niño years) and .71 in an El Nino year (9 out 14 El Niño years). 

Both of these findings were reiterated in the most recent Pacific ENSO Update (2nd Quarter, 2014  Vol. 20, No. 2   ISSUED: June 11, 2014) in which they state “The risk of a strong tropical cyclone in the RMI is almost wholly dependent upon El Niño.  Nearly all typhoons affecting the RMI occur  during El Niño.  The greatest threat is during November through January.  Historical El Niño-related tropical cyclones in the RMI include: the November 1918 Typhoon, Typhoon Zelda (Nov. 1991), Typhoon Axel (Jan. 1992), and Typhoon Paka  (Dec. 1997).

Regarding the north vs south issue, this graph was on the Pacific ENSO site. I’ve highlighted the approximate Marshall Islands grid in red with the red diamond being Majuro’s approximate position (blown up below right).

TC frequency in NWPacific by grid marshalls majuro

The graph covers 50 years of typhoon data ( >35 knots).  If we take the 4 levels of longitude the number of typhoons listed are: 19 between 12.5N and 15N, 24 between 10N and 12.5N, 35 between 7.5N and 10NTC frequency in NWPacific by grid marshalls majuro zoom and 26 between 5N and 7.5N --- or 43/61 split in half north/south. No obvious trend for the southern portion of the Marshalls to be safer, in fact the raw data tilting the opposite direction. When you consider the quadrants east to west you find: 35, 32, 25, 12. If anything, going east inside the Marshalls might be slightly better.

Again using Spennemann and Marschner (1994)’s data I tried to replicate this finding by splitting the Marshall islands at 8N (thus using just N of Majuro as the split) and counting the number of storms they listed as having affected each atoll. 58% were above 8N and 42% were below 8N. In this case the raw data tilt slightly toward the south being safer, but not enough for most boaters to see a huge difference in boat safety.

In neither set of data could I find evidence that there is a substantial difference in tropical storm and typhoon frequency in the southern Marshall Islands as compared with the northern Marshall Islands.

4) Finally, in terms of absolute numbers, how does the Marshall Islands compare to other places people consider going to avoid tropical storms?


Using the capital of Majuro as our main port, over 49 years the 2.5 degree longitude by 2.5 degree latitude quadrant containing Majuro averaged .16 typhoons per year. Comparing this average with other ports, the quadrant containing Majuro saw more tropical storm-and-typhoon activity than cyclones in S Pacific border areas like the Gambiers, French Polynesia (.03 per year average) or even Tahiti, French Polynesia (.11 ), very similar numbers as Suwarrow, Cook Islands ( .14 per year) and Pago Pago, Samoa (.19), but fewer than the more intense cyclonic activity areas such as Noumea, New Caledonia (.56), Vuda Point, Fiji (.5) or Nieafu, Tonga (.28). 

At first glance it may seem difficult to make a direct comparison because although both cyclones in the S Pacific and typhoons in N Pacific occur throughout the year, the typhoon season is more distributed. However, although the typhoon season is generally more distributed, it is relatively concentrated into a single season in the Marshalls, much like cyclones in the S Pacific.


Click on the dollar and buy Livia and Carol a cold frosty one:


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