Life in the South Pacific

Life in the South Pacific

As told to Isabel Heading

Matteo Zanette has just arrived back in Australia after sailing the South Pacific for 5 months with his girlfriend. The adventure began in French Polynesia, then onto American Samoa, Vava’u islands of Tonga, Fiji and finally New Caledonia. Hailing from Venice in Italy, Matteo has been fascinated by sailing since he was a teenager, helping out his father on Venetian boats in the Adriatic Sea. A lifelong dream to sail the South Pacific, Matteo has been preparing for this epic journey since 2013.

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ISABEL: What made you decide to go on this trip?
MATTEO: It has always been a dream. There is no other place that is further to sail from Italy (apart from the Antarctic). I’ve been planning this trip for 3 years more or less.
ISABEL: How did you prepare for it?
MATTEO: Mostly studying online. I was informed, I knew what I was going to do, but I was still new to sailing. I had never been more than 6 miles from home before. To get on a boat, or a crew, it’s like applying for a job; you have to look online and apply for positions. We tried organising a boat from the marinas in Australia, but it wasn’t really working. I first started looking for a boat a few months before the trip, while I was working in Tasmania. It was quite a process. Everything eventually got sorted in Australia, and then I headed for New Zealand to meet up with the crew, then officially began sailing in French Polynesia. Our captain, Roger Jones, who was originally from New York, had been sailing on his boat since 2008, called Reboot. The boat was a Catalina 42, single hull, which is an average size for sailing.
ISABEL: What were some of the highlights of the trip?
MATTEO: Firstly, the adventure! Doing something that I haven’t done before, and what a lot of people think is crazy. Also, the sky at night. You have reflections of the shooting stars on the water, it’s crazy. If you’ve ever seen the movie Life of Pi, it’s actually like that. The plankton under the water makes light when it’s moving, especially if it’s a quiet night. It’s just amazing and I’ve never seen it before. The plankton kind of ‘pulses’ underwater. Most of the places we were visiting were like tropical paradises, so it was kind of all a highlight! It’s hard to say what was best, because it was all good.
MATTEO: Did you see much wildlife? Or mermaids?
No, no mermaids so far. We saw a lot of stuff. In the open sea we didn’t see much. But closer to shore, we saw whales, sharks, dolphins, sea snakes, sea birds, tunas. There were tunas that were swimming as dolphins in front of us, which was just amazing.
ISABEL: How did you go about food and water? Did you fish from the boat?
MATTEO: No, we didn’t fish. We mostly had a vegetarian diet, because my girlfriend is vegetarian. But also because we had no fridge, so it was mostly just packaged stuff, cans, fried food, pasta, rice. We always stocked up on food when we stopped on the islands. Also you can’t always rely on rain water, because you don’t know if it’s going to rain. We had roughly 600 litres of fresh water that we filled up when we docked our boats, and we had a device called ‘Watermaker’ which makes water from the salt water, but it takes really long.
ISABEL: Did you have any sickness?
MATTEO: Seasick, yes. It’s usually when you’re first leaving, as your body gets used to the motion. Even with the tablets, I got seasick the first few days. They’re always the worst. Yeah, and then your bodies get used to it after a while. By the end of the trip, I never got seasick. The worst thing is that you cannot take off from the boat, you cannot move, you cannot leave. It’s one of the most horrible situations, like torture. There is no way to get better, you just have to wait for it to get better.
ISABEL: Did you face any challenges, struggles?
MATTEO: No big challenges. I think it was more mental, especially in bad weather. Worrying about something failing on the boat, because you are so far away from civilisation. But no really big challenges. There is always something that is breaking down, and you have to always be aware, checking everything. We always had spare parts, but you have to improvise a lot because you have no proper tools sometimes. They are the challenges. We also had the headsail rip, so we had to take it down, fix it in bad weather (3 or 4 metre waves). But I guess that is one of the biggest challenges. Something can always go wrong in a boat.
ISABEL: Which island had the friendliest people?
Fiji, by far. Tonga also. Fijians are the friendliest people I have ever met. They were always greeting us with a smile. When we left, the people gathered and sang us traditional Fijian songs. All the people came to sing to us as we were leaving; waiters, gardeners, whatever, they all left their jobs to sing for us.
MATTEO: What about the best food?
That’s a hard one. I’d say between Fiji and New Caledonia. There’s a big Indian influence on Fiji, kind of a mix of culture which makes it really special and unique. It’s mostly fish, roots (taro), coconuts. Really simple food from the islands. But I was mostly cooking, so I didn’t try a lot foods on the islands. It’s kind of like a dream and I keep thinking, was it real? New Caledonia and Fiji probably stood out though for the best food.
ISABEL: Which island was the most beautiful?
MATTEO: Ooh, that’s another good question. They are all beautiful. What I would say that was outstanding was the marine life in New Caledonia, because there was lots of sea life around. Like whales swimming around the boats, sharks, dolphins. But they are all beautiful.
ISABEL: What is something that most people don’t realise about long term sailing?
MATTEO: That it’s not a holiday. It’s like working on a ship. The less people on the boat, the more work. You have to check everything, look at the weather, and always be on guard. You always need someone on watch (in the cockpit). There is also a big gap if you are the owner or if you are the crew, economically. The owner of the boat has bigger responsibilities and looks after the boat and everything. But it’s not just about money (on having a boat), it’s also mental. It’s really demanding.
ISABEL: What are your future sailing plans? Where would you like to sail next?
MATTEO: The idea is to get more miles and more qualifications. I want to get into the industry and work as a professional crew member. It’s not really about the ‘destination’, it’s more than that. It’s about having a boat, because it’s like having a family. No matter where you are going when you are sailing, it’s still work and so it’s nice being part of a family.
ISABEL: What advice would you give someone planning a long sailing trip?
Be informed. Because it’s seasonal, learning the terminology and so on. Trying to match the crew to the captain, because it’s really personal and you’re together 24/7. It’s like living in someone’s house, where you are a guest that is helping out. You don’t really have a lot of ‘rights’, so you have to behave and go along with the captain. And also never expect a free ride, especially when you don’t have much experience in sailing. But I would say, if it’s something you really want to do, definitely do it. It’s not so much about the destinations, but about the travelling, like someone choosing to walk across Australia, as an example. It’s a lifestyle and it’s an attitude. Sailing is not rocket science, but if you have to right attitude and determination, anyone can choose to do it

To read more of Matteo’s adventures, check out his girlfriend’s blog on at