Cocos Keeling

Unexpectedly, my stay at Cocos Keeling has provided a sad reminder of how polluted our oceans really are. At a brief glance this place looks just like it does in the tourist brochures – beautiful turquoise waters and palm tree fringed white sand beaches. But after I took a stroll along the beach at Direction Island a few days ago the reality stared me in the face. Mountains of plastic strewn along the high tide mark and in the most concentrated areas stacked over 50cm high. Not a few isolated patches but all along the south and east facing beaches. Even during one snorkel session I saw some plastic caught on coral a couple of metres under the surface. This plastic waste does not come from the local population, in fact there is a serious recycling effort going on here and beach clean days are organised every so often, the source is Indonesia and South East Asia with the pollution being carried by the ocean currents. Quite rightly, us yachties have to take all our rubbish away with us.

 

The anchorage at Direction Island is nearly a 2 nautical mile dinghy ride from the next island, Home Island, which supports the Islamic Malay population. There are absolutely no facilities at Direction Island except a few shelters and a large rain water tank which is not potable but good for do it yourself laundry and shower water. A trip to Home Island is required to clear in and out with the Police, visit the one supermarket, obtain drinking water and diesel and find some internet on the wifi hotspot. A ferry only runs only twice a week from Direction to Home Island so most the time I have taken the dinghy which is quite an adventure punching into 25 knot+ plus headwinds and choppy water. Coming back with 100 litres of water in jerry cans and a large amount of food the other day was a good test for the 2.5hp outboard! The Malay people are extremely friendly and helpful and seem very content with their island life. The only other inhabited Island at Cocos is West Island where the Aussie expats live. This is a longer ferry ride away from Home Island and due to the difficulty in matching the ferries from Direction to Home to West and the lively weather I never managed to get over there. Apparently the only thing I have missed out on is the liquor store!

Despite seeing the scale of the pollution here it has been an enjoyable stay and a nice respite from the uncomfortable waves of the Indian Ocean. The perfect place to recharge the batteries before the long miles ahead. There have only been three or four other cruising yachts in the anchorage but a great bunch and new friends I hope to bump into again down the line. We have shared dinners, cold beers, movie collections and snorkel sessions and it has been good fun. Wherever I end up, I always seem to meet great people and for me, more than the places I visit, this is the best part about voyaging by sailboat.

 

My intention had been to sail from here to the island of Rodrigues with later stops at Mauritius and Reunion before a 1,400nm voyage direct to Richards Bay in South Africa, passing south of Madagascar. But on the advice of other yachties and particularly Des Cason, the generous and extremely helpful ex-cruiser and now weather guru, I have changed my plans. I will sail directly from Cocos to NW Madagascar passing over the northern tip. This is the best part of 3,000nm and a month at sea. After spending a few weeks cruising down the NW coast of Madagascar i’ll hop across and down the Mozambique Channel to SA. This route will provide more places to shelter from the strong SW fronts that blow through on average every 3 or 4 days. If I had stuck to my original plan there would have been no where to hide. I’m looking forward to getting this next long stretch out the way and seeing what Madagascar has to offer. Fathom is full to the brim with food, water, diesel and most importantly I have two new jars of Marmite and Branston Pickle in the stores, a couple of tasty and hard to find reminders of home!




Darwin to Cocos Keeling

The passage from Darwin to Cocos Keeling is the best part of 2,000 nautical miles and would be the longest passage I had done since Panama to the Marquesas last year. In the dry season there is very little wind around Darwin and several hundred miles to the north and west too. On average every couple of weeks a 15-20 knot S.E wind fills in for a couple of days when a strong high pressure system moves across South Australia. You want to leave Darwin at this time to provide a good push to the west.

With a S.E breeze forecast, and with the new mainsail successfully installed, Fathom and I were raring to go and set sail on the 19th September. In the wee small hours of the first night at sea I was woken by a strong squall and 30-35 knots of wind. Out on deck it was a bit of a struggle to pull the mainsail down and in the process one of the batten cars on the luff of the sail caught on the lazy jack line (ropes that stop the sail falling off the boom). The whole thing jammed up but eventually I got the sail down though in the process the lazy jack line had gone up the mast. Until this was retrieved it wouldn’t be possible to pull the main sail back up without it jamming again. I went back to bed with Fathom happily sailing along under heavily reefed foresail. At first light the wind had calmed down to 15 knots but there was a bit of a sea running. I had never been up the mast before at sea but the folding mast steps make this much easier. I wear a harness connected to an ascender which slides up a fixed halyard and grips in case I slip. By standing on the spreaders I managed to retrieve the lazy jack line and all was well but have to say it was a quite rolly and exciting up there and I didn’t stop too long to admire the view. The next couple of days were spent sailing along in 15 knots making good progress west.

 

Then, as expected, the wind died, but little did I know I would be plagued by calms for the next 1000 plus miles. I was in touch with Des Cason, an ex cruiser who together with his wife Nell sailed 40,000nm over a 13 year period around South Africa and Madagascar. He is very familiar with the Indian Ocean weather patterns and kindly offers a free weather and routeing service to cruising yachts on passage to South Africa each year. Every day, Des would send me an email with the expected weather for the next few days. It is incredibly reassuring to know there is someone looking at the big picture as I can only download a small area of weather onboard due to data limitations of the satellite phone. Des indicated that I should reach the S.E trade winds in about three or four days time at about 120degE longitude. In the meantime I sailed under cruising chute in daylight hours and motored at night. The breeze rarely rising above 8 knots and mostly in the 4 to 7 knot range with a flat sea.

As I approached 120degE it was evident from the GRIB files (see image) that the calm area was catching me up and I would not find any decent wind for the foreseeable future. On the positive side some strong SW flowing currents, up to 2 knots at times, helped push Fathom along. I had left with 127 litres of diesel in the main tank plus 100 litres in jerry cans so had plenty for the time being. It is just incredibly frustrating having the engine on so much and the constant noise. But less frustrating than making good 50 miles a day. As the miles ticked by and Fathom got a little closer to the Indonesian coast I began to see Indonesian fisherman. The vast majority of them had no AIS or radar signal and some even without lights at night. Most of these fishing boats are very small and low profile making them hard to see beyond two miles in the ocean swell. On several occasions I looked out the window to see a boat less than half a mile off. Some were towing large buoys several hundred metres behind them which increased the collision risk. At night I used the watchman mode on the radar and a guard zone to keep a look out for me while I slept in 30 minute to one hour blocks. At least the big ships are easy to see. These days all large commercial vessels are required to transmit an AIS signal which I can detect . This means crossing busy shipping lanes such as the ones from Indonesia to Western Australia are not too much of a drama. One ship however seemed intent on coming very close to Fathom but a call to the bridge and a chat with the officer of the watch resulted in them turning immediately ten degrees to starboard!

As it turned out, the first eleven days of the passage were spent mostly in winds under 10 knots. Never have I used the cruising chute so much. Flying this sail in daylight hours allowed Fathom to move at around 4 to 4.5 knots boat speed in 5 to 8 knots of wind which is pretty good going. One morning at first light I looked over the stern and noticed a large amount of plastic had caught on the rudder or propeller. I was not able to dislodge it with the boat hook so as the sea was calm and there was little wind I jumped over the side to free it. Incredibly refreshing to have a dip in the 27 degree water and exhilarating to do so alone, far from dry land. While asleep one night I woke to the sound of some banging and flapping on deck and rushed up to discover a bird trying to land on the spinnaker pole which I had left rigged. It was very amusing to watch the bird try and get a grip as Fathom motored along at 5 knots rolling around in the swell. Eventually it managed to find a perch and looked set to rest there for the remainder of the night. The next morning the bird was still in place and despite offering a beaker of coffee and some home made bread crumbs little interest was shown. We watched the sunrise together with conversation somewhat one way. All of a sudden a flock of birds circled the boat and my night-watchman must have recognised some mates and flew off with not even a thank you.

 

At long last on day 11 the wind began to fill in and it was a great relief not to have to motor. The following morning a pod of dolphins surrounded the boat and began playing and jumping in the bow wave. I never get bored of watching these playful creatures and every time i’ve been lucky to have them alongside since leaving home it cheers me up. After being alone at sea for prolonged periods perhaps it is suddenly having some unexpected company, the feeling that I can interact with them and they respond to my voice, that they clearly have intelligence, that creates a very powerful sensation of well-being and contentment that I find hard to describe.

A few days out from Cocos Keeling it was clear from the weather forecasts and updates from Des that conditions were deteriorating and I could expect some stronger winds and rougher seas. At last the Indian Ocean was waking up. The penultimate day at sea the wind hovered around 20 knots and the sea became uncomfortable as the waves reached 3 to 4m. The final approach on the 4th September was in 4m+ waves with the wind regularly topping 25 knots. The GRIB file (See image) clearly showed a band of 25 knot+ winds surrounding the Cocos area which is normal at this time of year at the hight of the trade wind season. As I rounded the edge of the atoll the rain hammered down and Fathom bashed into the waves on the approach to the lagoon anchorage at Direction Island. I received a call on the VHF from an Austrian yacht in the anchorage, Plastik Plankton, who kindly offered me some advise on avoiding the bommies on the way in. It was with a certain amount of relief that the anchor went down and I could relax. The last few days of the passage had been quite tiring and I was ready for a rest. That afternoon the wind reached 30+knots and began shrieking in the rigging while the rain hammered down. I was lucky to arrive when I did. Overall, despite the calms, I had enjoyed the passage and had slipped quickly into the rhythm of being on a long passage. It had taken me 17 days, interestingly the same duration as my Atlantic Crossing.




Australia – Darwin

Darwin would be the last semblance of civilisation before heading off into the Indian Ocean so much of my time there was spent preparing Fathom for the potentially tough miles ahead. The sleepy, laid back town is quite a contrast to the Aussie cities I had visited in Queensland and New South Wales. People are generally more friendly and relaxed in Darwin although sometimes this means it takes a long time to get anything done – “it’ll be all right maaate, no worries” is the answer to most questions. I had visited for work back in 2012 and it was pretty much as I remembered it except the lack of trees following the cyclone that hit earlier this year.

standing on the rocks watching my last Aussie sunset

There is a very high tidal range in Darwin, 6-8m at springs, so anchoring requires some planning. I decided to take Fathom to Cullen Bay marina where it would be easier to work on the boat and get about. Due to the tidal range the marina is behind a lock and before being allowed to enter a treatment has to be poured into all the raw water inlet pipes and left for ten hours to kill any mussels or other organisms which may infect the marina. Once inside it was full speed ahead on boat jobs. I removed the mainsail and my neighbours in the marina, Mike and Chrissey on catamaran ‘Ohmless’, kindly gave me a lift to the sailmaker so he could repair the small tears in the upper panel. Mike also gave me a lift to the camping store with gas bottles to get them refilled. I climbed the mast to do a rig check, adjusted the rigging and changed the engine oil. One of the Raymarine ST2000 tiller pilots used for steering the boat under engine or in very light winds had failed beyond repair so I decided to order another one (I like to have two working units) which had to come from Melbourne and would take about 8 or 9 days.

I’m ashamed to say that I dug the fold up bike out from the bow for the first time since leaving the U.K. Cycling to town and the supermarkets from the marina isn’t much slower than taking the bus, plus Darwin is very flat so it was well worth it. Great to get cycling again and do some exercise and I enjoyed some rides along the coast to the Mindle street markets and to the sailing club at the north of Fannie Bay which has a very good Sunday carvery for 20 bucks. The weather was warm, dry and sunny without fail and Darwin knows how to put on an impressive sunset. I spent some time with Don and Erika on Wasco before they headed off to Cocos Keeling and met some other cruisers in the marina so it was an enjoyable time.

However, not everything went to plan. While checking the gearbox oil it turned out the plastic dipstick had snapped with most the thread still screwed into the metal gearbox casing and the top part with plunger completely loose. I spent a while working out how I could unscrew the plastic part from the gearbox – it had snapped inside the casing so there was no way to grip it from above. Some cruiser friends in the marina lent me a releasing drill bit, which turns the opposite way to a normal drill bit and as you turn it it grips and you wind out what ever is stuck. I gave this a go with a hand tap as opposed to electric drill and very, very slowly began to turn the bit. Then all of a sudden DISASTER! The bit fell out of the hand tap and dropped INTO THE GEARBOX!! I could not believe it and now the worst case scenario whirling round in my mind was that Fathom would have to be towed out of the lock to a boat yard miles away, the engine hoisted out, gearbox removed and turned on its side to remove the bit. I apologise to everyone in Cullen Bay marina, and the surrounding area, for the loud expletives that could probably be heard from Dock E that morning. But what this voyage has taught me, on the many occasions when things don’t go to plan, is stop, don’t panic and put the kettle on. By shining a torch through the one inch hole in the gearbox I could just make out the drill bit leaning vertically inside the casing. Thankfully it hadn’t fallen all the way to the bottom or onto its side. I dug out a telescopic magnet from the toolbox and knew I had one attempt to try and pull it out. If the bit fell on it side it would never come out of the hole. Gingerly I lowered the magnet into the gearbox and felt it grab the bit, very slowly and with a shaky hand I raised it up and to my great surprise the bit came out perfectly! Lucky lucky boy, disaster averted! My marina neighbours suggested I go and do the lottery that evening. The problem still remained of how to remove the plastic from the thread of the gearbox and in the end I managed to do this by pushing a blade of a pair of scissors into the plastic and unscrewing as I applied downward pressure so they gripped. Should have done this in the first place! A new dipstick was ordered, the last one in Australia that matched the gearbox model as it turned out, and would be sent up from Melbourne. I really should have done the lottery that night.

The second thing that didn’t go to plan was the mainsail. I picked it up from Gary the sailmaker after he completed the repairs and that afternoon set about installing it back on the mast and boom. While putting the battens back in I gently straightened out a kink and immediately a 6 inch tear appeared! It was now evident that the sail cloth had deteriorated significantly and was incredibly weak. I called Gary and he told me he was unfortunately too busy to make a new sail but I could bring it back and he would have another look at it. The other sailmaker in Darwin was also too busy. Back at the sail loft Gary had a look and confirmed the sail was well and truly shagged. Thankfully he changed his mind and in view of my itinerary to cross the Indian Ocean before the next cyclone season and told me he should be able to make a new mainsail within 7 days. A big hit to the wallet but with something so important this was definitely a blessing in disguise.

 

True to his word a week later the new sail was ready and I installed it without any issues. I had asked Gary to install 4 reef points in view of the potentially stormy weather ahead and because there is no trysail onboard. The last job remaining was to clean the hull. The good point about jumping over the side in the marina is that there are no crocodiles or sharks to eat you, the bad point is that there isn’t a big flow of water and its a marina and despite not being allowed i’m sure some ‘things’ end up in the water…. But with such a long way to go I needed a clean hull so spent a few hours diving on the hull at the dock. Thankfully only some slime to clean off so not too difficult but it was not a pleasant experience. I write this many weeks later and am still alive so as they say in Darwin “no worries”. A final food shop, top up with diesel and water and Fathom was ready to tackle another ocean. After checking out with Customs I walked down to the beach that evening and stood on the rocks to watch my last Aussie sunset. I had seen so many over the last months it was hard to believe that this was the last one. Sailing single-handed from Sydney all the way up and across to Darwin had been quite a challenge and harder work than I had envisaged but a memorable experience nonetheless. Such a bloody huge country I was well and truly done with coastal sailing for the time being and ready to be heading out to open ocean once again.