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.