Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cocos (Keeling)

Darwin to Cocos Keeling

The short version:  It took 26 days to cover the ca 2000 nautical miles from Darwin to Cocos Keeling Islands. The wind never blew more than 15 knots and was mostly between 0 and 10 knots. Learned how to navigate by sextant, nautical almanac, chronometer, and celestial objects. Planning to set sail for Rodriguez tomorrow (Thursday the 27th). It's another ~2000 miles which hopefully will not take me 26 days. At least for the next 7 days, the forecast looks good and I hope to average more than 100 miles per day. So, ETA, October 17.
The long version: 
Sunday September 2
It was an inauspicious start to The Indian Ocean. As I started the engine in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, August 29, a thick fog rolled in to Darwin Harbor with the first light. I paused for a few minutes then thought what the hell, I’ll motor out through the fog and try to stay out of the shipping channels. I pulled up the anchor and tried to put the engine in gear, but the button that engages and disengages the gears was stuck. So, down went the anchor again. After trying every implement conceivable, I gave up on the button. An hour of cursing and sweating later, I managed to disconnect the gear-control cable from the throttle lever and could now put the engine in gear. By this time, the fog had lifted from Fannie Bay. I pulled up the anchor again and motored out through the remaining sailboats in the anchorage. One of the last boast I passed was Rebellion. Paul said, “Have fun drifting” (the forecast did not call for much wind). I encountered more thick fog motoring through the outer portion of Darwin Harbor. What I did not encounter for the next 4 days was wind. I had told myself I would motor for 24 hours then take what I got. Somehow I ended up motoring for 72 hours which left me feeling rather un-sailor-like. I was hoping to make it from New Zealand to South Africa on one tank of diesel. I had used more than half a tank over the first 3 days into The Indian Ocean, so I decided to cut the engine. There was a light breeze from the SW and I was actually able to make 5 knots on a close reach for a few hours. It wasn’t to last. For the next 3 days, I averaged about 25 miles per day chasing gusts and sea breezes.  Not that it was unpleasant. The ocean was as smooth as I’ve seen. It was around the full moon and wonderful moonrises followed splendid sunsets and vice versa.  The Timor Sea was also teeming with life—dolphins, sharks, turtles, and tuna. Terns and boobies were all around. This time it was the terns who wanted to spend the night on Twister. A sea snake was sunning himself at the surface as Twister motored by. Once I turned off the engine, the frequent calms offered many opportunities for swimming. As I write this, it’s the afternoon of Sunday September 2 and the Timor Sea looks like the proverbial mill pond.  Four or five Mahi-Mahi (Dorado)  have taken up residence under Twister along with a smaller unidentified fish. The latest forecast I heard on the SSB radio calls for 10 knots of easterly winds for Monday and Tuesday. A bit more would be nice, but I won’t complain if the forecast is true.

Thursday September 20
It’s 1600 Western Australia time (UTC + 8). I popped my head out around 0400 this AM and all was well. Twister was doing around 5 knots and a couple of shooting stars lit up the sky. I went back to sleep. Ca 30 minutes later I got up again and noticed there was something sizable on the fishing line (the elastic cord on the end was stretched out). The wind had backed (changed direction counter-clockwise) a bit so I was no longer going the desired direction (west). The wind was now coming almost directly from the east which meant I would have to go more or less straight downwind. I was surprised to see a 4-foot Marlin when I pulled in the fishing line. Fortunately it was only a 4-footer. After dispatching the fish, I dropped the mainsail, adjusted the wind-vane self-steering, and we proceeded on the desired course with just the poled-out genoa (big jib). The eastern horizon was becoming visible in the twilight, so I grabbed sextant, clock, pen and paper. I was able to shoot Sirius, Venus, and Jupiter which makes for a pretty good fix with their current arrangement. I filleted the Marlin as the sun peeked out from the east and a couple of swarms of flying fish flew by, shimmering in the sunlight. As we were sailing almost directly downwind, I decided to put up the main and try sailing wing-and-wing (jib on one side, mainsail on the other) which gave us another knot or so (now going 6 knots which is a good clip for Twister).
I had been sailing the last week without using the GPS to test my celestial navigation skills. Today was the day I would turn it back on to see if I was where I thought I was. After doing the math and plotting the three shots I took in the morning twilight, I got a position of 13 ͦ 07’ S 103 ͦ 02’ E. The GPS said 13 ͦ 06’ S 103 ͦ 06’ E, so I was a few miles off but still rather pleased. So I think I have accomplished my goal of becoming conversant in celestial navigation.
          After napping awhile, it was lunchtime and I cooked up the marlin in a coconut milk curry. Hopefully I’ll be able to eat it all before it goes bad. The post-prandial entertainment was watching “Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind” on my laptop. The boat’s house batteries were fully charged, and the solar panels were putting out a lot of juice, so I figured might as well use it. I’d give the film 3 out of a possible 5 thumbs up.
We are now 308 miles from Cocos Keeling Islands. If the current conditions persist, we should be there the morning of Sunday 23 September. Yeah, a bit more than the 20 days I had predicted. I was contemplating sailing on to Rodriguez without stopping at Cocos, but I figured some of you would be worried if you didn’t hear from me for 50 days. But, in the future it that happens, you can assume that I bypassed St. Helena (for example, and not very likely I’ll bypass St. Helena, by the way) and decided to sail directly to Rio.  

 Sunday September 23
Becalmed about 60 miles from Cocos. Guess I won’t be there today. Being becalmed in mid-ocean can be quite annoying because, if you have sails up, they will be slatting and flogging continually (which by the way, if you were to ask me now what is the most irritating sound I know, that is it), and if you take them down, the rolling motion of the boat becomes even worse without the sails to stabilize the boat (as there is pretty much always swell coming from at least one direction—at the moment, there is swell coming from at least 3 different directions).
Heard on the radio that the Aussies picked up another boat of refugees (they usually refer to them as asylum seekers on the news) yesterday and are taking them to Christmas Island (which I sailed just south of, a few days ago). As I was passing Ashmore Reef a couple of weeks ago, I heard they picked up a boat in that area. Saw lots of boats on this passage. I think mostly Indonesian fishing boats. Lots of Indonesian chatter on the VHF and SSB radios. Also got my daily visits from the Aussie customs planes (that stopped once I was clear of the 200 mile EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone)) who called me on the VHF to ask who I was and where I was going. I was actually closer to Indonesia than Australia on a good part of this passage. I passed within ~150 miles of Timor and about 250 miles from Bali.  The fishing has been good. Caught 3 tuna, one Wahoo, and one Marlin.

Wednesday September 26
I'm on Home Island--one of the 5 major islands surrounding the lagoon of this atoll--as I write this (there is another uninhabited atoll North Keeling just north of this one). Twister is anchored, along with about 20 other sailboats (and one motor boat) near Direction Island. Direction Island is uninhabited but has some facilities ashore (BBQs, picnic tables, and lots of coconuts). Home Island is one of the two inhabited islands. Home Island is populated by people of Malay descent whose ancestors came here to work in the copra (coconut) industry. They apparently rediscovered their Muslim faith relatively recently after having been quite isolated from the rest of the world for the last couple-hundred years. West Island is populated by Australians. There is no indigenous population as such. The islands were uninhabited when first discovered by a ship whose captain was named Keeling in the early 1800s (not sure where the Cocos part of the name comes from). Charles Darwin stopped at Cocos Keeling in 1836 aboard The HMS Beagle, and this is where he developed his theory of atoll formation (which is now the accepted theory). That's about all I've learned about the place so far. It's picturesque, like all atolls I guess, with a lagoon of sparkling turquoise water surrounded by sand and coral islands covered with mangroves and coconut palms. Yesterday, around ten sailboats (part of the organized ARC rally) along with two wooden boats of asylum seekers/refugees (boats originating in Indonesia, but the people are typically from Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) arrived into the lagoon. Frighteningly, one of these expensive and well-equipped boats sank as they were approaching Cocos yesterday. The crew were picked up by some of their felllow ARC participants who were nearby. I was told they ran into something (container, whale?) and started taking on water.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Cocos Keeling Islands

Arrived Cocos Keeling Atoll today after 26 days at sea. So much for the 100 miles per day average. Very light winds led to slow but pleasant sailing. If weather looks good, will continue on to Rodriguez in about 4 days.