|Throughout sailing from Bali to Mauritius I kept a detailed diary and believe my comments
accurately tell of my experiences. However the tale includes many very
personal incidents and comments which my sailing companions might not wish
to see made public. I have therefore changed the names of my companions.
Being cooped up on a small boat in the middle of an ocean puts people
under stress, it can bring the best out of people, it can also bring the
worst out of people. |
In posting this tale I'm not attempting to be writer, it is simply a modified version of an email that I sent from an internet cafe in Mauritius to an old friend in England.
It is an ancient mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?
Bali to Mauritius
It all started in Bali. I was sitting on the beach at Padangbai, thinking how I was absolutely fed up with the non-stop hassle from the tourist touts trying to rip me off. I was bored to tears with Balinese beaches and wondering should I pop up to Singapore to buy a notebook computer so that I could get on with some computer and GIS work while sat by the beach. Then this guy sat down beside me and asked if I would like to join him to sail to Mauritius, I said, "Yes". It was a simple and unexpected as that.
He was a tall, handsome, well built, oldish, perhaps 60 year old, French/Dutch guy. My first thought was that he's a homosexual trying to pick me up. As the conversation continued he told me that he was an artist, a wood carver who'd been living in Tahiti for the past 12 years. He quickly went on to tell me that he'd sailed around the world and that when he sailed across the Atlantic in a Single-handed Transatlantic Race his trimaran had broken up and he'd spent 3 days in a life raft before being picked up by a Norwegian freighter and how he'd written three books about his sailing. Phew!, by then I thought that this is quite some guy. I made it clear from mentions about my girlfriends and my son, that I was not gay, by then there were plenty of similar signals coming from him, about the woman on the yacht with him etc., indicating that he was not gay, so I felt more relaxed. So that was Claude, son of a successful, Dutch painter. We spent the next few days on the beach trying to chat up some women to join us for the voyage. He was nauseatingly charming when it came to chatting up the women. I wished I'd half of his charm. However the only recruit we got was a 29 year old American girl, Annette, who turned up looking for me, having heard from an American friend of mine in Ubud, that I was about to sail the ocean, and asked could she join us.
So Claude, Annette & I sailed down to Benoa, the main yachting centre in Bali, where we stayed a few days stocking up. We beached the yacht and while Claude saw off his French woman friend who was flying back to France, and Annette raced off to Jakarta to collect her belongings I scrubbed and painted the bottom of the hull with anti-fouling paint, to make us go faster and stocked up on food.
At the marina in Benoa we met more very pleasant friendly French 'yotties' off a couple of yachts that were sailing up to Singapore. We were invited aboard one of the yachts for drinks. It was beautiful modern boat; the bottle of French wine that was forced upon me was pretty good too. I was even asked if I wanted to switch yachts and crew on one of these. We also met an Italian skipper, a film director, or producer or something like that, with a couple of French passengers, off a superb 55ft Finnish built, Italian registered yacht, that was also planning to sail across the Indian Ocean. This yacht was a beauty and had a fantastic electronic navigation and communication system. For a while I had been conceptually designing a moving map yacht navigation system based upon a PC and GPS etc., but what I was dreaming of was already commercially available, and on this yacht. The female passenger, the story had it, was a top French model. Whether true or not, she was one of the most beautiful women I.ve ever seen. The next few days Claude and I tried to unsuccessfully to engage the French woman in conversation. Then Annette returned and off we sailed.
The Passage from Bali to Christmas Island then Cocos Islands
From Benoa in Bali we first set course for Christmas Island, which is external territory of Australia. This was about 550 nautical miles, (or 1,067 km.), about 5 days sailing. Once out of sight of land, on that first afternoon/evening we saw a couple of fishing boats, another sail poking above the horizon and a whale. I don't know what sort of whale.
Bali to Mauritius across the Indian Ocean
Before you wonder, we didn't drop the anchor and sleep comfortably at night. The ocean is too deep, big and empty, we sailed and didn.t bother to use navigation lights unless we were close to land. That night we took watches and sailed with our navigation lights on. The next day I saw what I first thought was a plume of smoke from below the horizon, but after careful studying of it, I realised it was a school of whales spouting. It could have been out of "Moby Dick". "Thar she blows!". After that we saw little else on the sea and at night we just let the yacht sail itself, without navigation lights, while we slept below. Once away from the effects of Bali we picked up the steady trade winds from the south east or even east which carried us along at around 5.5 knots.
Steady Trade Winds
Mostly we sailed with the steady Trade Winds astern using only a double jib pushed out at each side by poles. I don't know the proper name for this sail/s, but it was not a spinnaker. One of these poles was bamboo that we bought from a building site on Bali for Rp. 5,000 or less than $1.
Claude & I got along well, we had so much to talk about which was mutually interesting. Claude had a mixed set of CDs but mostly we listened to classical or chamber music. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had such common tastes, or tolerances, in music. I brought with me one CD. A collection of folk songs that I.d burnt on to a CD before leaving UK. Some of these were most appropriate. There was a couple from a Dubliner.s album, "The Last of the Great Whales", a sad song about the killing, the extermination, of whales. The other "Four score and ten", was about the loss, in a storm, of hundreds of fishermen. There was Eric Bogle.s Lock Keeper, in which a lock-keeper compares his quiet lock-side life with the romantic life of a sailor with the "Trade Winds on your shoulder" who is "tethered to the foam". The lock keeper asks "Which of these has given us more love or life, you, your tropic maids, or me my wife?" Throughout this voyage Claude seemed to be going through a re-assessment of his life in which he was starting to think he.d like to swap his artist life as a tropical island woodcarver for a partner and children, sailor turning lock-keeper. Claude was paying a great deal of attention to Annette, she seemed to be resisting but he seemed to be very persistent, I tried to ignore it.
We eventually arrived off Christmas Island but decided not to land there. There is deep water all around Xmas Island and there is no sheltered anchorage. This suited me. Landing there would have meant laying down good anchors, hanging around waiting for ages for clearance from quarantine, customs, immigration, then lowering the dinghy. It's easy to waste a full day just sitting waiting, anchored off, unable to leave the boat. That day, and the previous day, we'd had good winds and had made the record 161 nm so I was keen to keep going while the wind was good.
Just after we passed the settlement on Christmas Island, still in sight of the island, when I was on the fore deck I looked back and saw a large plume of smoke rise up from the sea on the horizon, a few seconds later I heard a distinct loud boom. Obviously a boat/ship had blown up. Claude never bothered to use his VHF radio to check so we didn't have any idea what it was about and he didn't seem to care anyhow, so we sailed on, ignoring it.
Shortly after this the winds, perhaps influenced by the nearby island, went crazy. This was quite an insight. As we rushed around changing sails Claude lost his cool and went into panic mode. He was angrily shouting all sorts of confusing orders; "Merde!" & "Pull the rope". .Merde! Pull the blue rope.. Well, on this yacht there were a lot of ropes, almost all of them blue. Even though by then I'd sussed out most of what was what required for handling the sails, most of his orders were simply confusing. At this point I started to realise that Claude was not quite the cool sailor that I expected. By then I had begun to notice that much of the equipment was in a poor state of repair. Safety precautions were non-existent, apart from his rigging a rope at chest height, between the aft-stay and shrouds, to stop us falling overboard. He hadn't told us what to do in any emergencies, such as man overboard, nor had he even mentioned wearing a safety harness.
On we sailed to Cocos (or Keeling) Islands about another 530nm, (977km) away. For those next few days nothing much happened. I spent some time reading one of Claude.s books, in French, but found it boring, and moved on to Slocum. Joshua Slocum did the first solo circumnavigation of the world around hundred years earlier. He sailed across the Indian Ocean to Cocos, (Keeling) Islands then to Mauritius and had lots of relevant comments to make. While sailing to Cocos we saw only one ship, on the same course as us, obviously heading for Cocos too. We caught our first fish, two dorado. We were cheered by this. Every day we trailed two lines but we'd gone about 7-8 days without catching a thing.
As we neared Cocos, one of the shrouds, a steel cable that holds up the mast, snapped. It was a stainless steel cable that had snapped inside the turn-buckle (adjuster). This could be disastrous; it could lead to the mast collapsing. The shroud was on the lee side so didn't have too much load on it and we were able to get the sails down and replace the turn-buckle, without more problems. However this was the only spare turn-buckle we had so we had to keep our fingers crossed that the other shrouds had not suffered the same hidden corrosion or partial failure hidden away inside their turn-buckles.
Cocos, (or Keeling Islands)
Ten days out from Bali we arrived at The Cocos Islands at about 10 o'clock at night. The Cocos Islands are part of an atoll. It is a necklace of islands around the edge of the atoll that is about 8-10 miles north to south and about 6 miles east to west. There are about 4 major islands. The original Malayan inhabitants live on one island. Expatriate Aussies and a hardly used international airstrip, once a fuelling point on trans-ocean flights, are on another island, and the rest uninhabited. Our arrival was interesting, after 1,100 nm of sailing across an ocean, we were bang on target in the dark. I should have been impressed with navigation by GPS, but as I had confidence in my GPS and navigation, perhaps naively, I expected no less. Unfortunately the light marking the end of Direction Island and the channel where we entered the lagoon was not working. Fortunately there was faint moonlight and we could see the island so we entered the lagoon, using the engine, navigating by GPS. Suddenly there was a major panic. Not a major problem, just Claude got into a major panic. Claude had chosen a course to the anchorage that went across some shallows as his yacht only needed about a metre of water when the keel was wound up. Previously I had looked at the chart and thought it was a risky course, but who was I to question a sailor of his experience. Claude was not particularly experienced with using his Garmin GPS and he got confused amid the shallows. He didn't know where we were and what course to steer. Fortunately I was referring to my GPS on which I'd recorded not only waypoints but potentially dangerous rocks and reefs and everything was OK. We dropped the anchor in shallow water 500m from the shore to wait until daylight. Ahead of us we could see 6-8 other yachts, and on the island several people around a fire on the beach. This incident brought home to me that Claude was less reliable than I assumed. Clearly lots of experience is not always enough.
At the end of the island is a channel, 'The Rip', through which the outside sea rushes into the lagoon. This was great for snorkelling. In here were plenty of big interesting fish and sharks. Claude would dive down and pull the tails of sharks that were sheltering under rocky ledges. In the lagoon were turtles, sharks and lots of other fish. In the mornings when I swam ashore, or occasionally rowed, for my morning visit to the 'Long Drop', I'd see sharks around me in the lagoon, occasionally in water less than two feet deep.
We spent most of our time here sitting around talking, fishing, doing a bit work on the yacht and stocking up on expensive food and water. While here on Cocos Islands I heard the explanation of the boat explosion off Christmas Island. It was an Indonesian fishing boat which had illegally landed 124 immigrants from Iran or Iraq. The police or immigration officials had towed the boat out to sea then blown it up. I felt relieved that it hadn.t been a yacht whose cooker had exploded.
Claude & I, with great anticipation, waited for the Italian yacht with the French model to turn up. Poor Claude had his leg pulled unmercifully about his urge to chat-up the model. One day it was decided at the shelter we should have a BBQ the next day. So we collected lots of firewood and caught a few fish. Claude was at home in the sea with a harpoon-gun and caught all the fish, whereas I just thrashed around like, - a fish out of water. In the evening, most of the yotties came ashore for the BBQ. By then the Italian yacht had arrived, everyone waited to see Claude, The Great Charmer, in action. Alas it was not to be. The model had been seasick all the way from Bali and was flying back to France almost immediately, but not before I went aboard this yacht to use the skipper.s computer to download the data from my GPS. I managed to meet the French girl, she was not only beautiful but very pleasant too. Generally the 'yotties' were not particularly sociable people. That is not to say they were unfriendly. People who sail across oceans alone or with a partner are used to, and are content with their own company. Conversation rarely got beyond yachting.
In the lagoon were about 12 other yachts all doing pretty much the same as us, that is taking advantage of the Trade Winds to cross the Indian Ocean, to either Mauritius, Chagos Islands then the Red Sea or to Galle in Sri Lanka. This year there had been 80 yachts in Cocos planning this crossing so it's not such an unusual adventure. September is the time to leave from Cocos as later in the year cyclones develop in the western Indian Ocean. The yachts varied from 9m to about 60ft with 2 or 3 flashy catamarans. Only a few days before we arrived one yacht had to be abandoned two days out of Cocos bound for Mauritius. Heavy seas had smashed her rudder, and it's owner was injured. A boat had gone out from Cocos to try and tow it back but the tow rope was too short and kept snapping so the yacht had to be abandoned. Claude & I spent the next three weeks dreaming of finding and salvaging this A$350,000 prize. We constantly scanned the horizon for it, although how we would have sailed this yacht with a broken rudder to Mauritius, I don't know.
Cocos Islands to Chagos
After 10 days at Cocos we set sail for Chagos Archipelago, 1519 nm (2813 km) away, south of the Maldives, then on to Cargados Reef and Mauritius another 1250 nm, (2260 km). We saw dolphins a few times. One day, for what seemed ages, twenty of them raced along with the yacht, criss-crossing only inches in front of the bows. Apart from the dolphins the first few days were uneventful. After this we met some rain clouds that brought with them variable winds. This meant lots of sail changing and our regularly going way off course. During this was one incident, of many, which particularly sticks in mind. Claude decided to hoist the light double jib. As he was clipping the sail to the forestay he ripped it on a bit of wire, which he had tying a fender to the dinghy, and dangerously stuck out. Similarly I cut my hands several times on frayed steel cables and the like. After this little tear was repaired, when the sail was hoist it was ripped a second time on another of his wire ties. This time it was a big tear and he really lost his cool and screamed abuse, "Merde" and "Stupid" at me. Even though it was obviously his fault I buttoned my lip and said nothing. He continued hoisting the sail, with the rip in the sail flapping in the wind then he went below to sleep. It was obvious that the sail would continue to tear, but he just left it there for a day or two until there was an enormous rip. It later took Annette and me two days to sew this back together.
After this we had a few more days of reasonable weather and sailing, then three days of stormy variable winds. We would suddenly find ourselves being blown around off course and sailing back in the direction of Cocos. On another occasion we were blown due east at 8 knots. Occasionally it became a bit wild when sails had to be changed in a squall in the middle of the night but that added to the excitement. By then I'd found a safety harness and felt a bit more secure. From then on sails being ripped and repaired was a common occurrence. One jib was so old and the fabric so brittle that new tears would happen along the stitching within hours. The poles used for holding the jib out were a bad state or repair too. In due course both of these poles failed. Another shroud, this time to windward, failed. Fortunately only the shackle holding the turn-buckle snapped, and this could be replaced. After a few days of these stormy conditions and all of these breakages, when we were about 300 miles from Chagos, Claude decided that we should give up heading for Chagos and sail direct for Cargados Reef, about 250 nm north of Mauritius.
Sexual Harassment for Annette.
This almost became a breaking point for Annette. After the relentless sexual harassment from Claude and seasickness she was desperate to get off the yacht. She thought that she was within 2-3 days of getting off at Chagos and finding another berth to Sri Lanka but now it was going to be another 13-15 days. At this point she was in tears and began to tell me more about the harassment she was getting from Claude. Throughout the voyage I.d seen him constantly pestering her, attempting to snuggle up to her in the cockpit, getting out his carved wooden dildos to show her. Her bunk was in a private little cabin on the starboard side between the aft cabin where Claude slept and the for'd cabin where I slept. The entrance to her cabin was from Claude's aft cabin and was only partitioned off with cloth, between her and my cabin there was a mountain of sailing gear therefore no passage. Annette said how Claude would stand at the entrance to her cabin masturbating, only inches from her head as she lay in her bunk. Earlier when I mentioned this sexual harassment to one of the yotties at Cocos, he replied that it would be better if Annette just gave in to Claude. I wondered what this guy would have done if he had been crewing on a yacht and was being sexually harassed by a 2m, 120kg homosexual skipper.
Plain Sailing Again
Once we had given up Chagos Archipelago and were sailing to Cargados Reef the sailing became easy. We used a small jib and a reefed mainsail, none of the messing with different jibs and faulty poles. For about 9 days we sailed and hardly touched the sails and averaged a good 130+ nm per day. We saw a ship a couple of times but never saw any aircraft. One of these ships was quite spectacular. It was a big container ship, when it's bow was lifted up by the swell I could see beneath the bulbous bow, then it would crash down and the spray would go over the ship's superstructure. It looked really wild and dangerous. Strangely, we were able to ride out the seas better, because we were so small we just rose and fell with the swell. I was most impressed. At one time we didn't see anything, ship, or aeroplane for over two weeks.
Skipping Cargados Reef
At this point I realised that with the SSE wind that we'd had for several days we'd have great difficulty sailing from Cargados Reef to Mauritius. When I pointed this out to Claude he decided that we'd better change course direct to Mauritius. I couldn't help but ask myself why Claude hadn't checked out the wind and sailing conditions near to Chagos and why he hadn't noticed the problem of sailing from Cargados to Mauritius. If we had sailed direct from Cocos to Mauritius it would have been around 2250nm instead of the 2830nm that we had sailed.
Arrival at Mauritius
After 23 days at sea we neared Mauritius. The preceding night we stood watches as we approached the small islands to the North East. As the night started to melt, in the dark grey gloom before sunrise, in the distance, we could just make out Isle of Serpents as expected. Once again the GPS did us well. From then on it was, Err, - .plain sailing., past a few islands then down the west coast to Port Louis for clearance.
After clearance, as I stepped ashore and bounded up a few steps from the mooring pontoon to the jetty, I fell over, flat on my face. For the next 2-3 three days it felt as if the ground was moving, and I was very unsteady on my feet. One of the 'yotties' in Cocos had the same experience, although he was not seasick while at sea, this unsteadiness made him 'seasick' when he stepped ashore. This was new to me. Before you ask, no, I wasn't seasick at all.
A day or two later I met a 'yottie' who had left Cocos after us but arrived in Mauritius before us. He told us how had heard on his HF radio that James, a young, relatively inexperienced Australian guy in his early 20's, in a small 9m yacht had managed to sail from Cocos, leaving the day after we did, direct to Chagos. He got through where we backed off. I also heard how a very smart catamaran that left before us was still limping across the ocean with one broken rudder. When I left Mauritius a week later it had still not arrived. I wonder what happened to it. The Italian yacht, now being sailed single-handed, had been forced to put into the prohibited US airbase at Diego Garcia, near Chagos, because her engine wouldn't start.
Mauritius seemed a great place with good beaches and some pretty rocky little mountains. The Mauritian people were much friendlier than the Indonesians I'd left and there was negligible hassle from tourist touts. The tourists in Mauritius were package tourists, not backpackers, so accommodation was very expensive compared to Indonesia, although food and transport were inexpensive. It was great to be able to buy fresh baguettes, cheese and French wine. For a few days I made a pig of myself. It wasn.t long before I found it boring. When you.ve had the pick of South East Asia for several years then most places are disappointing.
At Mauritius I was pleased to leave the yacht. I'd had enough of Claude. Perhaps I.m unfair; sailing together puts great stresses on relationships, perhaps it.s too easy to be critical. I.m sure if I ever meet Claude again I.d be delighted to see him and that I.d smile at his charm. The last time I saw him was when he rescued me from someone who accosted me as I peacefully sat watching the sunset at Grand Baie. I couldn't work out whether it was a boy, girl or a transvestite who was accosting me. Claude came walking along the beach, when he saw this apparent female talking to me he came straight across and tried his usual chat up line. The person stood up then collapsed, I don't know why, drunk, drugs, whatever, grasping Claude, who thought that he'd won the jackpot. He groped it for a couple of minutes then dragged it away in the direction of his yacht. At least this one was much younger and prettier than the fish-dock prostitute he had back to the yacht a few days before.
Along the beach they staggered, "Farewell Ancient Mariner".