Christmas to Cocos

My introduction to single-handing was fortunately without incident and not
too taxing. It was a relatively short distance from Christmas Island to
Cocos/Keeling, 545 miles, a three to four day’s sail with fair winds and
the Indian Ocean trade winds had thus far provided us with very easy
sailing. This leg was to be no different.
On clearing Flying Fish Cove I spotted a red sail ahead of me which was
obviously the little Gallivant. HMAS Tobruk, one of the Australian Navy’s
ships on station off Christmas Island protecting us from the invading
hordes, thought Gallivant might have been one of them and duly challenged
her on VHF radio. Gallivant did not respond so I took it upon myself to
help clarify Tobruk’s tactical plot, pointing out that Gallivant was in
fact heading away from the island, having sailed that morning, and was not
coming towards it in a most extraordinary feat of seamanship, gaff sails
set square straight into the teeth of a fresh trade wind (not that I was
so undiplomatic as to point this last fact out to them).
With Gallivant ahead of me I had something to keep my mind occupied for a
little while, for whenever there is more than one sail on the ocean there
is invariably an unofficial race, and each crew will be tweaking this and
trimming that with that little extra attention to detail one normally
doesn’t bother with when on long passages. Sylph is no slouch and by
midday we had overhauled the gallant Gallivant and by evening she was lost
below the horizon astern.
The wind remained steady and true so over the next few days sail trimming
and course adjustments were few. Now we were out in the vast open
expanse of the Indian Ocean, the nearest significant piece of land,
Australia was two thousand miles away, consequently there was plenty of
water for the ocean swells to build up, and this they did. Ocean swells
viewed from a small boat are an awesome sight, like moving mountains. One
moment you are in a valley and all you can see are two blue-green hills on
either side, then a moment later you are a top the liquid mountain and the
whole world opens up to view, albeit a whole lot more water.
On Tuesday, the second day out, at 4.20 in the morning, I sighted a
brightly lit vessel, probably an Indonesian fishing vessel, which soon
dropped astern. The day also marked Emma’s birthday, 11 years old I
think, so she got an extra cuddle for the day but being something of a pig
and inclined to eat Nelson’s share of food if given half a chance, no
extra rations were forthcoming, besides which all the doggy treats on
board had run out some time back.
In the afternoon I retarded clocks to Cocos-Keeling Island time and later
noticed that the trailing log was no longer trailing, obviously something
quite large thought the impeller looked rather tasty. In revenge I
streamed the fishing lure, not of course expecting to catch the same fish
but at least seeking bloody justice from its brethren. Well the gods
didn’t quite see it that way for when I checked the line a while later the
lure was gone as well. Fish 2, Robert 0, not an unusual score when it
comes to me and fish.
At 12.15 on Wednesday, only three days out from Christmas Island, I
sighted the low lying Direction Island. Of course these days with GPS the
navigational challenge is almost non-existent, but a new landfall is
always an exciting moment. I had some minor dramas on my approach, the
outboard fouled the wind vane and broke the wind vane’s control line (it’s
a bit involved to explain how this could happen, suffice to say the
outboard stowage has since been relocated), fortunately no big deal with
only a few miles to go. Then, in the excitement of the moment, I also
managed to break the compass light, fortunately only a small repair job as
At 13.45 we picked up the quarantine buoy, Q flag flying, off the
beautiful palm fringed beach of Direction Island, having covered 545 miles
in three days six hours, an average speed of seven knots.
After a quick tidy up I called the Australian Federal Police on channel
20, who are everything here; police, quarantine and customs, and was
advised that I could go ashore for now and they would come out to clear me
in the following afternoon. I can only hope all clearances will be this
Well it proved an easy passage, the hardest part being to maintain a
proper lookout. With two people of course it is possible but still
tiring, but with one person it is nigh on impossible. Dyed in the wool
single-handers claim they scan the horizon about every 15 minutes and
catnap in between, some admitting that they catch up on sleep during the
day when the risk of being run down is a lot less. I tried this routine
settling for a 20 minute interval, but have to confess by the second night
at 2 in the morning my countdown alarm just didn’t have the decibels
necessary to arouse me from my slumber and there were a number of times
when I slept for probably over an hour or so. The greatest defense we
‘single-handers’ have (now that I reluctantly am one for the time being)
is the vastness of the ocean and the relative scarcity of shipping,
especially in this neck of the woods.
Of the delights of the Cocos-Keeling Island Group, what can I say? I
stayed exactly one week but spent only one day away from Direction Island
when I visited Home and West Islands, and this primarily to clear out with
Customs, check my email and do a little shopping. The main reason for not
getting off Direction Island more was that Direction Island itself was so
pleasant there was little motivation to leave and second, there was no
ferry service. To get to the other islands I had to use my little eight
foot dinghy with two horse power motor to travel the mile or so of
relatively choppy water from Direction to Home Island and from there catch
the ferry to West Island, the administrative centre of the group.
But I did want to have a look around and I had to go to West Island to
clear out anyway. Therefore good and early on the Monday morning I left
Direction Island so as I could have a look around Home Island before the
ferry was due. Home Island consisted predominantly of coconut palms and
small houses all neatly aligned on very narrow paved streets (a Federal
Government initiative – a sign says so) which suited the primary mode of
transport admirably, namely a four wheeled motor bike contraption, though
in fact everywhere on the Island was an easy walking distance. I managed
a visit to the local museum housed in two rooms. As you would expect
their history is dominated by the Clunies-Ross dynasty, the imported Malay
population who worked the Clunies-Ross coconut plantations, and their
boats of which there were some interesting examples on display.
During my tour of Home Island I ran into a fellow sailing adventurer,
Bernie, an American single-hander circumnavigating in a 34 foot steel boat
with a freeboard so low ‘mussels grow on the side decks when on passage’.
A Quaker horse trainer and steeple chase jockey by background, he traded
his pick-up truck for the boat and now writes for a newspaper back home to
pay for the bills. He is a lively, outgoing and thoroughly likable
person who, obviously from the above, I got to know a bit better while
here. Bernie introduced me to Pip, a Western Australian entrepreneur, who
was trying to get a clam farm business running, which he kindly showed us
around when we got to West Island.
The roads on West Island, while mostly covered in bitumen are not a lot
wider than those on Home Island but unlike Home Island the main means of
transport are conventional motor vehicles. Also, unlike Home Island whose
roads are nice and straight and laid out on a simple grid pattern, those
of West Island weirdly weave all over the place, never going straight for
more than 100m, and this despite very wide clearings either side of the
roads. Pip explained that when the roads were originally built in the
time of the Clunies-Ross dynasty, the road builders had to pay
Clunies-Ross a fee for each coconut palm that was knocked down. Hence the
roads were originally very narrow with no verge and they twisted and
weaved taking the path of least resistance in between all the coconut
trees. Then, when the Australian Government took over the place, they
created a verge a good 20 meters either side of the road but left the
narrow winding roads as they were and still are today.
I was to see little else of West Island, apart from the police station
where a red haired officer with a broad Scottish accent cleared Bernie and
I out, the telecommunications centre where numerous computers cater for
all your internet needs at the outrageous price of $5.50 per half hour,
and a small supermarket which not surprisingly had a very limited range of
goods to cater for a total population of 500 souls.
Business completed I made the ferry ride and dinghy trip back to the peace
and tranquility of Direction Island. While I had been gone Cornelia and
Sara B had arrived so I stopped off to say hello to Mark on Cornelia who
kindly provided me with a cold VB, but after hearing how his trip had gone
I had to dash off because I had invited Bernie onboard for one of Sylph’s
famous pizzas. Dinner was a bit late but Bernie agreed that the pizza was
one of the best and we enjoyed a good chin wag over some home brew and
duty frees.

I haven’t mentioned Direction Island much yet, it is just like what one
sees in all those photos in the glossy sailing magazines - crystal clear
waters and white sandy beaches lined with coconut palms. A large lean to
shelters a couple of tables and benches and barbecues and provides a
catchment into two large water tanks. On one of the tanks is mounted a
clothes wringer making the dreaded yachtie chore of handwashing clothes
much easier. The lean-to was covered in all sorts of yachtie
paraphernalia, almost every visiting yacht contributing some memento of
their passage through this little paradise.
I spent my time here as always doing a bit of maintenance and some
socialising with other yachts. As well as Bernie I got to know the
Gallivants, Will and Cherie, a bit better, also Americans. Always
interested in boat people and their boats, I armed myself with some cold
home brew and freshly baked muffins one afternoon and popped over for a
social. Gallivant is a traditionally timber built yacht along the lines
of a miniature Grand Banks Schooner, and while some 36 feet on deck and
very pretty down below she is tiny with not even standing headroom for
Cheri who at five foot nothing is no giant. Will built her over a five
year period, completing her 15 years ago and they have been sailing her
ever since. They’re the outdoors type though Cheri doesn’t really look
it, mind you a picture of her climbing a very serious and icy mountain
with crampons and all the gear convinced me otherwise, so they see it as a
damn sight more comfortable then a tent and are still pretty happy with
her. They are clearly still good friends and talking amiably to one
another so something must be working. Will admits though he ain’t what he
used to be and wouldn’t mind a slightly bigger boat with a pilot house for
some cold weather cruisin’, but they can’t afford that so they’ll just
have to make the most of what they got.
A number of boats were heading via the Red Sea and they had a leisurely
wait ahead of them, but those of us crazy enough to be going the other way
via the Cape of Good Hope, had to be making tracks in order to avoid the
cyclone season which officially starts late November. So on Wednesday 11
September, with a moment of thought on whatever insane events might
transpire on the anniversary of that dreaded day last year, I weighed
anchor, hoisted sail and a short while later was once more romping along
before that most consistent of breezes, the trade wind.