Cocos to Rodrigues

Where Next?
Bob Williams
Wed 4 Sep 2002 20:56
The leg from Cocos-Keeling to Rodrigues Island was 2000 miles of open ocean which has a reputation for being rather boisterous and my passage did nothing to challenge this reputation.

All started well enough. I weighed anchor at 7 a.m. and threaded my way through the buoys set out slalom fashion through the reef's entrance to Direction Island. Once clear of the lagoon I soon had sail set in the pleasantly brisk south easterly. As I departed the island group I could see a small white object bobbing around near the main channel. Initially I thought it might have been a newly laid buoy but as I got closer I realised it was the Russian bloke in his 12 foot boat who had recently been kicked out of Darwin. He was now bobbing around at anchor in a very lively fashion. Presumably he had gotten in during the night and decided to anchor for a bit of a rest before continuing into the lagoon in daylight. Undoubtedly he would have been very interesting to talk to and I was disappointed that our paths had crossed in a such a cursory fashion. Still I knew he would be well looked after by the yachts back at Direction Island and having started this rather daunting passage I was not about to turn back.

The first few days at sea were pleasant enough, running square before 15 knots of wind, Sylph was making a very easy six knots.

Nothing of note happened for the first few days, nonetheless subscribing to the black box theory of seamanship I was a little concerned about some chafe on the main halyard. I therefore decided to do a bit of preventative maintenance and hopefully preclude the need to go aloft if the halyard broke at a later time, especially when the weather might be worse. Having had this chafe problem previously and having tried several remedies, none of which worked in the long term, I decided on splicing a wire pennant to the end of the halyard. A rope to wire splice is a mildly challenging undertaking, especially for the first time, but after a few scratches and blisters and a modicum of cursing I achieved a result with which I was satisfied. This left an eye to be put into the tail of the wire. Having had enough of working with wire barbed spaghetti strands for one day I opted for a bulldog wire grip as a temporary fix until I could get to civilisation and put a proper swage on the wire.

Halyard repaired I re-hoisted the mainsail and stood back to admire my handiwork, I was rather pleased with myself. Down below for a well earned break, not 15 minutes later I heard rattle, rattle, clunk, clunk, clunk, the unmistakable sound of the mainsail coming tumbling down and the batten cars stacking up on top of one another. Going on deck I found that the bulldog grip had failed. Still I had an alternative fitting which I was confident would work but ironically I now had to climb aloft to the masthead to recover the halyard, the thing I had been trying to avoid in the first place. Still the weather was fair so it was no particular big deal and half an hour later the mainsail was reset.

The repair was timely for the next evening the wind started to freshen and veer into the south. By Tuesday night (day six) we were down to a double reefed main and jib on a close reach experiencing an exhilarating spray drenched ride, averaging 7 ½ knots.

These conditions persisted for the next four days, and were the longest days of the passage. There was so much spray on deck that except for sticking my head over the dodger every now and again for a look around the dogs and I stayed below. At one point I had to venture onto the foredeck to secure a lashing on the spare anchor. Assessing the situation I decided there was no way I was going to avoid getting saturated. The choice was either don full foul weather gear which leaked anyway or my Larry Pardey suit, named after a video of a well known cruising sailor in his safety harness and sans all else. As the temperature was very mild the Pardey suit won the day. Task completed I wasted no time getting below for a brisk towel down and cup of coffee to warm up.

Late in the afternoon of day ten, Saturday 2 September, conditions started to ease marginally, the wind backing more south-easterly allowing me to shake out a reef and pole the jib out on a quarter run. By early morning of day 12 the wind had died to less than 10 knots and my ETA to Rodrigues went from late that evening to about seven the next morning.

Day 13, Tuesday 24 September, dawned and before me lay Rodrigues Island. I now had a nice force three to carry us over the threshold and with all sail set we rounded the off-lying reef at the mouth of Mathurin Bay, then sailed close hauled for the harbour entrance. A half mile off I handed sail and motored the last bit to come to anchor adjacent another yacht Shandoo in the harbour basin. I had tried to call the harbour authorities about 10 miles out but had no response, except for Shandoo. Apparently Shandoo had entered harbour only an hour before and as yet had had no success getting the attention of anyone either.

Eventually the Coast Guard responded to my call and agreed to contact the necessary authorities on our behalf. Clearly nothing was going to happen in a hurry so at the behest of Shandoo's single handed skipper, who by now I had established was a Pom named Will, 37 days out from Darwin (something about mad dogs springs to mind). I got the dinghy into the water and paid Shandoo a call to enjoy his hospitality and beer while we waited patiently for some action from ashore.

Casting my eye around Will's boat it was clear I was dealing with a unique individual. Shandoo had a hard chined, steel hull finished in matt black (I was later to find out the finish was coal tar which sticks to fenders and anything else including Sylph's sides which comes on contact with it); gaff rigged with traditional deadeyes and tarred rigging (one dare not touch anything for fear of tar); a home made self steering gear, very Heath Robinsonish, complete with a nice garden trellis looking touch to the rudder. The piece de resistance was the companionway hatch which he had bolted down such that one had to wriggle down through a hole, rather like entering a cave with a very small entrance. I declined his offer to go below and enjoyed his beer on deck. She was a bit rough but seemed sound and seaworthy. Will told me he had bought her sight unseen in New Zealand (he was in the Caribbean at the time) on the basis of advice from the designer who had seen her two years previous. For those interested in these things she is a Wylo, so called after the designer's original boat - well known amongst cruising enthusiasts. He was now sailing her home to England and already had more adventures then I care or hope for, the worst one being a collision with a reef in the Coral Sea where he spent several days either high and dry or being pounded mercilessly by the Pacific Ocean swells. That he got off and is still sailing speaks highly of the toughness and tenacity of both Shandoo and her new owner.

Back to current circumstances, eventually the Coast Guard looking very efficient in smartly pressed uniforms and pinned on badges came out and advised us to go alongside a stone wall where the authorities would duly arrive to carry out the formalities. Will was not too confident about bringing his boat alongside so I stayed aboard to help him get his lines ashore then rowed back to Sylph to bring her alongside Shandoo.

Over the course of the next few hours all the appropriate authorities turned up. The Quarantine Officer looked dubiously at Emma and Nelson and despite my long sad tale (and true) about the lengths I had gone to obtain an import permit but, having had no response from Mauritius, they gave no mercy and the dogs were confined to quarters for the duration of the stay. I had no problems with this, though Emma heartily disagreed, as it was certainly the healthiest place for them. All the officials were very impressed at Nelson's mature years (16 at last count and still going strong, though his teeth get fewer as the years increase and his tongue seems to hang out impossibly further than ever).

Having completed all the formalities it was time to inspect the local environs. My first impression of Port Mathurin, the capital of Rodrigues, is that it is pretty old, its narrow grid patterned streets clearly predate the advent of the motor car and the concept of footpaths. It was also clear that there was not a lot of money about to keep up appearances. The architecture is mainly two storey concrete and dilapidated corrugated iron. Every building was either a small shop or café, the shops selling an eclectic range of goods with no specific category in mind, plumbing fixtures sitting oddly under a shelf of baby food and laundry detergent. All the signs are in French so I could not determine whether there was any logic to the whole system, certainly none that I could ascertain. Still it definitely added to the adventure of finding some toothpaste.

That afternoon Will and I located a neat and tidy café in which to exchange stories. I chose a plate of curried octopus which Will thought very adventurous and revealed himself, at least in his eating habits, as a stereotypical Pom, "Just a plate of chips please, oh and some salt would be very nice if its not too much trouble, thank you, thank you," all the while his head bobbing up and down in a most deferential manner. It was interesting to note how his attitude contradicted his mannerisms, the former being one of British colonial superiority and the latter bordering on the obsequious. Despite this I could not but help liking Will, he was clearly an individual who lived by his own unique set of rules.

I spent much of the remainder of the afternoon in the Family Planning Clinic contemplating a poster pleading the plight of the golden haired bat whose survival was threatened, as with many other species, because of habitat destruction. Already I had the impression that the bat, competing with Rodriguan's relatively poor population of over 35,000 on an island only 18km by 8, was probably on a hiding to nothing. The Family Planning Clinic by the way is apparently the place to go for photocopying in Port Mathurin, which Will needed to do and he seemed rather keen for me to accompany him, which was perhaps not surprising after having spent the last 37 days quite alone.

Over the next few days a few more boats trickled in; Cornelia single handed by Mark, a remarkable 25 year old; Will and Cherie on the lovely Gallivant; and a couple I had not met before, Steve and Pam of Pamda Bear (yes that's right Pamda with an M), and last to come in was Bernie in Seabird.

We are developing into a friendly little community as we wander across the oceans together. The single-handers in particular entertain each other, and my home brew is very popular amongst the fleet, especially as it is actually cold, though Will's atrocious culinary skills, even by my standards, means he is being ostracized a little.

One day Mark, Will and I decided to explore the island a bit in traditional yachtie mix with the locals and spend as little as possible style, catching a local bus to some outlying areas. I had asked directions from a local a couple of days previous and in friendly Rodriguan style he had come down to the boat after he had finished work to answer our questions in more detail - and he didn't even want a drink. Thus prepared we caught a bus first to Mount Lubin. 17Rp ($1.09) took us up a steep zigzag road most of which was undergoing major work. I was surprised to see the roadside vegetation give way from tropical palms to mostly eucalypts. We got off at Mont Lubin as instructed, which turned out to be a small village at an intersection between two roads. A concrete pagoda type construction was centre point to the village and housed a couple of vegetable stalls and one rather suspect looking fish stall. We took the opportunity to buy some fresh veggies and then explored the adjoining streets. There was little to see but Mark, a tall muscular lad, was hungry so we stopped at a café for a bite to eat, though Will demurred as they didn't serve chips.

It did not take long to exhaust what Mont Lubin had to offer and we caught the next bus to Pointe Coton. Whether it was because this bus had a lot more horsepower, or the driver a heavier foot, or that the roads were now mostly heading down hill I could not say, but certainly we were now going at a breakneck speed despite the narrow poorly maintained road, numerous hairpins and some rather treacherous hillsides. As we approached each corner the sound of metal on metal brake noises could be plainly heard. Mark raised an eyebrow, I expressed some concern and Will was positively white knuckled, meanwhile a not so little old lady continued with her knitting and the children laughed and played as children do on buses. Obviously this was a perfectly normal bus trip.

Pointe Coton is on the windward side of the island and as we got closer the countryside became more rocky and barren and sparsely populated. Eventually we were set down by a beach. A short explore revealed that this was the foreigner's tourist beach with a low key but expensive looking resort set back a little way from the shoreline. It was very nice but I certainly would not go past an average Australian resort to come here.

Will found some deep fried chip-like things at a road side stall by the bus stop, the only structure of any sort apart from the resort for miles around, and thus sated his by now significant hunger. The shop keeper gave Mark and I some as samples and I have to admit they were quite tasty.

While at times I find it difficult to reconcile the difference in wealth between people, such as those patronising the resort and the rest of the islanders, this was clearly an important source of income. It seems the island produces very little, some onions and beef which is exported to Mauritius, but from what we saw of the small scratchy plots and the scrawny cows, the export trade must be pretty token. One of my cruising guides tells me that Rodriguans are mainly descendants of the freed slaves of Mauritius, originally African Negroes. When they were given their freedom the administration of the day deftly solved any potential social problems, or at least postponed them a few generations, by shipping all the ex-slaves to Rodrigues. When exactly this was done my guide is silent but presumably circa mid 18th century. The population of Mauritius on the other hand is mostly of Indian descent from the indentured labour the French colonist imported, and some descendants of the French colonists of course. Now Rodrigues is an economic burden on Mauritius - Mark was told that its economy is subsidised to the tune of 1 billion rupees (approx. $A6.5 million) per year.

Interestingly while we were there Rodrigues was having its first elections, having only recently been granted autonomy from Mauritius. We conjectured whether they might be heading for independence but this could only be economic suicide for the island, so presumably not. It will be interesting to hear the Mauritian's attitude to Rodrigues when we get there. We had wondered why there were so many police around, they were not expecting any violence but apparently concerns had been expressed about the sportsmanship of the losing side, whoever they might be.

A highlight of the Rodriguan week is the Saturday morning markets. Apparently you have to be up good and early to catch the best produce so at 6 a.m. all the cruisers then in town met onshore and made their way to the opposite end of the wharf where the markets are held. The main items for sale were fruit and veg, some straw products such as hats and baskets and presumably, deduced from the occasional loud protesting pig squeal in a nearby shed, fresh meat as well. Suddenly I felt very vegetarian which was OK because the fruit and veg selection, with a few notable exceptions, was excellent, the exceptions being mushroom and capsicum, a staple part of my cooking or, more accurately, Ann's cooking which I mostly try to emulate with varying degrees of success. Apparently all the produce along with the vendors are flown in each Saturday, an indication of just how dependant Rodrigues is on Mauritius for its survival. Despite this the prices were excellent and the quality mostly high, so I took the opportunity of stocking up on enough fresh to last me a good couple of weeks.

Soon came the time to consider moving on. I had procrastinated for a couple of days, delaying my departure, as word was coming back on the yachie's SSB (single side band radio) grapevine that Mauritius was nowhere near as pleasant as Rodrigues, crowded and citified and the anchorage prone to surge. A major consideration for me however was the lack of potable water in Port Mathurin. The local water was reported to have worm in it which necessitated boiling so it could not be put into the boat's tanks. Water could be bought from a truck but this was a major evolution to organise, so I filled a couple of jerry cans for laundry and showers, bought five litres for drinking and set a departure date for Tuesday evening, hoping to arrive in Port Louis Friday morning. As it turned out Pamda Bear sailed that morning, Shandoo departed the same time as me, and Cornelia, a larger and faster boat, departed early the following morning, all bound for Mauritius.