“You have to leave the city of comfort
and go into the wilderness of your intuition.
What you'll discover will be wonderful.
What you'll discover will be yourself.”
- Alan Alda
Chapter 12: Christmas Island
Once under way, we enjoyed fresh winds on the port beam, and these later backed to the quarter, our favorite point of sail. On this day, July 20, 1984, the Australian continent lay abaft Suka's stern. Moving ahead with a will, the brig stood a course for Christmas Island, nearly 1,500 miles to the west.
By evening the wind had slackened, and throughout the night the watchkeeper lay in the cockpit while the other dozed belowdecks. The night was tranquil, and one reserved for the sea rover bathing in a stupendous glittering sweep of stars uncountable.
In the blackness of night two terns paid Suka a visit. One alighted on the pulpit railing while the other flew 'round and around investigating the ketch's many landing sites. Eventually it settled on the tip of the self-steering wind-vane, of all places. The added weight, even though it was but an ounce or two, unbalanced the vane and swung it hard over. At that, Suka obediently headed to windward, only to fall into irons and lose way - her sails luffing powerlessly. Glancing aft and discovering the bird, I tugged at the wind vane's control lines. This swung the vane through its arc, and persuaded our little visitor to remove itself elsewhere. Practically anywhere else was fine with me, save for the wind vane. With Suka's heading reestablished, and with her sails once again drawing nicely, she regained speed and her bow resumed gurgling reassuringly. I settled back onto the cockpit cushion.
Ten minutes later the shaking of sails again interrupted my meditations. Glancing at the red glowing compass, I found that Suka had wandered far off course again. Looking aft, I saw that the tern had soundlessly come to rest atop the steering vane, and was again pinning it hard over. I shook the vane's lines somewhat harder this time in an attempt to convey my meaning. However, the wee tern proved not easily dissuaded, for despite my shaking the line with ever increasing determination, the bird only returned to the vane with ever less delay. The flashlight glaring in its eyes scared it away a few times more. Finally, my exasperation woke Jenny, who appeared from the companionway asking what was happening out here.
"Trying to keep this bird off the steering vane," I related.
Tern landing on Jenny's shoulder.
“I stepped outside to relieve Jenny's watchkeeping, and found that for three hours she had been holding both terns in her lap.”
If ever there was a tender heart for sea birds, it was Jenny's. When she crawled aft, the bird landed on her shoulder. Three hours later I stepped outside to relieve her watchkeeping, and found that for the duration she had been holding both terns in her lap.
The following day we both became quite ill. Eventually we attributed the malady to having eaten a stew made from the contents of an old can of soup, stowed in the hold since leaving California. Apparently we had contracted food poisoning, for the day was one of mental anguish, devastating headaches, nausea, lassitude, and cold sweats. We both seemed direly in need of medical attention, and I debated returning to Darwin. But as this city now lay 110 miles to windward, we temporized. By afternoon our infirmities had peaked, and because they were not worsening, we decided to continue ahead with a wait-and-see attitude. Then by evening we were both feeling better, and knew that we would recuperate.
The wind died altogether that night, leaving the sails hanging limp like great curtains. The botulism, if that is what it had been, had enervated us. Filled with lethargy we allowed the ketch to drift, and in so doing, advanced only two miles during the night. But by morning we had recovered, and the quest was once again glimmering across the far horizon.
A succession of journal entries characterizes the remaining voyage to Christmas Island:
“July 22. The seas are relatively calm, but confused. A westerly wind gradually increased to 5 knots and we motored against it most of the day. The noon-to-noon run was a scant 36.7 miles. At dusk we shut off Perkins, dowsed the sails, and slept several hours.
“July 23. Wind still on the nose. We rose at 2:30 a.m, stoked the diesel and motored until 7:30 a.m, when the head winds had increased sufficiently to allow slow sailing and bi-hourly tacking. The day is sultry and we have spent the morning varnishing, satisfied that we are being productive in cosmetics if not in mileage.
“We are enjoying the many visits by our ebullient companions, the dolphins. Also we see many banded sea snakes slithering along the quiet surface, attesting to the relative shallowness of this, the Timor Sea.
“July 24. We enjoyed a very good night's rest despite the sails slatting and our scant progress. After a morning of varnishing we made our first contact using the ham radio purchased in Darwin. We talked with friends of Bundaberg days, Al and Rita aboard their yacht Baroness, mid-way between Cape Wessel and Cape Don, en route to Darwin. The evening brought some wind, and on the beam at that!
“July 25. The sky has smeared unpropitiously with greasy, dark clouds that have terminated the 4 days of calm. Presently, we're running at hull speed before a near gale, flying minimal canvas. How I loathe this weather, and how senseless we are for having left port and committed our lives to the whims of the capricious winds and seas. The ocean is rough, and we cling to the ship to prevent being hurled into the seas. Belowdecks a few things are flying about the cabin. A latch had come adrift and with a crash one locker disgorged its contents; cans spewed everywhere.
“The clouds have begun breaking - perhaps an indication that, thanks be to God, we have passed through the worst of it.
“Now early afternoon, we are blessed with a bit of radiant sunshine that begets faith within our abject hearts, and makes us feel so much better. The seas are still fierce and the going upon them is not fun. With minimal sail Suka streaks along as fast as she can, and I wonder: should the wind increase, how will I reduce sail further? Perhaps Jenny's bikini made fast to the headstay will suffice.
“July 26. Suka is progressing well; the storm, and our anxieties, have largely dissipated. But although the conditions are calming considerably, creature comfort is not yet a factor. But having left the Timor Sea we're plying the deep waters of the Indian Ocean, so the swell has lengthened, and this allows Suka sufficient time to buoy herself up and ride over each wave. The ride is now much more tolerable.
“Mid morning, our speed is down to five knots, and the slower going has imparted a wonderful sensation of a life less tumultuous. But a mere five knots will never do, so it's time to make more sail.
“After several attempts I managed to activate the trolling generator. The gangly wave crests kept disgorging the propeller and hurling it into the air, whereupon the slackened and tortuously twisted line hockled into a useless gob of impossible tangles. After trying many ideas, I finally settled upon a heavily weighted propeller shaft and 150 feet of stretchable nylon line, and this is working well enough.
Twisted trolling generator line hockled into a useless gob of impossible tangles.
“This afternoon we contacted the crew of Distant Star. Dean and Lynn are but one day from Christmas Island.
“July 27. The sea has slowly calmed, allowing us a pleasant night. Daybreak found Suka dribbling along at three knots, so I shook out the reefs in the mainsail, handed the jib, and hanked on the big genoa.
A tanker crosses our bow.
“Today we encountered a tanker - appearing initially as a speck on the southern horizon. Using the hand held compass, I checked the ship's relative bearing and found that as the vessel approached, its bearing remained unchanged. This of course meant that we were on a collision course. Repeatedly, we tried to raise the captain on VHF 16, but without reply. Curious to see how close we would come, I maintained our heading. The ever enlarging monster was coming fast, and the statistically impossible truth soon became apparent. We were indeed about to collide. Clenching a bone in its teeth, the menacing hull loomed near, so I hove to, and let the Biscay Maru of Tokyo pass across our bow. We saw no one on deck, nor any indication that the crew was aware of our presence.
“The sea is calmer today, and the fair winds playing over it are providing wonderful sailing. I spent the afternoon in the cockpit laying beneath the sun awning, sipping coffee, and recording my journal into micro-cassettes, which I will send to my parents for safekeeping. (My journal was subsequently stolen, and these micro-cassettes proved their worth.)
“Two small swallow-like birds visited us this afternoon. After alighting on the deck, both fell fast asleep.
“July 28. Good sailing in very pleasant weather. The day is one of low personal energy, and we are spending it mostly reading.
“July 29. The trolling line, the propeller, and its shaft departed the scene with a quiet thump, and we lost the works. I found only part of a stainless steel shackle attached to the motor's armature. Remarkably, the shackle had worn through.
“We contacted John "Joggins" on the afternoon ham schedule, and he reported losing his trolling rig also. His propeller flew out of a particularly large wave and chopped its line. Joggins stands about 180 miles astern of us, this despite our 4 day head start, but her crew had not experienced the enervating sickness, nor the calms and the head winds that we had.
“The cruising club is well spread out. Distant Star, Crypton, and Hasardeur now lie at anchor at Christmas Island. Why Not!? took her departure from Darwin two days before we had, yet her position is unknown to the net. Quark sails in the company of Joggins, and Nikki is a day behind them.
July 30. My morning's project was fabricating a new trolling apparatus. Now only 12 hours after having lost the former trolling rig, the ship's supply battery has already gone flat, due largely to the drain of the innocuous masthead night light, which draws two amps. As an aside, we keep Suka's primary battery fully charged, and use it only to start the engine, which is too large to crank-start by hand.
Using a length of stainless railing tubing salvaged from the lazarette, I fashioned a shaft, and affixed to it the dinghy kicker's spare propeller. To weight it I filled the tube with a quantity of threaded rod, then sealed both ends with Marine-Tex. The dinghy propeller would spin in a direction opposite that of the previous trolling prop, so I switched the generator's output wires, negative for positive and visa versa. The trolling generator is now humming again.
I attempted to start Perkins on the main battery but to no avail. A check using the volt meter showed the battery fully charged, and my next thought was that perhaps the engine's cylinders had flooded with water forced into the stern exhaust by the rough seas of the previous week. With a big wrench I turned the crankshaft, a test that indicated that the engine's cylinders were dry. Next, using a screwdriver I shunted Perkins' solenoid terminals, and in a brief weldment of mercurial sparks the engine sprang to life. The starting solenoid had gone bad.
“Things mechanical, electrical and electronic perpetually go awry aboard a ship at sea, and the problems need to be remedied usually by jury rigging or contrivance.”
Things mechanical, electrical and electronic perpetually go awry aboard a ship at sea, and the problems need to be remedied usually by jury rigging or contrivance. Rarely do these events find their way into my writing; suffice it to say that the long distance sailor must be capable of dealing with the ship's gadgetry, as problems arise.
The weather has been very beautiful these past several days. The sky is fair, and the 20-knot trade winds are providing fine sailing.
July 31. Jenny reported watching the antics of a frigate bird during her morning watch. It played cat and mouse with the masthead fly, a strip of nylon streaming from the VHF antenna and used as a wind direction indicator. The large bird soared carefully close and would grab the ribbon in its beak.
Last night, as in those previous, the water's phosphorescence was awesome. Visiting dolphins incandesced.
Cruising at hull speed, day in and day out, Suka flies her deep reefed mainsail opposite the reaching-sparred jib. Today's noon run, with the help of a two knot current, was 160 miles. Considering that the ship is making such superb progress, her rolling doesn't bother us much.
Jenny does a round of laundry on the after deck.
Ray repairs sails.
The afternoon ham schedule was alive with jabber, and we even talked with Jim and Marie Carlyle aboard their yacht Sybaris, friends we had not seen since departing Fiji. They had spent the cyclone season in Cairns, and are now in Papua New Guinea bound for Singapore.
August 1: On her 13th day at sea, Suka runs steadily before the trade winds for the eighth successive day. The wind and seas are subsiding somewhat, and the sat-nav indicates we are about 60 miles from Christmas Island. The weather is favorable, with abundant sunshine and two to four octas cumulus. The trolling generator hums away during the night until eventually a large wave takes the strain off the line and allows it to hockle wretchedly. Invariably my first chore each morning is to haul the twisted line aboard for straightening. Despite the device's pugnaciousness, it is suitably charging battery number two.
Another freighter on the horizon.
The afternoon breeze slackened, reducing our speed to 3-1/2 knots. 25 miles from Christmas Island we contacted Lynn during the afternoon ham radio schedule. She recommended we stand off, rather than enter at night, because a few large ships were moored with long lines that were blocked some of the way in.
We lacked a large-scale chart of the island, so I drew one, using information gleaned from our small-scale chart, from the Flying Fish Cove chart, and from coordinates listed in the pilot book. Throughout the long night we plotted onto this makeshift chart various sat-nav generated latitudes and longitudes, and bearings from a shoreside light beacon. In this way we maintained the appropriate offing.
"Standing off and on" with a makeshift chart by plotting light beacon angles.
Initially we had dowsed all sail, but this allowed Suka to roll forcibly as she lay abeam to the swell. So we hoisted canvas and sailed slowly away from the island on a beam reach until midnight, then turned about and sailed back toward it: a maneuver termed "standing off and on."
Zoom out to see where we are, or click on logo.
At dawn we entered Flying Fish Cove amidst a cavalcade of squawking sea birds swooping and diving in droves. From deep within the sparkling clear water, the island seemed to thrust itself skyward in steep abutments, densely vegetated and towering overhead. The setting was dramatic.
After securing the bower in a slot among the other yachts anchored in the pint-sized bay, we pulled ashore and telephoned the police, in order to report our arrival. A genial sergeant came and collected us in her truck, and transported us to the station where we attended to the routine paperwork. The authorities levied no fees to visiting yachtsmen, but they encouraged us to join the local yacht club at a cost of five Australian dollars per person.
The island was dominated economically by the phosphate company, and the Malays employed here constituted almost the entirety of the population. We found that little had changed in the 15 years since Nanook had anchored in the cove and Maurice had described the island in A World to the West. Yellow phosphate dust continued to pervade the scene. The anchorage was rolly at times. Red crabs yet migrated to the shore annually in their millions, and the local Malays were as friendly as ever.
The phosphate company extended any visitors the use of the employee's recreational amenities free of charge. These included a golf course, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and an open-air theater where a different movie was shown each evening. The more sports-minded yachtees found the place a boon, but Jenny and I were more interested in exploring the island's natural settings. We exercised by hiking and snorkeling.
Lynn Oakley joins us on an outing to the sea cliffs.
A mated pair of boobie birds and their youngster.
The group of cruising folks was becoming closely knit, as more or less together we confronted the challenges of sailing across the Indian Ocean. Our backgrounds were extremely diverse, yet at the moment we were living our lives in parallel, and I imagined that such camaraderie must occur here each season with each group of voyagers.
Evenings, the gang gathered at the yacht club where each person tallied his or her drinks on the honor system, the total bill indemnifiable upon clearing with the officials. This system had only recently been reinstated after some character had emptied both refrigerators of their contents in the night and then "stealing" away.
One evening we enjoyed a particularly memorable shore-side barbecue. The attendance was 100 percent. For the record, those crews represented were:
- Joggins: John and Virginia Houk, Everett, Washington.
- Quark: Charlie and Jeannette Garner, Holly Head, Wales.
- Hasardeur: Gerhard and Regine Behre, Bremerhaven, Germany.
- Distant Star: Dean Poore and Lynn Oakley, Honolulu, Hawaii.
- Crypton: Jan and Britt Hed, Akersberga, Sweden.
- Carina: Rick and Connie Flewelling, St. John, Canada.
- Why Not!?: Leen Verkaik, Haarlem, Holland.
- Mam'selle: Gordon and Dorothy, Perth, Australia.
- M'Lady: Ned and Mary Lynn Gatterdam, Pensacola, Florida.
- Tai Fun: Thomas, Sweden.
- and of course, Suka.
Two more yachts that we knew about who had already gone ahead were:
- Michael Stuart: Jim and Liz McCane, St. Louis, Missouri.
- Capella: John and Peggy Flemming, England.
And two behind us, that were soon to become good friends, were:
- Nikki: Richard and Diane Molony, St. Kiloa, Australia
- Fair Joanda: Tom Venwick, Newport, Isle of Wight.
This gathering was fun. Humor abounded, interesting stories were the order of the evening, and for once I did not feel the need to compete in order to participate.
Jan had appointed himself our soccer coach. Each day he had attempted to unite us in the cause of challenging the Malay team, an ambition that met with almost total indifference. But what an international team we would have been!
Gerhard had a number of funny stories. "When we arrived at Tahiti after 30 days at sea," he related, "I told my wife to go away for two weeks because I was sick of looking at her." He was only joking, of course.
Lynn's story was amusing. "I sent a packet of cruising slides home, with a letter saying that the relatives could make prints of any they liked. A month later I got a letter from mom that included four of the slides. She wrote, `Really liked the pictures, but I'm returning the ones of you in the shower.' Whoops! There I was: front back and both sides."
Charlie's story went: "We were anchored in the Caribbean when one morning we heard a Mayday radio call. A charter boat customer shouted `We're out of control and going in circles!' According to Charlie, the fellow imagined he was about to vanish in the Bermuda Triangle. After a pause the Coast Guard came back, asking the skipper to check the vessel's anchor, as perhaps it had fallen overboard. Indeed, it had."
Leen related jovially in broken English: "One day I see big shark. He follow my boat. I go back and look down at him, then he go away. I am too old to eat."
As the evening wore on, predictably the beer drinkers became somewhat rowdy, and the international goodwill was temporarily compromised when, in a demonstration of affection Jan snuck up behind Dean and poured beer onto his head. At this point, Ned produced his guitar and deftly salvaged the evening by strumming a few universally known campfire songs; and soon all present had joined in.
Britt and Jan, Jeannette and Charlie, Jenny, Thomas and Leen.
A few days later Jenny and I were walking along the street with red plastic fuel jugs in hand, headed for the diesel pump. A Malay fellow called to us from the second story window of his apartment building. "Hey, where you going?" He trotted down the steps, and I thought that perhaps he was about to offer to drive us to the station. Instead, he handed me the keys to his car. "When you finish your diesel, drive around the island for sight seeing. But have the car back at 3 o'clock when I need it."
“We passed by yachtee friends who gaped at us - incredulous that we were driving a car. We waved ostentatiously.”
In two trips we jerry-jugged diesel from the station to the pier. During both, we passed by yachtee friends who gaped at us - incredulous that we were driving a car. We waved ostentatiously. As a token of appreciation toward the owner, we drove to the gasoline station and filled the car's petrol tank before returning the vehicle to his parking lot. In America, loaning a car to a complete stranger would in most cases be an act of idiocy. But as Jimmy Buffet so aptly suggested: "Changes in latitudes - changes in attitudes."
As we conversed with the locals they would usually ask which boat was ours. Suka was the only sailboat present with a split rig, so our reply was, "the one with two masts."
"Oh, that one!" they would beam. "That's the most beautiful boat here." They were not referring to Suka's beauty, but her name. Little had we realized that in the Malay language the word suka means "happiness." Rarely did a vessel call in here bearing a Malay name, let alone one as appropriate, so we had apparently flattered the residents. Moreover, we suspected that kind words were spoken about Suka on the local radio, for everywhere we went the people knew of her.
Christmas Island is famous for it's red crabs which migrate annually in their millions.
In Tonga, suka is the word for "sugar." But in South Africa, where we arrived several months after leaving Christmas Island, the tables were to turn, and the natives would laugh. Suka in the Zulu tongue means "Go away! Get out of here you bum." Indeed, our vessel bore a colorful name that spanned many cultures.
After clearing with the officials and paying our small yacht club tab, we lightered one last round of water jugs, then returned aboard and lashed these securely to the bulwark rail amidships. After Jenny had produced a couple of choice steak sandwiches for breakfast, we weighed and stowed the anchor. Ending a pleasurable two-week stay at Christmas Island, we set sail from Flying Fish Cove, and shaped a course for the distant atoll Cocos Keeling.
The phosphate company loading a ship.