“All that we see or seem
is but a dream within a dream.”
-E. A. Poe
Chapter 13: Cocos Keeling
Sanctum of the Indian Ocean Rover
Suka departed Christmas island and steered for open ocean along the bold coastal palisades, as a flurry of squawking sea birds continuously swooped and wheeled around her - as if ceremoniously bidding her farewell. Then oddly, when she had sailed miles away - with the shrunken island squatting over the taffrail - a few times low flying boobies nearly drove their beaks into the sails, discovering the billowing barricade only at the last moment and veering sharply away. From this odd behavior I imagined that these birds had traveled from their cliff-side nests to the off-lying fishing grounds so many times, as had their primogenitors, that the route had been ingrained into their chromosomes. Watching where they were heading seemed no longer a requirement.
Once clear of the island and its moiling volley of seabirds, Suka's canvas gladly scooped the steady 15 knot trade winds blowing in from the south-sou'west. During the next three days the sky remained a staunch ocean blue, and ol' Sol imbued us with its heartening warmth. Yet despite the fine weather and the pleasant sailing, the mood was not one of ebullience. Undermining the favorable sailing conditions was a sort of mental aridity that typically affects sailors of small yachts bound across the Indian Ocean. We were entering a region of irrefutably vast distances between ports, and one infamous for greasy skies, violent weather, tumultuous seas, and precipitate gales. And as if matching our demeanor, the seas darkened imperceptibly with the passing of each day. The farther we sailed into the Indian, the vexatiously blacker became the water.
A gradually slackening wind mitigated our daily runs, which were: 165, 153, and 134 miles - these with the help of a 20 mile-per-day current. And on the evening of our fourth day from Christmas Island the sky smeared ominously. At dusk a convergence passed overhead with strong quartering winds spiked with rain thrashing us furiously as we shortened the mainsail.
Traveling at hull speed, Suka now stood within 40 miles of the Cocos Keeling atoll, so the time was at hand to decrease her speed. Groping about in the hyper-blackness of the storm-dreary night, we dowsed the double reefed mainsail and frapped it tightly to the boom. This slowed the brig somewhat, but the furious wind only increased further until the brig was again charging ahead like an enraged steed, now while flying only her tempest-stiffened jib. At least I had finally learned that in a quartering blow she much preferred her mainsail furled altogether and her sail area carried well forward.
Standing on and off would have been difficult in such boisterous conditions, so we needed to bleed speed in order to arrive at our landfall at dawn. The prospects of crawling onto the spume-swept and heaving foredeck was anything but appealing, but the jib had to come down. So, stooping low and grasping the coachroof handrail, I crept forward and dowsed the uncompliant jib. Then after un-hanking it, I opened the forehatch and crammed the sodden Dacron down into the forecastle. I did not bag the sail, in case we should need it later in a hurry. Running bare poled before the fury, Suka responded nimbly to her self-steering rudder, and held her course acceptably true, plus and minus 10 or 15 degrees yawing port and starboard. The reduction in speed had eased her laboring and freed her crew to retire to the sheltered cabin.
“And so we endured the long night, Jenny lying in the lee canvassed bunk and I on the port settee. With my feet braced athwartships, I stared at the sat-nav display, which was the only illumination in the ship's otherwise dark interior.”
And so we endured the long night, Jenny lying in the lee canvassed bunk and I on the port settee. With my feet braced athwartships, I stared at the sat-nav display, which was the only illumination in the ship's otherwise dark interior. Generally, I was awaiting a navigational satellite pass. At 15 minute intervals I would climb the companionway ladder, slide back the hatch and peer all around. Seeing nothing but murky, disheartening conditions, yet gaining the reassurance that Suka was tending herself like a warrior, and that the horizon was free of ships, I would retire below and close out the storm, and await the time when Jenny and I would trade places.
When a satellite first appears, it does so near the horizon, and our little machine would sound a beep, indicating it had acquired a signal. As the space probe reeled into the sky and arced slowly across the heavens, our black box steadfastly listened to its transmissions, and when the orbital vehicle disappeared over the opposite horizon our machine would begin computing our position, based on Doppler-shifted satellite data as perceived.
Midnight the box beeped its heartening message, and within 20 minutes produced our position coordinates, which Jenny then plotted on the chart. The fix indicated that we were 20 miles off-shore Cocos Keeling. As a check, I switched on the RDF and confirmed the relative bearing to the atoll's aero beacon, broadcasting a staunch signal at 305 kilohertz.
With the sat-nav system, the satellites sometimes bunch up and other times space themselves widely. After a 4 am fix, the computer predicted a five hour interval void of satellite passes, this at a most inopportune phase of our passage. The gap left us to find the atoll using our own resources, so after grappling into bulky foul weather gear I clambered into the utter darkness outside, and resolved to sit in the cockpit and keep a sharp lookout ahead for land. Rain pelted down in slanted sheets, which reduced visibility practically to zilch. Overhead, impermeable clouds obscured what we knew was a nearly full moon.
An odd noise seized my attention. I crawled aft to investigate, secured as always when outside and underway with my safety belt carabinered to a fore-and-aft jack line. The noise led me to the trolling generator motor, which had broken free of its mount (a solid bracket of stainless steel) and was now dangling precariously over the water by its safety lanyard. Glad to have fitted this lanyard, I hauled aboard the generator, the trolling line, its shaft, and prop; and after untying the lanyard I piled the sopping tangle into the cockpit well. Thus, Suka scudded along bare-poled before the blow, her crew eager for dawn.
At first light the companionway hatch before me slid open a few inches, and out came a half spilled, steaming cup of coffee. A short while later the mate emerged dressed for a hurricane.
With the first diffusion of a purple-grey dawn illuminating the dismal, storm-wracked seas, we made the deeply reefed mainsail then proceeded ahead in earnest, seeking the atoll. The shortened canvas sprinted Suka ahead into weather so thick that visibility was but a scant few hundred feet. Racing toward a deadly coral reef that we knew must be close, but that we could not lay eyes upon, imparted a most unsettling sensation in the pit of the stomach. One fact was brutally certain: the island and reef would appear only when we had drawn dangerously close to it, and when it did, we would need to jibe the mainsail with the utmost haste. One hang-up, one error in sail handling might hasten Suka onto the destructive lee shore. With this in mind we rehearsed the jibe several times.
As Suka sped onward into the scud, Jenny steered while I clung to the main mast, scrutinizing the cloudy nothingness ahead. Hours passed, until eventually we began wondering aloud if we had inexplicably missed the island. Was the RDF indicating a reciprocal bearing, and did Cocos Keeling somehow now lay astern? We contemplated the awful thought of having missed the atoll, and now having to proceed another 2,000 miles to the next landfall.
“Suka jibed, and with that we gazed at a tumult of thundering surf and a line of coconut trees a few hundred yards off the port beam. We each let out a whoop of delight.”
An amorphous tinge began materializing dead ahead, and within moments an echoing rumble of surf dynamited our misgivings. "There it is!" we both cried. Jumping to, Jenny speedily shifted both the boom preventer and the boom vang to windward, and when she had ducked clear I spun the wheel hard a-lee and sheeted the mainsail taut. Suka jibed, and with that we gazed at a tumult of thundering surf and a line of coconut trees a few hundred yards off the port beam. We each let out a whoop of delight.
Zoom out to see where we are, or click on logo.
Cocos Keeling is a necklace of palm-studded, sandy islets interconnected with barely submerged coral reefs. The dirty weather made one islet appear much the same as another, and complicated the task of finding the lagoon's entrance. Coasting along the various islets, several times we thought we had found the northern terminus. As we were contemplating turning westward, another group of coconut trees away to the north would materialize from the low lying scud. We sailed on, and finally the dense clouds lifted barely enough to reveal various more distant landforms. Taking compass bearings, we surmised our location - however inconclusively. Eventually we sighted a small, lighted beacon. The chart indicated this as the turning point we had been searching for, but the scud lifted again and revealed yet another palm grove standing away to the north. This sent us into confusion once again, until we realized these trees indicated a disconnected islet lying off-shore the main atoll. So indeed it was time to turn westward.
Dousing the mainsail, we motored cautiously around the island, watching the water shallowing and its color changing from that of sordid black to the vibrant, tropical cobalts and aquamarines. Because of the rapidly fluctuating visibility, the heavy wind, and disquieting seas we were reluctant to enter the pass. So while Jenny piloted at the bowsprit, I eased Suka toward the outer, windward reef. Then we lowered the anchor into five fathoms of water so clear that we watched the plow settle onto the white sand between swarthy coral heads.
The clouds lifted to reveal the compelling sight of six yachts lying safely within the lagoon. Outside the atoll, where Suka had found protection in its lee, our impromptu anchorage was boisterous, yet it was the best we dared hope for.
“We made Tommy's tender fast astern, and deemed the three of us as rescuing each other.”
Before long, a small dinghy came running before the tempest and torrential downpour, bobbing precariously in the chop and heading our way. Soon the intrepid Irishman Tommy Baird climbed aboard and asked if we needed help. From aboard his yacht Ni Singa, he and his wife Lynn had noticed Suka lying motionless outside the reef but alarmingly close inshore. They had logically assumed we might be in trouble. Obviously Tommy would not be bucking the head winds and vicious combers back to his yacht, so he graciously offered to pilot us in. We made his tender fast astern, and deemed the three of us as rescuing each other.
Zoom out to see where we are.
Local knowledge was all we had been lacking, so with Tommy piloting at the bow, I powered into the pass. Against cutting headwinds Suka moved at a crawl, but soon she lay safely to her bower in the company of the other yachts fronting Direction Island.
Tommy had indeed saved the afternoon, and when we later learned that he could not swim, we were even more impressed that he had come to our aid in such imperiling conditions. (Several months later, though, his inability to swim nearly cost him his life, and I was to play a minor role in his rescue.)
With water, water everywhere, our hands and bare feet were shriveled like blanched prunes. Inside the cabin, everything even remotely within the hatchway's splash zone was soaked. But this was of little concern; for the first time in 24 hours we could relax, and suddenly we felt deeply fatigued. It was time for a well-deserved nap.
Our new-found friends Tommy and Lynn were preparing to depart the following day, so that evening Jenny pulled over to Ni Singa to wish them bon voyage and to present them with a freshly baked carrot cake.
“As we had not come here seeking employment with the agency, I failed to see his meaning.”
That night the storm abated, and the next morning broke bright and clear. An Australian quarantine officer, bedecked in the appropriate uniform minus shoes and socks, boarded Suka. Perfunctory greetings aside, he interrogated us coyly as to whether we were familiar with Australian quarantine regulations. As we had not come here seeking employment with the agency, I failed to see his meaning. But to carry the burden of conversation, I assured him weakly that we were.
"Why, then," he asserted, "did you go ashore yesterday, prior to being cleared by myself?"
I explained that Jenny had rowed over to Ni Singa with a farewell cake, but that otherwise we had remained aboard.
"You were observed leaving your vessel," he alleged. And after a few more ill-founded salvos along the same lines, the little general focused his fusillades on our having anchored shoreward of the yellow buoy prior to our quarantine inspection. Actually we hadn't noticed it.
"You're very lucky," he stormed. "The previous quarantine officer used to require you offenders to re-anchor beyond the buoy before granting pratique." And with that he begrudgingly scribbled our clearance, tore it from the pad, and dispensed it onto the salon table. We felt as though we were newly initiated inmates of the Cocos Keeling penal institute.
"Obey the rules," he scowled, handing me a sheet of regulations, most of which pertained to sanitation. His parting words were: "Last year two boats were towed out of here for noncompliance." He left to crack his whip elsewhere, and subsequently we rarely saw "the warden."
As per instructions, Jenny and I paddled to the nearby patrol launch to meet with the immigration officer. Expecting the worse, we were pleasantly surprised when this gentleman proved most genial. Cheerfully, he processed our paperwork, stamped our passports, and even offered to bring us any supplies we might need, or to deliver mail on his daily run from the air base across the seven mile wide lagoon.