Free to go ashore, we paddled across the strikingly transparent water and landed on a lovely sand beach. Direction Island was uninhabited, and its highest point of land was perhaps ten feet above sea level. To give an indication of its size, we spent the next hour wending barefoot around its perimeter. The interior, a pervading coconut grove, was carpeted in soft humus that imparted to the feet a decidedly hedonic sensation. The green canopy overhead suggested the feeling of being in some well-funded arboretum, and the recent rains, including some five inches the previous day, had lent the plants all the more verdure. Exotic flowers blossomed, and their sweet fragrance added to the redolence of the rich, humid air. As we strolled along, little bright red hermit crabs, each toting a white sea shell of a home, scurried from underfoot. Absorbing the reverberations of the surf thundering onto the outer coral shore, my thoughts turned to our voyage's conception. As I had read those pages of how Maurice and Katie had endured the hardships and experienced the joys of their world sailing voyage, how I had envied them. Now Jenny and I were indeed living those very dreams. We too were supremely happy.
Direction Island Anchorage.
Three weeks were slipping by hardly noticed, and we had all but lost ourselves to Cocos Keeling's tropical ambiance. Sometimes at daybreak we would sit on the warm beach listening to the palm fronds rustling in the ever present trade winds and to the surf rumbling onto the nearby outer reef. This was a place where idle reverie was the order of the day, and where the civilized world was so distant that its meaning lay obscured. Life's impetus here ambled at rudimentary and genteel levels.
Besides sauntering about the island while absorbing its serenity, we spent hours each day snorkeling the lagoon's warm and remarkably pellucid waters, admiring the aquatic life.
The crews of all yachts present had spent many a long day in the solitude of their passage making, so in the evenings we often congregated at the beach-side portico for a fish fry and potluck supper. The girls would bring dishes prepared aboard, and a person could only marvel at the banquets that came from galleys that had been so long without reprovisioning.
Pot Luck on the beach. Dorothy (Mam'selle), Annette, Jacques and Madeleine Moreau (Ludmaja II), Jim and Liz McCane (Michael Stuart), Thomas (Tai Fun).
Shucking a coconut.
Our seafood cuisine was the product of our almost daily spear fishing forays, as together the few avid snorkelers among us would venture aboard our dinghies far out into the iridescent lagoon. Spear guns in hands, and wearing face-masks, snorkels, and fins, we spent hours exploring the underwater reefs.
Reef sharks, five to seven feet in length, were our ever-present underwater companions. This is a black-tipped shark.
Reef sharks, five to seven feet in length, were our ever-present underwater companions. These white tips and black tips are scavengers, and although capable of dismembering a diver, they were timid. When one approached a diver too closely, an aggressive jab of the spear gun would usually send it scurrying. Even so, they were keenly interested in our speared prey, and whenever a diver shot a fish, he would need to remove it from the sea quickly.
Occasionally a massive grey shark would appear on the scene. This is a more bellicose species, not so timid as the reef sharks. Even so, the grays seemed interested only in our intended speared catch, but these sharks were so large and intrusive that we didn't dare shoot a fish in their presence. According to the Polynesians, "You can steal a fish from a white tip or black tip two or three times, but from a grey shark only once." In the presence of a grey, whenever a diver was about to pull the trigger on the piece de resistance, the mammoth would move in for the filch; and truthfully, none of us found it pleasant rubbing shoulders with the beast.
Our spear fishing technique, in the absence of the insidious grays, was to prowl about the coral heads, keeping the swim fins wholly submerged so as not to play the part of a sea-going washing machine - a disquieting act that sends the fish scattering. Nor was the prey stared at, as this too is construed as aggressive behavior. Rather, the swimmer acted disinterested, largely ignoring the fish but watching from the corner of the eye should one disappear discreetly into a hole in the coral. At this, the diver would nonchalantly approach the hole, inhale deeply, and descend. Hovering at the hole and aiming the spear gun into it, the diver waited - and this is the aspect of the sport that can test even the most stout of lung. If one could endure long enough, the fish would eventually become curious and present itself, and this was the appropriate moment to squeeze the trigger. The barbed spear was affixed to the gun with a long cord, allowing the diver to swim vigorously to the surface for a long overdue breath of air. Then submerging hand over hand down the line, he would commence wrestling the fish from its hole - and usually the impaled prey would demonstrate remarkable strength and reluctance. After procuring the fish, the snorkeler would bolt for the surface, wheeling around full circles while ascending cork-screw fashion, so as to discover the whereabouts any reef sharks and fend them off.
The fire into the hole technique is not without its dangers. Tremendous moray eels, capable of inflicting vicious lacerations, inhabited some of those holes within the coral. Should a diver accidentally shoot one, as I did one day, the situation could become indeed grim. Jim McCane and I were out diving in the expansive lagoon while Jim's wife, Liz, paddled the dinghy behind us. As one of us divers would surface with an impaled fish, Liz would grab the spear, unwind its tip, and remove the fish into a large bucket then re-thread the tip onto its shaft. Provisioning another shore-side barbecue scheduled for that evening, we had collected seven or eight hefty specimens. By then the reef sharks were prowling about feverishly, drawn to the action. Catching sight of a fish disappearing into a hole perhaps 15 feet beneath the surface, I dove. Suspended, I waited in front of the hole for the fish to reappear. Eventually it presented itself, but only partially, and by then my next breath of air was vitally overdue; so after squeezing the trigger I vaulted for the surface. After hauling myself down the taut line, I began wrestling the spear, which shuddered resistively. Eventually, though, the pierced fish drifted up the shaft, dead - yet my line resisted, and the visible length of spear continued trembling. It seemed that I was engaged - not with the fish - but with some unseen creature beyond. Suddenly the spear broke free and a Brobdingnagian moray eel, dark green in color, some eight inches in diameter, and of an undetermined length, presented its gaping, fangsome maws. At this I retreated post haste, now all too aware of the situation's gravity.
Jim McCane (boat: Michael Stuart) bags a grouper. Note the bent spear.
A southerly bluster beset the region, and confined everyone aboard their respective homes for a few days, riding out the gale while standing anchor watch. Suka's CQR was holding none too secure, pun intended (CQR = secure) and when I swam down to inspect the problem, I found that the anchor's half buried plowshare had refused to bite. Instead, it had been skimming slowly through the fine sand, as indicated by the trail it had left. Back aboard, while Jenny stood at the helm I weighed, unshackled the CQR from the chain, and replaced it with the Danforth, which then took much better purchase in the poor holding ground.
Throughout the day the propeller of our wind driven electrical turban sounded like a Cessna revving its engine prior to take off. The charging meter registered a cheery 10 amps, with the occasional burst to 15.
A small front passes overhead.
With me on the mainmast and Jenny on the mizzen, we string an antenna between the two.
A huge jungle spider.
Feeding a boobie.
The blow gradually subsided, but as the beach-side barbecue area was still receiving a thrashing, the evening gatherings took shelter in various yachts. At the appointed hour that afternoon I switched on the ham radio to listen to conversations with distant yachtees. Richard Molony, his sailboat Nikki anchored out beyond the quarantine buoy because of his two cats, mentioned he was planning on attending a gathering aboard Suka that evening. Jenny and I had no idea we were hosting a party, but it sounded like fun, which indeed it proved to be.
The following day the gale subsided, the sky plastered a staunch blue once again, and the yachting populace began venturing ashore. The morning became one of Frisbee throwing, laughter and leaping with abandon into the sea, and standing around sipping fresh coconut juice. In our insouciance, little did we know that our friend Leen Verkaik, single-handing aboard his home-built steel ketch Why Not!?, had suffered a dismasting, and would endure the next two months plodding under jury rig to the Mascarene Islands.
Oblivious to Leen's plight, the seafaring denizens of Cocos Keeling were finding life grand. "This," I wrote, "is among the world's most exquisite tropical islands. We have found paradise, and merely being here is enough to induce the crusty sailors to go troppo, as indeed we have."
Inevitably the prevailing mood began losing its luster, though, as we contemplated the foreboding prospect of forsaking the atoll's protective womb and putting out into tempestuous seas. The next landfall was in the Mascarene group, its nearest island 1,970 nautical miles across the bellicose Indian Ocean. We viewed our leaving Cocos Keeling with as much enthusiasm as if we were about to leap from the edge of paradise into an inferno.
Ned and Mary Lynn were the first of our bevy to set sail. A few days out they radioed that the seas were very rough. The following evening Ned reported that M'Lady had sustained a knock down. Their Tartan 30 had survived intact, but the rogue wave smashed in their dodger, and ripped free their emergency supplies capsule and the spare fuel and water jugs. And as though their life raft had considered the situation life threatening, it had wrenched free of its mounts and inflated itself. When Ned went outside he found the raft being towed astern by its long painter, ready for boarding.
“Ned and Mary Lynn were belowdecks when without warning the wave hurled the sloop into the air and tossed it onto its beam ends.”
According to Ned, fortunately both he and Mary Lynn were belowdecks when without warning the wave had hurled the sloop into the air and tossed it onto its beam ends. Ned happened to be dining from a can of red beets, which of course splattered the walls, curtains and ceiling. Items flew from shelves, out of cupboards, and even up from beneath the disjointed floorboards. Assorted containers of foodstuffs opened, and the contents spewed forth as if seasoning the disarray. A portion of the onerous wave had forced its way inside, soaking their belongings - strewn from stem to stern - in an admixture of sea water, bilge water, and no doubt a hint of beet juice. Onto all this Ned tossed their deflated life raft.
Several days after the misadventure, when the seas had slackened and the two of them had managed to rectify their disordered home, Mary Lynn adamantly informed her husband that, "I'm going to sail around the world with you only once!"
Ned reported the seas were subsiding. Nevertheless, his descriptions of the knock down did little to encourage the departures of those of us who lay safely at Cocos. Moreover, our locally strong winds and blustery conditions only reinforced the general incertitude. A partial joke had it that nearly a dozen yachts were for sale - cheap - for any buyers brave enough to come to Cocos Keeling and sail them away.
A side trip to West Island.
Jenny and I motored Suka across the wide lagoon to fill her fresh water tanks at West Island. As we were returning to Direction Island, Quark and Distant Star departed. Two days later, the first of September, Crypton departed in the company of the Texans, Jake and Nancy Claridge aboard their cutter Mestizo.
Suka stood ready to go, and for several days my mate had been anxious to quit this hiatus in our journey. In fact, she was almost to the point of cajoling me, but I remained irresolute, empty of resolve. Something inside me warned against setting out, and for two days I battled a premonition of impending doom. I could not reason with it, and was so full to the brim with a sensation of foreboding that I was almost sick with dread. Finally it occurred to me that I was wrestling, not a portent, but fear itself: good-for-nothing fear. Omne ignotum pro magnifico - everything unknown is (taken as) grand.
That afternoon we weighed and nearly rammed Mam'selle, when Suka's reverse gear failed to engage. In view of dreadful events to befall Gordon, my sinking his ferrocement boat here probably would have saved his life, but of course this is 20/20 hindsight (See page 93). I managed to steer clear, and at last Suka sailed out of Port Refuge and deftly came to grips with the ill-disposed realm of big seas driven by the boisterous, 25 knot trades. We were on our way.
Hermit crab on Suka's coachroof.