“The ships are lying in the bay,
The gulls are swinging round their spars;
My soul as eagerly as they,
Desires the margin of the stars.”
Chapter 14: The Mascarenes
Three sister islands:
a red head, a brunette, and a blond
Passage to Rodriguez Island
Four days out of Cocos, the wind and seas were easing considerably and I was lying idly in the cockpit, shaded beneath our impromptu bimini, when I heard a "whoosh" and felt a mist of spray. A whale, about 30 feet in length, had surfaced to port. Intrigued with our trolling generator's propeller spinning on its line astern, the creature began swimming nose to the screw, while maintaining the pace effortlessly.
Watching a whale.
Initially we were enrapt with the whale's sublime presence, but when it began disporting, maneuvering around and under Suka, we grew concerned. One time it breached, lifting vertically out of the water to about half its length before crashing broadside into the water. The minke, as we identified it, remained with us for about an hour, spending half that time transfixed at the generator prop. The occasion was dramatic, but we were relieved when it finally sought amusement elsewhere.
The days rolled on repetitiously. Mid mornings and evenings we enjoyed participating in the scheduled ham radio interchanges among the members of our far flung fleet. Eight yachts were equipped with transceivers, while a few had only all-band receivers. With these, the convivial group went to no little effort to entertain itself.
Jim McCane aboard Michael Stuart assumed the role of radio net controller. He dubbed it the "Rum Line Net", on the basis that those behind were allegedly navigating by following the line of empty rum bottles disposed overboard by those ahead. This of course was banter, as none of us drank when in rough seas.
Dean Poore aboard Distant Star declared the passage a race. This met with some protest, in jest, on the basis that Dean had a multi-day head start on most of the other sailboats, except for M'Lady who had a two day head start on him. Dean solved the latter problem by declaring M'lady excluded. Richard Molony aboard Nikki objected because he and Diane were headed for Chagos, and was finding little wind.
Based on weather fax charts transmitted from stations in Darwin and on Reunion Island, I issued the daily weather synopsis.
John Hauk aboard Joggins related that a whale had bitten off his trolling generator's propeller.
One afternoon Jim and Liz performed a duet over the radio, singing their rendition of "Camp Grenada Blues" or some such thing.
“Hello Mudder, hello Fadder
Here I am out, on the wader.
We are sailing, to Rodriguez,
And are worried that some other boats may beat us.
“For a few days, seas were rotten,
And M'Lady, showed her bottom.
They survived but, one thing's certain:
They'll be scrubbing beat juice 'til they get to Durban.
“Distant Star is, buddy boatin',
'Cross the Southern, Indian Ocean.
Quark is leading, that's our best guess,
But we won't be sure until they make Rodriguez.
“Chorus: Give them wind, oh Mudder, Fadder give them wind.
The gods are so unfair;
Poor Nikki's praying for some air.
“Suka's whale was, a nice feller,
'Til he bit off, Joggins' propeller.
Now John's using, solar power,
And his signal's getting weaker by the hour.
“Jim was cooking, in the galley;
Not exactly, up his alley.
Kerosene smoke, filled the cabin,
And we ate our cold spaghetti out of the tin.
“Now all you strangers,
Out there listening,
To our tales of, South Seas glistening,
You don't know what, you are missing,
But perhaps you're better off just staying home and wishing.“
A mess of flying fish, collected on the deck at the first daylight, about to be fried for breakfast. I think Jenny's smile attests to the fun and excitement of making these small discoveries, like finding fish for breakfast. But also fatigue from the extended rough passage. Sailing across the Indian Ocean is not easy, and not particularly safe, but that is the nature of the voyage.
After a sailor has been at sea a week or two, various mental transitions may begin taking place. One acquires one's sea legs. And as one adapts to the ocean borne environment, the constant motion becomes so familiar, so ingrained, that the fatigued mind begins accommodating to the point of actually filtering out the motion. Eventually, in the sailor's mind, the motion may almost cease to exist. And at this point some rather strange events may begin happening. For example, as though now possessing minds of their own, loose lying objects will travel about, seemingly of their own volition - when actually the ship's lurching is animating the object. Nevertheless, this effect can be a problem for the navigator. His pencil becomes pugnacious; like a wild mouse it will scurry away unless constantly restrained. If not secured in its special holder, or in a hand, in a trice it will fly away. The same with a book, a calculator, or a cup - ill mannered, one and all.
“After fourteen wet and wild days of bowling across disquieted seas, Suka drew close to the island Rodriguez.”
On the evening of September 15, after fourteen wet and wild days of bowling across disquieted seas, Suka drew close to the island Rodriguez. Thick clouds pervaded, and although Jenny and I watched ahead for several hours, we saw nothing. Occasionally, though, the sat-nav produced a set of position coordinates, which we then plotted on the chart as an "X." This method allowed us to "see" our position in relation to the island. Even so, the mind longed for a specific reference; we wanted a genuine glimpse of land.
During the past several days a pair of sails had dotted our horizon, being those of Crypton and Mestizo, and we had been in VHF short range radio contact with their crews. The three of us sailed more closely now - on into the night - cautiously approaching our invisible objective while watching one another's masthead lights.
Of the three, Suka was the only one with a sat-nav. At 10:30 I felt we should stop, to avoid sailing past the island, unseen. I spoke into the microphone with our friends. "Sat-nav indicates we're about 15 miles off-shore. Looks like its time to heave-to."
We were running free before fresh winds, Suka's jib poled-out to one side and her double reefed mainsail extended to the other. The island was not dead ahead, but abreast, to one side. We had intentionally missed it by 15 miles, so that the wind and currents would carry us away from danger rather than toward it.
I adjusted the steering vane to place the wind broad on Suka's starboard quarter, then while Jenny eased the starboard jib sheet I winched taut the lazy sheet on the port side. This hauled the headsail bodily across the foredeck and into the lee of the mainsail, and would greatly simplify dousing the wind-stiffened jib. Once handed, we lashed the headsail to the lifelines at deck level, but left it hanked to the headstay and ready to hoist again quickly. Then we doused the reaching strut.
At this point, all that was required to heave-to was to disengage the self-steering vane. Without a headsail, a mizzen, and a helmsman, Suka would naturally align herself beam-on to the wind, and there she would lie unattended. The double reefed mainsail dampened the rolling motion, and for some reason, although the sail was bulbous, Suka would not sail off. Rather, she more or less remained in situ, making from one-half to two knots ahead, depending on my trimming of the main sheet; and about that speed alee, depending on the wind's strength.
For several hours we drifted away from the island, awaiting the next few scheduled satellite passes. Then once we had established our set and drift (the effects of wind and currents) I computed a course designed to convey us slowly back toward the island, still invisible. Effecting a jibe was a simple matter of turning the helm hard away from the wind. At that, Suka bore off, and sailed down wind briefly while I sheeted the mainsail to control the boom as it swung across the deck. The ketch continued turning until she lay beam-on, whereupon she lost headway. Voilà - we had effected a 180 degree jibe, and now lay-to facing in the opposite direction, toward the island this time. Then by trimming the main sheet I adjusted our rate of drift.
I went belowdecks where Jenny lay on the settee, secured with the lee cloth; for tossed in the boisterous seas, Suka's motion was severe. I assumed my station on the port settee, and wedged myself athwartships and facing the sat-nav. Its glowing display cast a diffused green light that pervaded the otherwise dark salon. Awaiting the next satellite acquisition, I watched the box attentively as though it were a video screen, even though its display remained unchanged. The wooden sole creaked and groaned torturously with each passing wave. Occasionally a comber would wallop the hull, sending an explosion of brine cascading innocuously over the topsides. At ten or fifteen minute intervals I would rise and open the companionway hatch for a good look around for any shipping. Mestizo's light shone brightly, half a mile away, and Crypton's stood about a mile away. Beyond these, the world was lost to the night.
interrupting my dozing, Jake's quiet voice came on the radio: "Looks like the clouds are lifting. I can see a light in the direction of the island."
Daylight was imminent. "Time to get moving," I announced to Jenny. "Let's go out and set the jib."
Dawn revealed the indistinct landmass of Rodriguez Island, the eastern-most of the Mascarenes. Actually, we could see only its base, for the land above 100 feet was obscured by clouds. We bent the jib and let draw, and Suka kicked her heels and scampered happily away in the company of the other pair of yachts. Our offing appeared to be about four miles, and after closing the coast, between bursts of rain we navigated coastwise by plotting bearings to identifiable landforms.
A familiar voice came from the radio's speaker: "Hi gang! Michael Stuart here. We're right behind you guys." Sailing full speed throughout the night, Jim and Liz had caught up with us. Their timing could not have been better.
Some of our group had arrived at the island previously, and while speaking with them on the ham radios, we had given them our ETA. So we were hoping that at least one of them would switch on their VHF as requested, and provide us a few directions for entering the harbor. And indeed, Dean answered our call.
"Hi Dean," I said. "We're getting close, but it's really cloudy, and the visibility isn't so good. I see a large building with a silver roof. Where are you in relation to that?"
"We're right in front of it, Ray," he replied. "Come on into the Western Pass on a bearing to this building of one-eight-three magnetic. You'll see the steel piles marking the entrance to the inner channel, but be careful: when M'Lady came in, Ned and Mary Lynn got completely fouled up. They were heading for a couple of pole markers that turned out to be people walking around on the reef."
"OK Dean, thanks. How's the harbor? There's four of us coming together; is there enough room in there?"
"No problem Ray," he replied. "You guys come on in and we'll sort it out."