Farne’s World Cruise – Indian Ocean

Brian Lowrie

Early September 2005 found us checking out of Australia, anxious to collect our new EPIRB and get on our way westward. On 12 September we beat our way out of Darwin Bay. We were keen to have a final look at the Kimberleys – a remote area in NW Australia with river gorges cutting deep into the hot barren countryside. On 13 September we closed the Berkley River but the entrance was too shallow to let us in. We turned north and reached Koolange Bay, anchoring off the entrance to the King George River. These river gorges are deep but the entrances are shallow, charts are inadequate and the waypoints we had been given were wrong. We anchored 200m off, launched the dinghy, put on the outboard for the expedition up the river gorge motoring 3-4 miles through this deep, hot, inhospitable gorge with no sign of life. We finally turned and motored back to Farne. It would have been great to take her up the river, anchored, and watched the crocodiles overnight.

We lifted and stowed the dingy, had a meal, and lifted the anchor in what was now a stiff onshore wind with a heavy chop, and found the pin on the wasi anchor half out, although we checked that it was tight every time we laid the anchor. We would have been aground in moments with no help for hundreds of miles. We left that evening. The Kimberleys are a huge cruising area but really need a shallower boat and more time. We were concerned about missing the last of the south easterly trades and drifted, motored and used the spinnaker 400 miles into the Timor Sea. It was calm enough to swim over the side and check the anodes and bearings on the prop shaft. We had been hearing a knocking sound but this was not the rudder, thank goodness. For four days we drifted, sailed, and motored through the big calm patch at the top of Australia and only had fuel for about three to four days on half throttle. We carry 80 gallons of diesel in the tank and 20 on the deck, and use half a gallon an hour in light conditions. Birds used us for a free ride, a great big black bird landing clumsily on the foredeck and staying overnight. On the next evening a beautiful small green bird with a purple throat perched on the aft life rail, flew off the next morning but returned the next two nights. Apart from being over flown and being called up by a coast watch plane we saw nothing else.

On 20 September we reached a point close to Ashmore reef, a remote atoll usually staffed by an Australian naval vessel and we were thinking of stopping when the trade wind finally arrived and off we went – 6 days at over 170 miles a day. We were now outside Australia’s fishing limit and heading towards Christmas Island and there were more Indonesian fishing boats around. At night we do 3 hour watches, 3 on 3 off but during the day we are more relaxed, one may be cooking or getting weather reports, reading, the other sleeping or doing boat jobs – each occasionally watching out. It’s a huge ocean – we rarely even saw a ship let alone alter course, so when we looked out and saw a large Indonesian fishing vessel stationed 100m precisely ahead we rapidly altered course and passed 30 m away. A bemused fisherman exchanged greetings, or perhaps they weren’t greetings he shouted!

Anchorage at Direction Island

Anchorage at Direction Island

The shack on Cocos Keeling

The shack on Cocos Keeling

We raced onwards and the gooseneck fitting broke and we had to lash it up. The wind increased and early on the 28 September we sighted Cocos Keeling, 2100 miles from Darwin. Cocos Keeling is now Australian, a stepping stone in the Indian Ocean. It was British and then owned and run by the Ross McCluny family. There are three islands, Home Island inhabited by 600 Malays, previously employees for the Copra trade, West Island with approximately 100 Australians occupying this extension of their empire, and unoccupied Direction Island in the lee of which a few yachts take shelter on their long flight westwards. In is an idyllic stop with beautiful clear water, waving palm trees, a mile of sandy beach and essential supplies a dingy ride away. Also we were able to go swimming for the first time on our Australian travels – across the top end there is no swimming – if the jellyfish didn’t get you the sharks would, and if they didn’t the crocodiles would. There is a shallow cut at the east end of Direction Island were the water flows continuously into the lagoon. If you enter at the top and snorkel with the current you glide over countless fish, massive groupers, travelli, rainbow parrot fish and small sharks. It is a protected area, protected except from ignorant French yachtie spear fishermen. There was a shack on the island and in the evening the cruisers got together to cook supper, drink wine, and exchange tales.

Sunset in the Indian Ocean

Sunset in the Indian Ocean

It was in Cocos Keeling where we had to finally decide our route home: North to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the dangers of the Red Sea or else South West on the long haul to South Africa. We finally decided on the longer route to avoid the calms of Asia, possible lightening strikes, lingering devastation of the tsunami and the increasing incidents of piracy. However Jimmy Cornell in World Cruising Routes describes the Indian Ocean as the toughest – not the biggest – but there are fewer places to stop, the winds are stronger and the big swell rolls up from the south spreading out from a succession of low pressure systems moving east and setting up an uncomfortable jerky motion when combined with the local wave conditions.

On Monday 3 October we set out west again from one of the most beautiful stops in the world and with two extra persons on board, Jonathan and Karen, who had been camping on the beach somewhat marooned. Within the first day out from Cocos the wind had increased to 30 knots and we had three reefs down, the fourth reef we had specifically asked for in the mainsail went in the next day and stayed in for four days. The motion was uncomfortable and was a problem for us and other boats we were traveling with in an informal SSB net. Our autohelm packed in. Fortunately we were able to fit a spare, reefing lines wore through and a running backstay snapped. I had to be winched up the mast to make a temporary repair, not an experience we intend repeating. A bulk container ship came by and an officer on the bridge answered our VHF enquiry – unusual as most do not, preferring to maintain radio silence. He was a Ukrainian sailor who had visited the Tyne as a cadet on a sail training ship (unfortunately he couldn’t see us on his radar). We were thankful of the strength and build of our boat when we compared her with some lighter vessels on the trip, some with no self steering or protection for the helmsman from the sun. The days averaged 160 miles though surprisingly there was no current. Finally the wind dropped a bit. We would have dozens of flying fish on the deck following the overnight and sometimes a squid or two.

We have a generator to top up the batteries as we may not be using the main engine for weeks. During the day solar panels generally cope with our power needs for instruments, fridge and autohelm. During the night, especially if the Autohelm is working hard, we need to generate for one to two hours. After a week the generator failed to start and we traced the problem to a faulty fuel pump. Fortunately we had a spare and managed to fit it. On the 13 October we ripped the main just below the first reefing point – we’re still not sure why but it’s the first damage in 30,000 miles on this sail made by Saunders, and the first reef had to stay in from then on. Our ‘net’ friends hit a sleeping whale a few miles from us. On the 15 October we saw the peak of Mauritius in the early morning and by lunchtime we had checked in with Quarantine, Immigration, Port Captain and Customs. Like most capital cities Port Louis is improving its waterfront with hotels and shopping malls and there is a small marina where we able to enjoy shore services at very reasonable prices. It had taken us 15 days to travel 2360 miles, 160 miles a day.

Mauritius was first discovered and established by the Portuguese in the 16th Century to control the route to the East Indies. It was abandoned then colonised by the French who brought in slaves from Africa, and indentured workers from India to work the sugar plantations. Britain wanted the islands to help control its increasing empire and eliminate certain pirates operating on the East African coast. In a reported naval battle in 1810 the British fleet lost the battle with her ships caught on the deadly coral reefs but managed to regain control later that year, so sovereignty was ceded to Britain but the French continued to hold all economic power and even now all Mauritians’ first language is French, but most people speak both languages. Mauritius is a very cheap place to provision. Its main activities are sugar production (the island is covered in sugar cane), tourism and cheap clothing. Many household clothing names are manufactured here and are incredibly cheap in the markets.

We spent a week repairing, washing, cleaning and touring around. We took off the main and had it repaired, received and fitted new running backstays, stocked up on fresh fruit and veg, and DVDs and caught up with our sailing ‘net’, friends on the other boats we had been traveling with. We set off for Reunion, another pearl in the Indian Ocean. Its only 100 miles to St Pierre, it’s not the capital but a smaller nicer marina on the west side. Reunion’s scenery is dramatic with huge mountains over 10,000 ft in the middle and an active volcano at one end. The island is French and like New Caledonia and Tahiti it’s a part of France. French people are shop keepers, teachers and administrators etc. We had hired a car for a couple of days to travel into the interior. It is very beautiful with no mass tourism but with plenty of gite-type accommodation and activity holidays.

Clipper race at Royal Natal YC

Clipper race at Royal Natal YC

We left Reunion on 30 October, the cyclone season in the south Indian Ocean begins in November and we didn’t need that extra worry. The route to South Africa is to stay 150 miles off the bottom of Madagascar and we set that course to avoid the worst seas – but they were still big and confused with breaking waves into cockpit, other yachts were pooped and a racing yacht was lost a month before with all her crew. The trades are still north easterly but southerly busters charge up the coast of South Africa every few days. We were in the Mozambique Channel when ours hit. The barometer dropped 5 points in six hours, dark clouds swept over and the wind changed from 25 kts NE to 30 kts S within 5 minutes. We hove to with 30-40 kts for 24 hours. Finally when it cleared we were just off Maputo inMozambique. We headed south in lots of shipping past Richard’s Bay and reached Durban before the next southerly on 10 November. It’s a huge port, the ninth largest in the world, with 20 ships anchored off waiting to enter. We were lucky to get one of the last remaining marina berths as the “Clipper Race” was just about to arrive and we were then able to enjoy the facilities of the Royal Natal Yacht Club and the Point Yacht Club. It had been 6100 miles across the Indian Ocean and we were glad to get off the boat for a few days to visit friends in Durban and see the wonders of the game reserves and the Drakensburg Mountains.

 

 


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