Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bali to Mauritius (2012)

After four weeks in Bali, it was time to start our journey across the Indian Ocean.  We slipped the dock lines at the Bali Marina on Saturday, September 8th, and began the long haul of 3,400 miles to Mauritius.  The course passes by Christmas Island and the Cocos Keeling Islands, territories of Australia.  Our plan was to stop in Cocos Keeling (1,100 miles from Bali) to rest for a few days before continuing on to Mauritius.  Since Di was still on antibiotics to kill the parasite she picked up in Bali, we planned to sail a course that passed near Christmas Island (560 miles from Bali) in case she started feeling worse and needed medical facilities.
The first two days brought light winds during the day and no wind overnight.  Finally on day three, the SE trade winds filled in at 12-18 knots, and Saviah averaged 6-7 knots for the next five days under single-reefed main and genoa.  Despite the pleasant sailing conditions, Di spent most of the time sleeping as she was weak and a little nauseous from the antibiotics.

On day seven, the winds shifted to directly behind us, so we doused the main and sailed under poled-out genoa alone, which dropped our speed to 5 knots and made for a rolly ride.  Fortunately, this only lasted half a day and on the morning of September 16th, the palm trees of the low lying islands of Cocos Keeling came into view.  When we were 12 miles out, we radioed the police to notify them of our approach.  They asked us a few questions, made sure we had a visa, and then instructed us to give them a call back when we were anchored so they could come to the boat for the official clearance procedures.

Cocos Keeling consists of 27 coral islands that make up two atolls, North Keeling and South Keeling.  The much smaller North Keeling is uninhabited and has been designated a marine park.  Most of the islands are part of the South Keeling atoll, the three largest of which create a horseshoe shaped lagoon that is open to the north and roughly eight miles long and six miles wide.

The islands were originally discovered in 1609, but not settled until 1826 when John Clunies-Ross brought his family and a group of Malay slaves to the islands and built up a large copra plantation.  The islands were declared a British dominion about thirty years later and then granted to the Clunies-Ross family in 1886 by Queen Victoria. 

They were made an Australian dependency in 1955 and existed as a virtual fiefdom for the Clunies-Ross family for many years.  The Australian government’s unhappiness with the Clunies-Ross style of rule increased over time, and eventually they forced the family to sell the islands to Australia in 1978.
The current population of Cocos Keeling is just over 600.  Only two of the islands are inhabited, Home Island and West Island.  Most of the 500 people on Home Island are descendants of the original Malaysian slaves brought to the island several hundred years ago.  They speak a Cocos dialect of Malay, as well as English, and most are Sunni Muslim.

The only other inhabited island is West Island, which is made up of about 100 Australians of primarily European descent. West Island is at the far south end of the lagoon and is the commercial center with police, customs, and the airport.  It is also serves as an Australian air base. 
The third largest island is Direction Island, on the northeast side of the lagoon, which is uninhabited and where we were instructed to anchor.   As we approached the entrance to the lagoon, the depths dropped drastically to 60 feet, and the water was crystal clear.  Motoring through the pass, we were accompanied by a pod of dolphins and could see two other sailboats in the anchorage.  As we approached the anchorage, the dolphins dispersed and a dozen black tip reef sharks took over, circling below the keel as we anchored in 15 feet of turquoise blue water over white sand.  After almost eight days at sea, we savored the beautiful scenery and flat calm water.

calm waters of the Cocos Keeling lagoon
Once we were settled, we hailed the police again to arrange for clearance.  Since the police office is on West Island several miles south, the officers came across the lagoon in a small power boat and tied up alongside Saviah.  They don’t have customs, quarantine or immigration officers on the island, so the local police handle all of the paperwork.  It was a painless process, and 30 minutes later, we took down our yellow quarantine flag and hoisted the Australian courtesy flag.  We still had to pay our anchorage fees of $50 per week at either Home Island or West Island, but they didn’t really care when we did it.  There is a ferry that makes a couple trips to Direction Island from Home Island each Thursday, so we decided to wait and take care of it then, rather than row over in the dinghy. 
Our plan was to stay in Cocos Keeling for a week, mainly to rest, but also so Di could finish her antibiotics before the next passage.  She started the second round the day we arrived, which was a seven day course.  While there, we studied the weather patterns of the Indian Ocean and read our guidebooks to learn about the places we would stop in Africa.  Most afternoons, we went ashore on Direction Island to get some exercise.  Andrew ran on the beach most days, while Di took it easy as she was still a bit weak from the meds.  We also enjoyed swimming in the bay and chatting with the other cruisers.

For many years, Cocos Keeling has been an important stop for cruisers crossing the Indian Ocean.  The shelters near the beach have barbecues, and there are frequent potlucks on shore when there are boats in the anchorage.  Many cruisers that have passed through have carved their boat names on pieces of wood and nailed them to the palm trees on shore.  It was interesting to look at the names and home ports of the sailors that have stopped in, some of them from decades ago.  

Thursday morning the ferry came to Direction Island and we rode it back to Home Island to pay our anchorage fees.  When we checked in, the police made sure we knew that it was a Muslim community, and to dress appropriately if we came over to visit.  With several hours to kill before the ferry came back, we spent some time walking around.  It was an interesting community where most of the homes are nearly identical and arranged in a grid.  People mainly got around town in quads, golf carts, bicycles or on foot.  The locals were very friendly and when we sat down at the only restaurant on the island, one of them bought us lunch and encouraged us to come to his house if we needed anything. 
We also stopped at the small supermarket hoping to pick up a few items for our next passage.  On Saturdays, a supply plane comes in from the mainland bringing fresh fruit and veggies, but by Thursday, they were pretty well picked over.  So, we didn’t buy much, other than some cheese and butter.  We went back to the ferry and sat down with the seven or eight other cruisers who were over for the day and waited for about 45 minutes for the ferry to leave.  Eventually, we were told there were engine troubles (on the virtually brand new ferry), and they instructed us to get on the older ferry.  We did, but they couldn’t get that one working properly either, and after a while, we boarded the last available ferry.  They got this one running, but it was a really hot day, and by this time, our butter had melted and soaked through the bag and was dripping on the ground.  What a mess.

Before we left Home Island, we also tried to clear out with the police.  Although they will come to your boat for clearing-in procedures, they won’t do the same to clear you out, unless they are already in the anchorage for another reason.   We were planning to leave on Sunday, but wouldn’t have another opportunity to take the ferry to Home Island for another week.  Unfortunately, they wouldn’t grant our clearance because our departure was over 48 hours away. 
We hoped they would have a reason to come back to the anchorage in the next day or two, or we would have a very long row in the dinghy back to Home Island.  Fortunately, the next morning a boat arrived, and we hailed the police on the VHF as they came into the anchorage.  After clearing the new boat in, they came alongside Saviah and completed our clearance formalities.  At the time, we had a forecast for steady trade winds starting on Sunday.   By the time Sunday came, the forecast had changed to no wind until Tuesday.  If we didn’t leave, we would have to check in again, pay more fees on Home Island, and then check out again.  So, we opted to leave anyway and deal with the light winds.  We motored out on September 23rd, one week after we arrived.

Direction Island

The southern Indian Ocean is known to have strong trade winds, as well as an uncomfortable and sizable south or southwest cross swell originating in the distant Southern Ocean gales.  After our passage from Bali to Cocos Keeling, we felt we had probably used up our good luck as that passage had neither.  We were mentally prepared for the 2,300 miles from Cocos Keeling to Mauritius to be tough and uncomfortable, despite the relatively mild forecast in place when we left.
After motoring off and on for the first two days, the winds filled in and ranged from 12-25 knots from the E to SE throughout the rest of the passage.  Our strategy was to sail as often as possible on a broad reach with single or double reefed main and genoa.  Occasionally, when the winds went due east, we strayed to the south of the rhumb line and had to douse the main, sailing dead downwind to make progress west.  Thankfully, this didn’t happen often, and we sailed most of the passage with both sails up.

The result was a much faster and more comfortable ride.  Our average over the entire 2,300 miles was almost 6 knots, and we did our best ever 24 hour period with 171 miles.  We had only a few days of winds in the 20-25 knot range, but we did have a bit of a cross swell from the south for most of the passage.  The seas weren’t very big, but a few times every day a wave would break just right against the hull and a gallon of water would make its way into the cockpit, usually right on top of the person on watch and the book that they were reading. 
We fished occasionally throughout the trip, but didn’t have any luck.  We were particularly unlucky one day when a flying fish launched out of the water from behind the stern and flew right through the pushpit, just missing the windvane and steering wheel, through the companionway and right onto our sea bunk.  We grabbed it quickly and tossed it off the boat, but the sheets smelled immediately. 

The last three days brought lighter winds at E 5-15 knots.  The genoa flogged at times in the light winds, and eventually the stitching in the foot started unraveling.  Rather than risk more damage to the sail, we furled it and hoisted the gennaker.  We sailed slowly dead downwind with the gennaker poled-out for the last day, rounding the north end of Mauritius during the early morning hours.  We sailed along in the lee of the island and enjoyed the calm seas after 17 days at sea. 
As we approached the harbor entrance to Port Louis, we reduced sail to slow down.  This is a busy commercial port, and the entrance to the channel was currently blocked by a large freighter being turned around by three tugs.  Once the freighter was clear of the entrance, we hailed port control on channel 14 and received permission to enter the narrow channel.   By 8:30 am on October 10th, we were safely docked alongside the customs wall in downtown Port Louis, relieved to have completed one of our most daunting passages.

Port Louis harbor