Friday, September 29, 2006

On passage: Cocos to Chagos

We left Cocos on Monday 4th September, having spent nine wonderful days enjoying the cruising life: snorkelling, sundowners, beach barbies and the odd chore. We were sad to leave, as Cocos had quickly become one of our favourite anchorages.

Cocos is a 'fork in the road' for cruising boats in the Indian Ocean, as it is here that boats must decide whether to sail the northern route (via Chagos and Madagascar) or the southern route (via Rodriduez/Reunion/Mauritius) to South Africa. The distances for either route are roughly the same, however Chagos lies at 5� South, which puts it in the ITCZ (the doldrums), while Mauritius lies firmly in the trade winds. We chose to take the Northern route, mainly because Chagos is famous amongst cruising boats as being home to an almost permanent community of long-term cruisers who have 'colonised' the otherwise no longer inhabited atoll, often returning year after year or even settling for long periods (up to 18 months or more). At this stage we had an outside chance, with a fast passage, of meeting up with our friends Eagle Wing and Petrel, who had already been at Chagos for five weeks. Another advantage for us was that this route would allow us to visit Africa - or at least Madagascar and Mayotte (in the Comoros Islands) - and then sail down the Mozambique Channel. Regardless of the route taken, all the boats leaving Cocos would eventually arrive in either Richards Bay or Durban.

Although the weather had been perfect during our stay in Cocos, it changed as we left the island and the first dramatic squall hit right as we cleared the pass. The start of our passage was therefore uncharacteristically slow: 10 miles in the first three hours which we spent the next weaving in and out of squalls with the wind coming from all quarters and varying from 0 to 25kt. Eventually the weather settled down, but for the first three to four days we were getting at least 5 decent squalls a day which required reefing down but were typically followed by windless "holes". It was some consolation but gave little hope for improvement that our friends Julie and Chris on Cisnecito (Swan 46, sailing a few days ahead) reported similar, variable conditions. In fact, on a seemingly windless day they were caught in one 40 kt squall with the spinnaker up and were knocked down, after which they got a bit "gun-shy" about flying it.

During the first week of passage, the weather forecasts indicated that the ICTZ was moving south a little earlier than usual, or perhaps we were getting the same 2-week cycle of ITCZ activity which is known in the Pacific - either way, we had lots of rain and were constantly reefing and setting sail. Still, we were making reasonable progress with over 150nm logged each day towards our destination.

On day 4, we got our first taste of the light winds which would stay with us for the next 4 days, this slowed us down to less than 100nm a day. Instead of avoiding squalls, we were now chasing them in order to get a bit of wind and some rain to give us relief from the heat. On windless days, we tried to fill the days with diversions to make up for low mileage: scones for breakfast, pizza for lunch, drying flying fish for lures, popcorn and tonic at sundown. Although the boat is fairly comfortable when becalmed, it can get very hot as were within 500nm from the equator. We even tried to cool down by putting our feet in a bucket of water as we were once advised to do in the Med (it works!).

On Tuesday, 8 days after leaving Cocos and having made-good about 70nm in the previous 24 hours we heard on the net that our friends on Freefall had left Chagos and were getting southerly winds of 35kts. Although neither our lull nor their strong winds were shown on the weather the weather-fax, we speculated that a low-pressure system had formed to the SW of Chagos which our friends had sailed into and which was blocking our winds.

Early on day 9, during Henri's morning watch, an enormous squall approached. We quickly reefed down as the white-caps rushed towards us. For the next 40mins or so, we were in a heavy downpour with wind over 25kts from the west. Henri thought the clouds had looked more like a front than a squall, and when it passed over us, we could see it was truly enormous - extending for miles in either direction - so it was likely to be either a line squall associated with a cold front, or a front itself. Sure enough, the next weather-fax showed a low pressure system just to the south of us. Within a few hours we had crossed to the north of it, and finally, the wind filled in giving us good southerly breezes which more or less held until we arrived at Chagos on Saturday 16th September. We had sailed the rhumb-line course, in retrospect, it would have been better to have stayed south and tried to stay out of the ICTZ for longer. As it turned out, other boats had similar experiences and our total time of just under 12d for the 1550nm was quite typical. Our only frustration was that we had not caught Eagle Wing and Petrel, as they understandably set sail to take advantage of the favourable winds - after spending 6 weeks at Chagos. On our arrival, we were delighted to be welcomed by Cisnecito who had arrived a few days ahead of us and ready to introduce us to the Chagos way of life�.

With light winds and at slow speed, we had less fishing success than usual. We caught a blue-fin tuna (which we made into delicious sushi), a skipjack and a dorado. On the way into the pass, we caught a bonito rather than the sought-after wahoo. Nevertheless, even this fish was delicious, marinated in chilli and smoked over a coconut-husk fire at Takamaka Island (Chagos) the next day.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Cocos Keeling

We were looking forward to our arrival at Cocos Keeling, as we had heard fantastic reports and were almost wondering how it could live up to its reputation. Cocos was discovered in 1604 and was often visited by sailing ships in subsequent years as it is located close to the trade-wind route from Australia to Europe. Its relatively wide entrance pass (1nm) meant that sailing ships could enter easily. The island was first settled in 1826 by the Clunies-Ross family who arrived to set-up a copra plantation and proceeded to settle the island with Malay labourers.

As with all atolls, the islands are barely visible until you are quite close as there is little more to see than beach and palms. At the entrance to the lagoon the depth changes from ocean depths to tens of meters very quickly, with dramatic changes in the water colour. Darwin, in "The Voyage of the Beagle" (1831-1836), described the scene on entering the pass as follows: "The shallow clear and still water of the lagoon, resting in the greater part on white sand, is, when illuminated from the vertical sun, of the most vivid green. This brilliant expanse, several miles in width, is on all sides divided, either by a line of snow-white breakers from the dark heaving waters of the ocean, or from the blue vault of heaven by the strips of land, crowned by the level tops of coconut trees. As a white cloud here and there affords a pleasing contrast with the azure sky, so in the lagoon, bands of living coral darken the emerald green water." It is easy to imagine how impressed the 19th century traveller would have been with Cocos - the colours and form of the lagoon are striking and unlike any thing the traveller would have recognised from home.

Based on his 12-day stay here, Darwin proposed what is now the accepted theory of atoll formation and which was up until then was a puzzle. His idea was that volcanic islands must have once existed in these places, which gradually subsided below sea level. As they did so, coral grew, keeping pace with the rate of subsidence, until eventually no trace of the original island remained, other than a ring of coral barely above the sea-level.

The atoll is made up of an oval rim of islands or motus. The three largest motus are Direction Island, which is uninhabited, where yachts anchor; Home Island which is a large Malay settlement - about 600 people - dating from the island's coconut plantation days; West Island which is the administrative centre and has a small population of mainly teachers, nurses, customs and police. Direction Island is used as a weekend retreat by some of the other islanders. Indeed, the current Clunies-Rosses have a tent pitched just up from the beach for their weekend stays. The Malay population on Home Island is culturally significant, their customs and language are very traditional due to their long isolation from mainland Malaysia.

We made one trip to Home Island (about 40mins in our dinghy) and then on to West Island by ferry. On the way to Home Island we saw many turtles, clearly visible under water because of the contrast with the white sand of the lagoon floor. As both settlements are fairly small, and supplies are limited and pricey. Bizarrely, on West island there is an elephant quarantine station, where we caught a glimpses of the elephants currently in quarantine en route from Thailand to various zoos in mainland Australia and New Zealand.

For the sailor, a notable feature of the atoll, when compared with the Tuamotus or Palmerston Island, is the ease of anchoring. The anchorage at Direction Islands is protected behind a small reef within the lagoon, which means it is very calm and tranquil. In the tricky anchorages of the Tuamotus, the normal situation was for the anchor to be partly buried in a skin of coral rubble or sand over a coral base, and to be surrounded by "bombies" or coral outcrops which could foul the chain. In Direction Island anchoring is on fine sand, in 4-5m of crystal clear water and the CQR buried easily on its first attempt.

The marine wildlife on Cocos is wonderfully diverse. Close to the anchorage, there is a current into the the lagoon known as "the rip". It is not though a true pass in the reef, but rather the flow is generated by the ocean swell, driven by the trade winds, breaking over the reef and into the lagoon. This means the "flow" is always into the lagoon, irrespective of the tide. It is a famous feature of the island, as it is full of reef fish and has fantastic snorkelling. Immediately on anchoring we had noticed the black-tip reef sharks swimming around the boat - they're harmless and we got quite used to seeing them when snorkelling. On our last day, we even got a chance to swim with dolphins which had come into the anchorage and happily swam with us around the boat.

In the 10 days we stayed there, Cocos became one of our favourite places. It easily lives up to its reputation: it is as beautiful as Palmerston or any of the Tuamotus, but also provides a fantastic anchorage and great snorkelling. While Direction Island is appealing because it is uninhabited, there are supplies available not far away. The anchorage is both peaceful and yet sociable (at it's busiest there were five other yachts anchored with us). There is a good sense of camaraderie among the yachts and we spent several evenings ashore meeting for sundowners or bbq-ing the day's catch over coconut husks.

On leaving Cocos, Darwin wrote: "I am glad we have visited these islands, such formations surely rank high amongst the most wonderful objects of the world". More than a hundred and fifty years later, we felt exactly the same way!

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Christmas Island - Krismes

On our approach at Christmas Island, we were struck by the rugged beauty of the island - lush rainforests, clear green waters and only few signs of development. Admittedly, the most visible sign of such development is the large Phosphate Works Ship Terminal that dominates the harbour at Flying Fish Cove. Most reports fail to look beyond the obvious and fail to mention that over 60% of the island is natural rainforest protected by the Australian National Parks with many isolated beaches, clear waters, excellent snorkelling, and rich wildlife, including many unique species.

Culturally, Christmas is interesting - the population is 70% Chinese, 20% Malay and 10% Caucasian (mainly Australians and Kiwis). Even though the different ethnic groups live in different villages, so that the Chinese live mainly in Poon Saan, the Malay in Kampong and the Caucasians either in Settlement or Silver City, Christmas seems multi-cultural and islanders mix easily in public - in the shops, restaurants and on the beach. The cultural diversity makes provides a great choice of restaurants, we splashed out and had meals ashore five days running.

Surprisingly, Christmas has a poor reputation with cruisers - the anchorage is said to be rolly and uncomfortable, the shops; over-priced and badly stocked. We found none of this to be true - quite the contrary, the shops are excellent and reasonably priced compared even to NZ, the anchorage is convenient and comfortable. In addition, there are many facilities for cruisers, such as self-service laundrettes and many restaurants in easy distance, free hot showers and good quality drinking water on the dock. There are even barbeque grills on the beach with free electricity. Above all, perhaps, all islanders we met were welcoming, incredibly helpful and genuinely friendly to any visiting yachts.

We arrived early on Thursday 17th August, tied onto one of the eight moorings which are provided to protect the coral and cleared in with Customs, Immigration and Quarantine who were helpful, courteous and possibly not as zealous as the mainland authorities are reported to be (though having passed by mainland Australia, we cannot compare). We were happy to find another yacht in the anchorage, a beautiful Swan 46 with Julie and Chris on board. We shared a car hire with Julie and Chris that day, so Henri had company whilst doing the laundry and Conor had someone to talk boats and tactics with. In the afternoon, we visited the Australian National Parks Office to watch the feeding of the orphaned birds. The park ranger gathers any birds that have dropped out of their nests and raises them until they are able to fly the 'nest' (or, in this case, a garden chair). He has been doing this for 15 years and many of the birds he has raised continue to return. Thus we were able to see Boobies and Frigate birds up close, incl. the Christmas Frigate which is unique to the island, one Frigate even landed on Henri's hand. Later that first evening we celebrated our arrival after a 27 day passage with a bottle of NZ Champagne with Julie and Chris. Like us, they plan to sail via South Africa to the Caribbean.

The next day, we stocked up on fresh veg before taking the day off to explore the island. Taking it easy, we saw less than we might have but enjoyed driving along the 4WD only tracks and a hike through the rainforest to a deserted beach, Dolly Beach. On the beach, with only a large robber crab for company and no need for swimsuits, we finally felt that we had arrived - we are now back in the cruising lifestyle and can enjoy the next three months sailing and exploring the Indian Ocean.

Christmas Island had another treat in store for us: the weekly open air cinema night on Saturday. We walked up the hill to Poon Saan that evening (much to the horror of the local people who drive everywhere) and arrived to find the cinema almost empty. It was not long before families began to arrive, bringing duvets, camp beds and chairs for a really comfortable night out at the movies. The film was not worth mentioning, but sitting out in the mild night under a clear, starry night with views across to the sea below was sensational.

We went snorkelling several times over the next few days. Normally we would never consider snorkeling in a commercial harbour, but the water at Flying Fish Cover is so clear and both coral and fish so plentiful, that it must be amongst the best snorkelling we have done.

We were a little sad to leave Christmas Island on Tuesday 22nd August as we had been made so welcome and enjoyed the many shore-based facilities/treats, but we felt well rested after the long passage and ready for the next island which was to be Cocos (Keeling) Island which is famous amongst sailors, many of whom rate it as their perfect desert island.

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