Cocos (Keeling) Islands
Once we left Darwin, we decided to break up the 2000 mile passage to Cocos Keeling, by stopping at Ashmore Reef which was 440 nm west of Darwin. This route involved crossing the Timor Sea as it joins with the Indian Ocean. Although the Timor Sea is shallow like the Arafura Sea, it does not have the washing machine weather pattern when the wind is up due to its geography. That was a welcome relief to us as we were to sail all the way from Darwin to Cocos Keeling Islands with no sail changes. The staysail was poled out to port on our trusty spinnaker pole and our main was double reefed, winged out to starboard and prevented with our boom brake. We took no blue water on deck this whole passage. In addition, this kind of sailing always allows us opportunities for fishing. Right before entering Ashmore Reef, we caught two good size yellow fin tuna, the first yellow fins of our whole trip, and one large wahoo. Although this may sound like a good catch, it isn't compared to the South Pacific. With billions of people within trawler range to the north of us in Asia/Indonesia, they have basically stripped the oceans bare of anything that swims. There truly is a remarkable difference between this part of the world and all the other areas we have sailed in. In fact, most of the other yachts we have talked to caught nothing along this same route. Basically, the fisherman use miles of long lines which indiscriminately catch anything, and therefore, the Australian government patrols this area with warships as well as surveillance aircraft to protect their territorial waters from illegal fishing. The Australians don't play around -- when they catch an Indonesian fishing boat illegally fishing, they remove the crew and they burn the boat on site and sink it. Although this may sound harsh, the Indonesian fisherman know the laws and they know they are breaking them. Since their boats are cockroach infested fire traps, it really makes no sense to tow it back to Australia and go through all the legal motions which in the end will produce the same result (the destruction of the offending craft). Because of these onsite methods, they have reduced illegal fishing to a minimum.
On the third day out, we started to make our approach to Ashmore Reef, and unfortunately we were going to arrive in the middle of the night. So we heaved to and got underway at first light to enter the pass at Ashmore. We heard that it is a remote uninhabited atoll and that normally you might run into a Customs boat which is usually on site, but nothing more. So we were looking forward to deserted beaches and having the lagoon to ourselves. However, early in the night as we waited offshore we noticed numerous blips on the radar. We knew one of these was most likely the Australian Customs boat, so we called and asked them what was going on, and they explained that there was a 180 ft. superyacht anchored just inside the reef entrance in deep water, and over 20 traditional (sail power only) Indonesian fishing boats, with another 35 on the way. Our dreams of a deserted reef in the middle of the ocean disappeared. As we made our way in, it was blowing 25 knots with more wind to come. That was why all the Indonesian fishing boats were there -- to wait out the weather. An agreement between Australia and Indonesia allows the traditional fishers to seek shelter at Ashmore and replenish their fresh water supplies. Fortunately, Customs was on patrol in their large Zodiac, and they offered to have us follow them through the channel into the inner lagoon. We gladly accepted and within an hour, we were tied to one of the moorings within site of the Customs cutter and the beautiful sandy beach of West Island.
As Ashmore Reef is a National Nature Reserve, it provides protection for large colonies of seabirds, sea turtles, and sea snakes. Public access is limited to the West Island lagoon and the eastern beach. There are only two palm trees on West Island, one marking the location of the fresh water pump and the other marks the location of the gravesites of three Indonesian fisherman.
Once we were settled on our mooring, we were invited over for lunch on the Customs cutter. After a feast of homemade pizza, the Captain and crew gave us a tour of the patrol boat. What a treat for us. The best part was they picked us up in their big inflatable which was then lifted with all aboard up into the davits of the patrol boat, where we were able to step off right onto the deck. The Australian Customs service is efficient, polite, very friendly and do a great service for protecting the borders and waters of Australia.
Two days later, the howling wind finally abated and as predicted, all of the Indonesian fishing boats hoisted sail and left the lagoon. It was quite a sight to see as this same scene has been going on for hundreds of years. At most, the only thing they have on board for navigation is a compass, and they sail their boats with the precision of an America's Cup crew. Since we now had the lagoon to ourselves, except for the Customs boat, we inflated our Zodiac and went to shore. The beach was beautiful as expected and the water was crystal clear. While on the beach, we saw a large military style inflatable heading towards the island. It stopped just short of the shallow water, and two very fit young men got out and started wading ashore. As they approached, they handed Elyse an envelope. In it was a written invitation for dinner and cocktails aboard the Australian Navy Patrol boat that had just anchored in the outer lagoon. So that evening, we got picked up again, this time by the Navy inflatable and, at warp speed through the channel, were brought to the Navy Patrol boat. We got a fantastic tour of the boat, including bridge and engine room. We then had a wonderful BBQ on the Quarterdeck with the Captain and Crew, along with the Customs crew. Considering we were literally in the middle of no where, this whole affair was a great adventure. Just before the sun went down, we were whisked back at around 40 mph with the helmsman following his GPS track to guide us through the numerous coral heads.
The next day, the Australian Patrol boats made their way back to Darwin and we turned westward to continue our voyage to Cocos Keeling Islands. We set up our downwind rig and we were off and running which turned out to be a beautiful one tack 1500 mile sail.
Cocos (Keeling) Islands
As we approached Cocos, we slowed the boat down so that we would arrive at the entrance during daylight. It is well known among the cruising community that the GPS coordinates are not correct on the chart, therefore, we used an alternative set of waypoints to get us in the main entrance. We cross referenced everything with radar because the angle of the sun early in the morning made it difficult to see the underlying coral. As we approached Direction Island, we could see the yachts at anchor, however, the marks we were told to follow were no longer in place. We were getting ready to drop our anchor and wait for the sun to be overhead so we could con our way in, when a dinghy came out from the anchorage and guided us through the coral heads and by 9:30 AM, we had our anchor down in 10 feet of crystal clear water next to a palm fringed tropical paradise. We had just covered another uneventful 2000 nm in 15 days.
The Cocos Island group is an Australian territory consisting of two atolls -- North Keeling and South Keeling, comprising 27 low coral islands, most of them clustered around South Keeling's lagoon. The three main islands of South Keeling consist of the uninhabited Direction Island, which is the designated yacht anchorage; Home Island which has about 500 Malaysian inhabitants and are all Muslim; and West Island which has about 100 Australian residents. Direction Island was used as a cable station during WWI and was raided by the German cruiser Emden in 1914. It was also the home of the copra plantation of the Clunies-Ross family. The coconut palms still cover the island. Home Island is approximately a 2 mile wet dinghy ride from Direction Island. There is a small market, post office, bank and internet access. As the inhabitants are all Muslim, the women are seen only fully covered, including the traditional birkas. The most popular transportation on the island is the Honda quad 4x4's. Even though it is a small island and everything is in easy walking distance, you never see the locals without riding their quads. Because of that, and their junk food diets, obesity and diabetes are a common problem.
West Island is about 4.5 miles from the anchorage, but there is a daily ferry that runs from Home Island to West Island. West Island has about 100 inhabitants, most of which are from Western Australia. The airport is located on West Island which flies the tourists from Australia in twice a week. There are several tourist accommodations available and due to the strong trade winds, Cocos is a popular spot for the wind surfers and kite surfers. The ferry also takes the tourists from West Island to Direction Island every Thursday and Saturday. West Island also has a small market and bank plus the local bar, the Cocos Club, which is a gathering spot for locals and tourists. As Home Island is "dry" due to the predominant Muslim religion there, the Cocos Club provides the only place to restock with duty free liquor, beer and wine (a must for every cruiser!)
During our three weeks in Cocos, we spent our days doing minimal yacht maintenance, swimming and snorkeling in the turquoise waters and enjoying the company of the several other yachts in the anchorage. A popular spot to snorkel is at "The Rip", which is at the end of Direction Island where the current carries you along the reef at a good clip. Along the reef ledges are numerous species of fish and reef sharks.
While ashore on Direction Island one day, we met an American from Massachusetts who lives part time on West Island, and part time in Perth; along with his Australian wife and son. We had them aboard the Iron Mistress and then brought them over to meet our friends on Fantasy. Before they left, they invited us to a party at their house on West Island. So the next day, we took the ferry to West Island, got rooms for the night (as there is no ferry service after 4PM) and made our way to their beautiful house on the beach. It was a great party -- Larry's 60th birthday -- with all you could eat and drink, and even a fantastic fireworks display. We got back to our rooms at 5AM! -- need we say more!
At some point, we will have to tear ourselves away from this tropical paradise and get ready for the next leg of our trip -- another 2000 miles to Rodriguez Island....