In early March we returned from a lovely two week break in Goa, 750 kms north from where Stars End 2 was moored in a marina just off the bustling city of Kochi, India.
We had driven up in a rental car with friends Del & Craig, and it was an ‘interesting’ experience with the crazy drivers and the abysmal road conditions in many areas.
Craig is a highly skilled driver with very quick thinking reactions. Despite many scary near misses due to the death defying total disregard for safety from other drivers, the car arrived with only three scratches and dents by the time we arrived in Goa. No joke. Ironically, when Craig returned the car, there were no penalties, and the company didn’t even worry about checking the car properly, which makes you think this must be an accepted hazard of driving on Indian roads.
We stayed for most of our time in a lovely resort near the beachside area of Cavelossim, where we enjoyed a luxurious apartment, the surf beach and a great choice of restaurants and supermarkets selling very cheap alcohol.
Unfortunately Frank suffered from a stomach bug and Del ended up in hospital for a night with an ongoing neck injury, so our holiday was somewhat curtailed.
Whist we were away, the world crisis had noticeably worsened.
The covid-19 was spreading voraciously and some countries had already classified it as a pandemic.
We were preoccupied each day checking the online updates as the media reported the disturbing news of the rapidly spreading virus, panic buying in the shops and radical actions by some countries in an effort to contain the virulent outbreak.
So when the call came on March 16th, just days after we returned to the yacht in Kochi, for all overseas Australians to make their way back home by whatever means they could, we realised this was now a serious situation we could not ignore.
Since Covid-19 cast its shadow across the world, the dilemma of making the ‘right decision’ has become an over riding concern to a whole category of individuals – the overseas ‘yachties.‘
There are people from so many countries represented within the cruising community who were now, like us, finding themselves stranded, far from home and unsure of the best action to take.
Most overseas cruising yachts we’ve met over the years are either on a predetermined path transiting around the globe by one route or another or simply taking their time exploring one country before deciding where to travel next.
Now these dynamics had changed completely as we became caught up in this unprecedented predicament.
The question of whether to stay or leave, go east or west, remain in a foreign country with visas expiring and governmental laws changing weekly, or risk moving to another country that has a whole other set of restrictions or could close its border before you reach there became a quandry for the entire cruising community.
We had the option with our long-term visas to stay on board the yacht in Kochi and ‘wait it out’ throughout the monsoon season with its heavy rain and stifling humidity ( not to mention the infestation of rats that we were told about from a yachtie who remained last year), but there was also the obvious ramifications of staying in an over populated third world country which would inevitably struggle with a pandemic.
A number of countries were attempting to stop the spread of covid-19 by going into lockdown. It became unlikely we would be able to use our booked flights back to Australia in mid April, and thoughts of booking a new flight and trying to return to Stars End 2 later on was fraught with unknown outcomes.
Frank and I came to the conclusion that we felt safest staying with Stars End 2, remaining isolated and self sufficient as much as possible.
We felt a strong pull to head back home to Australia and be closer to our family, and this became our over riding decision for leaving India.
We would be very sad to leave, as we had loved our time here. The brilliant vibrancy of everything about the country; the rich culture, the dazzling colours, the sounds, the smells of the fragrant food, the friendly smiling faces, even the crazy traffic & bustling streets. India had touched Frank and I in different ways but we both would have loved to stay longer.
However, countries were already starting to close their borders, so we needed to move fast before our options narrowed more.
Returning to south east Asia was no longer possible plus it was the wrong time to head back as the north west trade winds were not due to begin until May/June.
However the Maldives, 260 miles south west of India was still open, was an easy run and would allow us to continue our route eastwards once the trade winds set in.
So on Sunday evening we filled out the visa applications, cruising permits & paperwork and emailed it to the agent in the Maldives.
We spent a crazy 24 hours putting the boat back into working order and cleared out of India on Tuesday morning, March 17th, with mixed emotions.
We felt we had made the best choice for us, but we knew we would be facing quite a few challenges over the coming weeks.
Our thoughts were to sail to the Maldives with the intention of staying there a few weeks to enjoy the beautiful islands whilst waiting for more favorable winds to sail to Christmas Island and on to Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia.
I had already taken the precaution to optimise our provisioning on board Stars End 2 so we were well stocked with tins and dry goods for many months of self isolation.
It was only a 3 day trip to the Maldives, although we had to motor sail most of the way due to lack of winds.
Our progress was also slowed down by irregular stops when the engine cut out due to a blockage in the fuel line.
Frank would have to go into the engine bay, remove the offending fuel line and pump in air to clear the blockage.
We had struggled intermittently with this problem since we had filled up with dirty fuel in Vanuatu back in 2011. Frank had tried many times to clean out the tanks, but there was no real easy way to access our fuel tanks without ripping apart half the boat.
Not wishing to risk the engine stopping as we were coming through the reef entrance at Uligan, our point of entry in the north of the Maldives, we slowed down our progress so we would enter into the anchorage in the first light of day.
There was no internet and our VHF radio (that reliably transmits within a 5-8 mile radius) had a faulty antenna cable connector that we weren’t even aware of until we arrived at the Maldives.
Our satellite phone was temperamental (we would be tempted to throw it overboard before the end of this long passage), so after the agent Asad acknowledged our text telling him we were 40 miles from Uligan & would arrive early next morning, we didn’t hear any messages come through during the night.
We had already had a run in with the authorities regarding our phone when we first arrived in India. An imposing group of about a dozen officials from border patrol , immigration and the secret police descended on board Stars End 2 at the marina the day after we arrived, waving a document that gave 3 lat/long coordinates where our yacht had used our satellite phone ‘in Indian waters within 50 miles of the coast’ . We knew satellite phones were illegal in India but were under the impression that it was only once you cleared into the country when the phone would be locked up & impounded on your boat, as ours already had.
The officials grilled us for hours with a barrage of questions as if we were criminals. They seemed hard pressed to believe we had not made phone calls, & only used the phone for weather updates and to text daily position reports to our son. They checked the phone sealed in its bag, all our boat papers, took photos of us & the inside our boat, and even took down all Paul’s details and insisted he forward these texts from his phone to the police as proof.
Other yachties in the marina admitted to us they had used their ‘Iridium’ satellite phones along the Indian coastline too, so the only clue we had for their radical behaviour was when one of the police informed us that our brand of phone – a Thuraya ( manufactured in the Arab Emirates) was under suspicion because it was the same brand as those used by the terrorists that had bombed Mumbai in 2008. They left after several hours and as we didn’t hear back from them, they hopefully came to the conclusion that this couple of old yachties didn’t represent a threat to their country.
Nevertheless, our scary interlude with the authorities in Kochi ensured we did not use our sat phone until over 200 miles away, which had now become the revised legal distance.
Asad had valiantly tried to message us late that night and stall the authorities to give us time to arrive, but we had no idea when we dropped anchor, that just 3 hours earlier the Maldivian Government had closed their borders.
It was only then that we heard about the incredible efforts our friends Del & Craig, Asad and many of the yachties anchored at Uligan had made throughout the night trying to alert us, and hurry us along. Sadly to no avail.
We expected the authorities to come out to see us and naively thought they might just overlook our late arrival and let us in. No such luck.
We were ignored all that first day which confused us and was nerve racking. That night, when we were already in bed tired after our passage, Asad came out with the coastguard who asked if he could refuel us so we could leave immediately, but Frank refused. Next day, Asad contacted us to say that the coastguard wished to know our requirements for delivery at 7am next morning before we must leave the Maldives.
We had contacted the Australian Embassy in Sri Lanka, that has jurisdiction over the Maldives, once we were aware of the vulnerability of our situation.
Too early in the season, there was little or no wind to the south of the Indian Ocean and then we would be heading into Australian waters with the risk of a cyclone forming until the season ended in May.
The consul representative informed us that there was nothing they could really do since the borders had closed and the Maldivians had done the right thing by offering help to see us on our way.
We tried all sorts of avenues to get help to stay, from sending emails to the Maldivian authorities, contacting politicians in Australia, even having our story printed in the local newspaper back home, but we were lucky that DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs) in Canberra eventually became involved and we received a call to say that they were trying to get permission for us to stay.
Whilst we were waiting for the fuel delivery at 7am next morning, a text came through from Asad ” You can stay”.
It wasn’t for another 24 hours that we found out that we had been given a 14 day quarantine notice as a reprieve to keep us in the Maldives, in case we displayed symptoms of Covid-19.
Even though we were confined on board Stars End 2, we were given permission to swim within 20 metres of the boat, which we certainly appreciated as the water was beautiful- crystal clear with coral reef nearby & myriads of colourful fish.
We weren’t really suffering anymore hardship than the other 15 yachts anchored nearby who had all officially cleared in over the past few weeks, but were now under lockdown, unable to freely cruise the Maldives.
When we first arrived, these yachts were all socialising, but a few days later, the regulations changed and they were also made to self isolate on their boats with no interaction until the Government reconvened over a week or so later.
The other yachties at Uligan were nervous to talk openly on the vhf radio, not wishing to say or do anything to upset the authorities or risk their vulnerable position in the Maldives.
With Stars End 2 under quarantine, they weren’t sure what to make of our situation & tactfully avoided communicating or coming close to us in their dinghies, unsure and somewhat nervous whether our quarantine implied we might be sick.
Our time in the Maldives passed quickly. We kept up to date with the rapid spread of the Covid-19 contagion & did a lot of research to consider our options.
Several of our sailing friends, like Anita & Pierre on ‘Xamala’, & Barb & Jim (with their crew members Elis & Lukus) on ‘Complexity’ who were already on passage through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, were facing their own serious dilemmas as countries along their route went into lockdown, closed borders, refused them entry, and in some cases refused even fuel or re provisioning.) Throughout Europe, movement was becoming more resricted and regulations more stringent in an effort to curtail the virus which was spreading so fast.
We also did odd maintenance jobs on the boat, read books and with such hot weather appreciated cooling off several times a day in the water.
We were under the impression that once our quarantine period was complete and we were given a clean bill of health, there would be no reason why the authorities would not offer to let us stay on as we no longer represented a threat.
So when we made enquiries about refueling, as we saw other boats having diesel delivered, it came as a shock to be told that this could only be done once our 14 days of isolation was finished. At that point, the coastguard crew would feel safe to approach our boat to refuel us in order for us to leave straight away.
By now, virtually every country in all directions from the Maldives had closed their borders, Indonesia had also prohibited all foreigners from transiting through their waters and Australia had made it compulsory to apply for an exemption in order to stop at Christmas Island as it had been closed to all but local residents and essential services. Weeks after we applied, we received permission only the day before we left the Maldives.
Frank and I prepared Stars End 2 for the long passage home. We put extra lines to firmly attach our new dinghy to the davitts and made special fenders to prevent chafing with the movement of the yacht. Frank checked sails, ropes and did an oil change on the engine.
I moved tins and foods from storage lockers into the pantry area since we had a limited amount of fresh produce & pre frozen meals left, and would need easy access to quick and easy meals. I made a few extra meals and baked one of my rich fruit cakes that has become a tradition on all our passages.
We checked all the weather prediction programs and could see that we would have little wind to help us sail the 2000 plus miles to Christmas Island, so we put in our order for diesel plus extra jerry cans of fuel to store on deck. Fresh produce was limited in Uligan and usually only available after the supply ship made deliveries to a nearby island, but Asad gifted us with some fresh fruit and vegetables which was a generous token.
Since the authorities had been so unwilling to let us stay in the Maldives, once our quarantine period was over, we anticipated that they would simply allow us to leave, especially as we had not cleared in, & had been avoided for our entire time there. They had even refused to take our rubbish.
So when we informed the coast guard of our intention to depart the following day, it seemed ironic that we were now informed that before we could leave, we must wait for official approval from the Ministry of Health and despite five emails and numerous calls, this took 2 days before it finally arrived by email at 9pm at night.
By 6am next morning on April 5th, we had lifted our anchor and were on our way.
For better or worse, we had made our decision to head back to Australia, and our only concerns now involved weather, sea conditions and the safety of our boat and ourselves.
In the 11 years since we had owned Stars End 2, we had been through some tough situations and terrible weather, and the yacht had proved herself time and time again to be strong & reliable, taking good care of us.
I had complete trust in Frank, the most competent, capable skipper I could wish for, who could always be relied on to act calmly and logically in a crisis.
Frank and I work well as a team and he has complete trust in my role as navigator and knew I could always be called on to cope sensibly in any situation.
We were fortunate to have the help of weather router Des Cason, an experienced ex yachtie from South Africa, who offered his services gratuitously to fellow sailors crossing the ocean. We also had a group of wonderful sailing friends back home who offered support and weather updates whenever we needed extra help.
To try and catch what little wind there was, we planned to head almost due east from the Maldives, which took us only a hundred or so miles beneath Sri Lanka. Then we would gradually veer south east on a rhumb line directly towards Christmas Island.
In the 17 and a half days it took us to travel 2226 nautical miles to Christmas Island we had only two full days when there was sufficient wind to fill the sails and turn off the engine. We spent hours each day tweaking the sails, or adjusting our direction by as much as 30 degrees to give the yacht more speed. Our path often showed an erratic zig zag pattern across the screen of the GPS.
Most of the time, the winds were flukey, or blowing mildly from the wrong direction so we needed to motor sail in long undulating swells 2 to 3 metres high with an uncomfortable rock and rolling motion due to the confused seas caused by the low depression between us and Mauritius.
However it helped that we enjoyed beautiful sunny days, even though most evenings saw thick rainclouds build up ominously on the horizon, more so as our course took us closer towards the coast of Sumatra.
Then the nights would be lit up with violent flashes of lightning way in the distance and we were grateful to be so far away.
We always prefer to sail with a full moon and were happy this passage offered us the light of waning moon for the first few days. It provides such comfort in an otherwise black outlook but it took a few days for us to realise that the other reason the night skies seemed so empty and devoid of movement was the complete absence of aircraft with their blinking lights that we would follow as they slowly passed above us. Then we noticed we had not seen the vapour trails of aircraft in the skies during the daytime since we had left India. It truly brought home the reality of how much this pandemic had changed the world as we knew it.
April 11th, our 10th day at sea, fell on our grandson Max’s 4th birthday. It also coincided with Frank falling sick.
Early morning, Frank began complaining of extreme pain in his right side, under his rib cage and he was unable to stand or sit comfortably. He vomited several times so I encouraged him back to bed for a few hours and sent a personal message to my close friend (and ex nurse) Lainy who immediately messaged back with advice and encouraged me to contact our GP.
Over 6 years of cruising, our wonderful doctor has offered advice and support via email on a number of occasions. He replied within hours & concurred that it was most likely another outbreak of kidney stones that Frank had been treated for back in 2016.
Although we had a bad connection, we managed to make a quick call on the satellite phone that night to wish our adorable little Max a happy birthday, but didn’t mention Franks’ condition to Paul & Jenny as we didn’t want to alarm them.
Over the next few days, Frank continued to experience a great deal of pain and I was seriously concerned that we might need to detour to get him some medical help.
This would not be easy or fast as we were over 800 miles due east from the nearest land – Sumatra in Indonesia.
He kept rehydrated with hydrolites, took painkillers and rested as much as possible since he was most comfortable lying down, and we were so relieved that over the next week, his condition eased enough to make us feel more confident to continue the 1500 miles left to Christmas Island.
We had not expected the need to run the engine quite so much, and Frank had not wanted to take on even more extra fuel jugs (as I had tried to suggest), since he worried about the weight and said that since we wouldn’t be able to carry enough for the entire voyage anyway there was no point.
He had gradually emptied all but 2 jerry cans (40 litres held back for emergency) into our fuel tanks and we were less than halfway to Christmas Island. We now had only enough fuel to run the engine continually for a couple more days and would then need to sail by whatever means we could, even if at 2 knots or sit becalmed and wait for wind.
At various times, we had seen large fishing boats way in the distance that looked like long liners but on April 14th, I saw some smaller fishing boats on the horizon about 2 miles away.
Without thinking, being on the helm, I simply altered course and steered straight towards them, telling Frank that I was determined to try and see if they could help us with fuel, even though he thought it very unlikely.
As we motored closer, I called the fishing boats on the VHF radio, saying that we were the yacht heading towards them that needed help with fuel, but they didn’t respond.
It soon became obvious the closer boat was not prepared to stop as he increased his engine power and took off away from us when we were within five hundred metres.
Disappointed, I turned back towards our course but then saw that the second fishing boat was stationary, drifting about a half mile away, so I headed towards them, and once we were close enough, I could see it was a wooden Indonesian fishing boat around 60-70 foot long with over a dozen crew on board.
I had Frank take the helm whilst I stood on the deck of Stars End 2 and waved an empty jerry can and called out that we needed help, we needed fuel, ‘solar’ (in Indonesian), and could they please help us?
It took a while of calling back and forth for them to understand that it was not water, but fuel that we needed, but then with a big gleaming smile, the guy who was obviously the skipper, said ” deisel, yes yes?” and gave me a thumbs up as he nodded his head.
Only then did I realised quite how stressed I had become about our low fuel situation, because I was so overcome with gratitude I simply burst into tears.
The poor bunch of fellows on board the fishing boat seemed completely taken aback by my reaction, and heaven knows what they thought about this crazy western woman bobbing about on a sailboat with her husband, wailing and bowing to them, with hands pressed together in thanks for this random act of kindness given in the middle of the ocean almost 600 miles from land.
In the next hour or so, they lowered a wooden dinghy from the deck of their boat, came across to take all our empty jerry cans which they filled and brought back, along with two extra jugs of their own (over 180 litres in all), and a 20kg bag of small frozen fish thrown in as such a bonus kind offering.
We felt awful that we had no Indonesian money or cash of any denomination they could use, but the captain was emphatic that he didn’t want anything for helping us. He didn’t seem offended with the bag I insisted of passing across with a selection of beer and alcohol we felt he might enjoy or on sell if he preferred.
As we waved goodbye to our new friends and rescuers, Frank and I felt an incredible sense of relief and knew we now had enough fuel to take us all the way to Christmas Island. We will never forget this incredible act of generosity. As I gave the skipper our email address on one of our yacht cards I tried to make him understand that we would like him to email us so we could thank him properly, but we have not yet heard from him.
Our days continued with a ‘Groundhog Day’ familiarity. Sleep, eat, read, check wind, sails and route, try to connect on our satelite phone to access emails and weather prediction files, send position reports and then repeat the pattern. Most days we averaged 120-130 nautical miles.
We had continuous problems connecting to the internet with our sat phone and a number of times had to send text messages to Paul asking him to forward emails for us.
The further south we sailed, so the winds gradually increased. Weather reports showed there was a front due to arrive by the 22nd April bringing much stronger south easterly trade winds, so we decided to try and push our speed up a notch in order to reach Christmas Island before it hit.
We were now motor sailing into headwinds, generally not more than 15 knots but creating lumpy uncomfortable seas.
My birthday fell on April 20th and I felt a bit down because pre-covid we should have been on a plane right then flying to Bali for a couple of nights before continuing on to Brisbane for several months.
My journal shows that the most memorable points of the day were when a particularly violent jibe broke the shackle that attaches the reef line to the back of the reef point on the sail. The reactive jerk on the sail caused 2 of the sail cars (that attach the sail to the sail track) to break.
Whilst Frank was on deck replacing these sail cars, the choppy seas caused a rogue wave to crash over the yacht. When I went below I was shocked to see Frank had opened the hatches for some fresh air, so the galley floor was flooded and water was sloshing over the work benches and stove. Not happy.
Our satellite phone was in a temperamental mood again so I was unable to connect to the internet to access emails till the afternoon, but I felt a lot more cheerful once I read all the beautiful messages that came through from family and friends.
As dawn broke two days later, we could just make out land in the haze 30 miles away. The winds were starting to pick up significantly, so we were pushing into strong headwinds and didn’t arrive into Flying Fish Cove till late morning.
We radio’d ahead and were told to pick up one of the mooring buoys near the jetty. As we approached, we could see that the bay was really just an indentation on the coastline with good protection from the south but fairly exposed to all other winds. A large phosphate port dominates the northern part of the bay and during our time here, we watched the tug boats deftly manoeuvre several cargo ships into position to fill up with their cargo of phosphate.
We hadn’t requested to clear into Christmas Island as we only planned to rest and refuel, and we had emailed ahead to alert them of out arrival. Due to the covid-19, we would be quarantined on board during our stay, so we checked in with border patrol and bio security over the VHF radio and later a barge with police and a doctor on board was lifted by crane from the jetty into the water to come out and check on our health and paperwork. They were most considerate of Frank’s condition and offered to take him to the hospital if needed, but Frank felt his smptoms had settled down well enough to not to require this. As long as he kept well hydrated, didn’t overheat and took it easy, he was managing his condition well enough now to wait until he could see his urologist back in Brisbane.
Over the next few days, the winds increased to over 28 knots so we were very glad to be out of the open ocean, even though we rocked and rolled on our mooring and didn’t lose our sea legs at all.
Frank worked out how much diesel we would need to refuel and purchased 3 extra jerry cans of fuel bringing our total fuel to 330 litres on deck plus the 360 litres inside the 2 tanks. We had never carried so much fuel and should be able to motor all the way back to Darwin if necessary, especially knowing the next leg was most definitely going to be the toughest, beating straight into tradewinds
I was able to put in a shopping list and the barge came out to pick up our credit card to make all the payments. With the strict security and privacy laws we are all accustomed to, it felt bizarre giving our credit card and pin code to the stevedores for whomever was kind enough to do our shopping.
The weather forecast didn’t bode too well for us leaving during the next week but we were keen to complete our trip back to Australia so we prepared the boat and organised for the refueling.
The barge delivered the fuel with a 1000 litre bladder on board and a fuelhose to fill our tanks and containers.
Unfortunately, with the strong swells coming into the bay, it proved a rather treacherous procedure that demonstrated the skill of the driver who had to keep the engine going and manoeuvre the aluminium barge to stop it crashing against Stars End 2’s hull.
We were lucky that we got away with as little damage as we did when the barges motion ripped away part of our teak rubbing strip and the barges’ fenders ( old used tractor tyres) left dirty rubber marks right along our hull.
The stevedores told us how conditions get so bad in Flying Fish Cove during the monsoon that waves crash right over the top of the jetty. I guess this explains why there were no boats left permanently in the water and the barge would get lifted out after every single trip, even if it was going back out again a half hour later. At the end of each days activities, the barges would be lifted onto tracks on the jetty and rolled along into a large storage hangar.
A tropical depression was forming approximately 600 miles north west of Christmas Island that impacted us- not only did the strong winds persist, but a large swell starting rolling in from that direction. Our mooring buoy was about 80 metres from where the waves were breaking, so we were safe, but we rock and rolled heavily for several days & were entertained watching enthusiasts taking advantage of some surfing practice on their boards.
We were anxious to keep moving towards Darwin, so it was frustrating that every weather window that looked optimistic fizzled out just days later. At least we were almost out of the risk area for a late season cyclone, but the tradewinds were also picking up, and although we had the odd day of mild conditions, it was mostly blowing east or south east 16-20 knots from Christmas Island, the exact direction we needed to head to Darwin. Whilst those winds don’t sound so ominous, it was the sea conditions that made it so hard.
Whilst Frank did boat maintenance and worked on trying to clean out both fuel tanks to prevent further line blockages, I took charge of organising our paperwork.
I liaised with Kate Barros, the CI police controller for the Indian Ocean territory. With no access to internet, Kate helped us apply for quarantine exemption once we arrived in Darwin on the premise that we had not stepped on land or had physical contact with anyone since leaving India in mid March. Permission was denied.
We tried applying for exemption to repatriate immediately to Qld by flying out and quarantining in Brisbane after we had completed our official maritime clearance into the NT. Permission was denied.
I also emailed NT border force, quarantine & aquatic bio security with the revised dates for our proposed eta.
Back in India, when we first considered the idea of returning to Australia, I had rung Dani, the lockmaster at Tipperary Waters Marina in Darwin to enquire about a berth for Stars End 2. I had emailed several times over the weeks to update her on our progress. Now we were about to embark on the last leg of our trip, Dani went to great lengths working with Kate in Christmas Island & the NT authorities to facilitate our arrival.
We have several programs we use to check weather patterns, but it was around this time that I started my fixation on the Predict Wind weather prediction forecast program. As you bring up a map of your chosen area, the program displays colours to indicate wind strengths. Blue being almost zero wind, building up to green, yellow, orange, then red. Hopefully we’ll never be at sea to experience cyclonic purple conditions.
The Maldives to Christmas Island passage was all undertaken in blue, with some green and the odd patch of yellow as we neared our destination.
Now, as we checked the files each day, I gasped in horror to see yellow, orange and red with only the odd patch of green in our direction going forward. I became so despondent and stressed out, that Frank decided he would no longer show me these particular maps. The alternative GRIB files that show arrows indicating the direction of the wind with feathers of varying lengths and quantity seem far less threatening. A half arrow denotes 5 knots of wind, a full arrow 10 knots, and then multiples of 10. Of course, there is the warning that comes with all these programs that you can expect variations up to 40% of those winds predicted and we had learnt from first hand experience to generally expect winds to be in the greater category and very rarely less. ( GRIB files are highly compressed files of weather data used for downloading Across wireless communication devices).
On May 26th, our fourth day at Christmas Island, Des sent an email suggesting the next day we could expect mild 10-15 knot E/SE winds which would allow us to sail on a rhumb line directly towards Darwin. This would mean sailing less mileage in hopefully a faster time and seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
Our weather programs didn’t show the same optimistic forecast that his preferred ZY GRIB files predicted but we hoped that the 18 knot winds we saw would ease once we cleared the island. We radio’d our intentions to depart the following morning to the CI Border Patrol and prepared the yacht to leave at first light.
Whilst we were cooling off in the water that afternoon, the port pilot, swam past close enough for us to have a brief chat at a respectful social distance. My spirits plummeted as he forewarned us that our projected passage of 10-12 days to Darwin was probably somewhat optimistic. With his local knowledge he suggested we could experience strong winds, confused seas, adverse currents and should expect to take a minimum of 14 days to sail the 1500+ miles.
So by the time we cleared the island, we shouldn’t have been surprised when we were smashed with absolutely miserable conditions. The wind was on the nose and gusting 28 knots. We couldn’t make anywhere near the direction we wanted. The seas were at least 4 metres high with steep confused waves converging from all directions.
We felt we should give it a good go, so we tacked back and forth in an attempt to find a direction that we could motor sail without too much discomfort, hoping that the seas would moderate the further we moved away from the island.
Unfortunately we hadn’t had the chance to put up the reefed mizzen sail, as we were hit with a violent rain squall just as we left the anchorage and after that the conditions were too simply rough to attempt raising the sail at all.
With just the reefed headsail, we had poor steerage and very little engine power in the nasty seas so we made less than 10 miles in 4 hours. The conditions appeared to ease fractionally but it was still such rough conditions and untenable.
Discussing our options, whether to change course radically towards the Java coast, persist in the hope it eased, or turn back, we also co ordinated with ‘the three wise men’, our yachtie friends back home, (Skipper, Rick & Baz) who each offered their suggestions via phone after checking out the latest weather.
The long range forecast had not shown any significant drop in wind and a low pressure system developing off the far north coast of Qld concerned us both, as it had the potential to turn into a cyclone.
Disheartened, Frank and I chose the safest and most sensible option by returning to Christmas Island.
The next week passed slowly as we checked the weather predictions daily. Unfortunately, there seemed no improvement in conditions. Frank was concerned as I become downcast, emotional and very tearful. I wanted to finish this long passage, and was bitterly disappointed knowing that we wouldn’t arrive home in time to support Jenny and Paul for a caesarian delivery that had now been booked for June 18th.
I did appreciate the encouraging messages and emails from our children and friends. Lainy rang every afternoon for a chat to check up on me and see how we were going.
It was clear we would need to fight consistently strong headwinds all the way back to Darwin, but if our strategy worked, we could head up towards the coast of Java and stay in the lee of the Indonesian coastline where the winds seemed lighter and the land might some provide shelter from the swells.
We couldn’t postpone our departure for too long as the tradewinds only become stronger as the months advance. We decided to bite the bullet so we picked the best weather window and left on May 5th.
Part 2 coming soon!