Twenty-four Seven

DAY 1: 20.8.2016 00:20 S 1°10.311 E 98°19.685
Winds: 10-15 knots from 150° averaging 3 knots SOG

So, here we are – day one – our first day at sea behind us! It is funny to realize the awesome power of your own mind to control your thoughts and emotions; as our days counted down to our “big ocean crossing” – 1800 miles due west from Sumatra to Chagos – I kept ruminating about how difficult it was going to be for me to be confined to the boat for fourteen days. I know from experience that Ayla and Braca do fine onboard with their imagination and their toys to entertain them, and John loves the sailing aspect of cruising so he was looking forward to a long offshore passage. I do this for the cultural experience: the travel, the day-to-day interactions with the locals, and the pleasure of discovering of new places. However, within the last few days my excitement for the coming passage started to mount and my attitude shifted from one of tolerance to one of anticipation. It has been a long time since I’ve done an extended ocean passage but I’ve done it enough times to know that it becomes an adventure in itself; life onboard takes a shape and soon enough a routine is established and the days tick by with a unique flavour. What was going to confine me has changed now to an exciting experience ahead of us! Let’s just hope we get enough southerly to avoid too many squalls – the other hit us unexpectedly at 40 knots and laid Atea down for her first time – more excitement than I am looking for though a good test that she – and we – are prepared for some rough weather should it come.

Today we pulled anchor from yet another of the many amazing islands off the west coast of Sumatra. We knew so little prior to pulling onto her shores and now realize what a hidden gem it is; I wish our two months could have been six – a cruiser can easily spend the time there dancing down her western shore, dodging in and out of the islands that run down the coast. A quick goodbye coffee with Isobel from SV Manta and a trip shore to part ways with our resident pet hermit crabs, Water Liver and Water Maker, come to us by way of a local at Asu who watched Ayla and Braca on the beach for us during our stay there – and refused to be paid – so that we could dive in the afternoons. It was fun to have a pet onboard for a short while, albeit a non-cuddly one, though the obligation of keeping them alive during our long passage was not a pressure I was willing to take on. We will find new friends in Chagos when we get there.

Which brings to mind an exciting turn of events and a prime example of the freedom we have in the lifestyle that we live. Our revised cruising plans for the year, made by necessity after our ordeal with Braca’s diabetes, is that we would sail from Malaysia to Sumatra, west to Chagos and north to the Maldives this year. This was still the plan when clearing customs and immigration in Sumatra. In fact, this was still our plan until a day ago when we left mainland to the Telos island group to prepare Atea for passage. In route on night passage, a thought popped up that intrigued me… we might want to consider a trip to Cocos Keeling in route… which is not so much in route as it is 700 miles in the wrong direction. John and I talked about it in the morning and after checking some details decided it would be a good idea – the addition of Cocos would add an extra 700 sea miles and we would need to delay our Chagos permit but it was otherwise a worthwhile detour. After committing to this new plan it dawned on me how very lucky we are: We’d planned a westward sail months in advance and at the last moment we decide to point our bows south and head for an entirely different country on a whim. At my desk in the city in my old life it would have blown my mind to know that I could have such freedom; in this one, it is barely worth a shrug. One day Plan A, Plan B the next, and in the end we follow a course we never even envisioned.

Today has been a good one. How many times have I watched land recede behind us as we look to the horizon with all its water and unknown conditions in front of us? This afternoon brought dolphins off our port side, jumping and diving in a pod of fifteen. What a sweet parting to our two months in Sumatra. We expect a few days of light winds and squalls before he hit the trades, then with luck we have the wind on a beam reach to Cocos. That’s our hope after receiving our grib weather files for our new route – next we wait and see what presents.

DAY 2: 21.8.16 21:56 S 2°44.3 078 E 98°36.373
Winds: 5-10 knots from 05° averaging 4 knots SOG

Today has been one of settling into routine, and tucking up tight from the weather. Winds have been light all day, forcing us to listen to the drone of the engine rather than the slap of water rushing down the hull – both sounds an integral part of life onboard though one sings so sweetly and the other grates on the nerves. The combination of light winds and rolling seas leaves us all feeling like we’ve saddled a bull for the past 24 hours, a family rodeo act. Squalls roll past us throughout the day, breaking up the humdrum with short interludes of chaos.

One of the things I love about cruising is that it allows us to live a life that is outside the routine that settles like a film on life, the slow thickening of layers so subtle that it takes a while to realize how clockwork life has become. Many people find solace in the knowledge that days have set routines and few surprises; for me that regularity becomes an itch that turns to a boil. Time slips by and weeks become indistinguishable, one month the same as the next. While life inside the boat does weave on its own pattern – particularly with young children onboard – life outside is a constant kaleidoscope of colours. The cruisers you meet come from a wide variety of countries and histories, so your peer group is a true melting pot of personalities; you get the constant exposure to the traditions and cultures of the locals in whichever country you are visiting; your territory is in constant shift. Usually even the best spots hold our grasp for no more than a week before the anchor is pulled up and the ship heads for new territory. So, while days may start with the same cup of coffee and hard boiled egg, the minute you pop your head up through the hatch you breathe in the fresh air of change, of surprises and discoveries awaiting you.

It is easy to think that the days become mundane on a long ocean passage when the countries and culture and people and noise slips away and you are left to your own isolation, and this can be true. Weather becomes the trump card, and depending on conditions you can have a relaxed passage drifting with the trade winds, your movements as slow and carefree as a sloth, or you spend your days engaged in a harrowing battle against Neptune and the seven seas all thrown at you at once. Regardless, we are not in the roaring 40s but at zero degrees, smack on the equator, and storms would come as a big surprise here. We cope with squalls now as we inch our way toward the trade winds and the constant easterlies that come with them.

To break any monotony that might sneak up on us, god forbid, we’ve instituted a passage present for the kids, a gift which marks our first full day at sea. On the first day of any passage the kids are allowed to plunk their hands into a surprise box (a bag full of wrapped gifts) and pull out a new toy for the passage. Today it was Lego, and we spent our day putting together the miniscule pieces and playing to a two- and four-year old imagination. Tomorrow we will surprise them with an equatorial crossing ceremony.  We crossed the equator a few days ago however we were smacked by a squall when we hit zero degree latitude and decided to delay the shot of whisky and the dunking of a child’s head for a more settled moment; it is a tradition we like to keep onboard Atea and so tomorrow should hold a little festivity for us all.

DAY 3: 8.22.16 22:07 S 4°21.312 E 98°47.491
Winds: 3 knots; TRIP: 259 DTD: 489

Night watch brings the hours of quiet solitude, time I claim to myself. The night is filled with blackness tonight and the seas are calm. It is too early for the night sky to be riddled with stars, so only the nearest and brightest are visible at the moment. There has been little wind today and we would have been becalmed if not for the engine, but the gray skies have given way to the brightest blues that are only seen mid-ocean. It has been a glorious day.

John and I have fallen into a pattern of me first on watch as I am the night owl and waste early evening hours tossing and turning while trying to force sleep. John can set his head on the pillow and be out in five, and so by natural inclination we’ve split our watch. After spending our last few seasons in the Asian cruising hub, it is such simple pleasure to be out in the open ocean again. There are no vessels to keep constant surveillance on and there isn’t the constant zigzagging through the fishing fleets that crowd the coastline off Thailand and Malaysia. It is just us, and the elements. It is the first time in years where my eyes are not glued to the horizon and the flashing lights of oncoming traffic; my attention is focused on conditions and any weather that lay ahead; I check the wind speed and direction, I check our course. I look at the lights – all twinkling above and not blinking ahead anymore. Tonight I’ve come inside to drink a tea, put my feet up and gossip in text about the day. It is the first time since leaving New Zealand shores that I can remember sitting below deck on while on watch.

While I built up apprehension of going offshore and the restrictions I felt I would struggle through, we are now one third of the way to our destination and the trip has been such a pleasure. Of course, we now head for Cocos Keeling rather than Chagos reducing our distance by 700 miles, but it was my attitude that changed before leaving that turned apprehension into excitement. There is something quite special about being out in the open and away from it all, your secret capsule becoming your entire world. There are no distractions, outside demands or pressures. All the busyness that defines the days prior to departure abruptly end when the anchor is raised and life turns inward like the focusing of a telephoto lens. I feel at peace out here and content.

We had a guest appearance today when King Neptune crawled up on deck and graced us with his presence. Ayla, age two, crossed the equator for the first time and Braca, age four, his second time. To honour the king, we dropped sails and tied a rope that dragged astern, and plonked the kids into the ocean for a quick swim.  We followed this by a dash of rum on the deck (for Atea), a drop in the ocean (for Neptune), and a quick swig for John and myself; the children got a bar of chocolate and a scroll read to them stating the time, date and year of this historical event. Ayla almost threw the ceremony by a rush of tears at the sight of Neptune’s, but Braca was in stitches over the sight of his dad in costume and the mood quickly turned celebratory.

While the event, unbeknown to the kids, was planned by us, we were all in for a wonderful surprise when a pod of merry dolphins raced us to the setting sun; while always a delight to see dolphins dash and play in the boat’s wake, the bigger thrill was to see a large sea snake swim past the boat. Two hundred and forty miles off the coast and a sea snake appears – just what it was doing this distance out is a mystery to us. Neither John nor I had ever had the experience prior and we end the day with unsuspected surprises for us all.

DAY 4: 23.8.16 12:00 S 5°11.13 E 98°45.4
Winds: 3 knots; TRIP 438: DTD: 310

The pistons of the engine drummed though the night, and the morning brought overcast skies back to us again. At midmorning the dolphins returned and brought the wind with them. They spun in front of our bowsprit and danced around the boat as we raised our sails and silenced the engine. Ah… such sweet simple moments. But the dolphins took the wind with them on departure; we continued the day walking the tightrope between sailing to light headwinds and running the engine on a sailable breeze.

Yesterday was spent in the cruiser’s ritual of coddling the pantry. Given a small fridge onboard, most produce must survive in room temperatures – and in tropical heat it doesn’t do this without the constant affections of its consumer. I rolled 150 eggs to lubricate the insides, I dusted the mold off 5 kilos of carrot, I rummaged through bins of potatoes and tossed a few bug-harbouring offenders overboard, I pulled the outer leaves off bruised cabbage and sniffed and rubbed all the fruit for signs of rot. I find the bond that is created between purchase and consumption comical; a love affair created to extend the life of what we eat.

Outside of the shuffle of sail trimming, furling and unfurling, yesterday was a relaxed and quiet day. The cloud covering tempered the spirits and we slumbered through a sleepy kind of day. Last night brought our half way mark as we clocked 350 miles behind us, 350 miles to go. John and I are both hoping that our last-minute rerouting decision won’t burn us. We knew a southerly passage to Cocos Keeling would have us sailing to windward, but we were hoping that we would fall into trade winds today and we could maintain a beam reach. Atea will struggle if we have winds any forward of 40 degrees, which unfortunately is what was delivered to us most of the day. With light winds it has been slow progress; hitting the half way mark is a good reminder that we are progressing forward, albeit at a snails pace.

DAY 5: 24.8.16 12:00 S 6°50.1 E 98°30.9
Winds: SE17; TRIP:569 DTD: 179
91 miles in 24 hours, average 3.8 knots

We finally got it! A day of wind, 10-15 knots on a beam reach. The engine has been off all day, the sails filled, and the hull rocks through some sizable waves. We celebrated “Half Way Day” with the kids and spent most of the afternoon on the saloon floor playing Lego; John and I designing them and Braca and Ayla demolishing them. We were once again outsmarted by our daily catch, though by the pull on the line I like to think it was a Great White on the end of the line. Given our boat speed, it was more likely an undersized trevally but with a two- and four-year old on board, who’s around to challenge me?!

Last night we turned off all the interior lights and with a moonless midnight sky, we handed the kids torches and we ran around playing games to the eerie glow of the torch beams. The kids were thrilled by the simple game, and both John and I loved their exuberance as we raced around the boat flashing light and hiding in shadows.

Yet again, time amazes me. I doesn’t seem like we’ve been onboard long enough to reach the half way mark yet here we are, ticking through the days like we are crossing them off with a pen on a wall-mounted calendar. The entire trip should take us six days, a suitable amount of time for a passage: Not too much and not too little. Too little means you aren’t set up for a passage, and things onboard can be much more difficult. We readied ourselves for this journey in food preparation, stowage, and our mental headspace. Too much is when life ticks on automatic too long and you start to feel that you are trapped in Groundhogs Day and can’t break free of the cycle. A week means you’re in, you get in the groove and then before you know it, you are out.

Day 6: 25.8.16 23:30 S 10°10.5 E 97°45.3
Winds: 20-30 knots at 60-90° TRIP: 619 DTD: 126

We have now sailed for 24 hours on a beam reach with an average wind speed of 15 knots, the boat clipping through the water at an average of 7 knots. While the engine has finally gotten her rest, the sails have been in constant play as they are reefed in and out to maximize presenting conditions.  The day has been clouded and the skies gray-blue, and we’ve avoided the few rain-filled clouds that have dotted the horizon.

Throughout the night torrential rain poured down on us, as we could not avoid what we could not see, and squall after squall rushing over the boat in succession. We tend to set a conservative sail configuration so squalls are easily managed as the winds quickly beat up to 20-30 knot speeds. Regardless, squalls present themselves quickly and settled conditions can turn ravaging in a matter of minutes; it is impossible to see the weather ahead on a dark, moonless night and so you rely on your only indicator of the weather ahead: Your instruments. You watch for a turn in the wind direction or the quickening of wind speed, the increase of boat speed, and you reef your sails or change your configuration set accordingly.

Last night the lights of a tanker dotted the horizon, and it amazed me to know that we were not alone out here. As the tanker grew closer, I had the feeling that I was growing bigger. Here, the expanse of ocean makes you feel like an atom a vast, endless space. Having pulled out a chart the day prior to show Braca and Ayla where we were going, it amazed me to look at the Indian Ocean and know we weren’t even the size of a pixel on the map. It amazed me even more to know we would get somewhere on it. In a week we would cross from the shores of one country to the shores of another. In two weeks we would travel from the eastern fringe of the Indian Ocean to an archipelago smack dab in the middle of it. With the tanker on sight I felt myself grow from that infinitesimal speck to an oversized version of me. The fact that there are other people tucked into the same spot of ocean seems so surprising, yet in a day this secluded world of ours will expand as we will step off the boat the same size as every other person around us. Our solitude will vaporize the instance we step foot to earth and we will merge into the busyness of society… or, perhaps in this instance, the slow-paced existence of island living.

Speaking of isolation and boat life, we do attempt to keep ourselves entertained. Today we amused ourselves with a “Snow Day” onboard. We pulled out bed sheets and cloaked the cabin in white and we dressed in rudimentary snowsuits and caps. It was a stretch to call them winter gear, but perfect for our tropical snowstorm onboard Atea: white knickers and a handkerchief tied around our heads, the first article of clothing the kids have worn since we left Sumatra. We built a snowman (a teddy bear with a carrot strapped onto its face), we had snowball fights and licked icicles that stuck to our tongues (toilet squares scrunched up into balls or strung from the handrails in long sections), and we played in our imaginary artic wonderland. Our imaginations took us about as far as we could get from the equatorial line we’d crossed only a few days before.

And tonight we continue to scream along in 25-30 knot winds, averaging 7-8 knots. It is so dark outside that you can’t see the set of the sails or the roll of the waves, and the drizzle that comes is light.  At this rate we can hope to see landtomorrow, but the winds will have to maintain for us to do so. We have just over a hundred miles left to go and it will be a push for us but if these winds remain we will be able to pull in just before sunset.

DAY 8: 27.8.16 03:20 S 11°159.8 E 96°47.0
Winds: averaging 20 knots at 30-40°
TRIP: 460.9 DTD: 10.5

Last night saw us screaming along in 20-knot winds on a beam reach, rainsqualls periodically whipping up the winds and waves continually awash across our deck.  The winds eased when dawn broke and we had a few hours of motoring to keep up our pace. The winds returned to 20 knots around X o’clock and maintained the rest of the day, but moved forward onto the nose making our pace infuriatingly slow. We’ve been looking at the sluggish countdown of miles all day – 30 miles to go at 11 o’clock should have seemed the end of the journey, but with headwinds abeam at 30 degrees it has been very slow progress. What should have been six hours turned into a twenty-four hour slog.

Gray skies all day, as has been the consistent colour of the sky all week… how I look forward to blue skies again! This weather would be one thing tucked onboard at anchor, another to be entertaining kids, cooking meals, and continuing our daily routines with the constant jostling about. It could be worse, but all the same I am looking forward to putting all five of us – Atea included – to rest in Cocos. Fortunately, it is 3:00AM I see lights on the horizon. We should finally get our hard-earned rest at some point midmorning.

DAY 9: 28.8.16 03:20 S 12°03.2 E 96°51.6
Winds: averaging 20 knots at 180° TRIP: 773 DTD: 2

The kids woke half an hour ago and rushed up on deck to check our progress. The deal we made yesterday was the first to see land and say, “Land Ho!” got a treat. Braca pressed his hand over brow and said the mariner’s line first, and Ayla followed with, “Ho Ho!” A green stretch of land surrounded by gray skies and gray sees lay before us – not the bright pristine colours you imagine of an island in the tropics, but land couldn’t look sweeter regardless.

9:30AM:

That’s it – we’ve made it! The past seven days and 722 ocean miles ticked by with relative speed. It would have been faster by airplane and more enjoyable being served gin and tonic, but our spirits remained high and we end the trip with a feeling of accomplishment, something I don’t feel when Air New Zealand does all the work. We didn’t have ideal conditions – the weather could have delivered us fewer squalls, we would have enjoyed more blue in the skies, the waves could have been a foot or two smaller, but the wish list becomes instantly obsolete at the end of a journey. A country with a comical and blasphemous history lies before us, waiting to be explored; an island whose only identity I hold comes from the lyrics of a song.

It is like magic how our world can stay a constant onboard yet everything on the other side of our rails shifts so quickly. A week ago I was learning to fit into the cultural norms of Sumatran society and a day ago I was a miniature version of me surrounded by isolation and the expanse of the sea. Tomorrow I will explore this little-known Australian outpost at the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean and at the end of the month I will explore a deserted archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There is no rat wheel in this world; while it may seem that life onboard a 44’ sailboat would feel confined and stagnant, I find the pace of change akin to having an air-freshener shoved up the nose – a revitalizing jolt to the senses.

11:00AM:

Anchor up to anchor down it has been six days, twenty hours and 778 ocean miles. We’ve spent the last hour circling outside the lagoon, trying to find an entrance through the coral. There are markers to indicate safe water but the passage looked too shallow to our eyes. The water is so clear that the depths are deceptive. With sight of another squall on the horizon, I jumped overboard with mask and snorkel and was greeted by a large Napoleon wrasse; together we guided Atea through the reef to the lagoon on the other size.

On first sight I know we’ve landed paradise… and so have seven other cruising yachts. We expected that we would be too late in the season for company as yachts headed across the Indian Ocean from Asia are well on their way west, but three French flags, one German, one Australian, one Chillan and one American flag flutter in the breeze. We’ve not see so many boats in one anchorage since leaving Langkawi in early June – what a surprise to find such a mariner’s metropolis on a small island in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean! Looking around at the dense palm-covered island with aquamarine blues ahead of a fringing reef, I smile with certainty that our detour to Cocos Keeling was a worthwhile change of plan. We look forward to the two weeks to come.