A mariner’s equation: VOYAGE DURATION = DISTANCE TRAVELLED / SPEED OVER GROUND
Ātea’s statistics: 300 HOURS (12.5 DAYS) = 1500 NAUTICAL MILES / 5 KNOTS
Moving at five knots over a distance of 1500 miles feels like you are on the long haul to nowhere. There is no dramatic change of scenery to occupy the eye, no pit stop to pull off at for a panoramic view and a stretch of leg, no store clerk at the petrol station for a moment of dull banter. There are no mountains that turn to valleys that turn to plains to mark the passage of time. Here there is blue if you look up, there is blue if you look down, and there is blue if you look 360° around you. Tomorrow comes but time loses definition as the days roll into each other. I can’t say that is has been a long trip, or a short one. It isn’t time that seems to matter so much out here – a week at sea or a month makes no difference. It will all be wrapped up into a whole experience rather than cut up into segments of time. The crossing of an ocean: Done and delivered as a neatly packaged moment in time.
That said this has been a passage of sameness. Our northwestern crawl from the sou’eastern corner of the Indian Ocean to the center of it has been a classic trade wind passage. Sails set wing-on-wing and our nose pointed west, we’ve had twenty-knot winds blowing up our lady’s bum at a continuous 180° for the duration of our passage. We‘ve had twelve days of an empty ocean, consistent winds, rolling seas, and blue, blue skies. Today seems no different than yesterday or the day before. Only our instruments clock the passage of time, and it isn’t until the end of the tenth day that I dare to count the miles we have left to travel. It was sight of another ship that roused my curiosity; we’d sighted our first ship with 1200 miles clocked behind us and a mere 55 hours to go. Clearly, we’d hit the shipping lanes as three other tankers crossed our path within ten miles over the course of the following 24-hours. It was a quick shift from feeling like we owned the ocean to becoming a tiny speck of flotsam drifting under the bulbous nose of those titanic giants. It is impossible to look at those big hunks of floating steel, 300 meters stem to stern moving at a clip of 20 knots, and not wonder what they might think at the sight of our tiny dot on the horizon, bopping in the breeze with our rags billowing in the wind out in the middle of this expansive sea. They may wonder where we were headed – other than a small, uninhabited archipelago there were still a lot of miles to go to get anywhere. With over one thousand miles behind us, it did feel like we were on the long haul to nowhere.
PASSAGE NOTES 21/9/16: Unlike the solid mass of the passing ships, Ātea rolls like a super-sized balloon tumbling haphazardly on a disturbed lake. I took Braca to an entertainment park in Langkawi and paid $5 for 15 minutes to tumble about on the inside of a human-size plastic bubble in an artificial lake and at that was more than enough time to frazzle the brain. Ātea provides us that same bubble to do our somersaults and cartwheels in 24-hours a day without an exit option.
While the sailing had been easy, a downwind run meant that the boat constantly rolled from side to side, knocking us about like a handful of dice mid-roll. The wind remained a constant 20-25 knots for the duration of the trip, but the big waves that defined the first four days settled into lazy rolling seas. Regardless of this shift, we spent our days like trapped animals at the zoo.
PASSAGE NOTES 15/9/16: We stand with all four limbs spread, the four of us as long-legged giraffes taking a drink at the watering hole; we piss like starfish in strong current, limbs splayed and grasping onto any surface that’ll hold; we sleep like small lizards latched onto a cement wall, fingers and toes seized in a death-grip on each corner of the bed. We somehow manage to cook on a swinging stove with bouncing pots and open the fridge with juggling skills honed to catch Tupperware as it tumbles out the door. In this undulating chaos, the kids, as always, seem unperturbed.
Again and again the children remind me of the value of living in the moment; regardless of living on the back of a bucking bull, life through two- and four-year old eyes is pretty good out on the high seas.
A change on Ātea is the ability to communicate with the outside world with ease. Due to our need for emergency cover for Braca’s diabetes and an appreciation of the complexities of the Indian Ocean weather patterns, we finally decided that a satellite phone was justified. In previous years, John would sit hunched over the long-range radio with ears strained to catch the best signal through atmospheric static and hiss. Our batteries drained as we tried to connect again and again, myself at the helm for the duration as the radio sent our autopilot in circles. Sending a single email used to be a task to consume everyone for the whole morning. Now, at the click of a button, we can send a few emails and download the weather charts, with a computer-optimized route taking the weather variance into account. Reams of data appear predicting our course, speed, position and weather for days in advance. And yet, we are more accustomed to the time trusted mariners laws. Despite computerized weather predictions, our departure date from Cocos was determined by the availability of fresh eggs at the local store. Despite the daily digital updates of subtle wind variances, our track was largely known to us months in advance, and set by historical averages and sailing ship passage notes contained in Admiralty Pilot Charts.
While certain systems on Ātea had been updated, there is still much in our world that is hard won – and lost – the old fashioned way. Take fishing for example. We have a rusty old rod and sun-bleached fishing line that we were using to try and pull dinner from the sea. After five lost catches in succession, tension started to mount with every fish caught and – unwillingly – released. We might as well have been tossing our tackle into the deep blue for the effectiveness of our fishing. The quick ziiiiippp – snap! lasted mere seconds before all was silent onboard again. We were feeling like the largest failures in the world of fishing until we realized what we were up against – big, fast offshore game fish. These weren’t two-kilo snapper or foot-long trevally – we were hunting hunters – and losing. Our last catch was our only battle, man dulling beast over an intense 45 minutes rather than our standard 30-second defeat. When we saw the long, dark shadow and a sharp, pointed tailfin of a marlin hauled up under our stern, we knew we were fighting a battle we’d never win with our crappy second-rate gear. We were up for smaller fry, and in that we were proficient; at least we could say that catching fish hadn’t totally eluded us.
Flying fish were bedecking our topsides nightly by the dozen. While our catch didn’t overwhelm John or I, the little winged fish mesmerized Braca and Ayla. And so, with shrunken eyes and crisp folded wings, these little lifeless creatures became endless playthings for the kids. So much so that when dolphin came to play under our bows, the kids would turn their backs on our mammalian guests and continue their fantasy discourse with their 3-inch scaled friends. Fortunately, we were able to replace the dead creatures nightly before the smell of dead fish overtook our senses. If not engaged with their newly adopted phantom friends, the kids would run amok with clothes pegs transformed in their imagination to batfish and butterfly fish, “fishing them out of the sea” on a length of twine, or dodge tea towels flicked wildly around the salon as stand-in’s for “baby manta ray” and “brother sailfish.” Clearly, creativity runs paramount in our world at the moment and dead fish and housewares beat Tonka toys every time.
PASSAGE NOTES 20/9/16: The kids seem to have never-ending energy and ever-changing ideas for filling their days. For me, I am enjoying some quiet time to relax, read a book, idly watch the sky and the sea, and let my mind drift in the quiet. I love night watch with the black ocean surrounding us, brilliant sparkling stars above, and the boat forging ahead at a fast clip. The boat lifts and drops to the movement of the waves; we are now seven days out and we’ve learned the sway of her dance. At first a racy tango, now a slow waltz. The wind is behind us at 140-160 degrees – there is no sail change, no tacking, no weather or wind shift. I look to the horizon and know that we are alone out here; the feeling is akin to a complete state of bliss.
My notes on that day make me think of a quote by Herman Melville: “Meditation and water are wedded forever.” Not that this feeling of peace hasn’t allowed us our wilder moments; there have been a few social engagements to attend along the way. On the 19th of September with 750 miles behind us, we celebrated “half-way day” with much fanfare. On the 20th of September we celebrated John’s 49th birthday, having decorated the interior of the boat as a box to be opened and the kids and I on the inside as individually wrapped gifts. On the 23th of September we celebrated “Rain Forest” day, where we pretended that the inside of the boat was a vast forest and on the 26th of September, our final day, we all put hand to brow and “land ho’ed” together at the first sight of land.
However we planned events to occupy the passage, our greatest surprise came the night before landfall when a Booby bird came calling. It was nighttime and I presume the bird was attracted to the lights; she flapped onboard then knocked on our windows with her pretty blue beak. I assumed she was injured as I don’t have experience of a wild animal volunteering close contact, but that wasn’t the case. I kept retreating to give her space to recuperate and fly, and she kept advancing toward me, inquisitive and confident. She waddled from the side gunnel to the aft deck, then from the helm to the cockpit floor. After wandering around and exploring her new surroundings, the pretty little bird finally settled into a nest of ropes in the bottom of the cockpit and tucked her head in to sleep. I sat in a corner watching in amazement: Is this what Chagos will be like, filled with wildlife completely unfazed by human contact? After several hours and several pounds of guano later, I decided it was time for our feathered friend to fly. I wasn’t entirely sure that she was onboard by her own intention and I was afraid that she was unwittingly trapped, so I covered her with a hand towel and freed her. I half expected my limbs to be pecked apart but she calmly let me collect her and set her out on deck, only for her to immediately return to her spot in the cockpit. Was it really her choice to keep our company? I put her back out again and she settled down on our railing where she remained through the night.
Our Booby-friend flapped off at daybreak as the dolphins rolled in, escorting us along the outer edge of the reef. I couldn’t help but feel that they were the keepers of the lagoon and our acceptance into the atoll rested on their judgement. As they rolled onto their sides to look at us, would they see our sails as a white flag and our curious faces as un-hostile company? Would they understand that we came on a peace mission and that their sanctuary would be remain undisturbed by us? They swam the arc of the reef at our side and finally bid us our welcome and their farewell as we took a tentative approach toward the pass. We picked a line through the narrow weaving channel with its harrowing four-meter depth, and rode the rolling surf into the sanctity of the lagoon.
Chagos at Last! We treated that evening as a true celebration. After a few significant setbacks, we’d finally realized our goal: time in a totally remote, uninhabited atoll un-tampered by human interference over the past several decades. We are completely alone except for the birds and the sea life, and the nearest human contact is over two hundred miles away. The isolation is absolute. We expect no outside contact over the next four weeks and for us this is the quintessence of what Chagos offers. Set three hundred miles south of the equator in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Chagos is the Shangri-La of the Sea. Chagos is the X marked on a pirate’s treasure map. It is the illusive gold of every panhandling miner, the gem of the seven seas. It is the epitome of every cruiser’s dream when they cast their lines and head off to sea in search of nirvana, the bonus being very few seek these atolls out as few are aware of their existence.
After almost two weeks of all-encompassing blue, I sat in the hammock at anchor that evening and watched the sky turn a radiant scarlet red. It was as if we’d raced to the finish line and, with the ribbon still draped across our heaving chests, the world stood up and applauded us. “I am happy to my core,” I said as I swung in the hammock to the setting sun with a flute of champagne in my hand, completely enfolded in a feeling of total Zen. No matter what the next month in Chagos holds for us, I have no doubt the reward will far outweigh the effort it has taken us to get here. After a myriad of setbacks, we’ve just traveled 1500 miles to nowhere, and there is nowhere I rather be.
To view corresponding photo album, go to: 1500 Photos of Nowhere