First and Last

Link to published article: First and Last

Tonga is, for both John and I, the first and the last of our great big adventure. Tonga in 2011 was our testing ground, to see if what we’d enjoyed separately would be something we enjoyed together. Tonga in 2022 is proof of that mutual passion, and all that lay between those years lies a rich tapestry of countless expeditions and unquantifiable experiences. Our new boat became our permanent home and into that existence we brought two children, a son and daughter, and over eleven years we visited 36 countries and transited three great oceans. Our Tongan trial had turned out to be a great success. 

We feel very fortunate that our very first country is also our last. Tonga was a busy tourist destination in 2011, both by land and by sea. It is a popular stop for cruisers on the route across the Pacific and it is a part of the Western Pacific loop. In typical years it also has an established tourist and charter industry, so sailing around the islands is often a bustle of movement and  crowded anchorages. This is how we remember our first visit all those years ago. In 2022, however, Tonga is a very changed place. Due to the pandemic in 2020 and a tsunami in 2021, Tonga sealed its borders to the outside world for the past three years. October brought big changes: Land and sea borders opened and international tourism resumed. For most cruising yachts, the timing was too late in the season to take advantage of the change in policy. For stragglers like us travelling toward the South Pacific later in the season, however, the timing was ideal.

We sailed into Tonga on the 4th of October, the fourth boat in three years. Rather than being one obscure yacht of many, this year we were one of few. Opposite to blending into the crowd, our AIS had been picked up and our arrival known before we even laid sight of land on the horizon. From that moment the effusive welcome began. “Ātea, Ātea. This is Vava’u Radio. Welcome to Tonga!” As we pulled into the customs dock, locals came out to greet us and as we cleared and set anchor, calls from the expatriate community were welcoming us in. The few fellow cruisers who proceeded us popped over to say hello. Tonga was a real homecoming amongst total strangers.

Tonga is a relatively small country, broken up into three regions: The lush limestone islands of Vava’u in the north, the picturesque low-lying coral islands of central Haapai’is, and the densely populated southern capital island of Tongatapu. Yachts typically go to Tongatapu for no more than clearance and the Haapai’is are generally under-rated and ignored, which leaves Vava’u as the popular destination of choice for tourists and cruisers alike; and there’s sense in this. Vava’u offers dozens of small islands to explore in a large sailing area protected from the ocean swell by a surrounding offshore reef. The deep water between lush limestone islands bring a stark contrast of colour in deep blues and greens, and moorings are available in designated anchorages for a small fee. What isn’t available is the more tropical setting of rich coral gardens and clear aqua waters; this is what the Haapai’is offer and a trip to this neglected central group is well worth the effort. In a normal season, the anchorages around Vava’u are crowded with tour boats, local charters and cruising yachts, all vying for an available mooring. The yachting season runs from May through to October, which fortunately coincides with the whale season when pregnant females come to deliver their calves and suitors follow to continue the cycle of birth for the next year.

It is for the whales that we made Tonga our destination this year, more so than the sentimental appeal of “closing the loop.” I knew that all our other cruising friends were in Fiji and the reunions and parties would be continuous, but Tonga held the chance of sighting whales. Choosing between nature or social, I chose the experience that would, for me, be irreplaceable. Tonga is one of the few places in the world where you can swim with these gentle giants and the opportunity to be alongside them in the water is a rare one. We were late in the season so the chance of seeing whales was low, but I wanted to make the effort if the possibility was there. I was well rewarded. There were a few mother and calf pairs and escorts remaining in the protection of the sheltered waters. We could hear their calls as we snorkelled and watched them breech, roll and fin slap from our anchorage. To swim next to them was a beautiful experience: Tender, graceful, curious and relaxed. Mother guided calf to her side with the nudge of a fin, calf rolling over and around her mother’s bulk, a small body tucked under the massive head of its mother, and the intimate sight of a calf nursing as the two swam slowly in union. To be next to them, observer and observed, offered more than could ever be imagined.

When we weren’t with the whales, we were with the small community of cruisers that had quickly become good friends. Given the few boats visiting Tonga this year, every new arrival was celebrated by both cruiser, expatriate and local community. We joined church service on Sundays to listen to the wonderful booming song that marks a central part of the service, and we were invited to community meals that followed. We developed a warm rapport with the local expatriates whose businesses had been closed for years, and were taken under wing by a few who took us on a complimentary tour of the island and its landmarks. We joined forces as a cruising community, getting together for morning exercise, an early coffee, a lazy lunch and social dinners. We gate crashed private parties, where the hushed word of “pālangi…. pālangi… pālangi…” was whispered, labelling us in the Tonga language as white foreigners, before the doors opened to let us in. Apparently, as outsiders we weren’t on the invite list but warm hospitality had us quickly included.

The main town of Neiafu is a small strip that runs one vertical street and one horizontal street along the waterfront. By the end of the first day you’ve seen everything the town has to offer and know half the shopkeepers by name. Outside the village, everything is a spread of simple houses and rural properties. There is Kilikilitefua, the “wall of rocks” which was the product of a census that used to record the birth of the firstborn son of everyone family by adding a volcanic rock to the pile. There is the remnants of an old fort, protection for the community from attack by the waring tribes in the Haapai’is and Tonga Tapu. There are fresh water caves which supplied previous generations with drinkable water and there are ocean-facing caves where livestock were kept and sheltered, pinned in by the high tide, and there are saltwater caves that provide some exhilarating deep underwater entrances to enter through. A trip around the island is both an education on current culture and a lesson on its rich history. While the cruising grounds make Tonga a fantastic destination, the rich cultural heritage and shoreside services also offer much to explore.

We sailed into Tonga for the first time as a new couple on a new boat, and this year we sail out with a decade behind us and two kids in tow. The country symbolises the first and the last destination of our great adventure, but I should clarify: Tonga is the first and the last of this great adventure. A big change lays ahead of us as we pull into New Zealand and move ashore, and Ātea gets a long break from all the continuous miles she has carried us over. While Tonga symbolises the end of our time as long-term cruisers on Ātea, the adventure is definitely not at its conclusion. If Tonga teaches us anything, it is that the world is both behind us and ahead of us, and we are only turning a page in this great big adventure called life.

Link to Images: <a href="http://<iframe src="; width="500" height="695" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="true" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; picture-in-picture; web-share">Tonga

San Blas: A Taste of the Pacific

Link to published article: An Authentic Experience

Temperate, crystal clear waters to swim in. Palm-fringed, white sand beaches to stroll. An archipelago of over 300 unspoiled islands to explore. The painted face and bangled-arm of a tribeswoman selling the intricate stitched artwork of her ancestors and an indigenous community that repelled colonisation, banned international development and restricted mass tourism, people who hold firmly to their traditional roots. The San Blas islands are a living history, a preserved native culture, a protected archipelago; they are a different world from the remainder of the Caribbean cruising grounds and are as close as you can get to experiencing the Pacific islands without leaving the Atlantic Ocean.

Laying along the Caribbean coast of northern Panama, the San Blas islands stretch 100 miles along the southern Caribbean Sea between the border of Colombian and the Gulf of San Blas. Officially renamed Guna Yala by the Panamanian government in 2011, the majority of islands are small uninhabited islets and cays, and the 49 islands that are inhabited are generally occupied by no more than a family or two living on land passed down to them through the generations. Traditions runs deep within the Kuna Yala culture, and it would be fair to say it is the best preserved indigenous South American culture to this day. Subsistence fishing and coconut cultivation is the generate the main income, and sale of the unique layered fabric panels made by the Kuna women, the Mola, is also a large part of the economy.

The San Blas islands had long been on my A-list of destinations. Having lived there in the mid-seventies, I was far too young at the time to hold onto my childhood experiences of Panama, but my parents remembered our time there with great fondness. Stories of crash landings in Kuna territory on a broken bi-wing and semi-permanent face markings painted down my mom’s nose were two of my parents many stories. They’d sailed through the remote San Blas islands long before it became a popular cruising destination, where they were greeted by men in dugouts who offered fish, lobster and coconuts and woman who displayed their intricately woven Molas. They retold the stories with such vivid detail, making me yearn to seek out similar adventures. When Panama finally lay in front of us, I knew exactly where I’d be spending my time. The question was, what remained? Had the authenticity of the islands been wiped into the past, or had the Kuna truly succeeded in holding onto their tribal heritage? Would I walk in my parents footsteps, or would the adventure only live through their stories?

My turn was up the morning we sailed into the San Blas Islands and laid the anchor down in front of the Swimming Pool, a popular anchorage in the Eastern Holandes. Given the name, I knew I wouldn’t be experiencing the San Blas of my parent’s day. We shared the anchorage with one other boat, however, and that was a popularity I could accept. The water was still a clear, transparent aqua blue. The tiny islet in front of us had one traditional palm-built shack sitting under a crowd of palm trees. Out on the water a man sat in his wooden dugout fishing off the edge of the reef. “Mom, Dad,” I thought, “I walk in your footsteps!

I strung the hammock on the aft deck and eased myself in, set to soak up every morsel of my quiet, idyllic paradise. Tilting my head back to top it off with a sip of cold rum, I spotted a yacht headed our way. Behind that yacht, another, and another beyond that. My paren’t footprints were disappearing with every sail that popped up on the horizon. Within a few hours the anchorage turned into a crowded parking lot, my beautiful sandy island barely visible through the bimini of the boat that dropped anchor on top of us. Just before sunset a small dugout with a Kuna family slowly paddled towards us. Salvation. My dream had been altered but was still intact. I knew that the Kuna Indians held firmly to their traditional ways and had refused assimilation into the Panamanian culture. As the dugout pulled alongside I smiled broadly knowing my Spanish wouldn’t help but searching for a fish in the hold as our common goal. My smile was returned by an equally enthusiastic grin and, in clear and concise unbroken English, he asked for a $5 anchoring fee. Between my English-speaking Kuna host, my island view through the backend of another yacht and the keel-hung traffic jam around us, my hopes of experiencing my parent’s version of the San Blas were dashed. I would have to set my own footprints in the sand.

Shifting expectations didn’t take long, however, as there was plenty on offer within the San Blas regardless of its increased popularity. While there are many islands within the archipelago, there is a concentrated group of islands where most of the cruising happens. Follow the popular cruising guide, the Bowhouse Guide, and you will enjoy a social hub within a defined cruising circuit; tread out of that area and you have can experience a far more remote San Blas. There are still areas throughout the archipelago where time continues to stand still.

We were rarely alone as we sailed a clockwise course through the San Blas, as the islands are now an extension of the Atlantic cruising circuit. Charter and cruising yachts fill the anchorages throughout the archipelago and local tour operators run day trips for tourists out to the inshore islands. Panamanians have adjusted to the increase in tourism by running skiffs to many of the popular islands, offering a range of provisions from fruit and veg to beer and wine. Many of the Kuna have integrated with mainland Panama and now speak Spanish, and English to a lesser degree, allowing us to share a language and bridge the linguistic barrier. While forty years has brought many changes to the San Blas, some of those have made cruising the islands a more convenient and comfortable experience.

That said, while tourism has come to the San Blas, it is still very low-key. The Kuna have refused any large-scale development and the options for over-night accommodation are rustic, some as basic a hammock strung between palm trees. In addition, the handful of islands that offer this option are close to the mainland, restricting tourism to the majority of the islands. We had the unique opportunity to spend an afternoon with the ex-President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, when his helicopter landed on a small uninhabited cay near where our anchorage in the Eastern Holandes, providing us insight to some of the politics of the recent past. The ex-president discussed his campaign to turn the San Blas into “the next Maldives.” The Kuna, however, hold sovereign independence throughout the islands and have rejected attempts to develop resorts throughout the islands. It was not progress the Kuna wanted, and I realised then what a privilege it was for us to be able to travel throughout an area that had fundamentally remained so unaltered by outside influence. It may not be exactly what my parents had experienced, but it wasn’t far off it.

That afternoon showed me that my first assessment of a lost culture hadn’t been entirely on the mark. Clearly there were changes, but this two-hundred year old culture still had firm roots. Many of the dugouts had outboards, but square-rigged wooden canoes still sail throughout the islands. Kuna men still row up with their bilges filled with fish and coconuts, often accompanied by their wife and child selling molas for $40 a pane. To sit with these woman and look through the intricate stitch-work made me appreciate how much of the Kuna traditions were still very much a part of everyday life; molas are hand-stitched exclusively by women in their spare time between rearing children and household demands, and each meter-square piece can take up to a month or two to complete. While men have moved towards modern clothing, most women dress traditionally in a cotton wrap and mola blouse, a colourful headscarf worn to deter evil spirits. Their wrists and ankles are wrapped in multi-coloured beads and married women still wore the traditional gold nose ring and thin black line painted down their nose. Huts ashore we still very much replicas of the housing of their forefathers, and families still live on land that has been passed down to them through the generations. Some islands are no longer inhabited, but many are still run exactly as they have been for centuries.

We’d been warmly welcomed by all the Kuna we’d met, and a few of them allowed us a closer insight into their daily lives. One particular interaction stands out as we were invited to spend the evening with a Kuna family in their home. When we arrived, the head of house stoked the embers of the fire-pit and we were invited to cook with them. Their lodging was built as three separate huts, all made of palm fronds laid over a wooden frame and set on a sand floor. Hammocks were strung up inside the huts for sleeping, the kitchen was set up inside a lean-to and the sink was open air. Their companionship was relaxed and casual, and the evening thoroughly enjoyable. I didn’t leave with a piercing or painted strip down my nose as my mother had during her time with the Kuna, but I generously wrapped in beaded wrist and ankle bracelets which made me feel that I could experience an authenticity that is still inherent in the culture forty years on.

Nowhere in the Atlantic had I felt so close to an island nation with such a true sense of cultural identity; slightly modified but inherently intact. The key factors that made us draw the comparison to the Pacific is that the Kuna culture is completely different from that of the rest of the Caribbean, where islands have become either first world nations or are trying to become one. That development has been wholly rejected by the Kuna. As in the Pacific, you are guests to their island, and you come into a community that is largely unchanged for hundreds of years. They are both a substance culture, with strong family ties, adhere to tribal ways and obey the rules laid down by the chief. In comparison to the Caribbean, there are fewer boats, fewer charters and fewer tourists. For Atlantic cruisers who want a slice of the Pacific Islands, the San Blas offers the very experience on a small scale in the southwestern corner of the Caribbean.

Link to Images: <a href="http://<iframe src="; width="500" height="676" style="border:none;overflow:hidden" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="true" allow="autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; picture-in-picture; web-share">San Blas

Ey Ey Brother Shackleton 

Link to published article: Ey Ey Brother Shackleton

I’ve spent a notable time on the sea but don’t consider myself much of a seaman. Not in the nostalgic sense of the word – weathered old souls with salt-imbued rags who sit in old bars scratching their matted hair telling tales of their conquests and mishaps. Of course, I’ve had my share of adventures worth telling over a cold pint, but somehow I don’t feel I fit the mould. I sail a boat. I live on a boat. I raise my kids on a boat. I transit oceans by boat. But seasoned seaman? I don’t think so.

As I sat sipping a frothy pint in Peter’s Bar, with decade upon decade of captain’s hat (and the occasional captain’s bra) above my head, I felt like I’d finally earned that right. Peter’s Bar is as old as the volcano it is built on, currently run by its third generation of Sr. Azevedo, who continues to supply transiting mariners with more than just ale: for generations Peter’s Bar has been the sole support for ships and people passing through, supplying provisions and parts, mail collection and delivery, medical supply and local gossip. It might’ve taken me ten years, 55,000 miles and a few dozen ocean crossings, but I finally got it — that feeling of what it is like to be an old saltwort worth her lick.

Of course, having just completed a two-month passage was a factor. I didn’t really feel the gravity of what that meant until we pulled into Horta at the conclusion of our 60,000 mile trip from South Africa to the Azores and people gave their congratulations as we sailed in. We shook hands ashore with locals who already knew about us and were impressed by our recent time at sea. So, when I sauntered into Peter’s Bar and ordered a pint and sat down amongst the painted faces of patronage from generations past — Chichester, Montessier, Knox-Johnson — I felt that welling of pride. Yeah Shackleton, I gotcha bro.

After two weeks swaggering around the streets of Horta en simpatico with those cruising legends, it was time to refocus on the reason I spend all this time on a boat: To explore. For me the beauty of boats isn’t weather routing, reefing sails and clocking ocean miles. I like all that — particularly the ocean miles surrounded by the beautiful silence of that endless, endless sea. What I like most, above and beyond it all, is what lays at the other end. I like charting the destination and then rolling in and discovering the truth of a place beyond my ignorant expectation. Or often, my lack of expectation. Maybe my high school history told me more than just its geography, or perhaps the news has revealed some current catastrophe. But often a country means no more to me than a name on the map. Then I draw a line between where I am and where it lies. I point my boat in that direction and spend weeks watching the miles tick away as it gets closer. And then one morning, bam!, I am there on her shores — everything new and unknown and waiting to be discovered.

The Azores was like this for me. I’d heard of the Azores. Perhaps in the news. Perhaps in a lesson given by my 11th grade teacher. But I hadn’t learned about the Azores. I didn’t have any current knowledge of the Azores when I arrived but everything I was hearing on arrival had me itching to explore: volcanic craters, black lava pools, lava tubes, lava rock vineyards, the barren exterior, the lush interior, the bulls and the bull fights. Highlight after highlight — it was time to bring my modern-day explorer into action. I marched my kids around the streets and the countryside, to the museums and the cactus gardens and into every rocky lava-created attraction offered. They were as gobsmacked about its rich history at seven and nine as I was at forty-six: The sordid plight of the Sperm Whale and the island’s involvement in the near decimation of the species, its longtime influence in maritime history and its significance as a trade hub between Europe and the Americas, its ever bubbling and exploding volcanoes. How did I miss all that fascinating history? How cool to be learning about all of it now.

We focused our time in the seven islands that make up the Azores on four islands: Faial, Pico, Sao George and Terceira. Faial was a highlight in its volcanic highlights. We anchored in the main harbour and took day trips throughout the island from there. The north was wet, lush and tropical with dense forest, high altitude lakes and fantastic views of the island. The south was dry and developed, with the capital Horta as the economic and social centre. Town was a twist of small winding streets that led from the town basin to the hills with a fantastic botanical garden at the top of it. The architecture had the look of a quintessential small European mountain village with uniform architecture and colour, a mix of well-maintained homesteads and dilapidated ruins. The most recent volcanic eruption in the 1950s sent most of the population to America; many of the residents returned but a significant number of people had permanently resettled, leaving their family homes abandoned. The west was dominated by the dramatic Capelinhos volcanic crater and to the east the caldera. Running all around the island was a succession of volcanic lava pools, unique in structure and stunning in appearance.

Pico is a singular vocalic cone that juts out from the sea with cooled lava flow visible down its sides. There is a small harbour with a busy ferry terminal and swinging room for a yacht or two within. The island is know for its local wine production and tourists flock to the island to see its unique method of growing grapes: individual plants separated by a square fence made from intricately stacked lava rocks, protecting the hard earth from erosion and the plants from wind burn. We spent our day measuring 32,000 steps with the periodic pinch of grape and dip in the sea. Given two of our team have legs that measure 75cm in length, the fact that we marched around a volcano in the heat all day is something to commend them for.

From Faial we sailed for the long southern stretch of Sao George’s dramatic coastline. Hunkering down in a tiny one-boat harbour, we enjoyed crystal clear waters, a small local village and a forested mountainside that came alive with the sound of birdlife at dawn and dusk. There was very little to do in the five-shop village and so we spent our days away from the business that had defined our experience in Horta and enjoyed the quaint solitude of our little spot. We took a holiday and treated the boat as a pleasure craft and not a mobile home. We enjoyed slow mornings and midday swims, spent the afternoon amidst toys and tonic and ate our meals as picnics on deck. Life as a live-aboard cruiser can often be fraught with boat jobs and normal life requirements that leave little of the idyllic lifestyle. So it was with great pleasure that we put all tasks on hold and enjoyed the quiet, simple life for a change.

Our last main anchorage was off the southeast corner of Terceira. This became quite a social hub for us, reconnecting with several yachties we’d hung out with along the way and meeting several new ones in harbor. We rented a car and toured the island, wandering again down lava tubes below the earth and getting lost in the labyrinth of caverns of old extinguished volcanoes. The villagers throughout the island were clearly bull-centric, as each village had a central bull ring and many private estates had bullfighting training rinks and stables. This time of year would usually see half of Europe flocking to Terceira to experience the daily bull fights, done village by village and fought on the streets and beaches amid amateur bull enthusiasts and intimated observer. But this year brought only one professional show, done to bring funds into the Catholic Church and appease the demands for this centuries-old tradition. We were fortunate to be able to see the only fight that was put on for the year. While witnessing acts of animal cruelty is something I like to avoid, cultural traditions are a privilege to observe as a foreigner. Sitting amidst the enthusiastic Azorian crowd, we watched bull after bull be taunted to the dance of the skilled matador and the beauty of his trained horse, and enthusiastically joined in with the jeering, cheering crowd. 

I regarded the Azores as a mid-Atlantic rest stop in route across 4,000 miles of ocean but found it to be a remarkable destination in itself. The amount of cultural, historical, and geographical sites demand a dedicated amount of time to properly explore, and once done there should be time remaining to settle in with the ghosts of mariners past with a full pint and an empty schedule. After all, if you’ve made it across the ocean to get there, why not settle into the very same seat that Chichester, Montessier and Knox-Johnson occupied on their transit across the ocean. You earned it after all — you are one of them now. 

Photos posted on: Images

Two Sides of a Coin

Link to published article: A Lesson in Sharing

Our plan was the Caribbean at the end of 2020. The Canaries was intended as a quick layover in route to our rum cocktails, but even quick stops can result in well laid plans becoming obsolete. So it was for our season in the Caribbean, which was quickly bumped as soon as Gambia came onto our radar. I met a German couple while in Lanzarote who had spent time there a year earlier and their stories sent my excitement for coconut trees and tropical fish out the window — muddy river full of hippos and crocodiles? I’m in!

My time earlier in the season in the Western European Atlantic was enough to drive one reality to the forefront: I am in this cruising lifestyle to explore. Hanging out on non-moving boats gets boring quick. I’m not interested in a floating apartment, regardless of what country it is floating in. I live on a boat to travel and explore as many places as possible, and the more culturally diverse the better. As I debated the change in plan with John, I pointed out that all our favourite destinations have been those that were the least planned and the furthest off the beaten track. Gambia, a country that receives two to three yachts per year, was certainly that.

Barriers and Bridges

Including Gambia in a northern Atlantic circuit is not difficult, so I’m not sure why more cruisers don’t do it. It is only 300 miles southeast of the Cape Verdes and It is only 300 miles SE of the Cape Verdes and is an easy stopover to include between Canaries and the Caribbean. There are a few potential obstacles to be aware of, however, and it is important to understand these before making the decision to include Gambia in your route. 

For one, you must be prepared for a third-world experience. For a relaxed visit, you must have a flexible attitude and be able to find humour in the chaos. This is most evident on entry into the country in the bustling capital city of Banjul, where dust and dirt and noise dominate. The clearance process is confusing but the officials are pleasant, and the process can be sped up if you don’t mind greasing palms along the way. Of course, this is all done in the overt undertones of community support. At customs we were sagely informed, “The office has run out of coffee and the team doesn’t have enough money to buy any ahem ahem.” The port captain informed us that he was required to view the stores onboard the boat “but, cough, if you buy me a Coke I don’t think I’d have the time to drink it AND come out smile wink.” Immigration’s excuse was grand: “Our department needs its own boat. We are happy to accept a donation to help us towards that cause.” While I am morally opposed to paying bribes, it was an indication of the tight sense of community that was shown in every village we met along the way. It wasn’t greed that was at the root of the requests, it was the fundamental concept that everyone was responsible to support the whole. And so we paid the $3 coffee donation, bought the captain his $1 coke and slipped $5 to help buy a boat.

You will also have to accept that you will sail a minimal amount of time, if at all. I’d imagined The Gambia being an Amazonian-like river with endless exploratory possibilities. I envisioned sailing slowly up the river with the tide, however in truth there isn’t the distance between banks to make this practical. You’d need to tack as soon as you completed your tack, and continue running sails from port to starboard until you concede defeat and turn on the engine. We did sail, a little, but only when the wind was directly behind us and the tide was running with us. If you want to sail up the river, be prepared for a lot of waiting. Or just turn on your engine and go. 

While motoring may not be a significant disincentive for many cruisers, a 17’ meter bridge might be. The Gambia Bridge was completed two years ago and is the only road access for vehicles crossing the river for 300 miles; unfortunately, it also serves as a barrier to many vessels from exploring the upper reaches of the river. As the trip to Gambia is all about its upper reaches, if you cannot get under the bridge then it may not be a trip worth taking. In our case, we had approximate height of the bridge and approximate height of our mast with a meter wiggle room between them. When we approached the bridge we did so with extreme caution. This meant making our way slowly at the start of the ebb tide with myself sitting up at the top of the mast to keep a visual on our one meter gap. We were right to use caution, as our gap was actually a foot of clearance from the VHF aerial and it was an intense moment when I had to make the call to proceed or abort. Strapped to the top of mast, an error in judgement would result in more than just our boat suffering from a collision. 

It is only once you are on the other side of the bridge that the other factors become evident. It is here that the wider river turns into smaller creeks, offering secret hideouts to tuck into along the way. The options aren’t always obvious, as you have to know that the entrance to the creek gets shallow before it becomes deep again. You may see less than half a meter under your keel as you approach and may assume that it will only continue to get shallower, but hold your course and you’ll squeak past the entrance to watch it drop to ten meters as you head deeper into the tributary. At 2.2 meters, we often drew a line in the mud with our keel on our way into a creek to find it drop sharply to on the other side. You’d then find yourself nestled up tight amongst the reeds on a boat 15 meters long in a creek just 20 meters wide. Make sure you drop your anchor directly in the centre of the creek or you’ll find yourself bumping the mangroves on the rivers edge at the turn of the tide. 

With small creeks come small insects. We were told that we would need to keep our anchor light switched off at night otherwise we’d be walking on a carpet of moths on deck in the morning; we didn’t adhere as a boat on anchor without a mast-light seemed worse than assisting insect suicide. But best heed advice on the mossies. If you are not prepared for them, a trip through Gambia will be a trip through hell. Mosquitoes are not only present, they are vicious and the itch of their bite will last days. Fortunately, we had a three-tier netting system in place that kept the bugs out of the boat in a series of stages: Netting for the cockpit for the worst of times, netting for the hatches and companionway as standard use, and netting above the beds if barrier one and two had been breached. There wasn’t a night we weren’t thankful for the sanctity of our impenetrable fortress.

Food and water must also be planned for before a transit up the river. As the river is muddy all the way up its reaches, using a water-maker it is not advised unless you have a bilge full of filters. We filled our 1400-litre tank with water from the community well before departure and used water sparingly up the river; we washed our bodies, clothes and dishes in river water and used our tank water exclusively for drinking and cooking. This meant scenic deck showers in the early evenings, a hose dragged through the cockpit to fill the sink and whites-turned-brown clothes pegged on the rail. You must be comfortable using local well water, clean but unfiltered, and accept running jerry cans to and from the well if spending any amount of time upriver. 

Food is also sparse outside of the larger towns and transport is a difficult but worthwhile experience. If you aren’t up for a long and dusty walk, then local transport is either a hot stuffy minivan or a cool rickety donkey cart. Donkey cart is preferable as there is a limited number of bodies that fit on top of the cart, though witnessing people bumped off means safety is not guaranteed. But I’ll risk safety for comfort, as being trapped inside a nine-person minivan with thirty other people wedged inside is a practice in achieving mental zen. I love the craziness of it, but bumping along dusty roads with your body crammed into a locked position against sweaty strangers is one thing, compounded by the fact that it will take you four hours to move 12 miles and for every minute spent moving you’ll spend ten minutes stopped. In the heat. With the windows closed. Oddly, it is the only place that I saw masks being used; not to stop the transmission of Covid but to decrease the inhalation of dust. When you get back to the boat in the the same darkness you departed the boat in, you are exhausted but have a sack full of onions and potatoes. Mission accomplished. 

One last but important consideration is to understand what “floats your boat” — what is it you seek when you cruise? If it is solitude and seclusion, Gambia is your place. You can spend weeks up a creek hidden from the world, with only bird song to remind you that other life forms exist. Is it cultural experience? You will be well rewarded as you are more than just an observer in Gambia. You will be warmly welcomed in any village you visit and the Gambian hospitality is some of the most inclusive, generous that I’ve experienced. Looking for a party? A cruising community is non-existent and, if seeking kindred-spirited sailors, you will be hosting a party for one. So, know your social agenda before choosing your destination. 

If this list of considerations leaves you questioning why you’d sail for a muddy river on Africa’s western shores, the peaceful tranquility of Gambia’s social isolation and the unique cultural experience of Gambia’s social immersion is the sweet reward. 

Social Isolation

When I recall Gambia visually, I will think of a country of mirrors. Everything has a double: There are two suns that shine down, two moons that rise up, the roots of every tree end in dense foliage and the bottom of every house rests on its rooftop. As a longtime cruiser, I am used to the ripple of wind across water, the constant roll over gentle waves and the swell of the ocean as if it breathes. It has been a long time since I’ve looked out over water that has no movement, no heartbeat, no breath. Yet, it is the reflections on the motionless river water that brings it to life. I didn’t realise a muddy river could be so beautiful and so full of vibrant colour: Blue, green, red, white, black. The water captures the life that surrounds it and tossed it back — the  sky, the forest, the sun, the moon and the people in beautiful, perfect reflections. 

It sounds like a crazy Alice in Wonderland kind of world, unless you understand the degree to which the River Gambia dominates the country. It is a country that stretches 350 miles from west to east with a river that runs the entire length of it. The country is surrounded by Senegal, which at its furthest is only 20 miles away and often only two. The river is the country.

With the river comes the animals that depend on it. I was told that I’d see hippo and crocodile on the riverbanks, and I accepted that there would be a possibility that I’d have such luck when transiting up the river. What I didn’t appreciate at the time is that I was guaranteed to see hippo and crocodile. They don’t live in isolation; they live in abundance. Their presence is marked in every creek by the trampled reeds that line the waterfront and the river access holes that tunnel through the bush. On Christmas Eve we took little chimes up on deck in the evening to convince the kids that they’d heard Santa’s slay. A cute idea, but the tinkle of bells was drowned out by the bellow of hippo that had come out into the river right next to the boat. On Christmas Eve a crocodile crashed through the reeds into the water five meters from our anchor. On New Years Eve we sat in our tender watching croc laze on muddy shores and hippo cool down in the shallows and, on the same stretch of river, men in their pirogues laying out their fishing nets. We also sat in our dinghy in the national park to watch a family of chimpanzee curiously watch us, silently peering out from a tree overhanging the water only yards away. Dolphin were also present, and a pleasant but unexpected surprise. When I think of river I think of fresh water, but the lower river is saltwater and it was with great delight share the waterway with them. I had hoped for sightings of wildlife in Gambia, and I got it. What I didn’t expected it was that it would all be so close and abundant.

We chose the isolation and the quiet solitude offered by the smaller creeks on our two week trip up the river. Due to timing, we kept to ourselves over the holidays and enjoyed our celebrations surrounded by the beauty of the river. Because we were away from the villages, we were submersed in the wildlife. The birdlife was prolific and we sighted dolphin, hippo, croc or chimpanzee every day. Why take a detour to Gambia? It is more than a chance to get off the beaten path — it is to be surrounded by the beauty of nature, the silence of the river and the magic of chance encounters with animals that are so different than those typically seen by yacht. 

Social Immersion

If Gambia was a coin and each side of the coin was associated with an attribute of the country, heads would be social isolation and tails would be social inclusion. As we chose heads on our way up the river, we chose tails on the way down. There are many remote villages that dot the river’s edge and the locals are hospitable, welcoming and warm. Invitations to visit are readily made by waving hands on the shoreside and if you aren’t drawn in by their visual signs of welcome, then they will paddle out in a pirogue to deliver greetings in person. 

The children are as enthusiastic as children are anywhere in Africa — gregarious, enthusiastic and inquisitive. Being swamped by small bodies in a cacophony of noise is not a unique experience, and I am always charged by the energy that the children bring with them. What was a welcome surprise, however, was the warm welcome that was also extended to us by the adults. It helps that English is widely spoken and having a shared language allows for a connection with people you meet along the way. But there is more than language to credit for the warm Gambian hospitality. 

While Gambia is a poor country and the people are living in very third-world conditions, I experienced little of that “give me” attitude that occurs in many poor nations. If anything, the handouts came the other way. There wasn’t a single village we visited where we weren’t made to feel welcome. I’ve had more meals made for me, been asked to drink more tea and been gifted more fish and vegetables than in any country I’ve travelled to. Even the wood-carving peddler offered two additional carvings at the end of the deal as gifts for the kids (and I’d only bought one small bowl) and the batik artist gave my daughter a dress even though I didn’t purchase anything. Self-selected guides would offer to walk with us as we arrived, making introductions to others in the community along the way and ensuring we were comfortable and our needs were met. It was fantastic to have an ambassador while walking through the centre of a village; it made us immediately less of an outsider and allowed us to experience a deeper layer of the community. 

In one village we were enthusiastically invited to join in a Christian ceremony, where we followed a man around town who was wearing a horned headdress and gourd-covered back. He was dressed to represent the evil spirit of an animal while the community chased after it to scare it away. I’m not sure what part of Christianity was being covered, but in a predominately Muslim community I don’t think that was what mattered. That the fruit bloomed and the vegetable gardens were safe was of much more practical concern. 

We were also honoured by an invitation to join a family in the naming ceremony of their newborn son. To properly mark the occasion, we undertook the arduous two-hour minibus journey to town to source fabric, track down a seamstress and have a ceremonial outfit made on the spot. We departed at 6:00am and returned hot and tired at 6:00pm, ready to start the celebrations the following morning. The ceremony was beautiful to witness and I am honoured to have been included, early as it was. To start the day we were invited into the house to watch the baby’s head get shaven and for the 7-day old infant to make his first appearance to the world. A woman was in charge of money collection and a continuous stream of women walked in with a donation of rice, as the new mother would be taking some time from the fields (the cultivation of rice was a woman’s job, and rice from the field was the primary source of food for the family). We then watched the community elders gather, chant and whisper the given name into the infants ear. Prayer was then given to the child’s health and welfare and the name, which had been selected by the elders, was finally announced to the family. Afterwards the men sang and prayed as a group and the woman did the same in another, followed by a shared communal bowl of sweet ground rice and the gift of betel nut shared amongst the group. A morning of sitting, chatting and drinking tea commenced, a large shared lunch in the afternoon to follow, however the evening party was cancelled due to the death of an elder in the afternoon. I would have loved an evening sitting in their compound, dancing to the beat of drums in my newly-stitched stiff waxed-cotton African dress, but it was not to be. 

There is a culture of collective consciousness which was evident in many of the interactions between the adults. It was evident in the naming ceremony, in the hush of the village upon the death of a community member, in the community lunch shared at Lamin Lodge where everyone was guaranteed a free meal. We noticed it on our very first day in Gambia, when our local escort passed small change to his friends in passing. In most instances it was our money that was passed out, but it was an introduction to the communal nature of the people nonetheless. I saw this again and again, the nonchalant passing of small change between hands in passing, slipped over on a handshake. I was also a benefactor of this generosity as a hot tea, a chilled bag of yoghurt or piece of fruit would be randomly passed over to me with a smile. 

It was also obvious that it is taught from an early age. If a treat is offered, there was no greed. Everything was divided and shared. Children often paddled a pirogue out or swam out to visit us at the boat and an invite onboard would be extended which would start an endless wave of visitors. If treats were in hand when others arrived, the kids would hand their drink over or split their half-nibbled cookie so that the newly arrived wouldn’t miss out. My favourite story is that of a friend, who shared a gummy worm he had with several children. The first child licked the sugar then passed it along, the next took a lick and and the next until all the sugar was gone. Then it was slowly nibbled and passed until the entire gummy had been shared amongst every child. 

Covid Considerations

There was a certain perk to our decision to head for Gambia, which was that the country was Covid-free. While the Caribbean bubble was disintegrating and Covid regulations were making travel not only difficult but also expensive, Gambia was a safe haven in the crazy world of global epidemics. We spent a portion of time at our base camp at Lamin Lodge, a well-known cruisers haven that had fallen into disrepair. The local community had picked up the gauntlet during the tough tourist-starved year and established a daily communal meal to ensure everyone was fed; we were invited to share in the feast. The centre of activity was usually under the trees between two local establishments: One was a bar that, due to the lack of electricity, sold only soda from a chilly bin and the other was a restaurant that, due to the lack of clients, only served instant coffee. 

We would all mill around, hopeful that the 2:00 mealtime would be ready by 3:00 but was never ready before 4:00 and most frequently served at 5:00. We learned quickly never to come to lunch hungry. I came to appreciate the time required to produce a meal after getting involved with the cooking. The typical Gambian meal is 95% rice, 4% fish and 1% veg, cooked for several hours over charcoal in a large iron pot in a layered process: Fry the fish in a gallon of vegetable oil and remove. Add veggies, herbs and spices to the pot of oil in order of density, set aside. Cook the rice in the richly favoured oil. Three hours later you have cooked the three separate components of the meal, which is layered on a platter in reverse order and served. And let me tell you, the food was delicious. No doubt the bucket of oil was a contributing factor.

When eventually served, we would huddle in a group and share the meal together. At a time when my family in England and the USA were hibernating in isolation due to the surge in Covid cases, we were sitting hunkered down in the dirt eating with our hands from a communal platter with strangers. How different our experience was from so many around the world. We enjoyed the daily ritual of a shared meal and the camaraderie that came with it, and it was hard to pull ourselves away when it came time to do so.

So ask again, why Gambia? Is it worth the motoring and the mud and the bugs? Yeah, I can give up a few rum cocktails for a trip up the Gambia river. I’ll take a month of motoring for a few days in the silent tranquility of her freshwater creeks. I’ll elbow through a mile of mud to sip tea with a stranger. I’ll battle a billion mosquitoes to hold a hundred little hands in my palm. If I were a gambling woman I’d put money down on the Gambian coin, and it wouldn’t matter what side of the coin I laid my bet on. Every day I would lay my bet, flip the coin and let fate decide my direction: Heads for the river and tails for the village. Social isolation or social inclusion — either way I’d be a winner.

Photos posted on: Images

Sugar and Spice

Follow link to read the published article: Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

When the end of the cruising season in the southern Caribbean was upon us, we did what a majority of Caribbean cruisers do: We sailed south for Grenada. We delayed as long as we could, knowing the hurricane season was upon us but not wanting to be forced south. I had but one impression of Grenada, and that was of rotting boats and retired sailors. It was a cruisers graveyard, or so I thought, and I was far from accepting an end to our sailing days.

Grenada is the southernmost group of islands in the Lesser Antilles archipelago as well as the name of the main island within a cluster of eight smaller islands and about a dozen smaller islets and cays. The only thing I knew of its geography prior to arriving was that it was one of the few island groups in the Caribbean far enough south to be considered out of the hurricane belt. It was with supreme irony, therefore, that we had to shelter in the mangroves on our first day in country from a category 1 storm. As we lashed Ātea’s bow to densely-bound tree roots and secured lines to the cleats of yachts on either side of us, our small unit became a part of the larger, unified collective. Little did we realise that this interconnection would be representative of our Grenadian experience.

Safely through the storm, we disbanded and spread out to explore our new surroundings. We completed our clearance in Carriacou, Grenada’s northern sister island, and we were amazed to see a hundred or so yachts anchored in Tyrell Bay, Carriacou’s main harbour. I knew Grenada was popular, but if the numbers of boats in Carriacou were anything to judge by, I’d have to cope with much larger numbers when we travelled further south. The south coast of Granada not only provides the most settled weather, it is riddled with about a dozen safe harbours from the dominant easterly swell. It the reason why cruisers gather on Grenada’s south coast, and it is also the reason why cruisers remain. Some stay for hurricane season, some use the island as a base for a few years, some retire from active cruising and either settle or sell. One thing was certain, though: Grenada was far more than the end of the line.

Before making the journey south, however, we wanted to stretch out the season by adding in a short circumnavigation around Carriacou, known to the Kalinago (the original Island Caribs) as “The Isle of Reefs.” Given name and reputation, we would spend our time dodging bommies and soaking up the tropical island experience with our feet in the sand, our bellies in the water and our hands on a bottle of rum. We stopped at Petite Martinique, the third and smallest of the three main islands, and enjoyed the rugged, rocky beaches, side-stepping clusters of goat grazing the green rolling hills as we hiked up Mount Piton for panoramic views of the surrounding islands, and climbed down into the Darant Bay Cave for framed views of the same islands at sea level. Of course, we couldn’t miss a few sundowners on Mopion, a tiny sand mound rising amid expansive coral reef with a single beach umbrella perched in the centre. While technically a part of the Grenadines, its proximity to Petite Martinique made a quick dash across the border for a sip in the shade of this unique little spot a worthwhile experience. Living up to its name, Carriacou was an island surrounded by unspoiled reef, and it did not disappoint. A quick tour of her perimeter was the perfect way to salute the end of an amazing Caribbean season.

With a quick stop-over in Ronde Island, a beautiful private island that lay half way between Carriacou and Grenada, we continued our transit south. Again, of things unexpected, I’d not prepared myself for the wild beauty of Grenada’s west coast. Mile after mile of dense, lush forest cascade down the leeward side of the island from peak to sea. We hugged the coastline as we sailed the 13 miles down the west coast, looking up at 2,700 feet of volcanic rock and shear waterfalls that fed the small rivers that ran down the slopes of the mountainous interior to the coast. While Grenada is well reputed as a tourist destination for holiday-makers seeking either a sun-drenched party or quiet refuge on one of its 45 beaches, I knew from sailing down the coast that my preferences would draw me inland.

Grenada’s coastline contains many large bays, but the majority of yachts head for safe anchorage behind one of the many narrow peninsulas that spit up the southern coastline. As we pulled into Prickly Bay, the first of Grenada’s southern harbours, I knew from the crowd of yachts that I would be escaping to the interior as soon as possible. As it turned out, I didn’t get that chance. As soon as we dropped anchor we were invited ashore for a cruiser’s jam session, reconnecting with friends from past seasons. The following day we found ourselves crammed into the back seat of a taxi on our way to an event for the annual Chocolate Festival, and our schedule quickly filled after that: Tours of cocoa plantations, cocoa grinding competitions, chocolate tastings and chocolate drawing contests. In additional to the island’s cultural events, we were also immediately drawn into the cruiser’s social scene. On our first week of arrival our mornings were already booked into early morning yoga and bootcamp on the beach, and the kids joined a cruiser’s homeschooling collective and regular extracurricular activities that were held under the shade of the trees. If we weren’t listening to live music or joining the beach barbecues put on by the locals in the evenings, we were sitting poolside and sipping beers from a $5 bucket with a crowd of other cruisers at Le Phare Bleu, a boutique hotel who’d opened their amenities and their services to cruisers during the pandemic. Every morning there was an activity and every evening there was a social get-together, and the weeks flew by in a social extravaganza unlike any we’d experienced. As yachts gather in Grenada every year for the hurricane season, it was clear that the regularity of this influx of boats had resulted in a solid cruising community and a variety of services and events that have arisen from it. Far more than a collection of retired boats and sunburnt seamen, my preconceived notions of Grenada didn’t come close to the reality of the vibrant cruising network that existed on this popular island.

As we made new friends and reconnected with old ones, we found that we really enjoyed the buzz that the tight community offered. Pulling myself out of the continuous activity took a concerted effort, but I eventually dragged the family off the beach and up the mountains. After our trip into the interior, I knew I had a new passion for my time in Granada: Exploring waterfalls. A short bus journey followed by a hike into the forest would lead us to one of Granada’s many waterfalls, and unlike other tourist destinations where fees were handed over and you’d stand under falls next to groups of other tourists, we had the rivers free of cost and all to ourselves. Some of the trails were a short distance from the road, and we’d hop on and off a bus to walk the short distance to the falls. Others, such as Seven Sisters and the Concord Falls, required planning as it took a full day to hike in and out of the forest, clambering up steep banks and criss-crossing the river to wind through deep forest to get a view from the top. Each part of the river that ran down from one of the six inland lakes had its own magic and I was enthusiastic to see what each had to offer. It was only later it that I really appreciated all that I’d gotten in terms of Grenada’s inland beauty. As I paid $20 per person to stand in crowd under cascading water in Costa Rica’s most popular waterfalls, I couldn’t help but compare it to all that I’d been able to see and experience in Grenada’s secluded, remote interior.

In additional to nature, we explored some of the historical roots of Grenada’s past. Grenada’s original economy was based on sugar cane and indigo, and with that came the importation of slaves in the mid-seventeenth century to work and harvest the crops. We set out to search for some of the old plantation houses and slave pens that remained from that period, which took us on a wild tramp through the the backstreets of quiet neighbourhoods and into unmarked bush to find these lost relics. It was quite the education for our children to see the small, dank, windowless stone slave quarters set behind grand old houses, a potent reminder of darker times in this beautiful and vibrant country. We also smelled and sampled some of Grenada’s more current crops, nutmeg, mace and cocoa at the top of the list of exports, and enjoyed local culinary treats such as oil down, a vegetable stew that is the country’s national dish. Thanks to these excursions we can say that Grenada is, both figuratively and literally, full of sugar and spice.

Cruising often leaves you tied to the boat and, therefore, the sea. Grenada was a wonderful period of enjoying the most of both land and sea in equal balance, and in doing so we were able to get the most of what the country has to offer. To see the beaches but not the forest, lakes and rivers is to get only half the experience; likewise to spend time inland but not explore the coast leaves only half an impression. As Grenada offers safe anchorage throughout the hurricane season, cruisers remain in close proximity for an extended period of time, sharing experiences and building friendships. This is unique for a community that is typically very transient, and offers plenty of opportunity to create a home away from home atmosphere. In addition, there are suitable yacht services available so that the period of time spent waiting for the next season gives everyone a chance to get much needed repair work done. Far from being the end of the line, Grenada offers an interim rest stop where friendships are forged and yachts are restored on an island that offers a wide range of activities and opportunities both on and above the waterline.

<a href=”http://<a href=”http://<iframe src=”; width=”500″ height=”683″ style=”border:none;overflow:hidden” scrolling=”no” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen=”true” allow=”autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; picture-in-picture; web-share”>” data-type=”URL” data-id=”<a href=”http://Images

Bonaire’s a Blast

Bonaire was a mini-holiday destination for us and we lapped up the luxuries through excellent shoreside meals, social sunset happy hours, desert hikes, round-the-island road trips and daily dives off the aft end of the boat. Diving in Bonaire is like hopping into an oversized aquarium, where everything is benign and beautiful, colourful and diverse, easy and accessible, placid and playful, all the way down to the miniature seahorses resting on the mooring block. There were none of the challenges that can be so typical of cruising in this small Dutch colony. Here, everything was easy: The weather, the life ashore, the life under water, the diving, the sailing, the socialising. Our days were full of fun and full of rum, without a worry in the world. 

A full account of our time in Bonaire was published by PassageMaker in the following article: The ABCs of Bonaire.

The Blessed Isles: More than Just a Stop Over

Link to published article: The Blessed Isles

Sailing across an ocean is often seen as a mariners biggest achievement. With 4,000 miles between America and Europe, the distance across the Atlantic means a four-week transit across a temperamental ocean. It is for this reason that a small collection of mid-Atlantic islands earned the name, “The Blessed Isles.” Officially called Macaronesia, these four island groups — the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and Cape Verde — have played a central role in trans-Atlantic trade since boats first started long-distance voyages. Located west of Portugal, Spain and the north-African coast in the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, they continue to offer a mid-passage respite for modern-day mariners keen for short break in route between the two continents.

The four island groups are often thought of as relatively similar. All are volcanic in origin with a number of the islands still active (as illustrated by the recent eruption of Cumbre Vieja in Las Palmas, Canaries in September this year) Their isolation from the mainland has allowed endemic species of animal and fauna to flourish, and their exposure to strong trade-winds means a harsh environment during the northern winter. Knowing we would cut our transatlantic passage by adding a mid-Atlantic stop, we used the Canaries as a break point: A week transit from Europe to the Canaries and then a three-week sail to the Caribbean.

The Canaries is an autonomous region of Spain and consists of 13 islands. Given the geographic  similarity between the islands within Macaronesia, I was expecting an extension of Madeira and the Azores; I couldn’t have been more misinformed. I am unsure where I’ve seen such diversity within an island group. Each of the thirteen islands has its own unique environment with a fascinating cultural heritage that is still evident today. To see one island is certainly not to have seen the other.

Tenerife Cave Dwellings: The original settlers of the Canaries were the Guanches who arrived from African in the first or second century. They settled in caves across the islands, concentrated in Tenerife. What was fascinating to me about this history is that people are still living in these cave dwellings to this day. Excursions throughout the countryside revealed numerous dwellings spread across the island; drying laundry splayed out on lines, dogs lounging outside cave entrances, chairs perched aside a rock wall, chickens living in their coops: All scattered evidence of human habitation. We found isolated valleys where large communities were dispersed across a mountainside, with small footpaths winding their way up the mountainside. I became fascinated by this current cave culture, still alive and vibrant. I’ve travelled to many countries where old cave dwellings are protected as Unesco Heritage Sites, but this is the first time I’ve seen established communities in remote cave dwellings. It became my preoccupation to drive aimlessly throughout the island, trying to find as many cave dwellings as I could discover — a surprisingly easy feat given the number of cave-dwellers spread out throughout the Canaries.

Lanzarote Volcanic Vineyards: Both the Azores and the Canaries have developed a unique form of viticulture in one of the most inhospitable regions. It is impossible to imagine that someone can grow anything but the most rugged crop in the rocky, volcanic soil. Grape vines are the last thing I would expect to crisscross the region. However, ingenious vintners have done just that — they have created an environment where grapes not only grow, but thrive. This form of deep-root horticulture called “erarenado” is unique to Lanzarote. Small semi-circular walls, called “zoco,” are made from black lava stones and protect a single vine, providing a barrier against the strong trade winds. It is a very labour intensive form of cultivation as each crater holds a single vine, making hand-picked grapes the only option for harvesting. Wine-tasting was the last thing I expected on our mid-Atlantic stop; not only was it delicious, it was also historically fascinating.

Lava Tubes and Subterranean Tunnels: Lava tubes and deep volcanic caverns riddle the Canary Islands. A number of the islands, such as Gran Canaria and Tenerife, have extensive pyroclastic fields and a number display dramatic volcanic cones with impressive craters, such as Teide on Tenerife and Cumbre Vieja on La Palma. Given the range of erosional stages of each of the seven volcanic islands, each island offers a very unique perspective. This means you can hike the top of a volcanic rim that is covered in deep foliage (Gran Canaria), walk through volcanic moonscapes (Los Lobos), wander deep inside massive caverns (Lanzarote) and follow lava tubes deep inside (Tenerife). Given the different stages of each of the islands, you can see both the devastation and the beauty that they bring: As one explodes, another holds a breathtaking amphitheatre and a species of blind crab that is endemic to the island. While the local inhabitants continue to deal with the aftermath of Cumbre Vieja’s violent explosion on La Palma, Cueva de los Verdes in Lanzarote holds concerts for an audience of 500 in its expansive cavern and provides sanctuary to an endemic species of miniature blind albino cave crabs in its deep-turquoise underground freshwater lagoon.

Underwater Sculpture Garden: Equally unique to the Canaries is Europe’s first underwater sculpture garden, a collection of 12 installations laid down by sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor to raise social and environmental awareness. “Museo Atlantico” was made public in 2017 and holds 300 life-sized human figures all performing everyday tasks: a couple holding hands, a man sitting on a swing, fishermen in their boats, someone taking a “selfie.” Four years on and the sculptures are starting provide a decent false reef and the effect is impressive… and rather eerie. A dive on the site will remain a very unique experience and is not to be missed on a trip through Lanzarote.

Many sailors use the largest of the Canary Islands, Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, solely for provisioning and boat preparation prior to a transatlantic passage. However, to bypass the islands that surround the main island is to miss out on some interesting and diverse islands and should be considered a highlight destination in the Eastern Atlantic. Each of the islands we visited on our sail through the island group was a continuous series of unfolding surprises. The villages all hold their own quaint small-town European character and each island offers an experience drastically different than its neighbour: From the bustle of Gran Canaries largest city, Las Palmas, to the quiet cave-dwellers of its outer communities; from from the enormous sand-dunes of Fuertaventura’s Parque Natural de las Dunas to the barren volcanic cone of Los Lobos to the lush laurel forest of Los Tilos de Moya in Gran Canaria; from sea to inland lake to crater rim to underground tunnels; from camel back to mountaintop to mid-city cafes. There is a diversity in the Canaries that makes a “hop” through in route from American to Europe a must-see destination in itself.



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

The Cocomo

Link to published article: The Kocomo

Aruba, Jamaica, ohh I want to take ya,
Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama,
Key Largo, Montigo, baby why don’t we go to the Cocomo…

The Beach Boy’s 1970s lyrics were what put Cocos Keeling in our sights. As we sailed south towards the small island dependency of Australia, I kept singing the song and imagining us bound for the kind of island that songs and dreams are made of. “Ohh I wanna take you down to Cocomo. We’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow…” and that’s exactly what we intended for our two weeks in paradise.

That said, I know the actual song had nothing to do with Cocos Keeling per say, and I’ve yet to find out what the Cocomo actually is. Regardless, heading for an island oasis in the middle of a large ocean was enough of a similarity; the palm trees would sway under white sand beaches, the waters would shimmer cool and invitingly, and I could almost taste the rum on my lips. What I didn’t foresee was the gale that preceded us that cast the island in a blanket of grey, but even the regional storm that typically shrouds everything in muted colours couldn’t dampen the vibrancy that defines this idyllic tropical island getaway. In all the damp greyness that surrounded us, even the deepest shadow cast by the clouds wasn’t enough to dampen the hues of bright blue that reflected off the water. As soon as the clouds moved past this place would pop in electric layers of colour and I knew that we’d landed what many cruisers seek out in their travels: A slice of island heaven.

Of course, history tells that we aren’t the only ones who have chosen this place as a sailor’s Mecca. The islands earliest history is the stuff cartoons are made from, though perhaps only appreciated by those with a twisted sense of humour. Cocos Keeling was first settled by an Englishman by the name of John Hare in 1826, who visited earlier in his career and determined it was prime real estate. On retirement he returned with a harem of forty women to see out his final years in the uninhabited and unclaimed island oasis. His plans were thwarted a few years later with the arrival of John Clunies-Ross and his motley crew. It took little time for the women to see the opportunity, and defect. Tensions ran high between the two former associates and Clunies-Ross, wielding more manpower, banished Hare to an adjacent islet shortly thereafter. Marooned and abandoned, Hare managed to escape and fled back to civilization but died several years later dejected and alone. Clearly, the Cocomo eluded him. Cocos Keeling did not provide John Hare the stuff songs and dreams are made of after all; the same was almost said of us.

Like John Hare, our decision to come to Cocos Keeling held its own comedies and dramas. Coming in between squalls, we found it difficult to find the entrance to the small lagoon off Direction Island, the designated anchorage for visiting yachts. After struggling over the previous 24-hours to make any headway, we finally reached the island only to be cut off from our anchorage by a line of coral that stretched across the lagoon. The entrance was marked by directional marker buoys, but it was hard to see any way over the reef. After scratching our heads and spinning Ātea in circles for half an hour, the threat of another squall pushed us to make a decision. I donned mask and snorkel, jumped in with a splash, and guided us over the reef by sight. The anchor was finally laid out and we breathed a sigh of relief. We were in, unscathed. I jumped around deck, counting the black tip sharks that patrolled beneath our hull and the yachts that joined us in the marina: six. Having neighbours was totally unexpected. Coming from Asia we were well behind any of the yachts transiting the Indian Ocean this year. We soon realized we’d hit a totally different cycle of cruiser: Those crossing due west on a southern route on a shorter timeframe.

About half an hour after arrival the police called us on the radio signaling they wanted to come alongside to clear us in, making protocol easy by coming to us directly. Relief. We would be spared the hassle of tramping around an unknown country trying to find the officials to clear in. They promptly pulled up and tied off our port side, but with difficulty. The squall had brought strong winds that churned up the sea and the vessels jostled against each other. I stated my concern about two steel hinges on the rib but the captain and police official dismissed my apprehension. This was standard procedure. What standard procedure didn’t protect us against, to our dismay, was pilot error and atypical sea conditions. Half way through clearance the vessels turned side on to the waves and a gut-wrenching BANG! BANG! BANG! rang through our ship. We were left with two softball-sized dents in the side of our hull. Lesson number one: always listen to your instinct, regardless of the size of the badge on someone’s hip.

Lesson number two: Always follow protocol when entering a country. Particularly if that country is Australia, and double that if this is your second offense. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that 1) I’m not a New Zealand citizen and permanent residency in this case doesn’t count, 2) I ‘m travelling on an American passport and needed a visa to enter Australia, 3) I have memory failure at the least opportune moments, and the fact that I’d overstayed my visa once before was a distant, forgotten memory. But we didn’t’ know any of this yet. We found out about lesson two a week later, with the threat of a $5000 fine.

There is nothing quite like an unexpected visit from the Australian police. It is not an experience I’d recommend, and not one I’d like to repeat. A few days after arrival we were called on the radio by the police and asked if all parties were onboard with passports on hand. An odd enquiry; I couldn’t imagine what they were interested in but nonetheless the question left me feeling uncomfortable. An hour later we were boarded and I was asked if I could be spoken to in private, and that the conversation would be videotaped and my statement recorded. I managed to squeak out my consent.

Police: “Excuse me ma’am, you are in violation of Australian border security on a visa infringement. Are you aware of this?”My pulse quickened: “What?”
Police: “Headquarters in Canberra have informed me that you have entered the country without a valid permit and are currently being investigated for violation of boarder security. Are you Kia Koropp and can you confirm that this your passport?”
You find it hard to think, let alone speak, in moments like these and so one word answered was all I could manage. “Yes. Yes.”
Police: “Is this an American passport?”
Feebly, “Yes.”
Police: “Do you have a visa to enter Australia or an Australian territory in this passport?”
At this, I started to sweat. “No…?”
Police: Have you ever been questioned about a violation of border security in the past?
Memory and eyes go blank. “What?! Definitely NOT.”

With my nerves shaken and eyes flickering between video recorder and clean-shaven cop, my shaky interrogation continued. While the Australian police have a fierce reputation, the kind who opts for a cushy job in a small island community and rides around on a bicycle to keep a paternal eye on a benign, close-knit community doesn’t fit the mold. Guided through the remainder of the interrogation with winks and soft suggestive prods, the rest of the conversation went something like this:

Police, out of sight of the camera eye: “Yes. Well I understand you left Sumatra without adequate provisions for the duration of your stay in Chagos.” Wink wink. “And you may have been concerned with the welfare of your child and, being in need of medical facilities, had to unexpectedly reroute to Cocos.” Wink wink. “And that storm… Whoa. That storm was fierce. There is no way you could continue on your course to Chagos AS INTENDED.” Wink wink.

In a moment like this you want to smile and cry and reach out to hug this random warm-hearted stranger offering salvation and unbridled kindness. Continuing our empathetic exchange with an air of formality, I was told that while he believed in my innocence and would request that a formal warning be issued, he could only provide a recommendation and the offence could warrant a $5,000 fine. The decision would happen by an official removed from the scene in faraway Canberra, sitting behind a desk flicking through incoming emails in what I hoped would be a very good mood. For the moment we were told to sit tight, relax and enjoy our time in paradise.

This was certainly NOT turning out to be the Cocomo we were expecting. Had Aruba and Jamaica been on this side of the world, we would have taken our entourage and our dreams elsewhere, but like John Hare we were temporarily marooned; it had taken us a week to get here and our next destination was two weeks away. Besides, what we needed next was a clinic and this was something Cocos Keeling could offer us. Ayla had picked up a rash on passage and some of the red spots had turned into welts that were spreading. Fortunately, the diagnosis was a benign skin infection called impetigo and curable with a week of medication. We also got Braca’s HBA1C test done, indicating his blood sugar control over a three-month period, which gave us reassurance we were managing his diabetes responsibly. Unbeknownst to us at the time, record of our clinic visit would provide us a significant lifeline when it came to dealing with Australian immigration over my visa infringement.

Fortunately we’d already gotten a glimpse of what Cocos had to offer and we were charmed, so hightailing it out of the country was not under consideration. Regardless of a string of upsets, this was going to be a fantastic destination and it didn’t take me long to put my infringement concerns on the sidelines. We’d found what the Beach Boys promised us and we were going to live the lyrics:

That’s where you wanna go to get away from it all, Cocomo
Bodies in the sand
Tropical drink melting in the hand
We’ll be falling in love to the rhythm of the steel drum band
Down in Cocomo…

We spent our days counting the black tip reef shark that made a daily pilgrimage around our boat, watching the dolphins spin under the spread of midafternoon rainbows and smiling at the large sea turtles that lazily idled by.  Social engagements with other cruisers included sundowners and rowdy, raucous games in the cockpit. We built bonfires on the beach at sunset, shared meals on the spit ashore with an island-style fare of barracuda and mahi-mahi thrown on the barbeque served with heart of palm torn from the root of fledgling palm trees, and we washed it all down with the rich water from freshly cracked coconuts. We were living the Cocomo, Keeling-style. We had it all, ukulele and percussions included. All we were missing was the steel drums. Every day was marked with an afternoon snorkel, a swim off the beach and the slow pace of island living.

It didn’t take us long to register that we had changed cruising seasons with the transit between the northern and southern hemisphere, and in doing so we’d hooked into a completely different pattern of climate, of environment, and of cruiser. Instead of being hot, humid and windless as it was in Asia, the climate here is slightly cooler with constant trade winds. The water temperature dropped from 32°C to 25°C and the air temperature dropped with it. We started wearing clothes onboard again and sleeping under sheets, a novel change brought by the cool breezes of the southern trade winds. The environment is now cleaner and less spoilt, and more protected. This is a function of the Australian enforcement, which has with strict regulations in place to protect the environment. This is evident in the clarity of water, the cleanliness of the shores and the prevalence of shark and large schools of reef fish. While debris that flows south from Asia does filter through, the difference in the quality of the environment both above and below the water is dramatic and so very rare to see.

Two weeks of livin’ the Cocomo and I was back in front of the friendly police officer who, after inviting me to his wife’s playgroup and offering to collect and deliver me in his golf cart, broke the news: I’d received a slap on a hand, a warning. It seemed that my Canberra savior had woken in tussled bedcovers, had her morning coffee made by a particularly charming barista delivered especially strong and hot, and walked into the office that day with a spring in her step and a whistle on her lips… or something like that. I was not going to be $5000 in debt, I was not going to be herded out of the island by a bicycle-peddling policeman and I would not be barred by force in any future entry down unda. We were now OFFICIALLY welcome guests of this beautiful Australian dependency.

And so, we OFFICIALLY started to explore beyond the captivating confines of the lagoon in which we perched. The islands are positioned into two main groups: North Keeling is an atoll with a continuous coral reef enclosing a lagoon, South Keeling consists of an atoll with a reef connecting the various main islands around a large lagoon. Yachts have one designated anchorage in the lagoon at the northern entrance of South Keeling. It is here on Direction Island that the cruising yachts are based and where most of the yachtie activity is centered. The cruising guide states, “this is the only island in the world that is completely dedicated to cruisers.” In fact, the island is dedicated to the locals and holidaymakers that come from the inhabited islands surrounding it and not the cruisers specifically; however, all visitors are free to use the amenities as long as resources are used responsibly. Ashore there is a water tank for rainwater catchment, covered picnic benches and  tables scattered along the beachfront, swings and hammocks hanging from trees, bonfire pits and barbeque facilities, coconut trees inscribed with toilet signs to direct the user to their perch, complete with long drop and a stash of abandoned beach chairs. There is even the convenience of Wi-Fi and a telephone booth offering free calls to anyone in the islands. All this is on offer for the nominal fee of $50 per week, and while some would complain at paying for a yacht swinging on her own anchor, who could complain about paying for a place with free local calls?!

It was at this random payphone, placed conspicuously between palm trees, that I met Flo. Between tears and phone calls, I scraped together the unfortunate situation that this single Italian cruiser had gotten herself into. Joining as temporary crew on a Chilean yacht, she’d developed a hostile relationship with the captain who’d threatened to throw her from the ship mid-passage. Clearly not an ideal situation as she and the skipper were looking at 1,700 miles to the Maldives in front of them. She was frantic to find accommodation ashore but none was available, and I took the opportunity to repay earlier kindnesses extended to me by strangers: I offered a safe haven. She packed her bags and by morning we’d acquired a new crewmember on Atea. It was a change of scene having someone onboard and we enjoyed the company, although it was a reminder of how tight a space our floating home becomes in the company of strangers. Regardless, a beautiful friendship was made through an unexpected encounter, thanks to a random telephone booth tucked up in the oddest, most unlikely spot on Earth.

While Direction Island offers a cushy gig for the cruiser, the quaintness of Cocos stands out with its matching cookie-cutter houses and complimentary golf cart that line the identical cobbled brick streets of the five by five block town of nearby Home Island. Even the police station is quaint, with its single desk and single fan in a small one-room office with an officer offering us cookies from the small fridge that sits in the corner next to a bicycle and the police-marked golf-cart parked out front. Better still, we made our fee payment at the Shires office, which can only make one think of a sweet pointy-eared, hairy three-toed hobbit greeting you warmly with a lop-sided smile. I’ve come to think of it as the Leave It To Beaver Island of the modern day world, a reference to the popular 1960’s American sitcom where everything is conventional in ordered suburbia. Home Island is about as quaint as a place can get.

Muslim descendants from Malaysia predominantly inhabit Home Island, with about two thousand residents on the small island. On the other hand West Island – the only other island with a town to offer –has a few hundred Australian residents, most of whom are on two- to three-year governmental contracts. The ethnic separation between the two islands is distinct, and clearly there are large subsidies going to support the island group from Australia. Not only is this evident in the two quaint provincial towns with identical houses lined like rows of Crayola pencils down neat cobbled streets, or the state-compensated golf-carts, the library or local school. On an island with little industry, it is hard to think of anyone being able to support himself or herself regardless of additional funding. Take shopping at the one-and-only grocery store on the island, with goods that arrive by plane twice a month and sold at exorbitant prices. Fresh fruit and vegetables arrive every other Friday by plane from Australia, and the villagers stand in a long line at the single cash register at daybreak Saturday morning for first opportunity to get fresh produce. If you aren’t there early, you’ve two weeks to go before you get the next chance to stock your cupboards. If it isn’t there, good luck finding it at one of the three tiny one-room shops, all offering the same collection of cheap plastic toys and the same dusty tins shipped from India.

If you do happen to be first in line that second Saturday, you better be prepared with your monthly wage, to offer up your firstborn or to take out a mortgage against your house: It is strategically impossible to leaving with a good supply of food and money in your bank account. A small box of basics runs no less than $400, and that doesn’t include wine and cheese. In fact, all the cheese in the chiller expired months ago and the only wine offered on the island is alcohol-free, so when I speak of a box of basics that’s exactly what I mean: A handful of onions, a box of crackers, powdered milk and a packet of noodles. The basics. Now, come that second Friday, there is the option of fresh greens, but that’ll cost you. In fact, in two weeks it cost us $1000 AND we came to the island fully provisioned.

What I was able to acquire cost us dearly: $30 for a dozen tomatoes, $25 for a handful of carrots, $40 for five cartons of eggs. Unfortunately the $16 for two head of lettuce, $6 per capsicum, $10 for a small Ziploc bag of green beans, $15 for half a small broccoli and half a cauliflower had to be left behind as the solar-run Wi-Fi was down for the week and we couldn’t transfer any money into our account. We shopped in Sumatra for a two-month provisioning at a fraction of the cost and left fully stored with every fruit and vegetable imaginable. We were going to eat like royalty in the uninhabited archipelago, sipping our passion fruit-pineapple piña coladas at sundown, crunching through our Cobb salad for lunch and enjoying a fresh fruit medley for breakfast. With the extension of the additional weeks in Cocos and restrictions on re-provisioning, our dial may be pushed toward empty during our time in Chagos. Fingers crossed, we learn to fish.

One trademark of Cocos comes from her position on the map. At 12S latitude, the little island group sits in the middle of the southeast trade winds, receiving strong consistent winds and thereby making it an ideal destination for those addicted to wind-on-water sports. For us, that means kite surfing. That is, it SHOULD have meant kite surfing had our kit not been curled up to melt in their bags during our last few seasons in the sweltering tropical heat of windless Asia. As a result, our kites couldn’t offer us a play in the 20-knot wind that beckoned us. Each day John sat under the palms swaying in the breeze hunched over tubes and pumps and repair kits, attempt after failed attempt to repair each split seam. I looked on towards the picturesque horizon as our French sailing mates soared backward and forwards under the spread of their leak-less kite, hearing our old chant of “if only we could find a spot where the water was warm, the breeze steady, and the lagoon flat and empty…” and kicked myself for, yet again, equipment failure at the least opportune moment.

Since we couldn’t play on top of the water, we spent our days in it. Given the health and richness of the underwater environment, protected as a marine reserve, there was little for us to complain about. The snorkeling was superb for the clarity, the corals and the life. Gray, black and white tip reef shark abound and proved reliable swimming companions, as did the large schools of hump-head wrasse and parrotfish, so thick in number that I could dive down and reach out to tickle their underbellies. There were grouper the size of my four-year old son, butterfly, trumpet and clown fish, flirtatious rather than shy, snapper and trevally for hook and sinker and an afternoon braai and large-mouthed clams and umpteen spongy sea cucumbers to serve on the side. Dolphin often came into the lagoon to swim around the resting yachts and several sea turtles poked around inquisitively. The kids leaped forward in their swimming skills; with Braca and Ayla swimming underwater unassisted by parent or float and both finding a newfound love of snorkelling, we would poke around the reef each day curious and playful in the rich aquatic wonderland. There was a rip that we often returned to with current running through it at three knots. We’d take the dingy with the outboard full tilt up to the top of the channel and jump in holding onto the painter and drift through the pass, our mouths agape and eyes batting around wildly trying to take it all in. Braca and Ayla kicked alongside us, no idea how truly spectacular the experience was but excited all the same about the sharks resting under the ledges and the myriad of fish that surrounded us.

For such a small, isolated spot on the world map, Cocos Keeling has delivered us an extraordinary time full of new charms and unexpected surprises, and it is hard to say goodbye to this uniquely charming atoll. From here, we resume our thrice-revised itinerary and head for Chagos where I expect to find a myriad of new delights. However, regardless of the new adventures that lay ahead, it is hard pull our bodies from the sand, leave behind the steel drum band and put down the tropical drink melting in my hand…

That said, perhaps a similar Cocomo lay waiting for us:

We’ll put out to sea and we’ll perfect our chemistry
By and by we’ll defy a little bit of gravity
Afternoon delight, cocktails and moonlit nights,
That dreamy look in your eye, give me a tropical contact high
Way down in Cocomo…
NOTE: If you are the Australian police, boarder control or, for that matter, any governmental agency, this essay is for entertainment purposes only. No passage is to be taken literally, and no statement can be used against me in a court of law. If in the future I should be under investigation for any reason involving entering or leaving the country, I would like to officially state that IN ROUTE TO CHAGOS there were three crucial and unforeseeable reasons to divert: 1) the weather was Gale Force 8, 2) both Ayla and Braca are on record at the clinic on Home Island, and 3) we were desperate for a few blocks of Cocos expired cheese.
If you are a close mate or family member, interpret as you wish. You know me well… does this sound like a scenario I could POSSIBLY get myself into?

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.


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.


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.