Christmas Far Out

We left the United States in mid-December, sailing away from the Texas coast on the tail end of a cold front that helped sweep us south towards Mexico. It was cold, the Gulf was rough, and for the first two days I got seasick every time I left the fresh air of the cockpit to go below deck. We were heading for Isla Mujeres, a small island some five miles east of Cancun, the first port of call on what would become our circumnavigation, and the place we’d spend our first Christmas onboard our 41 foot sailing boat, Stella Maris.

Isla Mujeres’ sandy beaches and palm trees did little to trigger the festive season switches in our north-European brains, which expected snow instead of sun and cold instead of heat. Instead we felt as if we were on a summer holiday and we began Christmas Day with a refreshing swim in the sea. But that afternoon a cold front brought a touch of winter to the scene, with strong winds whipping up chop in the anchorage. The rough conditions quickly dislodged the anchor of an unmanned yacht, which began drifting towards Stella Maris. Our plan to catch the boat and tie it from our stern went terribly wrong when its rudder got hooked on Stella Maris’ anchor chain, and there it stayed, bucking up and down like an angry bronco. Before long our anchor was pulled out of the seabed as well, and bound together both yachts moved hopelessly towards the waiting shore. But while Gjalt and I were busy using fenders to protect Stella Maris’ hull from damage, fellow cruisers appeared from nowhere to help: onboard Stella Maris, onboard the drifter, onboard a catamaran that pulled up alongside. Together they managed to separate the two boats and while they towed the drifter to safety, we took care of ourselves. Without the good will of those cruisers we would almost certainly have run aground, and our voyage would have been over before it had really begun.

The following Christmas we’d fulfilled our dream of crossing the vast Pacific Ocean, its islands and atolls magical stepping stones we’d explored on our way to Australia. Now Stella Maris was safely tied up in Bundaberg Port Marina, our home for the hurricane season, and it wasn’t drifting boats we needed to be saved from but the heat and humidity of summer on the far side of the world. It was the wonderful organisers of the Port Vila (Vanuatu) to Port Bundaberg yacht rally, Fred and Leslie, who came to our rescue this time by recommending us as house sitters to friends of theirs. Ex-cruisers Derek and Gill were going to Canada to spend Christmas with relatives and their cat, Keeling (named after a beautiful Australian atoll we’d soon be visiting ourselves), needed servants to take care of him while they were away. We were happy to oblige, not only because we love cats, but because this particular creature lived in an idyllic house beside the Burnett River, where the occasional kangaroo would bounce through the garden. We spent Christmas day with Fred and Leslie, their laid-back personalities and dry humour fitting perfectly with our idea of a Christmas down under that came with sunshine, a barbie and a few tinnies thrown in.

By the final Christmas of our circumnavigation we’d reached Durban, where we were in particularly good spirits because the tricky passage from Madagascar to South Africa across the Mozambique Channel was behind us. It was as hot in Durban as it had been in Bundaberg, but that year no one offered us a cat to look after or a house by a river to keep us cool. So instead we celebrated the day onboard Stella Maris and played hosts to a coterie of solo sailors who seemed to gravitate towards our cockpit. These independent salty dogs had colourful pasts and fantastic anecdotes that were part fact, part fiction, how much of each they probably didn’t even know themselves. But what’s certain is that they were perfect company for a hot Christmas day in the Royal Natal Yacht Club, where the challenge of rounding the Cape of Good Hope was still to come.

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