Having crossed the Pacific the previous year we were keen to discover what the Indian Ocean held in store. We had spent two exciting months exploring the Queensland coast from Bundaberg to Cape York, and now in Darwin we looked forward to ocean passages again after all that day-sailing. Although we were leaving mainland Australia, three of her territories lay before us like stepping stones across the Indian Ocean to Africa.
Dolphins swam alongside Stella Maris as we sailed away from Darwin en route to the first of these, an uninhabited nature reserve some 520 miles to the west called Ashmore Reef. Their joyful send-off brought us good luck during the three day trip in the form of perfect weather and excellent fishing. The dolphins eventually turned back to Darwin, but a short while later an unidentifiable Mohican-haired seabird arrived to hitch a ride. He found a comfortable spot on the aft deck and was happy to indulge in the freshly caught tuna we offered him. In return for our hospitality, our stowaway took leisurely turns around Stella Maris’ deck, leaving copious quantities of fresh guano to show his appreciation. He kept us company all through the first night’s watches and then some time the next morning decided to fly away. With his favourite perch on the aft deck now vacated, we were able to troll the lure once again. It wasn’t long before we’d caught another fish, but our spiky-haired friend didn’t return to share it.
As we made our way westwards, the southeast trade winds were steady in strength but fickle in direction. They insisted on dancing over the deck in a narrow band around 120 degrees, first above it and then below. This meant that we got plenty of practice poling and unpoling the genoa, a chore that continued throughout our night watches, interrupting our sleep. We found it difficult to get into a comfortable rhythm on short passages at the best of times, and this added challenge left us feeling more tired than usual.
Customs Coast Watch planes had kept a close eye on us during our entire journey along Australia’s east coast, and their vigilance continued unabated as we sailed away from the mainland. Now, though, their almost daily surveillance of Australian waters was assisted by the Air Force, whose planes sometimes flew over us at such an impressively low altitude that it seemed they wanted to land on deck to examine our paperwork.
We had been given two glossy flyers about Ashmore Reef by the Customs Officer in Darwin, so we knew that the channel to the anchorage at West Island was marked. Although every single buoy was helpfully shown superimposed on a satellite image, one of the flyers stated that the channel was “for use solely by the Australian Customs Service and the Department of the Environment and Heritage” and “should not be transited by others”. Even though the numerous scattered coral patches were perfectly visible in the bright midday sun when we arrived we weren’t about to chart our own unique course to the anchorage, so of course we did transit the channel, and were suitably grateful for its existence.
There were no other boats in the anchorage, so we had our pick of the ten moorings that had been installed to protect coral and seagrass (turtle and dugong food). With 25 knot southeasterly winds whipping up chop across more than four miles of lagoon, picking up our chosen mooring proved to be quite a challenge. Our reward was the opportunity to explore one of the world’s most remote and inaccessible reefs.
The price we had to pay for this privilege were some stressful times during the night when Stella Maris began to buck alarmingly and we were keenly aware of the coral patches that waited for her downwind. Thankfully these nightmares ended as soon as low tide exposed those coral patches which, as if by magic, would turn from treacherous to protective. It was like a spell had been cast over the lagoon, and transformed it into a blissfully calm millpond.
Only a small area of Ashmore is open to the public: effectively the channel, the anchorage, and the eastern beach of West Island which lies beside the anchorage. The rest is left to birds, marine life, and Indonesian fishing boats, three of which were anchored in calmer waters towards the southeast when we arrived. (The closest Indonesian island is just 80 miles to the north.) Their presence attracted a ship from the Australian Navy, which patrolled the area to prevent illegal fishing, shelling, and sea cucumber harvesting, and the following day a launch was dispatched into the lagoon to check us all out.
Safe from Australia’s salties and great whites we relished the chance to snorkel in this protected reserve. We could only explore the coral patches at high tide when they became submerged, and unfortunately the lively chop then reduced visibility. We were disappointed to find a lack of fish and coral that was surprisingly unspectacular. Hopefully life was flourishing in the closed areas.
West Island is surrounded by extensive sand flats which are also protected, and so we went ashore at high tide. A low-lying bush and grass-covered island it had only two palm trees, but a lovely beach upon which rare nautilus shells lay scattered, and turtle tracks led to recent nesting sites. Australian zoning mandarins had been so keen to precisely delineate the island’s open areas that they’d sharpened their pencils to define an intriguing, narrow strip of land that permitted access towards the island’s centre. We would have needed our handheld GPS to stay within these tight boundaries, and the significance of this land, so carefully defined yet so disappointingly unexplained, remained a mystery to us.
We spent three days moored within Ashmore Reef, exploring its lagoon and the open areas of West Island, before its lively anchorage got the better of us and the open waters of the Indian Ocean beckoned us once again.