When we left our mooring in Flying Fish Cove, we lost no time trying to win the competition that we’d dreamt up with the crew from two other boats: to catch the biggest fish en route to Cocos (Keeling). Unfortunately our efforts got off to a bad start when the lure turned out to be utterly irresistible to Christmas Island’s seabirds, and we quickly reeled it in before we had something with wings instead of fins on the hook.
As well as being unlucky with fishing, we also began the trip being unlucky with the wind. It was very light, and we realized that we’d been blasé about checking all available weather forecasts because we considered this 530 mile trip to be merely a short hop. We still managed 6 knots with our poled out genoa and mainsail, despite a 0.5 knot current against us, but it wasn’t fast enough to ensure a daylight arrival at the atoll. The compensations for this underperformance were gentle conditions and a flat, calm sea, which sparkled during the night beneath a nearly full moon. Night watches were always a pleasure at times like those.
Still we wished for more wind, and this we got the following evening when the pleasant breeze mutated into a steady 25 knot blow, with unremitting gusts firmly in the 30s. We reefed the sails and averaged 7.5 knots, granting us our daylight arrival. Night watches were a world apart now with squalls, gusts, rain, and building seas making it a challenge to scan the horizon for ships. Conditions were so wild that we harnessed ourselves to the cockpit. Stella Maris was pushed sideways by huge rollers, a couple of which even broke over her stern, something that had never happened before. She rose up mountains and glided into valleys, and at daybreak the sun glistened on the foaming white sea creating the strangely beautiful illusion that we were sailing through a snowscape.
The wild weather prevented us from fishing, so as soon as the conditions abated we threw the lure back over the side. There was, after all, a competition to be won. With just forty miles left to Cocos (Keeling) we caught a one metre wahoo: good, but only good enough for second place. Gjalt was busy filleting the catch on the aft deck when Stella Maris heeled over sharply and a wave washed aboard, swamping him up to the waist. The wahoo had exacted at least a little revenge.
Eight miles from our destination we sighted the abundant coconut palms that gave the islands part of their name, and the atoll slowly began to take shape. Discovered in 1609 by Captain William Keeling of the East India Company it remained uninhabited until 1826. The Clunies Ross family obtained sole possession of the islands and brought in labourers, predominantly Malay, to work in the flourishing copra trade. The Australian government bought the Territory from the family as recently as 1978.
As we entered the lagoon’s north pass the seas flattened, and the shallow depths changed the colour of the water from deep sapphire to an inviting aquamarine. The anchorage was south of Direction Island, close to the pass, but as we skirted a sand bank we failed to see a newly placed green buoy marking the entrance and overshot it. Quickly realising that the turquoise water ahead of us was too shallow we turned back. Scanning the water for the way in we spotted the marker, and soon we were within the well-protected and very welcoming roll-free anchorage.
The police came four miles across the lagoon from West Island to complete formalities and were extremely strict regarding visas. Two sailors were expelled in the time we were there, and another bought an expensive extension for just two extra days when threatened with a five year ban from visiting Australia if they didn’t.
Uninhabited Direction Island was a cruiser’s paradise with its perfect golden beach, palm trees, and turquoise tropical water. There was a shelter onshore where we met other yachties for barbecues, and like them we left something there to commemorate our visit. It even had a phone that could be used to make cheap international calls; possibly the world’s best location for a public phone.
One morning dolphins came into the anchorage. We immediately jumped into the water to swim with them and enjoyed a rare close encounter with these playful creatures. For guaranteed snorkelling heaven there was the Rip, a channel at the southern end of Direction Island that was teeming with colourful fish and beautiful coral. A swift current coursed down the centre of it, and the trick was to swim across to the other side as fast as possible after jumping in to reach calmer, shallower water. Once there, we were able to linger above a mesmerizingly beautiful aquatic world. In the deeper water whitetip reef sharks slept below rocky ledges, and once a fearsome-looking barracuda moved so imperceptibly it seemed suspended in the current. It was as good as scuba diving but without all that gear, and we got so close to the marine life that we felt part of it. When we had drifted to the end of the channel we swam back across the current to reach the shore. Then we climbed out and did it all over again.
Around 500 Cocos Malays live on Home Island, a 1.5 mile dinghy ride from the anchorage. It had a bank, post office, small supermarket, and a fuel depot with irregular opening times, so more than once we had to go back the next day. This small society of devout Muslims has evolved in isolation over eight generations and lives separately from the 130-strong Australian community that resides on West Island. Both islands were interesting to visit, but Direction Island was where we cruisers felt at home.
Australia’s three stepping stones into the Indian Ocean had taken us some 2000 miles closer to Chagos and allowed us to glimpse some of the rare gems in nature’s breathtaking collection of jewels. Dolphins escorted us out of the anchorage at Cocos (Keeling), but as we approached the pass they turned back into the lagoon. We couldn’t blame them.