New crew joined Pacha in Darwin. I welcomed back an old face in Scott Eden who returned after having sailed double handed with me back to Sydney from New Zealand. He knew the boat, knew the routines and knew the quarter berth that he slipped back into like he’d never been away. It was also a pleasure to welcome Loic Henuset on-board. We met at an STCW course in Gibraltar about one year ago. Loic is a very experienced sailor and skipper. He doesn’t need an introduction to ocean passages having sailed across the Atlantic, part of the Pacific and numerous other passages. Lucky for me, ticking off the Indian Ocean was on his list of things to do and so it was we left Darwin after a fun stay at Tipperary Marina with Dani, Cooper and a bunch of fun sailors all living their own dreams. Next stop was Ashmore Reef, a remote Australian managed marine park that lies 500nm west of Darwin. We caught the tide out and were through the marina lock on Friday the 20.09.2019 at 9pm. The blinking lights of the city faded behind us as we made our way north, then west. Darwin was a great stop and was home for 9 days. The city has changed since I was last here in 1985. I loved the relaxed feel of the place. The heat is incredible. No thoughts need be made as to what to wear on any given day in this city. Shorts, thongs, T-shirt and a hat 365 days a year. What more could you want? Light winds saw us motor sail for 30 to 40% of the trip and we arrived at Ashmore Reef, greeted by the permanent Australian Border Force presence, on Wednesday 25.09.2019.
No other place in the world that I have been to compares to Ashmore Reef. To say this place is beautiful, gorgeous, stunning, understates this truly amazing and unique place. Never have I seen three so well-travelled people arrive at a place, walk along white coral beaches and not utter a single word. Total silence. You need time to come to terms with what you are seeing in front of you. You need your own mind space to be able to take in and interpret everything that is going on around you. Stepping onto West Island at Ashmore Reef was a new experience for me, not because I haven’t been here before but because I’ve never experienced such a raw, pristine place. Being on the island is like being on the set of a surreal movie or an Attenborough series where sea birds are curious and friendly, where turtles and rays glide by in the shallows, where sharks pass by without a second look, where crabs scuttle about their business on the sand, ignoring humans like we were strange giants just passing by from another world. And that’s really all we were. The sound of thousands of seabirds, a multitude of varieties, old, young, juvenile, fills the air. They fly and hover overhead, literally within an arms distance, they walk along the beaches fishing, all the while calling to each other, alerting each other of the strangers amongst them. They show no fear, only curiosity. The young downy seabirds, far too big for their nests and waiting patiently for the return of their parents watch with inquisitive eyes as we approach them to within arm’s reach. To reach out and touch one would have broken the spell, awoken me from the dream and changed what should never be changed. I chose to be the observer and not the conqueror.
Underwater the coral is untouched. In all shapes and forms it is home to a myriad of tropical fish that swarm in and out of its protection depending on the proximity of the prying eyes of strangers, from predators and pointed camera lenses. The sand banks are the home of blue spotted rays and their jumping cousins the eagle rays who take joyous flight at their whim. It is home to turtles who haul their bodies out in the evening to lay eggs in the sand of the surrounding islands. Home to sea snakes and dugongs who live in and feed on fields of sea grass that is here in abundance. We stayed here for here for four tide cycles. We watched the flood bring waves that broke across the outer reefs, that filled the lagoon with cooling seawater. We twice watched the ebb expose the reef and white sand banks causing a light as bright as a magnesium furnace. Most people will never experience Ashmore Reef or anything comparable. So remote are places like this that only a few hundred people visit them every year. Tourism is limited to a handful of dive adventure boats which sail here from Australia. Other than that Ashmore is frequented only by the sailors that choose to stop here on their way west to Christmas Island or East to Darwin. I feel privileged to have been a visitor to this place. To sail past here without stopping would have meant continuing through life as the person I was. Not having known nature as it once was and really should be. To walk amongst this Garden of Eden, to experience it, was like a dream. This place changed me and I feel alive.