Ashmore Reef to Cocos and Keeling

Friday 27 September, we left the clouds tinged in green from Ashmore’s Reefs and sand behind us as we sailed (motored) north to find better south easterly trade winds for our 1600nm trip west to Cocos and Keeling Islands.  Cocos and Keeling are not only naturally beautiful coral quays but they also have an interesting history that is worth reading about.  This remote outpost of Australia would be our next stop in 9 days time.   Our weather routing was pushing us northward in very light winds so we motor sailed for about one and a half days before turning to the southwest where we could make the most of the predicted 20 to 25 knot SE trade winds.  The weather forecast turned out to be spot on and we had wind in spades, at times reaching 35 knots.  We raced westward at average speeds of over 8 knots and on Friday the 4 October we maxed out Pacha surfing down a wave at 17.7 knots.  The ride was thrilling and always under control.  Never too much sail out.  Just the right amount to be comfortable.  The 17.7 knot max came in 4 to 6 meter seas that hung around us for 4 to 5 days and came from directly astern.  Sailing in such seas is a challenge and a lot of respect for the sea state and wind is required.  Too much sail, a lapse in concentration and a wave on the beam could knockdown the majority of larger sailing yachts, smaller yachts would need to be even more careful.  Pacha and her crew mastered the seas and sighted land (south Keeling Island) on Sunday 6 October.  We sailed up the east coast of these low lying coral quays that are totally covered in coconut palms until we reached Direction Island where we anchored under the watchful eye of the massive Australian Border Force vessel the Ocean Shield.  Our welcoming committee were 6 to 7 Black Tipped Reef sharks that circled Pacha just as we thought about having a swim.  Quite harmless, we could have gone swimming but we erred on the side of safety.

Also anchored at Direction Island (but leaving the following day) were the yachts entered in the World ARC 2019.  There were about 18 yachts and catamarans anchored in the bay and they looked amazing with the backdrop of the coconut palms and white sand beaches.  We contacted Australian Federal Police at Home Island and they informed us by radio that we were free to go ashore, the formalities would be conducted the following day when the ARC boats were scheduled to depart.  That said we launched the dinghy and headed for the beach!  Direction Island has numerous shelters with BBQ facilities along its western edge.  It also has a free telephone to the other Cocos and Keeling Islands, paid WIFI that worked very well, toilet facilities and fresh rainwater collected in plastic tanks (not recommended for drinking but for washing it was great!).  We caught up with old friends who were doing the ARC including our German friends from Sydney (and New Zealand) Freddie Boehnert and his daughter Inga on S/Y Lunatix.  They were doing the next leg to Mauritius double handed.  For seasoned sailors like them, tiring but not a problem. Our old friends on Nauta D were also anchored up at Direction Island and it was great catching up with them too.

We decided to take the dinghy for a short trip to Home Island.  Home Island has a township of about 300 locals, a couple of supermarkets, a small hardware store, a small café, a fuel facility and a ferry wharf for the local ferry to West Island.  We raced across shallow reefs to Prison Island which would have to be the most beautiful prison in the world.  A very small white sand coral quay surrounded by turquoise water.  The island can be seen in a matter of minutes.  I was imagining prison life here, kicking back under a coconut palm surrounded by amazing fishing, snorkeling and a myriad of coloured fish.  A couple of months hard labour here would be extremely tough!  After we’d taken our selfies and pics of the island we again boarded the dinghy and headed to what we thought would be a bustling town of 300 people.  What actually greeted us was more like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie.  We hauled the dinghy up one of the sandy boat ramps at the park and headed for the center of town.  Nice enough surroundings but not a sole to be seen.  We walked around for 10 to 15 minutes and saw absolutely nobody.  The only sound that we heard was the squeaking of a meter box lid in the wind next to the public toilets.  Truly bizarre.  It was like a scene out of the Walking Dead.  We were waiting for zombies to appear from behind the houses and start chasing us.  Nobody around.  Then we saw a golf buggy with a woman dressed in a burka and a child silently navigating their way around one of the 4 streets on the island.  Again silence.  Everything was closed (we’d forgotten it was Sunday and also being 4pm) so all of the inhabitants were (I imagine) chilling out in their air conditioned houses.  We walked the entire town and found the location of all of the facilities that we would need. They were all within 2 minutes walking distance of each other.  After seeing that there were indeed more people on Home Island and also talking to some of them we realized that we weren’t on the set of a movie.  This place would grow on us for the next 6 days as we waited for a sail repair kit to arrive at West Island Airport the following Friday.

We spent our days busy with tasks that we had set.  Refuelling Pacha by way of Jerry Can trips from Direction Island to Home Island.  We also filled our fresh water tanks in a similar manner.  The trip between the islands (depending on what mood the skipper was in) took between 10 and 20 minutes.  Having a 15hp two stroke motor is definitely a luxury!  We cleaned the boat, met up with other yachties and locals on the beach and had fun with the numerous, quite large, hermit crabs that appeared in the evenings and made the BBQ areas their home.  We opened coconuts, swam with the sharks, fished from the jetty, the beach and the boat and also caught up with the rest of the world via the WIFI that was provided on the beach.  Home Island is a ‘dry island’ so we enjoyed an alcohol free beer or two (no it was actually only one!) on one of our many visits there.  West Island is where the beer is we heard so we planned a trip there for Wednesday the 9 October.  We actually needed to visit the island to pick up a head service kit that had been shipped to Cocos and Keeling from Perth the previous day.  The head was leaking so it needed a service kit putting through it which my brother Tony so kindly and efficiently organized and had shipped out to us.  After a bit of running around we found the freight facility beside the supermarket.  Nobody actually knew where it was (well at least the people we spoke to, who coincidentally worked at the tourist information center!!), what opening times it had and to make it just that little bit more difficult it had no signs up on the door.  Wednesday 11:30am, should be closed according to the tourist information center.  After asking 5 other people and being sent all around the place I finally just tried the door (should have done that in the first place) to be greeted by a very friendly fellow who says (after I tell him who I am) “Ah Mr Seargent, sailing yacht Pacha, I’ve been trying to find you, I have a package for you”.  Great!  It was actually there and I left the freight office very happy with my package in hand….  only to walk across the street, turn around, go back into the office and ask “will you definitely be open and here on Friday?”  His answer “Yes of course and I’ll have your other package waiting for you”.  Great!  Always better to double check on Cocos and Keeling!  So West Island is not a ‘dry island’ but they don’t make it easy to get a beer.  The pub (only one on the island) opens at 5pm and our ferry back to Home was leaving at 4:30pm so we left thirsty again but with the knowledge that the pub opened early on Friday as there were two flights arriving around midday.  Wednesday evening we ate at the Coco de Meer restaurant on Home Island.  We had to book in advance as it was only open one evening per week and this was only their second evening, the restaurant having opened the previous Wednesday.  Outdoor undercover dining for about 50 people and run by the lady who also owns Shamrocks supermarket, the Malaysian style food was amazing.  Totally amazing.  Buffet style and enough to feed twice as many guests (the restaurant was full).  We wined (replace the word wine here with non-alcoholic beer) and dined until we could eat no more.  Fish, beef, crab, chicken, vegetables, noodles, curry style, stir fried you name it, it was there.  Followed up by 5 amazing deserts.  We ate like kings for AUD$50.  Then we had the brilliant idea of getting the restaurant to provide us with some catered food for our onward trip to Mauritius which they happily provided. Yes!

Thursday night was freshly caught blue land crab on the BBQ.  The crabs live amongst the coconut palms on the island and come out at night to head to the sea.  We caught two of them whilst looking for firewood for the BBQ.  They are quite large and the meat was sweet to the taste but being crab difficult to extract but nonetheless very much worth the effort.  A group of Danes were also on the island.  There were eight or nine of them in total on a 50 foot yacht, two per cabin. They were also headed to Mauritius.  Very nice people all of them.  They looked a little surprised when we said we were only three on Pacha.  “All that space for just 3 people they asked?”.  Our reply, “yep!”.  Being three up on a yacht simplifies a lot of things.  It reduces the demand on water, on food, on space, on nerves but it does mean doing watches alone except when weather conditions or sea-state demand two up in the cockpit.  With three onboard we normally do 4 hour day watches and 3 hour night watches.  This ensures a daily shift in the watches occurs so everyone gets to see sunrise or sunset on their watch every couple of days.

Friday (the big day for the pub!).  We headed off to Home Island to get the 10:30 am ferry to West Island.  We amused ourselves the previous Tuesday by photographing the electronic arrivals and departures boards at the airport which already had the Friday flights on them (only other flights arriving or departing for the week!).  We arrive at the township and ‘YES!’ the pub is open!  11:30am, not too early for our first beer in more than a week so 3 beers were ordered.  I also found a nice bottle of spice rum (Kraken) that I purchased immediately (what you’ve got you’ve got!).  We drank our beers with youth like enjoyment then headed to the café to buy sandwich before the throngs arrived from Perth (along with my sail repair kit!).  The scheduled 12:30 flight lands and about 20 people get off (more like a bus arriving).  I wander over to the freight handler about 30 minutes later and pick up my package which indeed arrived.  We then decide to head back to the pub for a second round of beers.  CLOSED!  Are you kidding me?  We had only one beer!  Welcome to Cocos and Keeling!  At least I had the rum! 😉

Saturday we departed Cocos and Keeling.  This wonderful (slightly weird) outpost of Australia (that felt nothing like Australia) had been an enjoyable stop-off and well worth seeing.  Could I live here?  Let just say “it’s a nice place to visit….”.

Cocos and Keeling – Direction Island
Cocos and Keeling – ARC 2019 Boats at anchor
Direction Island BBQ shelter, telephone and WiFi
Lone coconut
Home Island
Abandoned streets of Home Island
Typical houses on Home Island
Prison Island
Scott doing push-ups on Prison Island
Message to my God daughter!
Caught napping!
Direction Island from top of Pacha’s mast
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