15 The Sheltering Atoll

Here we will moor our lonely ship
Murmuring how far away are the unquiet lands.

- W. Yeats

Across Islands Across Islands

The Coral Sea heaved and rolled to a fresh trade wind as Atom sledded downwind from Port Moresby towards the mass of disconnected reefs, low islets and rushing currents of the Torres Strait. Before the age of GPS satellite navigation, the seas separating New Guinea from Australia were as dangerous to seafarers as any in the world. When Cook sailed these waters he nearly lost his ship and noted, “incessant and prodigious dangers.” One of Bligh's officers wrote, “Perhaps no space of three and a half degrees in length presents more danger.” The salt-stained photocopy of the chart I plotted my estimated position on gave menacing warnings of the hornet's nest ahead: “strong currents, numerous shoals, coral patches.”

The sun poked through a gap in the gray, overcast sky just long enough for me to get a measurement with my sextant. The resulting line of position I drew on the chart ran close to a reef that I expected to lay far to the south of my position. These are the times when you really need faith in your calculations. I confirmed my sextant sight soon after when I spotted a shipwreck through the binoculars, sitting on the reef a mere two miles away. To counter the south-running current that had carried me off course, I drew a new course line a few miles north of Bramble Cay where the chart indicated a flashing light warned mariners of the surrounding reefs. French solo sailor Jean Gau missed sighting this light and soon was tossed up on Warrior Reef where he made a narrow escape. His heavily built wooden ketch pounded on the reef for half a day before floating off at high tide. My fiberglass hull might not take such abuse. As I recalled Gau's book chapter titled, “Incident on Warrior Reef,” my hair stood on end. Either the light would appear soon or I'd feel the keel-splitting reef when I landed on it. Tortured with indecision, I prepared to turn away and heave-to for the night and carry on in the morning.

That night the sky remained black overcast, the only light coming from luminescent organisms sparkling on the breaking wave crests. With tired eyes I stood in the cockpit straining to see Bramble Cay Light, which guards Bligh Entrance to the Torres Strait. Presumably, this is where Captain Bligh entered the strait in Bounty's overloaded lifeboat after mutineers set him adrift near Tonga. On a final look into the blackness ahead, with great relief, I spotted the faint white beacon. Throughout the night I kept an eye on that life-saving light as I tacked back and forth, holding my position upwind of the reefs.

At dawn I entered the strait and altered course to southwest. As if trying to prevent my passage through this devil's necklace of islets and reefs, the winds veered to south and blew forcefully for the next two days. I pressed on under reefed sails sheeted in tight, heeled over hard on the wind, checking off the sandy islets as they passed. On the lee side of Rennel Island, I saw a local fishing boat anchored off the beach. I could not safely carry on among the reefs here at night so I tacked over and anchored in the slight shelter the island provided from the seas and currents. The uninhabited palm-covered isle looked like a perfect South Seas setting for a native village. A pair of barely visible coral block buildings marked an abandoned settlement where pearl gatherers had lived until the pearls became scarce and they moved on to another island.

My alarm clock announced the sunrise but I was so fatigued and drunk with sleep I slept on until the morning sun struck my eyes through the open companionway. I thought of waiting another day to get an early start, but decided to make a dash for the next anchorage some forty-five miles away before darkness fell.

The current was running at an angle across the wind, forcing waves to pile up steeply and close together. Atom lurched in a quick, jerky motion, burying her bow then lifting it up to fling back the seas pressing her down. If I slowed down to ease the motion, the current would gain the upper hand and drag me off course, so I held her nose hard into the wind.

Fortunately, in Port Moresby, I had installed the used cockpit dodger over the companionway. Now I huddled behind its vinyl-covered aluminum tubing frame, staying partly dry as sheets of spray flew past overhead. Every five to ten miles another island drifted past, sometimes a mere stone's throw away, providing a welcome few moments of calm water on their lee side.

As the tide fell it revealed extensive tidal flats encompassing each island that increased their minuscule land area up to five times. On one of these dry reefs lay a mighty freighter on its side, high and dry, hundreds of feet in from the sea. Fascinated, I sailed by the rust-streaked hull as close as I could, wondering how a full-size ship with 20-foot draft could have landed on a reef covered by only a few feet of water at high tide – my guess is storm surge from a passing cyclone lifted the ship and carried her inland.

By late afternoon I came upon the sister islands of Bet, Sue and Poll. The only anchorage here was a tiny scrap of sandy ledge close to Sue where I dropped Atom's anchor precariously close to the reef edge. To the east of the island, tidal flats lay exposed for two miles. Through binoculars I watched two women carrying baskets on their backs, bending over to pick mussels at the sea's edge. As they roamed over the newly exposed flats, clouds of spray rose like smoke signals where waves hit the wall of dry reef. With full baskets the women retreated home before the rising tide engulfed their watery island garden.

The settlement contained two fishing boats pulled up on the beach next to three whitewashed houses and a matching church. If I had been tempted to go ashore, I was dissuaded by an Australian Navy plane labeled “COASTWATCH” that buzzed low overhead and circled back a second time. I had heard from other sailors that trespassers were not welcome ashore, and the official port of entry for the region lay miles away from my course line.

That night the southerly swell that hooked around the island at high tide sent Atom rolling so wildly I was pitched out of my bunk onto the cabin sole. Since I could fall no farther, I spent the remainder of the night there, not sleeping, just listening to the wind howl through the rigging, as I waited in hopes that the dawn would come before my anchor dragged. At first light I hoisted anchor and got underway. My immediate goal was to gain ten miles to windward without letting the five knot cross-current pull me onto the reef.

With my #3 jib and a triple reefed mainsail, Atom lay over and dove into the slab-sided waves. Coming on deck to check my position with compass bearings, I looked up to see a vertical wall of water rise above me and momentarily hang there blocking out the sun before collapsing and submerging the deck. The force of the wave threw me to the opposite side of the cockpit where I came up tight on my safety harness. Atom came to a halt, then popped up like a cork and carried on as if nothing had happened. Bending low to see under the sails, I was alarmed to see jagged spires off the leeward starboard bow. Labeled Harvey Rocks, the surf beat furiously against the stone pinnacles, sending my heart racing as I calculated my chances of clearing or being crushed against the rocks. It seemed I could skirt it, but just barely. Several soul-wrenching minutes later, we cleared, with a scant few yards to spare. I cheered the victory against the rocky executioner and gratefully turned downwind to less restricted waters.

Later that day, I breathed a final sigh of relief as I passed Thursday Island and exited Torres Strait. Perhaps the most dangerous part of the world voyage was behind me. Once again I had traipsed through the lion's lair and escaped unscathed. As wind and current flushed me at ten knots out the straits and into the Arafura Sea, I watched Cape York, Australia's northernmost point, drift by ten miles to the south.

Hours later I passed solitary Booby Island, previously used as a refuge for shipwrecked sailors. Passing ships left food supplies in a cave there and retrieved letters to forward home. Here I closed the log on the Pacific and Coral Sea and opened a page to a new ocean.

The trade winds moderated and hung steadily in the southeast as I crawled along just out of sight of Australia's interminable northern coast. During my five days on the Arafura, I seldom touched the sails. In these calm waters, far from the steaming heat, insects and fevers of New Guinea, I felt freed of nature's savagery and happily fell back into a familiar and comfortable sea routine. I wasn't bothered at all when I saw brightly colored poisonous sea snakes tumbling on the wave crests in the Arafura – until that night I dreamt a snake washed aboard on a wave and fell into my bunk. My only real visitors were the familiar thump of those evolutionary-half-stepping flying fish and the lighter plunk from ink-filled squid falling on deck.

Atom entered the Timor Sea at a point midway between the Australian port of Darwin and the islands of Indonesia. I had attempted to gain an Indonesian visa at their embassy in Port Moresby, but the functionaries there filed my application under “security risk,” took my twenty dollar application fee, and never replied. Though Indonesia was out, I might have stopped in Australia. I'm sure the people of Darwin are friendly enough, but their harbor was not convenient with its high tidal range and mud flats. Besides, the image it represented to me was not unlike small-town America with a different accent. I kept Atom's bow pointed towards Africa.

Fifteen days out of Port Moresby I left the green, shallow waters of the Timor Sea and sailed over the abyssal Java Trench. During the night I passed south of the ex-Portuguese colony of East Timor and its ongoing guerilla war and slipped unnoticed into the wide embrace of the Indian Ocean. Ahead lay some 5,600 miles to South Africa with only a handful of islands between. I laid my course now for Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which I expected to reach in another two weeks.

A comfortable southeast wind brought the clear, almost cool weather of the Southern Hemisphere winter. Atom's tiny deck was my observation platform to the vast vistas of sea and sky. By night I checked our constant westward course, keeping Acrux, the pointer star of the Southern Cross, on the port beam. Each morning and evening twilight, when clouds permitted, I shot a three star position fix – Achenar to the northeast, Antares to the southeast and Acrux to the south. The daily x-marks on the chart crept their way westward.

Here I sailed into an utterly barren stretch of water. I saw none of the familiar fishes. Even the birds were absent. Sailing past the longitude of Bali marked the halfway point of the circumnavigation – some thirteen thousand miles out and thirteen thousand to go. This little milestone had seemed impossibly distant on those early days sailing on Lake St. Clair; days when I sailed alone, going nowhere just for the joy of sailing and dreaming of faraway seas. Now I was as far away from that little lake as I could be. Oddly enough, I took comfort in the thought that each mile sailed carried me closer to home as I scrawled in large print in the logbook: HOMEWARD BOUND.

My string of fine weather was disrupted by a high swell rolling in from the east that collided with the regular southeast wave pattern. This was fair warning of dirty weather headed my way. A day later the swell was higher yet; now and again a breaking wave crest tumbling into the cockpit with much foam and hissing drama but little punch. Low clouds scudded overhead as the wind backed to east and rose to gale force. As the barometer dropped, I tapped it hourly with my finger in some vain hope to reverse its fall. But sailors know a gale of wind from behind, and plenty of sea room ahead, is not such a bad thing. It speeds you on your way and punctuates an otherwise too-easy life.

The wind continued to build, lifting the seas and flogging their breaking crests into streaming spray. Under storm jib alone, Atom's rigging hummed and moaned as the wind brushed its heavy hand over every wire. Over and over we rose stern first, gaining height until a breaking crest foamed all around us, then plunged down the face into the trough, sometimes digging the bow into the wave ahead. When I had to go forward to adjust a line, I crawled along the deck on hands and knees. Growing weary of the roller coaster, whenever I wasn't needed on deck, I retreated to the cabin sole where I wedged myself in with cushions and sailbags between the bunks.

Down below in the closed cabin the sound of the wind was muted, but the vibrations of mast and rigging seemed to penetrate through my bones. With only the false serenity of the cabin's interior visible to my eyes, my ears concentrated on the mad symphony of flapping canvas, drumming lines and rig, and groaning and creaking within the hull. Unable to relax to a deep sleep, with eyes closed I mentally worked as an orchestra conductor, counting over twenty individual sounds before losing my point of concentration. The noises I could do nothing about – the breaking waves, the wind whining in the rig, the whirling of the speed indicator propeller – didn't bother me much since they were unavoidable. But the dozen or so noises originating inside the boat aggravated me to the point I repeatedly set out to silence them. Some were easy to find and eliminate, like the rhythmic clank of a pot in its locker or a book sliding on the bookshelf. One by one I tracked them down until only a few mysterious creaks and taps remained. Satisfied with my efforts, I finally fell into a light and uneasy sleep.

After a week of heavy weather and twenty-eight days alone, the idea of a respite from the sea was a welcome thought. Approaching Cocos Atoll, I seriously doubted I could find its low line of palm trees hiding between the high running seas and low clouds. Getting an accurate position fix each day was doubtful as I popped my head through the hatch to measure a star or sun against a rolling indistinct horizon. If I missed this atoll, the next island lay two thousand miles beyond.

Just before another gray dawn, I was relieved to sight the flashing beacon of Pulo Panjang, or West Island, and took a compass bearing on it before the next curtain of rain erased it from view. Later, the green tops of palm trees appeared on the crest of a wave and disappeared again as we dropped into a trough. As I rounded the north coast to enter a gap in the reef leading to Port Refuge, the sky went black, as a violent squall forced me back out to sea. The horizontal rain stung my skin like a thousand shots from a BB gun as I reefed down, hove-to and retreated to the cabin. Outside was zero visibility in rain and spray thick as smoke. I had the anxious feeling I was being drawn towards the reef, but there was nothing to do but wait it out. As soon as the squall let up, I tacked again towards the inlet. Minutes later I was anchored in two fathoms of clear, calm water close under the lee of horseshoe-shaped Direction Island. I waved at the crews of two other yachts already anchored nearby. Then another squall arrived and it rained so hard and long I wondered if the sugary sand island would melt into the sea.

I slept deep through the night, oblivious to the weather and awoke the next morning to clear skies and a clear head. A custom's launch from West Island motored across the lagoon and into the anchorage. The officer handed me a line to tie the launch alongside, heaved himself aboard, gave me a back slap that knocked the air from my lungs and bellowed, “Names Harry, welcome to bloody paradise, mate.”

He pulled a can of Australian beer from his bag, saying, “How ‘bout a tinnie of blue – my shout, mate?”

When I said I hadn't drank any alcohol in over two years he looked at me with pity and disbelief. As he stamped my passport he said, “You're the first God-damned Yank to pass through this year. Not carrying any of that funny stuff, are ya?”

Assuming he meant marijuana, I assured him I carried nothing as funny as that and he said, “Good on ya, mate. There's bugger all to do here, but stay as long as you like – no worries,” then added something about enjoying this job “way out to buggery on Cocos.” The next day the two Australian yachts departed and I was the sole inhabitant of Harry's so-called paradise of buggery.

Cocos is rare – the world's remotest atoll and only recently inhabited by man. If the ancient Polynesian canoes did stop here, they left no trace. This privately owned island group that voted to join Australia the year before I arrived is a seven-mile wide lagoon encircled by a dozen sandy islets, called motus. Of the two presently inhabited, West Island is the administrative center where about 400 Australians live, mostly on temporary work contracts, with “bugger all to do,” as Harry put it.

Home Island, at the opposite end of the lagoon, is home to an equal number of Malays, brought here generations ago to work the coconut plantations. There was a rigid apartheid-like separation here: all the white Christians keep to West Island and the Muslim Malays live on Home Island. As the Malay population increases, some are sent off to live in Australia, apparently so the government is never in the awkward position of being a white minority in charge of a Muslim majority. Actually, the Australians main purpose in buying and governing the island is to keep it out of the hands of their unwelcome neighbor, Indonesia. So cleverly progressive – and so bizarre.

The atoll itself is easier to understand than the people that live on its fragile foothold in the sea. One part land to many parts water, it's simply the eroded remnants of a larger volcanic island in the final days of its existence. The central lagoon mirrors a big sky where clouds, stars and wind pass by unobstructed. The motus are just a few feet above sea level now and are destined to drown under rising sea levels and eventually disappear. For now, the motus lay like a necklace of pearls on an azure sea, providing a sanctuary in a vast, watery desert for fish, birds, plants and people.

Long before humans arrived, a single coconut carried on ocean currents from far away settled into the sand to take root. A thousand years later and all the motus in the group are lined with “that giraffe of vegetables,” as Robert Louis Stevenson so aptly described the life-giving coconut palm.

There is an anchorage in front of Home Island as well but, of course, special permission from the Malay council is required to use it. Remember, this is South Seas apartheid: Westerners to the west island, Easterners to the east island, and those troublesome visitors on yachts, well, they can have the northern island. To reach Home Island I rowed my plastic dinghy, little more than a toy when exposed to wind and wave, for a mile along the inside edge of the reef, ever mindful of the nearby sea battering the reef with thunderous fury. Landing on Home Island, I dragged the dinghy up a long sloping beach and secured it to a bush above the high tide mark.

As I had learned firsthand, gales and violent squalls of wind are common in this part of the Indian Ocean, not to mention occasional cyclones. Along the windward shore of Home Island was the sobering sight of a small sailing yacht dashed to pieces on the reef, probably within the past year or two, judging from the bits of unrotted wooden cabinetry strewn about. Back on the lagoon side, I found two rusted iron rails of an old slipway and wondered if this was the spot where Joshua Slocum hauled the Spray when he visited here during the first-ever solo circumnavigation. His historic book, Sailing Alone Around the World, was always at hand on my bookshelf and I was thrilled whenever I called at one of Joshua's ports.

I walked through coconut groves where five plump and elderly Malay women in colorful dresses and straw hats gossiped as they worked separating the coconut meat from the husks. Next to them a flatbed car loaded with copra sat in the sun to dry. Steel rails allowed it to be pushed under an open-sided shed at night or on rainy days. Since the sale of the islands to Australia, this aging group of women were all that remained of the plantation's workforce, all of the others preferring welfare checks from their new landlords to the hard physical labor of harvesting copra.

Pausing at a nearby graveyard under the palms as a distant loudspeaker called the faithful to perform one of five daily prayers, I stepped over a low wood fence for a closer look at the Malay graves. Many of the sites were adorned with offerings to the dead. Cans of peaches were a favorite offering. One grave was topped with a broken electric fan and a child's grave was marked by jars of candy and peanuts, a broken doll, a wooden spoon and a mirror.

Not far away, but predictably separate, was the abandoned Christian cemetery. One of the marble headstones read: “In memory of Maria, relict of Capt. James Clunies-Ross, 1899.” For over 150 years these islands were the private territory of the Clunies-Ross family who imported the Malays to run their sole industry of exporting copra.

Across IslandsAs I walked through the Malay village of new, government-supplied, prefabricated homes with indoor plumbing, I couldn't help but notice the contrast to the friendly people of Polynesia and New Guinea. The few people I saw here pretended to take no notice of me at all. With less than a mile of road that leads to nowhere, the Malays rush about on motorized bicycles as if on some urgent business. At the south end of the island, a low wall of coral stones fenced off a corner of the lagoon into a large, and now empty, turtle pond. Today the Malays prefer their turtle soup in cans flown in on the weekly flight from Australia.

Through their long years of isolation, the shy and handsome Cocos Malays had been mostly self-sufficient. Besides the hard work of producing copra, the men were skilled woodcarvers and built their jukong sailing canoes for fishing. They even operated a blacksmith forge to produce any needed brass and iron fittings. Government handouts brought rapid change, afflicting the Malays with malaise. The formerly sail-powered jukongs I saw on the beach were now powered by large outboard motors. The few Malay men that work at all, do so by commuting daily to West Island on the high-powered ferry to perform such indispensable labor as watering the governor's imported lawn. The VCR in every house has largely replaced neighborly socializing, just as hot metal roofs have replaced the traditional cool thatch. The government policy for transforming and pacifying the Malays has worked so well that I wouldn't be surprised if one day they all packed up and moved to a slum outside Sydney.

I passed several carefree days on Direction Island, jogging barefoot along the beach, harvesting ripe coconuts with a machete and snorkeling over the reefs among shimmering schools of fish. One day I sailed Atom across the lagoon to West Island for provisions. Such a joy it was to ride Atom as she heeled to the fresh wind and skipped over the shallow waters. Widely scattered coral heads stood out as yellow-brown clumps among the pale green waters and were easily avoided with a sharp lookout ahead. My silent approach startled several sea turtles basking on the surface, who upon seeing me almost on their backs, took a gulp of air and dove underwater. The southern half of the lagoon was not navigable, being mostly shallow coral studded with deep pools, but its silent remoteness looked worth exploring by sailing dinghy. Unfortunately, the winds picked up by the time I neared the West Island pier where the anchorage was exposed to six miles of fetch across the lagoon. Too choppy to safely anchor, or land the dinghy, I turned around and tacked my way back to Direction Island.

Still needing to resupply with fresh fruit and vegetables, the next day I rode with Harry in the custom's launch back to West Island. Disembarking at the jetty at the island's north end, I walked four miles through scented pine forests and along the empty ocean-side beaches. Next to the mile-long airstrip I visited the weather station to read the long-range forecast. More of the same settled trade winds was basically all it said. At the island's sole settlement, I bought a small bag of produce, imported by plane, and got taxed 150% on it because I was “from a yacht.” I then walked back north and boarded the launch just as Harry was casting off for Home Island and he kindly detoured to drop me off at Direction Island.

In these few days, I had almost come to think of this secluded island as mine alone, a little piece of Eden inaccessible to the thundering hordes of the outer world. Later, in the cool evening breeze, I rowed the dinghy over to Prison Island, which is no more than a lump of sand sprouting a dozen palms and scrubby bushes. I walked from one end of the islet to the other in less than one hundred steps. It was difficult to imagine the drama that was played out here in the early 1800s.

Back then, Alexander Hare, a wealthy ex-governor of the colony of Borneo, landed on uninhabited Home Island with a private harem of forty Malay women, planning to retire. Two years later, a ship landed Capt. James Clunies-Ross, his wife and family, and eight sailors to settle the same island. There was understandable animosity and disputes between the two camps and the lusty sailors could not keep their hands off Hare's harem. Eventually, Hare and his few remaining women retreated to what became known as Prison Island, where he lived a short time before finally retiring to the Dutch colony of Batavia.

Standing in the center of Prison Island, I could not imagine Hare's group living on such a tiny scrap of land. Later, when I compared an up-to-date chart to an earlier survey, it was apparent the island had eroded considerably over the years and may one day disappear, adding its sand to one of its neighboring motus.

Across IslandsI camped overnight on Prison Island, setting up my one-man tent on the beach. On this windy night the rustle of palm fronds and incessant drone of surf seemed mixed with voices from the past: “Ahoy, you there, on Prison Island!” I looked to Home Island and saw no one there. A coconut fell to the ground and I cracked it open for a drink and a taste of its oily flesh. I thought how Atom so resembled this isolated islet, seemingly pushing its way as a ship into the steady trade winds. They both held the same serenity and shelter and promise of deliverance. At sunrise I packed my dinghy to leave. The rising tide soon erased my footprints from the beach, and like Alexander Hare, gone was all physical record of my having passed this way.

Atom and I were refreshed and ready for the next sea passage, yet I took one more night here to sleep on deck and soak up the atmosphere of the tropic isle. Under a magnificent southern sky, a cascade of stars spilled to the horizon. After moonrise, the transparent waters took on a luminous glow, the boat seemingly floating on air, casting a moon shadow on the rippled sand below. Ashore, the palms gently bowed before the wind, mixing the rustling of fronds with the murmur of surf in a captivating voice of mid-ocean solitude. With fully restored mind and body, I sailed away the next morning on a light wind, headed for a distant island of a million people.