“The Scenery Never Changes: Sailing to Mauritius”
Friday, Oct 21
We exited Cocos Keeling lagoon and set our sails for the long downwind passage. Our first waypoint is at a bearing of 256 degrees—over 2300 miles away. This is the second longest passage of the Oyster World Rally, next only to the Galapagos to Marquesas passage that Crosby, Stills & Nash sang about in “Southern Cross.” Our start was exciting only because we were at sea again. The weather forecasters lied about about the good winds we’re supposed to have. Sometimes they were pretty good but often they were so light we had to assist our sails with the engine just to keep up the pace and our self-respect.
Saturday, Oct 22
I nursed the boat through light winds on my night watch. When I came up for my morning watch, the engine was running and we were staying respectable. Alex suggested we fly the spinnaker so we set up snatch blocks and got out a tack line and a spinnaker sheet. We raised the spinnaker in its sock and then opened it up. 2000 square feet of red, white, and blue nylon filled the air in a fitting salute to Liberty. There is nothing prettier than a big full spinnaker.
As beautiful as the spinnaker was, it didn’t bring our boat speed up to an acceptable level. Trying to sail a heavy boat on 8 knots of wind is what my grandmother would call trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It just can’t be done. So we continued motor-sailing but now we looked beautiful.
Using the resources of the B&G instruments onboard, I’ve learned something about ocean wind that I never knew. I have always thought of ocean wind as steady compared to the changeable and fickle lake winds. Not so. Although wind speeds did not vary much over the course of a few minutes, wind direction varied considerably. It constantly moved fore and aft against the boat, never staying at exactly the same point for more than a few seconds. At times it would shift 40 degrees in 15 minutes. So it is more accurate to think of ocean winds (plural) than ocean wind.
Sunday, Oct 23
My first watch was 3-6 am. The Southern Cross was peeking over the horizon to the south of us and continued to be lifted up in the black night sky. Behind us a bright orange sliver of the waning moon was rising as the earth rolled toward it. Soon the orange slice became a bright white smile in the sky. As the peachy dawn sky began to emerge from the night, littered this morning with furry black clouds, the stars began clocking out. The Southern Cross was the last to end its watch over us.
After my watch I got unencumbered from my PFD, tether, foulies, and headlamp and went to my cabin to get some rest. Soon the circus began. Two squalls hit the boat and turned the forward cabin into a bouncey house. I didn’t get much rest but it was fun!
The bouncing lasted all day. Winds were 20-30 knots, mostly around 24-26. The sea developed into swells and troughs of 6-12 feet. These ran parallel to our course so we rode up over most of them but some would hit the boat with a bang and a splatter. Walking through the boat became a challenge.
Mr. Wind played a sucker trick on me during my second watch. It decreased steadily from 25 to 15 knots over a period of 15 minutes. This convinced me that the easing was not a momentary fluke, so I fully opened the main and Genoa. Before I could sit back down the wind shot up to 26 knots, so I had to scramble to shorten sail again. All in a day’s work.
Monday, Oct 24
The wind is down around 20 kts this morning, but the seas are also down, so we shook a reef out of the Genoa. This improved boat speed without adding to heeling. Or maybe heeling just feels less in the daylight when you can see the world outside the boat.
The Indian Ocean is the Big Lonely. There is virtually nobody out here but us. With our eyes we can see a boat up to 5 miles away. A 5-mile radius creates a surface area of almost 80 square miles. With AIS we can see other sailboats up to 10 miles away. A 10 mile radius creates an ocean area of 314 square miles. Big cargo vessels and tankers have a more powerful AIS signal so we can see them 50 miles away, sometimes farther. A 50-mile radius creates an area of almost 8000 square miles. There are no boats within 50 miles of us so we are surrounded by 8000 square miles, or more, of nobody. By comparison, Warren County, Kentucky, where I live is only ___ square miles but has ___ people. Hence, the Big Lonely.
Tuesday, Oct 25
The wind was shifting more aft so we thought it would be good to set the pole for a day of downwind sailing with the Genoa poled out to port and the main prevented to starboard. Uh-oh! That sound was the Harken cast metal fitting on the mast end of the pole shattering. I was holding the outboard end of the pole; the inboard end fell and was caught between the starboard shroud and the running backstay. No one was hurt, just a scratch on the pole, but now we can’t use it and we still have 1650 miles of downwind sailing to Mauritius.
Strong winds all day. 191 nautical miles.
My 1800-2100 watch was busy. I kept one eye on the radar and the other on the wind graph. I saw a couple of squalls ahead of us on the radar, but they dissipated before we reached them. Winds shifted like crazy but kept us flying.
Wednesday, Oct 26
30 knots of wind was a gust yesterday but today it’s close to the norm. I mostly saw 26-30 knots, sometimes 32. We were carrying 3 reefs in the main and 2+ in the Genoa and sailing 8-9 knots. Liberty weaves and bobs with the punches of winds and waves like a champion prize fighter, a Sugar Ray Leonard of the sea.
60 home runs. The 4-minute mile. The 200-mile day. Baseball, track, and sailing have these nice round numbers that are the standards of excellence, targets for performance. We hit ours today at 11:29 pm., 30 minutes to spare. We had chased it all day and knew we were on pace or even a little ahead, but we knew the fickle wind could change any minute and leave us so frustratingly short of our mark. I had the last watch of the day, 2100-0000, so I knew I would be the goat if we failed to reach 200. I knew that the outcome was mostly out of my hands—it was wind speed, wind direction, and current that held the winning hand—so I mostly watched, hoped, and made minor adjustments. At midnight we had sailed 204.2 nautical miles since the previous midnight. Tomorrow we would try again.
Thursday, Oct 27
Due to crossing into a new time zone, which was one hour earlier than the previous zone, we had 25 hours between midnight and midnight. A bonus for another 200 mile day? No, it wasn’t meant to be. Still 196 miles at 7.9 knots is a very good day’s run.
I had 3 good sailors with me
Who set sail across the sea.
“Rub a dub dub . . .”
I said to the Club,
“This is true Liberty!”
Friday, Oct 28
On the midnight watch I channeled my inner Polynesian. I covered the chart plotter and 3 of the instruments at the companionway. Boat speed was all I left showing and I covered this with my hand. With all these lighted instruments covered I could see the night sky better. Stars became my reference points. My ears could hear the changes in wind speed. My body could feel the changes in heading. This was almost Polynesian sailing. It may not have been as efficient as micromanaging the sophisticated electronic instruments, but it was happy sailing.
The Green Flash is famous with the setting sun. There is a morning sun phenomenon that I will call the Green Splash. When the morning sun is still rising and a wave top rises to a thin crest, the sun lights up a neon emerald ribbon across that crest. What a a beautiful Green Splash!
The moon’s smile is getting bigger each night. Tonight a cloud covered a small part of it, giving it a snagged-toothed appearance.
Saturday, Oct 29
On my 0300 watch clouds covered the stars so my inner Polynesian took the night off. It was just me and Otto. By my 1200 watch the seas were becoming calmer and although the winds were only upper teens and lower 20’s, the boat was achieving remarkable speeds in the 8-9 knot range. We were taking a Magic Carpet Ride—the ocean current was aligning with our course over ground and giving us a free boost of 1-2 knots. Gotta love it!
By my 2100 watch the waxing quarter moon was hanging in the sky right in front of the boat, smiling down on us like a big Cheshire Cat. It lit a silvery path across the water just ahead of us. Nice job, Mr. Moon!
Sunday, Oct 30
The wind lessened and backed too far aft
for us to continue on a broad reach, so we gybed and headed northwest. Although this gave us a better sailing angle, it was not very effective for velocity made good, but it put us in a better position to gybe again and resume our westerly course. The frustrating part of it is that if we had had the use of the spinnaker pole, it would have given us our best option of poling out the Genoa and sailing directly downwind. We still have over 600 miles to go downwind.
Today is Sunday on the boat but it doesn’t feel like it. The sun came up and we kept sailing. The sun went down and we kept sailing. I miss the punctuation of special days and special events. Fortunately I have music of the Christ Church Choir on my iPod.
Monday, Oct 31
It was a slow news day on Liberty. Slow wind, slow boat, slow news. Speeds that were woeful a few days ago were welcome today. We got excited every time the boat hit 7 knots. The ocean gets a lot bigger at 6 knots than at 8.
On this the 11th day of the Cocos to Mauritius passage I saw the second boat so far, a heavily loaded container ship. This is life in the Big Lonely.
Tuesday, Nov 1
The winds continued to bedevil us—just a little too much to fly the spinnaker but not enough to give us the speed we wanted for a fast broad reach. Fortunately we have 25 hours today. We crossed into the Mauritius time zone and set our clocks back one hour.
On my night watch we passed 29 miles north of the little known island of Rodrigues (pronounced Rodreegs), a territory of Mauritius. I had hoped to stop there, because I’ve heard that it is beautiful, but we still have plenty of beautiful ahead of us.
The half moon’s crooked smile and the clear night sky revealed the 360 degree horizon all around us and highlighted the rise and fall of the bow against the patch of silver in front of us. This is what night sailing should be.
Wednesday, Nov 2
The weather which had been rather listless for a couple of days came to life after midnight. Squalls hit the boat during the midnight to 0300 watch and again during the 0300-0600 watch. By the time my watch began at 0600 the cockpit was still wet but the skies were clearing up. Good timing.
A flying fish flew into the cockpit and landed on a seat cushion. It fluttered its wings and managed to jump out of the cockpit onto the deck, but there it seemed to give up its struggle. I reached out to pick it up and when I touched it, it gave one more frantic flutter of its wings and found the ocean again. Lucky fish—he will have an adventure in the strange world above the water to tell his friends about!
Thursday, Nov 3
We are one day out of Mauritius and have finally reached the shipping lanes. When I came on watch at midnight there were 5 merchant vessels visible by AIS, equaling the entire number I’ve seen in the past 12 days. The lights of one were visible in the night 4 miles away.
The morning wind and sky looked perfect for the spinnaker so we called all hands on deck. With a spinnaker there are endless ways to get lines tangled up and once the spinnaker opens it’s like letting a tiger out of a cage—very hard to get it back down for a do-over. We made sure everything was correct and that all four of us were properly positioned for the grand opening. What a glorious sight to see a red, white, and blue sail the size of a 3-bedroom ranch house fill the sky over our heads! What a shame that there was not a boat in sight of us all day to see how beautiful we were.
Friday, Nov 4
Land ho! When I came on watch at 0300 the lights of Mauritius were strung across the horizon. It was the first land I had seen in two weeks and the lights were evidence of a far more developed place than Cocos Keeling or Gili Gede.
An island named Gunner’s Coin sat a couple of miles north of Mauritius and we sailed north of it. Gunner’s is uninhabitable so its black profile was unmistakable as it blocked the lights of Mauritius. Its sharp rising silhouette could easily be mistaken for Diamond Head or Gibraltar.
Mauritius has a beautiful waterfront, but a rather small harbor for non-commercial boats. 20 large Oyster sailboats plus a couple of catamarans filled the harbor so full that half of the Oysters had to raft alongside the other half of the fleet. Oh, well, we are all friends.