Thirty-seven days across the Indian Ocean

Hot and humid Darwin, Australia became a haze on the horizon on Thursday 9 September. We were sailing non-stop to the French island, La Reunion. A sail of 4500 miles across the Indian Ocean. An estimated five weeks – our longest passage yet.

Day One: We’re being watched

Ah, the freedom, fresh, cool breeze and sweet solitude of being out on the open sea again …

It’s early morning, 50 miles off shore and I’m having a moment – standing on deck in the altogether, enjoying the limitless space and eating some fresh Australian strawberries!

NNNnnnnneeeeooooowww

An Australian Border Force plane appears out of nowhere, swooping low to take an identification photo. I drop my strawberry and frantically scrabble about for a top. They then call us on the radio, check our intentions and wish us a great passage!!

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It’s our first night at sea and we notice the tricolour light at the top of the mast isn’t working. Dammit. We’d fixed it in Darwin but a wire must have come loose. We decide to use the anchor light for night sailing, far from ideal but better than nothing. If we motor we’ll put the steaming lights on.

Day Two: Our first overnight guest

NNNnnnnneeeeooooowww

The Australian Border Force plane comes back, same time as yesterday.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning. This time I’m in the altogether midway through a meditation and my reactions are slower as they swoop low to take another photo.

They call again and it’s a different, jovial pilot. Had word got out about the naked lady on Bagheera? I resolve to be fully clothed on deck from now on, no matter how remote we are. Eyes are everywhere.

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Paul picks up the main sheet in the dark, but instead scoops up a small Common Tern asleep in the coil of rope. He had checked into the Baggy Hotel for the night and was sound asleep in the cockpit.

Slightly ruffled, but unbothered he had a poop and settled back down for the night.

Day Three: We spring a leak

We left Darwin with 250 litres of fresh water in the tank and were operating a strict water rationing regime. But, when we dipped the tank to check levels we found we’d ‘used’ 60 litres!

Forepeak excavation to find the leak

Rapid detective work revealed Baggy’s 42-year old steel water tank had clearly had an emotional moment over its water carrying responsibilities across the Indian Ocean. Freshwater teardrops were being silently sobbed into our bilges.

We’d taken Baggy for granted and her old tank joints were clearly suffering under the pressure of it all.

We calculated:

– at the current drip rate we would lose all our tank water in just eight days

– we had 250 litres of spare water in jerry cans and bottles

– to survive in this heat (we were edging ever closer to the equator) we needed to allow for three litres each a day = six litres a day. Over 30 days = 180 litres. Worse case scenario, 40 days = 240 litres.

We had JUST enough. But we needed to save as much as we could from the crying tank.

We made a futile attempt to fill the shower bag and the few empty flasks and bottles we could find.

A poor effort: this was all the water we could save

We rigged two pump dispensers in the sink. One filled with sea water for washing up. The other filled from our reserve jerry cans for cooking. We decided to use our bottled water supply for drinking.

This worrying day ended with our second Baggy Hotel guest for the night – a Brown Booby, called Bob.

Day Four: No wind

Someone keeps turning the wind off so we have to use the iron sail i.e. turn the engine on.

The autohelm is broken, despite ardent attempts to fix it, so we have to hand steer, swopping watches every four hours.

A technical sailing manoeuvre: steering by foot and reading

The tropical sun is brutal with no bimini, but we remind ourselves that 24/7 hand steering was how it was done ‘in the olden days’. So – we don large hats, shirts and sun cream and get on with it.

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A pod of pilot whales silently inspect us, then dive deep and glide away ….

Day Five: Light wind, leak stops

With light winds picking up and Mowgli (the wind vane) back to steering we can enjoy an almost normal standard of life on board.

Paul says: we’re going to need significantly bigger buns!!

In fact, determined to enjoy this passage as much as possible we’ve given ourselves stacks to do – reading, crosswords, baking, writing, music, art, exercise, podcasts, films, mending, cleaning and fixing jobs.

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The tank’s stopped crying. Fingers crossed the leak is now above the water level.

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Bob’s mate, Booby 2, landed and spent the night on the solar panel. Unfortunately he ‘trashed his room’ and made a terrible mess. A new Baggy Hotel guest rule is made that no more birds are allowed to spend the night up there.

Day Six: Land ho! Indonesia

You need binoculars: just across the water is Indonesia

The island of Roti, Indonesia is spotted off to starboard. The nearest we will ever be to the great continent of Asia.

It gets hotter by the day as we edge ever closer to the equator and we still haven’t met the cooling trade winds. You can’t stand on the deck in bare feet.

Pirate 🏴‍☠️ Paul: shaking out a reef

We’re gently sailing along achieving between three and six knots. It’s slow, steady progress. One knot = 1.15 miles per hour, so we’re travelling at a steady 3.45 – 6.9 mph, a brisk walking/slow jogging pace!

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We don’t have enough hand towels to last the passage so cut some up for hemming. We enjoy an afternoon sewing circle – with tea, cake and natter!

Day Seven: Things we see at sea

Flying fish – huge shoals take off as Baggy disturbs them ploughing through the waves. Unfortunately they also land and perish on Baggy’s deck requiring daily flying fish evacuation.

Anyone know what this is?

Rocket or satellite debris? Bobbing in the 6376 metre Java Trench we spot the strangest object. Weather buoy?

Indonesian fishing boats – at night all you see are tiny lights. Most don’t have AIS, so they don’t appear on the plotter. They’re a hazard. They are very focused on their fishing business and not expecting a small yacht to sail by. We need to have eagle eyes.

We don’t want THAT running into us!!

Cargo ships and tankers – these are monster ships; the biggest was 361 x 65 metres. We don’t see many but have needed to call a couple so they adjust course and don’t plough through us. One was only a mile away and we’re only 10.3 x 3.35 metres!

Floating plastic – we’ve seen more here more than on any other ocean. Bottles, polystyrene and random stuff bobs incongruously past us.

Day Eight: Ships routine

We’ve settled into a daily rhythm.

0745 Paul wakes me up.
0800 Watch handover brief; cold drink; possible sail adjustments. Paul goes to bed. I have breakfast, check fresh veg and fridge, tidy up, make bread, read, meditate, do a crossword. 
1145 I wake Paul up.
1200 We have coffee on deck (weather willing), review the day, mileage, weather and what’s for lunch and dinner. Paul harnesses up and goes on ‘chafe patrol’ checking everything is OK on deck, removing kamikaze fish and squid. We top up up our galley water containers with saltwater and fresh water. 
1330 Lunch. Either leftovers from last nights dinner, or fresh bread, crackers or wraps with the days availability of fresh veg and salad, pickles, beans, cheese, hummous etc. A large bag of fast ripening avocados saw us eating guacamole every day for the first 10 days! 
1430 I have a half hour kip. Paul reads or naps.
1500 I play ukulele nearly every day and Paul sings! Sea shanties are a favourite! 
1600 Dinner preps. We take it in turns. If not on dinner preps it’s time for deck exercises. 
1630 Saltwater deck washes (weather willing).
1700 Happy Hour! Ceremoniously served on deck we have a 0% beer and twiglets every third day, otherwise it’s cocktails of sparkling water, tonic water, fruit juice and lemon slices. Nuts, popcorn and a limited supply of crisps.
Entertainment is the sunset, sea birds, clouds, waves and our daily BBC Desert Island Discs episode.
1800 Dinner
1900 Paul has an hours kip. I read or watch a film or TV download. 
2000 I go to bed. Paul’s on watch. Being on watch involves being alert to wind speed, wind angle, squalls and other boats. To keep awake he reads or watches something we’ve downloaded. 
2345 Paul wakes me up.
2400 We have a bleary-eyed brief and handover. Paul goes to bed. I listen to podcasts and try not to fall asleep. 
0345 I wake Paul up. 
0400 We have another bleary eyed brief and watch handover. I go to bed and Paul’s on watch. 
0745 Paul wakes me up.
Start again from the top and repeat for five weeks. 

Days Nine: The trade winds arrive

And everything changes. The easy, slow, comfortable start turns into a fast, rolling motion … the sort that sends stuff flying.

Every movement is timed. Roll, step, hold on, wait … roll, step, hold on, wait. It’s a Zen way of living. Anger, frustration and any form of speed is completely futile.

We’re used to this and smugly think everything is secured.

Yeh, everything apart from toolboxes, shoes, books, speaker, ALL cups of tea, pens, bedding, cushions etc etc!!! Miraculously we get away with mild whiplash, a few cuts, bruises and spills. Nothing breaks.

But we’re really sailing. The 24-hour runs are creeping up – 132, 147, 156 and Baggy’s enjoying a steady five – seven knots. This includes assistance from the west going equatorial current, which can run at up to 1.5 knots. It’s like being on an airport travelator.

On one night watch Baggy was sailing so fast we felt compelled to slow her down. But even rolling the genoa into a pocket handkerchief she was still managing seven knots.

Day 10: The leak returns

All the pitching and rolling is sloshing the tank water up the sides and Baggy’s crying into the bilges again. We’re decanting what we can into empty ‘Happy Hour’ tonic and sparkling water bottles as soon as they’re empty.

Day 11: Strange smells

We sniff the most bizarre odours on the breeze, hundreds of miles from land. It’s happened before and never ceases to intrigue us. We smell intense flowers, like ylang-ylang and a nasty musty, oily whiff that hangs around for several hours.

Day 13: Land ho! Christmas Island

We sailed the 500 miles from Roti to Christmas Island with great anticipation. Despite it being Australian territory we’re not allowed to stop because of COVID-19. But, we still have some Australian data on our phones and optimistically wondered if we’d pick up some 3G to check weather and emails.

It was dusk by the time we glided past and spotted the high ground off the southern end of the island. And we did pick up a phone signal … but sadly no 3G. We remind ourselves there’s a purity to having no internet connection on a long ocean passage.

Thankfully, our friend Paddy is able to send us reliable weather updates via our Yellow Brick tracker.

It was an uneventful distant sighting. The night draws in. We put our phones away and set our sights on the next way point, the Cocos Keeling Islands, 500 miles south east.

Days 16: Weekly routines

It’s Friday, which is special. As well as our daily routine we have weekly chores to ensure Baggy and crew maintain morale and ship-shape standards.

  • Clear out, mop, sort and tidy the fridge. NB. Today the fridge lid has broken.
  • Check lockers for leaks, spills, insects or anything nasty. NB. Today a jar of sun dried tomatoes in oil has leaked and we spot ants.
  • Adjust ships time by an hour a week as we move across the meridian. NB. We need to lose five and a half hours by the time we reach La Reunion.
  • Deep clean the heads and galley. NB. Flying food has been a bit of an issue recently.
  • Check the satellite phone for messages.

Day 17: Land ho! Cocos Keeling Islands

NNNnnnnneeeeooooowww

Oh no – the boys in the plane are back. But this time I’m dressed and ready. They call us on the radio to ask the exact same questions they asked us the last two times.

Then their mates on a Border Force boat call us – in stealth mode, as not showing up on the plotter. You guessed it, they want the same information – spelling of Bagheera, port of registry, last port of call and intentions.

We explain we weren’t given permission to stop in the hope they suddenly say we can. They don’t. We spot palm trees on an idyllic island in the distance, sigh and sail on. Just another 2500 miles to go then.

The long haul across the width of the South Indian Ocean has the full benefit of the south east trade winds during these southern winter months. The winds apparently blow 20-25 knots for days on end and we brace ourselves for the longest and gnarliest part of the passage. Our reliable cruising guide provides little comfort.

The pleasure of a fast passage is often marred by an uncomfortable cross-swell which rolls in relentlessly from the Southern Ocean.

Jimmy Cornell, World Cruising Guide

Days 19-28: Wind, waves, rain and rolling

And so it begins. We’re confined to quarters. It rains non-stop for ten days, everything from drizzle to biblical downpour.

With every window shut and the hatches secured Baggy is hot and airless and her crew are sweaty, headachy and uncomfortable. We only venture outside for seawater and sail trimming.

A leak from the aft cabin (bedroom) hatch manages to wet the bedding whenever a wave crashes into the cockpit. Another leak appears in the corner of the bed soaking the cushion we (try to) sleep on.

Rain meant no sun for ten days. This meant the solar panel wasn’t generating enough power for all our needs.

Overnight we use the plotter, anchor light (tri colour broken!) and cabin lights. All this depletes our battery.

So we can’t use the fridge = rotting carrots, sweaty cheese, sour soya milk, mouldy tempeh, exploding fruit juice cartons, no yoghurt. and festering jars. And no cold drinks.

Happy Hour is cancelled. But, we remind ourselves that a fridge is a luxury that sailors didn’t have ‘back in the day.’ After a small grumble we have to start chucking food away and adapt to living without it.

But, that’s not the worst of it.

We experience the longest sustained period of strong wind, and the biggest seas, since leaving the UK. Waves repeatedly crash over the cockpit. The bed is always damp.

On a positive note the sea looks majestic. Not angry or frightening, just powerful and almighty. We are in absolute awe.

We sneak peaks between rain squalls and are mesmerised by the four metre towering waves heading towards us, and the effortless way Baggy surfs down one side. There is a split second of complete stillness as she sits at the bottom of the wave before climbing her way up the next one, then she rolls onto her side and surfs again.

We enter into a weird, sleep deprived state of groundhog day limbo.

The mystery toilet smell – We have two heads (toilets). One each. It makes me very happy to have a 1.5m x 1m room to call my own. Paul has the larger ‘wet room’ ie. tap head with extendable hose on end. Not that we have any water to use for showers!

Anyway, it was Paul’s ‘wet room’ which started smelling … like a rotting body of something. No amount of cleaning helped. Eventually we lifted the floor grate and found the source … a small rotting flying fish which had made its way through the window pre-rain shut down. Considering we’d had all the windows shut for days on end … well … we’ll leave the whiff to your imagination …….

The water tank is now empty. We’ve used and salvaged all we can and left a few litres sloshing around the bottom.

Rust sets in. The kitchen kit is suffering from the saltwater and rust patches have appeared on everything.

Tea towel crisis. It’s the least of our worries but drying up salty dishes and having no sun means the tea towels are permanently sodden.

The old ones are used to mop up rain and waves that come in. We now have a bin bag of wet stuff and two dry tea towels to last two weeks.

Day 29: The sun shines and sea showers return

At last – after ten days of captivity – we emerge from our gyrating cell, blinking at the patches of blue sky and strange orange glow. And it’s time to enjoy our 4pm ‘shower treat’, which goes like this:

1 Haul up a bucket of sea water

2 Brace yourself behind the wheel and pour it over yourself with an old plastic jug. Scream with ‘delight’ and cold.

3 Scrub with ‘Sailors Soap’, which smells like wet dogs but lathers well.

4 Rinse with remaining seawater

5 Remove saltwater with flannel, clean off remaining salt residue with baby wipes. Towel dry. Ta-da!

Shampoo and fish rinse?

We find rain water in the trug holding our reserve water stock at the back of the boat.

I haven’t washed my hair since we left Darwin and am excited about a rainwater shampoo.

We jug and funnel green, murky rain water into plastic bottles. It smelt disgusting … and there at the bottom of the trug was another decaying flying fish.

Paul thinks it’s funny I nearly washed my hair in decayed flying fish water. But then hair washing is of little concern to him!

It’s now the longest I have gone without washing my hair in my entire life.

——————————————————

We cross the 90 east meridian, which means we’ve made half of our necessary westing to get back to the longitude of the UK. We celebrate with a warm orange squash.

Day 29: Fresh food audit

Back home we’d have thrown away or composted carrots like this. Now, they’re fine with a good peeling.

Aside from the slimy carrots we have a quarter of red cabbage, 10 onions, two oranges, seven apples, two heads of garlic, a medium ginger root, half a butternut squash, one sweet potato and one lemon. Meals are getting, ah, creative!

Day 30: Crew member injured

Battle scars: Before and After

Brave and tireless Mowgli (the wind vane) was found with a stab wound this morning. He was immediately relieved of duties for emergency medical attention. Flying fish scales reveal his attacker. A quick patch up saw him back in action in no time. He’s being recommended for a gallantry medal.

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Paul’s phone has gone doolally. It thinks it’s wet and we suspect the humidity. He’s been putting it in the oven, to no avail. Then the light in Paul’s head’s (toilet/ wet room) stopped working … and it’s not the bulb. Every thing and every body is tired of being at sea now!

Day 33: Binnacle breaks

We’re just 100 miles off Rodrigues Island, part of Mauritius. The inhabitants are renowned for being amongst the friendliest people on earth. Not that we’re allowed to meet them – we don’t have permission to stop. But we do spot friendly seabirds.

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A bit of forged aluminium on the steering binnacle has fallen off and the steering wheel has become really stiff. We secure what we can with jubilee clips and pray.

Day 35: Land ho! Mauritius

We fly by with just 155 miles to go. Paul spends most of his time calculating when we’re going to arrive. I righteously tell him we have to live in the moment …. and then keep asking him when we’re going to get there. We’ve both had enough now.

Day 36: Land ho! La Reunion

And there it is. Earth, sanctuary, mountains, green growing things, fresh food, hair washing opportunities and other people – all speaking French.

Oh, and an active volcano!

Nous sommes arrives: raising the French flag

But then … the marina won’t let us in because we’ve arrived outside of office hours. Not even to tie up on a waiting pontoon.

We’re fed up and knackered and have to bob about outside all night and wait till the morning.

Day 37: The passage is officially over

At 8am we’re first through the harbour entrance and glide into Berth C5 at Le Pointe Des Galets. No biosecurity check, a quick passport stamp and we’re all checked in by 9am.

  • Miles sailed – 4682
  • Time at sea – 37 days exactly
  • Engine hours – 37
  • Average speed – 5.25 knots

I immediately wash my hair and Paul has a beer!

Baggy now needs a lot of attention and we only have three weeks before setting sail again for South Africa. Cyclones start in the Southern Indian Ocean in December and we’re not taking any risks. We need to leave in good time.

A votre sante!

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