We escape Papua New Guinea’s outer reef and head out into open ocean. It’s a strange feeling to be in new water. For the first time in almost twenty years, I don’t know what to expect. One might think ocean sailing is ocean sailing, but that actually is not true. One of my most striking memories is from the day I crossed through the Panama Canal into the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, everything changed. The water in my new Pacific Ocean was a different color and a different texture. The trade winds looked different. The humidity was different, the salt in the air smelled different. The storms are different. The currents and tides are different. The people in the islands are different. I reminisce as we venture out of PNG, and I grow suspicious that moving from the Pacific Ocean to the first corners of the Indian Ocean will be a big change as well. Am I afraid of this change? That is an irrelevant question. Fear is irrelevant to me because I will be sailing forward, with or without fear. Fear is like having a headache. Sometimes, it pops up. I stretch my sails, roll my shoulders, and do my thing while I wait for fear to pass.
Soon, we are underway by sail, letting large ocean waves lift me up to the sky, roll beneath my hull, and put me back down again. Evening falls and as the sun sets, and Leslie takes over her night watch. “Oh! Hello there!” I hear Leslie say, surprise in her voice. I look over my shoulder and see a sea bird has glided beneath the bimini and landed on my shiny varnished cockpit combing. He landed no more than a foot away from Leslie.
The bird looks at Leslie, shuffles his webbed feet, then rocks back and forth on his heels. “Andrew! We have a stowaway!” Andrew pops his head up and meets Charles, the sea bird.
Charles’ beady black eyes are rimmed with white, as though he is wearing eyeliner. A smoke-colored puff of feathers top his head, and the rest of his body is charcoal grey. He is clearly settling in for the night, and two more of his friends are circling my bow.
“I am not the bird bus!” I declare, but it is no use. The two circling birds land, one right in front of the mast, the other atop a gas can. Ugh. I hate sea birds. They poop all over me.
Charles rides along for another hour or so until an odd wave crashes into the side of my hull. I can feel bird feet slide here and there, then “Squawk!” Charles the bird is flapping his wings desperately trying to grab another foothold. He has slid off the cockpit combing and is grasping at the genoa sheet (rope), pulled taught as it is led from the winch to the rolling block on deck.
“Charles!” Leslie squeals. “Andrew, you have to come help Charles!”
Charles has now fallen between the lifeline and the genoa sheet, his breast feathers all cockeyed. Andrew climbs into the cockpit and snatches Charles up in his hands. Cupping the struggling bird, Andrew lifts him safely back into the cockpit.
“Andrew, invite him overboard. He can fly!” I say, but its to no avail. Andrew is a bleeding heart. He feels bad for the bird, imagining him to be tired after flying, swooping, and diving for food all day. Andrew tries to make a nest of ropes for him, but Leslie reasons that he can’t well sleep in my working sail’s ropes. Instead, Andrew piles up a flexible plastic bucket (easy to clean, Andrew reasons), Andrew’s own shoes (I guess Andrew doesn’t care about the poop), and an unused rope. Charles plops into the center of this “nest” and Andrew heads back to bed. Charles seems grateful for a while, but then a boarding waves hops over my side rail, into the cockpit, and directly onto Charles. Charles shakes the water off his head and huddles down again. He eyes Leslie, snuggled under the dodger safe and dry. Pretty soon, another wave splashes Charles; then another, and another. I’m sure he couldn’t help but notice the nest of beanbags and blankets into which Leslie is cuddled. Charles hops off his pile of rubber bucket, shoes and ropes, then pads his way around the cockpit to the chair where Leslie has her feet propped.
“Andrew! Charles is on the beanbags!”
I’m sure Leslie would share with Charles, except she knows he will spew bird feces all over her. She is reasonable in this regard. Andrew, on the other hand is not.
“Overboard!” I say, “Toss him overboard!”
Instead, Andrew lifts Charles the Bird onto the shelf beneath the dodger and offers him a perch on the mainsail winch. Charles steps off Andrew’s hand and pushes his toes into the winch-handle hole atop the winch. Perfect. He sways in time with my waves. Every now and then, a wave splashes aboard and hits the clear dodger window. Charles, feeling as though he should be all wet, fluffs open his feathers and gives his head a shake, then realizes he is still dry and settles down again. Andrew arranges a paper towel at the base of the winch, pinned down by ropes, hoping to keep the mess contained. “That is not going to work, Andrew.” I say. But, to my surprise it does. Every hour or so, Charles backs his little feathered bum to the edge of the winch and poops on the paper towel; then, the paper towel is replaced.
Charles is good company for the remainder of Leslie’s night watch. Then Andrew’s. Then Leslie’s morning watch. Andrew’s afternoon watch. Leslie’s second night watch. Andrew’s second night watch…. Charles seems to be installed as permanent crew. This bird is far too comfortable for his own good.
“I am not the BIRD BUS!” I insist again, until Osmond emerges from below decks for a photo-op. I sigh. Maybe I am the bird bus.
On the morning of Charles’ third day with us, Leslie begins to be concerned that Charles is starving to death. His rate of excrement has slowed considerably. Andrew is talking to Charles and offering him a hand when Charles hops down off the winch and into Andrew’s lap. “He’s in my lap!” Andrew could not be happier with this turn of events. Andrew snuggles with Charles as long as he dares before Charles lays another bird-bomb. Then, Andrew offers him clear escape access outside the bimini. “Do you want to leave, Charles? You aren’t our prisoner.” Charles remains clamped firmly to Andrew’s finger. “Okay…” Andrew places him back on the winch.
Charles stays through Leslie’s morning watch, but seems more fussy than usual. He hops around and moves from one winch to another, trying to get comfortable. He stretches his wings, preens, then moves again. Just before Andrew’s afternoon watch, Charles finally decides to depart. Flapping his wings two or three times to warm up, he lofts himself mid-cockpit and takes flight. He dives a time or two into the water, follows my sail for a few minutes, then dips a wing to wave good-bye.
“I miss the ole fella,” Leslie tells me as we sail on through the Bligh Pass of the Torres Strait. I do not miss Charles.
Our next adventure involved reefs, islands, and giant container ships. The Bligh Pass is the industrial highway of the ocean. Container ships, oil tankers, and the like travel these waters to carry manufactured goods from South East Asia to Australia, New Zealand, and the West Coast of the US. These ships move anywhere from 10 - 30 knots of speed, and they are as big as a city skyscraper. While boats under sail technically have right of way against a ship under motor, you don’t mess around with these big boys. They are underway, fast, and it takes hours to slow them down. They are so big, they would crush us in an instant. We stay out of their way. Andrew and Leslie keep an even more careful watch as we enter this area, scanning the horizon 360 degrees almost constantly. As soon as ship lights come over the horizon, we adjust course and move away from the big-boy’s path. With islands and reefs squeezed close together, there isn’t a lot of space for everyone to fit. Luckily, we have AIS which tells us the path of the big ship, the size, the speed, the name, radio call sign and the closest point of contact for our respective paths. It’s pretty easy to adjust and be confident that we know we are safe. If there is any question, we radio the big fella and confirm his intent to hold his course or do otherwise. In the Torres Strait, they must have an Australian Pilot boat to accompany them, so at least here, they always understand English.
Inside the reef, the ocean drops from 10,000 feet deep to 25 feet deep. We can anchor any time we please if we want to scoot off the main thorough fare and find ourselves a nook by a little island or reef. One night when the current is against us, we do just that. Trying to time our passage through the narrowest portion of reef for daylight hours, we lay down our anchor just off low lying atoll. Unfortunately, this night takes the lead for the most unpleasant night at anchor, ever. The wind built steadily until it was shrieking through my rigging. Then, the current pushed me sideways. I rocked violently back and forth all night long; it was worse than if we were sailing! Andrew and Leslie stayed awake on their regular schedule, maintaining “anchor watch” to make sure we didn’t drag away. But, I am on my best behavior, so I stayed put.
The next morning, we got back under way and enjoyed an almost three knot current in our favor. While I sailed through the water at five knots, we made actual speed over ground at over eight knots! I felt speedy and swift; I liked it. It’s a good thing, too, because we were skimming over the water of the narrowest section of reef as the sun set beneath my salt sprayed dodger. We had to finish the area under the cover of darkness, Leslie peering down the companion way at my charts on the navigation desk.
When we popped out the other side of the reef, we had a clear shot to Indonesia. As I suspected, everything changed. The water in the Arafura Sea lightens to a cloudy turquoise color in the shallows. In deeper water, it is clear when it bubbles up against my hull, but in aggregate, it is the color of steeped tea. The clouds are swaths that smear across the sky. To our surprise, the horizon flattens into a pancake. While sailing into the Pacific, you can look into the horizon and see the earth curling away from you. It looks spherical. Here, I suddenly understand why someone may have thought the world flat. We seem to be sailing in a frying pan. At first, the waves seem smaller and the sailing is pleasant, but as the days pass, bigger swell comes in, close together and more sharp than the Pacific. I am just as rolly, and my crew equally as whiney.
We see no one until one night, hazy orbs of light suddenly appear on the horizon. White, cream, yellow, even green lights, they are like rhinestones or pearls stitched on the collar of a black cocktail dress. Squid boats. For hours and hours we slowly make our way toward the same glowing patch, we could see them at least ten miles in the distance. As we pass, we find a square structure, anchored in the water, lit like a football stadium. The fishermen aim these bright lights into the water, calling squid to swim in from all around.
“I bet there are some angry kraken in these waters.” Leslie comments, as we pass one boat by in the pitch black of night. But no, kraken are only deep water squid. Kraken do not live in 150 feet of water, so I think we are safe.
We are visited by a new type of tiny dolphin. No larger than small lap dogs, they slip through the water and jump into the air light as feathers. Just like any other dolphin, they jump and spin in my bow wake. Also, just like any other dolphin, they scatter and disappear like magic when Leslie breaks out the camera and tries to “steal their souls.”
Still hundreds of miles offshore, we are visited by colorful bird: a yellow and green body, orange on his head, with streaks of turquoise beneath his eyes and down the center of his back. I open my mouth to protest my bird-bus status, but this bird is so beautiful I quiet down and admire.
“Click, click, click, click, click” Leslie’s shutter opens and closes a thousand times trying to get this beautiful little bird at just the right angle. “How in the world did he get all the way out here?” She marvels, and I wonder, too. We are very far away from land for this little bird’s wings to carry him.
As we edge closer and closer to land, the menagerie of fishing vessels grows. Slow moving, but large square ships with their bows sharply pointed and tipped up into the sky “put-put-put-put” around us. Their engines sound like rudimentary tractor engines. Seeing these fishing boats, we all get a little nervous about our upcoming night watch. Indonesia is famous for unlit fishing boats and FADs, (Fish Attracting Devices) which are nothing more than a pile of rubbish anchored to the sea floor and floating on the surface. Fish swarm beneath the rubbish, making it easy to pluck them from the sea. The problem is, if I hit a FAD, it can get tangled in my keel, rudder, propeller, or worse, smash into my hull if they happen to be made of hard wood pallets or other solid debris. Our concerns are unfounded for now, though. At dusk, all the fishing boats disappear and to our surprise, we see no squid boats on the horizon either. We enjoy a night watch devoid of anything at all.
In the morning, we find ourselves exactly twelve hours from port if we can maintain a six knot average. My usual average is five. The wind is strong and things are going well, but we have a contrary half-knot of current. Andrew fires up the engine, turns on my water maker and we spend the next twelve hours motor-sailing as fast as we can to try to reach port before dark. We definitely cannot try to enter this port in the dark. With all these fishing boats, there is bound to be obstacles to cause trouble if we were to try.
As the sun is setting, the current shifts in our favor and we are flying overground at nine knots! “WEEEEEEEEEE!” I exclaim. Andrew and Leslie have the lee shore of a small island with a sand beach in their sights. We aren’t going to make it all the way into port, but we think we can anchor overnight and finish the drive in the light of day. My anchor chain is clattering downward at exactly sunset on Day 9 of our passage, 1,023 new miles under my keel.