Saturday, July 8, 2017

Paradise Found! Cocos Keeling Islands

As it turned out, it was 4 boats, not 3 that descended on the tiny islands of Cocos Keeling over the days of July 4th, 5th and 6th 2017. Cool Runnings, Aerial IV and Moby left Bali on June 28th, 29th and 30th respectively, but on Sunday night, July 2nd we got a call on the VHF Radio:

“Cool Runnings, Cool Runnings, this is Shuti, Shuti. We see you on AIS and are 7 miles ahead of you to your NE”.

Shuti! We had met Shuti in New Caledonia back in November 2016. They are a family of 5 from Israel – 3 boys on board, aged 12, 9 and 6. We had hoped to meet up with them again in Australia, but only the kids managed to briefly meet in Sydney at the David Bowie concert. We knew they were heading across the Indian Ocean, and had hoped we would meet up along the way. Now we zoomed in on the chartplotter and the AIS signal appeared! How nice it would be to add another 3 kids to the mix! We’d be even now: 8 kids and 8 adults!

The passage to Cocos was not the nicest one we’ve ever had, but then longer passages are nobody’s favorite on Cool Runnings as it is! We were able to fly our Spinnaker pretty much the whole way, and the winds were not too bad in strength, usually picking up over night going into the 20’s, and then during the day between 13 and 17 knots. The problem was the sea state. It was so bouncy and rolly and rough, that we were constantly being tossed around like a cork bobbing in the ocean. We actually welcomed the stronger wind, as it helped steady us a little. Our friends on Aerial IV, a monohull, had an even tougher time, rolling from side to side. The winds were also more out of the East than the South East, so it was more downwind sailing than the reaching we had expected.

Flying our Spinnaker

Ben passing time on passage

It took us 6 nights and 7 days to cover the 1,100 miles from Bali to Cocos Keeling. Our arrival time was showing a midnight – 2:00am arrival on July 5th. We knew if we could speed up a little, we could make it before sundown, and we were not keen to arrive at night, and certainly not keen to spend an additional night out in the rough seas!! Unless we had pretty strong wind, (which did not materialize), it was unlikely that we would make the July 4th arrival, so we made the decision to fire up the engines to add the bit of speed we needed! We knew we could get diesel in Cocos, although at a premium, but if it meant we would get there before sundown on the 4th, we were happy to pay the price! We topped up our water tanks (running the water maker), had a shower, donned our red, white and blue apparel, and wished America a happy birthday before rounding the tip of Direction Island and turning the corner into the shelter of the lagoon! We were able to anchor just as it got dark. We were thrilled to have arrived, safe and sound, and longed for a peaceful night’s sleep!

Gabs in her Red, White and Blue!  Happy 4th of July (Independence Day in the USA, and our arrival in Cocos Keeling!)

Ben's very last bowl of Nutrigrain cereal!!  He loved it...but there was only so much we could buy!

There were 2 other boats anchored here. One was relatively far away in the “outer anchorage”, and the other was anchored fairly close to shore. When we woke up the next morning, there was a third boat anchoring! Shuti had arrived in the early hours of the morning, and had just entered the lagoon and were dropping their anchor! We radioed the Australian Federal Police to request clearance, and they were arrived pretty quickly. It was another easy check-in, and, God Bless Cocos Police, they did not take any food! They understand that cruisers who make it this far, still have a very long way to go, and need all the food they have on board, so they let us keep everything, provided it does not leave the boat. Shuti was checked in pretty much at the same time, and soon we were able to reunite! Unfortunately for Shuti, they had refrigeration problems, so first order of business was to get all their perishables into our fridge, so they could go about the task of trying to get their fridge fixed.

Lagoon with Direction Island

Shuti anchored off Direction Island
We spent the day doing what we usually do after passage: cleaning! Luckily it had POURED with rain overnight, and the outside of Cool Runnings had already been rinsed of all the salt and dirt from Bali. We did two loads of washing that flapped furiously in the wind that just kept getting stronger and stronger. We were so happy to be anchored and felt bad for Moby and Aerial IV, who still had another day and night out at sea. The kids got together and had a blast playing in the water again, and later in the afternoon we took the 2 older Shuti boys with us to the beach to explore Direction Island.

Direction Island is uninhabited, and it almost is as if it belongs to cruisers alone. The Australian authorities have built a BBQ area, picnic areas, and there are palm trees adorned with signs from boats who have come before us! There are also well marked trails that lead all over the island with informational boards with the history of the island, along with old pictures. It is really well done, and we were surprised at the amount of history this tiny island has to offer! The name Cocos Keeling comes from Captain William Keeling, who first sighted the islands in 1609, but it was almost 200 years before John Clunies-Ross and Alexander Hare actually settled on the islands. They planted coconut plantations and brought with them some Malay workers. Soon there was a thriving industry, with copra and coconuts being exported to parts as far as Mauritius! Queen Victoria gave the islands to the Clunies-Ross family and it stayed in their possession for hundreds of years. It was not until 1984 that the islanders voted to become part of Australia!

Early on the morning of July 6th, “Moby” arrived, and soon after, we saw another set of sails, and “Aerial IV” also entered the lagoon! Our contingent of 4 boats was safe, sound and accounted for! We let Moby and Aerial IV recuperate, and we took a ferry to Home Island, which is one of the two inhabited islands in Cocos Keeling. Home Island is where the Malay community live. Out of the 600 or so inhabitants of Cocos Keeling, approximately 450 are Malays living on Home Island, and the other 150 live on West Island where most of the ex-pats live. They are primarily government workers, teachers, nurses and researchers. Most come here on a 2 year contract, and then return to the main land. 

Welcome to Home Island
We spent a very interesting day on Home Island and visited the museum, which provided us with a huge amount of background on the history of these islands. While there is too much document in detail in this blog, the story that fascinated me the most was of one particular day, during World War I, the day the Emden came. The British had installed a cable station on Direction Island for communication around the Indian Ocean territories. (Direction Island is the island that we are anchored off; now uninhabited). Early on the morning of November 9th, 1914, the German light cruiser “Emden” anchored off Direction Island and sent a party of 45 men ashore. Their intention was to destroy the cable station on the island. They were unaware, however, of a huge fleet of Australian and New Zealand troop convoy that was less than 100km away. When the British on Direction Island saw the Emden, they radioed the fleet and soon the HMAS Sydney was on its way. On shore, the British were rounded up and made prisoners, and the Germans raised their flag, having now captured the island. As it was explained at the museum, it was all a very civilized affair, both German and British soldiers chatting to each other, and no harm came to anyone. As the Germans were getting ready to return to the Emden, to let them know that the mission was accomplished, they heard a warning signal from their ship, and soon saw it starting to leave without them! The Emden in the meantime had realized the Sydney was coming, and the German exploration party on shore realized their ship was not coming back to get them!

The Museum is housed in an old rice shed

On shore, both British and German soldiers sat and watched the battle of Emden and Sydney play out before them. The pictures are quite amazing! The Sydney eventually destroyed the Emden, and rather than let the ship sink, risking the drowning of all its crew, the captain of the Emden ran the ship aground on the reef at North Keeling Island. On shore, 6 hours after the German flag was raised, it was once again lowered, and the British flag raised again! The exploration party now knew they needed to leave, and amazingly enough, with the help of the British soldiers on shore, they stocked up the private vessel of the Clunies-Ross family, a schooner called “Ayesha”, with supplies and water, and waving three cheers to the British, and the British calling three cheers back, they rowed out to the Ayesha, and then sailed her to what is now Indonesia, at the time, it was neutral Dutch territory! All of this happened on one day!!

This panel shows some of the old photos that told the story of that day

Two of the old, wooden boats on display at the museum.  The initials "GCR" for George Clunies-Ross can be seen on the front boat
That was just one amazing story in the history of these small islands. The story of the Clunies-Ross family and how the islands came to be under Australian control is another story altogether! After absorbing all this information, we walked around the rest of the island, and having a look at the Oceania House, the old Clunies-Ross mansion that still stands today, we eventually took the ferry back to Direction Island. 

Oceania House - the Clunies-Ross mansion that is now under private ownership and being converted into a B&B

Part of the estate wall fallen into disrepair

On the other side of Home Island

That evening, Shuti and Moby came over to Cool Runnings, and we had sundowners and catch up hour, the 8 kids crowded into the salon and watched a movie, and the adults caught up over drinks and snacks in the cockpit! We shared stories of our passage over and discussed our journey ahead.  It was great to be at anchor and with friends again!

Cool Runnings, Moby and Shuti at anchor

Yesterday, Friday, was one of those days when we said, “this is what cruising is all about”. Each boat did their own thing in the morning, (in our case it was getting our 9 jerry cans of diesel and getting our gas refilled) and after lunch, we all gathered on the beach, and just enjoyed ourselves. The water toys were out – windsurfers and SUPs, and the kids and grown ups alike had a ball playing on the beach and in the water! When the wind dies down, we will have our planned beach bonfire…we can’t leave here without doing that at least!! Today we’ve caught the ferry to West Island, where we can catch a glimmer of internet to get this blog post uploaded!!

Our plans from here on are to spend a few more days here in Cocos, waiting for the weather to improve. The following couple of days we hope to relax and enjoy with our friends in the anchorage, and then it will be about a 10 day passage to Chagos. If I get a chance, I may be able to do one more post, but hereafter, until we get to Seychelles, blog updates will be via our Iridium satellite only (ie. no pictures!). We are looking forward to Chagos, which also has a very checkered history, with the entire population having been resettled, due to the establishment of an American Naval Base on Diego Garcia island. We are restricted to 2 atolls in the Chagos archipelago, both of whom are uninhabited. This will truly be the most remote place we will ever have visited! We are looking forward to it and the next chapter of our crossing of the Indian Ocean!

Sunrise over Direction Island with Shuti and Aerial IV at anchor

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