When Corroboree sailed out of Darwin, Australia, on the morning of 16 May, it was a sea change in every sense of the word. After 16,000 miles of voyaging and three wonderful years in Oz, we were ready to resume our post-Covid circumnavigation and ports were open to receive us. The boat preparations began months in advance and involved two separate, complicated and expensive haul-outs to replace a worn cutlass bearing and redo our bottom paint. We also hired an agent in Indonesia to shepherd us through the bureaucracy and obtain visas. Last-minute curveballs included Eric’s laptop expiring in the Blue Screen of Death two weeks before our departure and a false positive Covid test for me just days before we were due to check out. Adding to the pressure, our 3-year control permit for keeping Corroboree in Australia would expire on 24 May. Were we to overstay that date, we’d have to import the boat, a huge expense. Time to go!
The weather forecast across the Timor Sea to Bali, Indonesia, gave us 5-10k winds for the first day, but we didn’t mind the slow start. It enabled us to regain our sea legs and adjust to Corroboree’s motion with no seasickness on my part. By Day 2 the forecast was for 10-15k all the way to Bali, and when the wind filled in that afternoon as predicted, we rubbed our palms in anticipation of a refreshing sail. Alas, by evening the wind dwindled and proceeded to tease and frustrate us, on and off, for the next 72 hours. Our 24-hour runs for the first four days were a lackluster 66 miles, 72 miles, 77 miles and 70 miles. This included 14 hours of motoring when no wind and a contrary current conspired to push us backward. Grr!
So, what do sailors do to combat the tedium when your boat is wallowing in lumpy water with the boom clanging and the sails flapping forlornly? A daily pleasure was Eric reading aloud to us from a family history of his Scandinavian ancestors compiled by his cousin, Molly. We also listened to the excellent podcast series “Revolutions” by Mike Duncan. One morning Eric took advantage of the calm to replace the wiring to our solar panels. On Day 2 we had a flyby and radio call from ABF (Australian Border Force), always a bit of excitement. The plane returned on Days 3 and 5, but after I waved and flashed the peace sign they flew on without further contact. Otherwise, we sweated, drank gallons of water, and alternated breaks below to escape the relentless sun. The surface water temperature of the Timor Sea itself is 30C (86F). With no land, no ships, and virtually no sea life except squadrons of flying fish, it felt like we were simmering in a vast bowl of salty blue soup.
Then late on the afternoon of Day 4, the wind returned, and two days of decent sailing brought us to otherworldly Ashmore Reef. This isolated nature reserve in the middle of the Timor Sea consists of a coral reef with three vegetated sand islands and two lagoons. It is used as a rest stop by Indonesian fishing boats and cruising sailors and is guarded by the ABF. On approaching, we were requested by the ABF patrol boat stationed in the outer lagoon to tie up to the mooring behind them for a “courtesy call.” Two very nice officers arrived in a tender and gave us an information packet and permission to proceed to the inner lagoon. As it was already late in the day, we opted to stay where we were for a good night’s sleep, and after a hearty dinner, we crashed thankfully into bed. Sometimes, a slow, tedious sail can be more exhausting than a strenuous one.
The next morning, we motored along the well-marked, 2-mile channel to the inner lagoon where we found two locked-up fishing boats and a research vessel. IMPORTANT NOTE TO CRUISERS: The mooring information in the ABF packet is completely INCORRECT. There are NO yacht-sized moorings in either lagoon at Ashmore Reef, only commercial moorings with huge hawsers that left my upper arms black-and-blue as Eric and I wrestled to tie up. When we radioed this info to the ABF patrol boat, they seemed surprised. We politely suggested they check it out for themselves.
But now, safe in a calm lagoon, we took in our amazing surroundings. Ashmore Reef is truly an oasis in the Timor Sea. Of the three islands, landing is permitted only on a tiny strip of West Island, where the moorings are located. Save for a water pipe, which ABF advised us was of dubious quality, there are no facilities. The vegetation consists of grass, scrub and stunted and dead trees. There are, however, thousands and thousands of “inhabitants.” Frigate birds, tropicbirds, boobies, gannets, gulls, terns and noddies wheel and swoop in the bright blue sky, feed on the tidal flats, and nest in the sand and bushes. I’m not sure what stage of breeding was underway, but we saw fuzzy chicks in graduating sizes nestled among the adult birds. More birds swirled over the interior of the island, enacting a constant rush hour. The reef and its sea grass also provide habitat and food for dugongs, sea turtles, fish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and 17 species of sea snakes, though we saw none of these creatures. The sky is also “inhabited” with spectacular stars stretching across the Milky Way. To behold them in the blackness is a humbling sight.
We left Ashmore Reef on 24 May and had a minor equipment failure that evening when a shackle on the jib sheet broke. Working by the deck light, Eric replaced the shackle without any fuss. It wasn’t until daylight that we discovered the flailing jib had wrapped itself around the headstay six times. Eric unwound it, no damage done, but we now have a new Law: When Arliss says at twilight, “We’d should take the jib down overnight,” the jib comes down. We also began experiencing difficulties with our barely 2-year-old AIS (Automatic Identification System), which uses satellite technology to identify and display other vessels in your immediate area for collision avoidance. This equipment is required in Indonesia and at this writing we are working on a replacement.
The second half of our voyage provided steadier wind and uneventful sailing most of the way. As we neared Indonesia, small freighters and fishing vessels appeared. The intrepid Indonesian fishermen sit out at night with 5-6 small boats strung in a line. Not knowing what sort of nets or gear they may be trailing, it behooves sailboats to stay well away. We spent the last night motoring in light wind to arrive at Serangan, Bali, in daylight. The harbor is chockablock with moorings and boats of all shapes and sizes, from the colorful “spider boats” that flit over the water to motorized dinghies and traditional Indonesian schooners, called “pinisi.” We later learned that these vessels ply other parts of Indonesia in the tourist trade but have been holed up in Serangan during Covid. Some are now being refurbished to return to work.
Our Indonesian agent. Ruth, sent her boat man, Ketut, to meet us at the harbor entrance, and he led us to a mooring to tie up. We hurried to clean the boat and our grungy selves. Between 1000 and noon, we welcomed three boatloads of officials representing biosecurity and health, customs, and immigration, nine people in all. The officials were courteous and efficient. That afternoon, we dinghied the half mile to the dock and were guided by Ketut through the maze of narrow streets to the ATM. The next day we began the practicalities that face us in every new country—Internet and phone service, groceries, fuel, water, laundry—but first things first. Cash in hand, we plunked down at the waterfront for two ice-cold Bintangs, $2 per bottle. Not our best sail ever, but hey, here we are. Hello, Bali!