by Dale Tournier, “Sukha at Cocos Keeling” photos by Rik Soderlund
In 2009 at the age of 40, I decided to take a three month sabbatical and cruise up the east coast of Australia. That three month sabbatical has now been going on for nine years. At the end of that first three months I rang my partner Sophia and told her she was fired (she worked in my business). It was best that she pack her bags, hop on a bus and join me on the boat, because I’m not coming back. Sophia has been part of the adventure since then; she may not always use the word adventure...lol.”
Six of those years we cruised in SE Asia. It ruined me. In 2016 while cruising up the west coast of Sumatra I realized I couldn’t go back to “normal” and it was time to buy a bigger boat and head further west.
I didn’t want an old design, yet I wasn’t convinced that all of the modern production boats were designed sturdy enough for the type of cruising we do. A very knowledgeable surveyor friend suggested the Catalina C470. It happened very quickly from there, there was one for sale an hour from where my home was in Australia. It was a 2002 model #87, 830 hours on the engine and in my price range. I made a cheeky offer that to my surprise was accepted and within a week I was the proud owner of an immaculate Catalina C470.
This was December 2016. I gave myself three months to get Sukha (previously EinSof) ready to cross the Indian Ocean. She was in great condition but had basically nothing on her, not a spanner, not a jerry can or any of prerequisites required for cruising. I changed her rigging, added an Atlantic arch, 500 watts of solar, a large capacity water maker, a Hydrovane, and every tool known to man.
At this stage I’d only sailed 80 nm on her; I figured we’d get to know each other on the way. The end of March 2017 we took off up the east coast of Australia. Although I hadn’t sailed home waters for many years, I knew this coast, thus could just concentrate on the boat. From the Gold Coast to the top of Cape York is approximately 1600 nm; it’s also one of the best sails you can do. A lot of it is inside the Great Barrier Reef, which means flat water and steady consistent SE trade winds of 20-25 kts off the starboard quarter. I soon realised Sukha was quite a fast cruising boat.
We checked out of Australia at Thursday Island, right at the very top of Queensland. Across the top of Australia is very remote, yet you’re never alone. Borderforce flies over every day and gives you a call on the VHF. They will find you every single day, no exception. First stop is Ashmore Reef 1,200 nm west. It’s Australian territory, yet only 70 nm from Indonesia. I found Ashmore Reef a bizarre stop. Keep in mind that I’ve stopped in a number of remote reef systems in places like Papua and the Philippines in my travels before. The norm is, charts are very inaccurate, no navigational aids whatsoever, and approach the reef at the speed you wish to hit it.
Ashmore Reef is so Australian, with a massive Borderforce ship that looks like something out of a Batman movie stationed there. They contact us as we enter the reef system; do you have accurate charts they ask? All charts for this reef system are very accurate, not to mention perfectly positioned navigational aids and they talk you in via VHF and guide you to a perfectly maintained mooring. BTW there is nothing here but reef in the middle of nowhere, the nanny state is alive and well! I must say the Borderforce guys we dealt with were really nice, and considering you’re so remote you feel confident someone will come to your aid in an emergency.
On we went next to Christmas Island, approximately 1,100 nm west (everything’s west from here). A wing on wing fast passage, so far we haven’t had a day’s motoring. Trade wind sailing, fast and in the right direction, you’ve got to love it. Christmas Island is described as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. It’s supported by a phosphate mine, and the population is a third Australian, a third Chinese, and a third Malay. Oh, and it’s Australian territory still! Jungle, cliffs, clear water and crazy wildlife, with huge crabs that climb coconut trees to get coconuts! Cruising is often more about meeting people than the places you go, Christmas Island was very much like this. We met some great people and had a fantastic time. We stayed four days with endless amounts of booby birds flying over head (tip: don’t let a booby land on your solar panels, let’s just say they drink a lot of salt water).
Next stop was Cocos Keeling. You know the photographs of paradise islands on the front of cruising magazines? This is Cocos Keeling, picture postcard perfect. 540 nm WSW of Christmas Island, this atoll is smack in the middle of the Indian Ocean with crystal clear water, thousands of coconut trees and coral. It blows in this part of the world; in fact it doesn’t seem to stop blowing. Trying to slow down to make a daylight arrival is hard.
It’s an awesome feeling while rocking up to a tropical paradise in the middle of nowhere to be greeted by other cruisers. The camaraderie is a wonderful part of cruising; the bond that comes about from understanding the challenges and discomfort as well as rewards that come from this life instantly connects you, regardless of nationality. What’s not cool is entering a coral lagoon with 25 kts blowing. The water is so clear that ten meters seems like two. We had a fantastic four weeks anchored in paradise and now we have to decide which way to go, Rodriguez or the Seychelles via Chagos. We say goodbye to friends and head to the Seychelles.
1500 nm, Chagos here we come. First three days are typical trade wind sailing. Late on the fourth day the wind started building, 25, 30, 35, then sustained 40 kts winds. Eventually it climbed to high forties. I slowly reduced sail as the wind picked up, eventually to nothing and we were running under bare poles averaging 7 kts. We surfed once momentarily at 16.3 kts! To be honest it wasn’t that bad, Sukha at no time felt overwhelmed although the seas had built up quite large, with heavy rain and we couldn’t see a thing.
For the first time we got a couple of leaks through side hatches, the boat must have been flexing a little in the big swells. Sophia stayed down below and I clipped myself in behind the wheel, chocolate being passed up at regular intervals. My only concern was the autopilot failing (which it didn’t). I’d hate to be surfing in those swells and have it let go. By dawn it was calming down and so was I – l.o.l. I don’t know what was more frustrating, the gale or the crazy light winds from the wrong direction for the next four days! Anyway, after 13 days at sea we entered the Chagos archipelago. Remember that picture post card perfect I mentioned earlier, here’s another one. It’s very remote with only one other boat when we arrived. This is British Indian Ocean Territory; you need a permit to stay there and are limited to one month. I’ve always wanted to go there, it was a real buzz once anchored to say, “We got to Chagos, go us!” Chagos is high on many cruisers’ bucket list.
We had a wonderful five days in Paradise before our last passage of the year, Chagos to Seychelles, an easy 1,000 nm. The winds don’t blow as hard in these latitudes, which is good, as long as it blows, which fortunately it did, a lovely steady 15 kts SE all the way. My favorite kind of passage, non-eventful. We would have stayed a bit longer at Chagos but when a good weather window presents itself I don’t want to miss it.
We decided Seychelles was a great spot to sit out the southern cyclone season. Sukha had completed her 7,500 nm shakedown cruise and there was stuff I wanted to change and add. Seychelles is a great place to get ready for our next journey south to South Africa. We ended up staying seven months. The beaches are as good as it gets, just perfect, and the greatest thing of all was the fish life. It’s the healthiest underwater life I’ve seen for a very long time, we must have dived 50+ times! When you’re not in the water there are beautiful mountain jungle walks to enjoy. It’s a small country but truly is paradise, a first world and first class environment.
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