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On the Way to Ceylon

Frank Robben - November 1992
Cocos Keeling Islands

The wind died again in the morning and when I woke up I could hear the sails slatting as Kialoa rolled gently in the remaining swell. The sun had been up for a while; I had kept my radio schedule at 0500 with Penta Comstat and then turned back in, there was a light southerly breeze then. Christopher was on watch, I asked him if we should start the engine and drop the sails, he agreed. I made a routine check of the 140 horsepower Detroit Diesel Allison 4-53, found adequate oil, no apparent problems, but noticed the 50 odd hours accumulation of oil in the pan beneath the engine and pumped it into a waste oil container. In the meantime Christopher had made ready to drop the sails and Ali, hearing the noises, had arisen and together they were dropping the jib. I started the engine, put it in gear, forward slowly at first, and gave them a hand. The sun was bright, getting hot on deck, the sea was clear to the horizon in all directions and there were a few puffy tropical clouds in the sky. It appeared we had another day of listening to the engine move us slowly on our way.

Around 1000 Christopher noticed that one of the trolling lines had a fish, it was a good sized one. He began pulling it in, Ali slowed the yacht down and got the gaff. I let them work on it and watched, it was a good sized Wahoo, the best tasting fish that I know and a welcome prize. Ali got ready with the gaff and coached Christopher on handling the line; the last time we had a big Wahoo like this on the line I tried to gaff it myself and bring it aboard and lost it due to my uncertainty and slowness when the big fish violently struggled to get off the gaff. After setting the gaff in the fish even Ali had some trouble getting it over the stern pulpit and on the deck; the mizzen boom and rigging tend to get in the way and make it awkward when a 50 pound fish is struggling violently to escape and spattering blood in all directions. But he was successful, I got the club out of the helm locker and managed to get a good blow on the head of the thrashing fish; it went into a rapid quivering motion for a few moments while dying. Ali was lucky to land the Wahoo, the gaff had gone into the soft meat just behind the head and the violent thrashing had almost pulled the cruel gaff out, which would have left a badly wounded fish in the ocean, perhaps to heal, and perhaps to become dinner for something larger.

This was the best fish we had caught in the last 6 months, and Sheila and Audrey came on deck to admire it while Ali got his camera and I took a photo of him holding it. Afterwards Christopher and I watched while he expertly gutted it, carefully saving the roe and liver, and cut it into meal sized portions for freezing. He and Christopher then washed the blood and fish remains off the deck with the hose and the job was done. Tonight this Wahoo will provide us sashime for snacks and one of Ali's superb fish dinners. The catching of this fish will probably be our main excitement for the day; it is satisfying to be at least a bit self-sufficient in our requirements.

Although Kialoa is stocked with food, fuel and spare parts for a long time at sea and could probably visit almost anyplace in the world depending primarily on wind for power, most everything on her is the end product of a chain of processes involving many people and what we consider a high level of technological achievement and social cooperation. Living a bit closer to nature, observing and adapting her natural forces to the needs and pleasures of life, seems to have some innate appeal, and the catching of this fish, to me, satisfies a bit of that yearning.

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, was one of the fabled places where the spices, gold and tea of former times were obtained. This island off the southern tip of India is an independent republic, a former British Dominion with 14 million people. Hopefully we will find jungles and exotic plants and animals, elephants and lions, perhaps golden palaces, probably a dirty harbor, many poor people and revolutionary strife which is not supposed to affect the port of Galle. It will be interesting and exciting there, and I wonder what new adventures will be in store, what new people will cross our path.

We have covered over 3000 miles since leaving Tahiti in April, visiting the Cook Islands, Pago Pago, Apia in Western Samoa, Neafu in the northern islands of Tonga, almost two months in Fiji, Port Vila in Vanuatu ( previously known as the New Hebrides), and over a month in Australia. My daughter Katie, her husband Tom and his Uncle Bengt spent a month with me visiting the islands in Fiji. Interesting places, many interesting people, both on land and on Kialoa, and experiences that I had only imagined from reading. It seems a wonderful privilege to be able to roam the world in a sailing yacht, not long ago this was reserved for a very hardy few, and survival was far more problematical.

With this little newsletter go Christmas Greetings and best wishes for the New Year. I wish I could write directly to many of you, and I would love hearing from you. I continue to enjoy Kialoa, the people I share her with, and the adventure of the sailing life. Sheila and Audrey, friends from San Francisco, and Ali, who is Swiss and an excellent sailor and cook, are the regular crew; we have also been joined by Christopher, Sheila's son, for a while.

We plan to be in Ceylon in December, the Red Sea by March, visit Israel by stopping at the port of Eilat, transit the Suez Canal in April and arrive at Vilamoura, Portugal by June. There I have a six month job with Kialoa assisting in a research project, thanks to my friend Larry Armi of the Scripps Institute of Oceanographic Research. Anyone interested in joining us along the way should contact Rudy, above, or Ocean Voyages at 415/332-4681. Also I would like to know who is interested in receiving these newsletters, if you would be so kind to fill out and mail the enclosed card it would be appreciated.

PS: Since this was written we have had a small accident. On the crossing from Christmas Island to Cocos Keeling Islands the backstay adjuster broke and the top of the main mast, a bit above the upper spreaders, broke off. No one was hurt, we managed to secure the broken pieces and continued to Cocos Keeling under engine. We are making temporary repairs here, will sail with the shortened mast to Sri Lanka, and will put the mast back together and make permanent repairs there. It will take a couple of months and changes our plans somewhat, but it is repairable. The crew and I seem to be taking this in stride, perhaps looking at it as another interesting challenge, and our spirit is good.

As I write this we are in a lovely spot, a sheltered anchorage in the lagoon of Cocos Keeling, with the brilliant white coral beach of Direction Island about 50 meters away. A series of such islands encloses a shallow lagoon of about 8 miles in diameter. These are coral atolls, only a few meters above the level of the sea, covered with swaying coconut palms and several varieties of leafy green bushes. The lagoon stretches out in hues varying from deep blue, where it is deeper, to lighter blues and brilliant azure where it is shallow with a bottom of white coral sand. Direction Island is unpopulated, with one other yacht in the anchorage here, a couple with two young sons, from San Francisco of all places, also on their way through the Suez Canal to the Med.

Cocos Keeling is presently inhabited by about 600 people, predominantly of Malaysian ancestry, descended from the virtual slaves brought here in 1826 by Alexander Hare and used to establish a copra plantation. Before that it was uninhabited. It is now owned and administered by Australia ( which was a recent free choice of the inhabitants). Most of the Malays live on Home Island, about 2 miles to the north of where we are anchored. Overall, an interesting and beautiful place to enjoy while making repairs.

Copyright 1996 by Frank Robben