Moored in mid-ocean

Feb 28, 2011

To the editor: When I mention sailing offshore, non-sailors often ask me “what do you do at night?” I am sometimes tempted by two flippant replies: “Well, you know, that’s kinda private, what do you do at night?” or “Oh, we carry about three miles of chain; we drop the hook.”

At Ashmore Reef, however, this latter answer seems to be true. In the Indian Ocean, out of sight of any land, is a reef that only breaks the surface with three small sandbar islets that just peek above the sea. To moor there is an odd experience for a bluewater sailor. With the exception of these islets, there is nothing but open ocean between your boat and the horizon, and yet the reef breaks the swell so that the water is strangely calm, and you do not have to stand watch at night.

Situated 450 nautical miles west of Darwin, Australia, Ashmore is a protected marine reserve on the edge of the Australian continental shelf. Although the distance would normally take four days for us aboard our 38-foot cutter, Heretic, we drifted for six in the lee of the Australian high. Only fat brown sea snakes startled out of their sleep broke the calm. Because we had grown used to our offshore routine, it felt strange to tie up to the Australian government’s mooring ball at Ashmore Reef and furl Heretic’s sails.

And yet, there were things to remind us that this is, in fact, a lagoon. A line of white broke on the reef; the customs ship was moored nearby; and the undersides of the clouds reflected the lighter color of the water.

Approaching the reef, we noticed that green tinge, the sign of shallow water by which Indonesian fishermen had first discovered this place. Today the customs ship enforces Ashmore’s protected status and similar craft monitor Australian waters to sustain a healthy fishery. Indonesian fishermen using traditional methods may still ply these waters, but Australian vigilance has prevented overfishing. We had notified customs in Darwin that we planned to stop at Ashmore Reef, so now the officials sped over in their dinghy to clear us. During our three days there, we became friendly with one of the customs officers and he took us on a walk around a partially-restricted cay.

As we walked, we counted the number of nesting sea turtle tracks and he showed us a ribbon eel hiding in the shallows. He told us that their research has shown a decline in the population of sea snakes, something he suspected may be linked to rising sea surface temperatures.

One day, we rowed our dinghy into the open ocean to dive. Those hours out there in an eight-foot dinghy made me reflect on those who go to sea in cockleshells — one German adventurer crossed the Atlantic twice in a folding boat. It was a benign day; the wind was not strong; the seas were moderate; and ivory cumulus flecked the sky. We had rowed upwind to have the downwind run home, and had organized a radio schedule with customs lest something went wrong. And yet, Heretic looked so far away. Swells which were barely noticeable aboard Heretic towered over us, obscuring the horizon with every crest. While it may work for some, crossing an ocean in a dinghy is not for me.

Soon thereafter, we sailed from our mid-ocean anchorage. In a couple hours, only those tell-tale clouds with a hint of green remained in our wake. But we could answer that, yes, one time we had moored in mid-ocean.

Ellen Massey and Seth Leonard left Blue Hill, Maine, in September 2006 aboard Heretic, a 38-foot fiberglass masthead cutter, built in 1968. Since then, they have completed a global circumnavigation. Their route took them through the Panama Canal, across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia, across the Indian Ocean to South Africa, and then back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

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