A 7,000-mile passage from Australia to the Seychelles via Bali aboard a classic Swan 65 was a tropical adventure for Meg Niblett

It was time to go. Sailing up the east coast of Australia at the end of a cyclone season can be challenging and dangerous for even the most experienced sailors. The north-east coast of Australia is known for its unpredictable weather patterns and the danger of encountering strong winds and rough seas is real. Cyclones can bring winds of up to 100+ knots, huge waves and changeable currents. And with our departure date barely hanging off the end of cyclone season in April (the season typically runs from November to April), we had these extreme weather events firmly in the forefront of our minds.

Boat captain Ben Roulant and I religiously studied the forecasts leading up to our departure, as well as monitoring sea and air temperatures in the surrounding area. We triple-checked our short and long term predictions, comparing multiple systems on Predictwind to make sure we had a clear window to get through the Great Barrier Reef.

In the end, we found ourselves chasing southerly winds for 1,500 miles up the east coast, each day getting slightly warmer and more tropical as we steadily headed to a lower latitude. The 20-25 knots of south-easterly tradewinds provided fantastic sailing conditions, leaving us to play with poled-out headsails and spinnakers day in and day out. Once tucked inside the reef the swell disappeared, but the sailing became a bit more challenging.

The Great Barrier Reef is considered one of the natural wonders of the world. Made up of thousands of individual reefs and hundreds of islands it covers an area of approximately 344,400km2. It gave us cover from the vast Pacific Ocean swell, acting as a natural breakwater to create an extremely calm sea state, allowing our classic 42-year-old Swan 65 Eve to glide gracefully over the short chop between the exposed reef. However, being surrounded by so much reef and rock creates hazards and seemingly endless ways to run aground or even sink a boat.

Eve was running fast, making at least 9-10 knots of boat speed and we had to gybe every 20-30 minutes in 30 knots of wind to make sure we followed our line and didn’t stray. Our navigation skills were put to the test, with almost zero room for error. For the narrowest sections of the reef, where the rocky outcrops lay less than 100m apart, we took down the mainsail and sailed using just a poled-out headsail, which allowed us to steer 40° off the breeze on each tack without having to grind a winch. We were still doing 9 knots with this setup, but it was much easier to just make minor adjustments to our course and navigate between the port and starboard lateral marks.

The author at Eve’s helm arriving in the Seychelles after 21 days at sea
Right: Swan 65 Eve under full sail. Photo: Meg Niblett

The Timor Sea

Having safely negotiated the Great Barrier Reef, we rounded the northernmost tip of Australia and pointed for Indonesia, clearing out of Thursday Island. Setting a course west Eve was eating up the miles, easily covering over 200 miles most days with 15-25 knots behind us. Going from being surrounded by intricate reefs to open ocean was a relief and we took advantage of the empty space. We taught the crew to hoist and drop both spinnakers, how to rig our Code 0, plug in staysails, and fly kites off Eve’s mizzen mast, managing to use every single sail on the boat in different configurations.

We use a sock to drop the symmetric kite on Eve when sailing with just four aboard (the Swan 65s were raced with 12 in the Whitbread Round the World Race).

Flying the spinnaker deep in the Indian Ocean. Photo: Meg Niblett

On the windward side, we set up with the brace through the beak – as normal, and the lazy sheet clipped to the pole itself. On the leeward side, we also have a normal setup with active sheet and lazy brace on the clew.

When the crew are ready to drop, we sheet on the active sheet, as we ease most of the active brace. The sheet comes all the way down to the barber-hauler and the kite flies out like a flag behind the main, which allows the sock to come down very easily. Meanwhile the windward lazy sheet allows the pole to stay in place while easing the brace instead of smashing into the forestay – et voila! We also have the lazy brace set up for a letterbox drop just in case the snuffer ever decides to stay stuck at the top. It’s a safe back-up method when we’re short-handed.

Steady breezes carried us all the way up to Timor island, gradually fading as we settled into Indonesian water. With zero wind on the horizon, and having not refuelled since the Gold Coast, we opted to take a break and anchor off the island of Sumba. Sumba is one of Indonesia’s more remote and unspoilt islands, part of the southern arc of islands in Nusa Tenggara. It felt like a perfect spot to rest, and wait for the wind to return, but as we were motor sailing just off Sumba’s coast, we spotted a point break on one of the outer islands. From a distance we could only see the white water cresting but, intrigued, we knew it was something to explore further, so we altered course and headed towards the reef. After dropping the anchor close to the reef, we jumped in the tender and took our guests out surfing in a perfect empty line up, and spent the day diving and snorkelling on the reef.

After a day on the small island we took shelter in a bay off Sumba. Sumba is famed among surfers for a mythical break called ‘Occy’s Left’, but is otherwise a mysterious and almost untouched place. Some of the crew went ashore to explore and the local tribespeople came out of the jungle to greet them with smiles. Eve meanwhile, sat in the middle of the bay, peacefully swinging at anchor, surrounded by local fishing canoes, all out seeking their catch for the day.

That evening, however, as we were enjoying dinner on deck, things took a darker turn. We were approached by eight men crammed into a small motor boat from the mainland, who identified themselves as the local police, the ‘officer’ off the vessel wearing a French soccer jersey with a gun strapped to his chest. It was dark when they arrived, and at first it wasn’t clear if they were here to welcome us or tell us to leave. We invited them on board, and offered them a cigarette. It turned out they wanted us gone, as they explained in broken English that if we weren’t gone by morning, they would take us to the chief and there would be a lot of money to be paid. They were not aggressive – by contrast the men seemed fascinated by our presence, taking lots of photos with us and the boat – but the next morning we woke up early and left without any further arguments.

Heating up

After sailing the final 280 miles of the first stage of our trip, we motored into Benoa in Denpasar, Bali, on a hot, glassy calm morning in mid-May. We were greeted with a large case of beers from our lovely local agent and clearance was completed within an hour. The Balinese authorities were very polite and respectful, removing their shoes when boarding the boat, and took photos and copies of every bit of paperwork they could find.

The following day an eight-strong team arrived with chisels, hammers and crowbars to begin removing the 27-year-old teak deck from Eve, while we began stripping all the deck gear. In the end we spent three months in Bali, sweating beneath a couple of tarpaulins in the local marina as we worked.

en and Meg trimming the kite on the final 24 hours of the Gold Coast to Bali passage. Photo: Meg Niblett

Besides being much cheaper than completing refit work in Australia, Bali also offered excellent surf so Ben and I enjoyed some quality time surfing during the chaos of bolting jib tracks and winches back onto the deck. We spent hours whizzing around the island on scooters, trying to find materials for the boat.

We were blown away by the hard work of the locals, and ended up forming a great friendship with our team. They said we were the first crews to get our hands dirty and work alongside them, and we had many laughs and late night finishes trying to get the job done. Although their lack of tools was noticeable, the outcome of the finished deck was beautiful. We also chose Bali because of the availability of sustainable teak, and had been assured of the wood’s provenance before we arrived. In fact we had the chance to watch the huge trunk be cut down, and then to see it laid on 65ft of yacht was a work of art!

Eve anchored off Indonesia’s Sumba Island, waiting for the wind to return. Photo: Meg Niblett

Across the Indian Ocean

Three new crew, flying in from Australia, France and America, joined us for Eve’s next passage across the Indian Ocean. After three months of being land-bound, our passage from Indonesia to the Seychelles would be 3,700 miles of open ocean. The crossing was going to take over 20 days, so we provisioned well. We cast the lines at 1000 in the morning and motored out of Benoa harbour, gracefully hoisted the sails, and performed a few tacks to warm up. With new crew on board we played out a couple of man overboard drills to make sure everyone was comfortable and capable with the procedure. Eve turned the corner around Uluwatu point, 10-12 knots of breeze filling our sails from the south-east, and headed for the horizon with some long period swell, hot air and sunshine following us. The first night was magical. We switched the headsail onto the pole and sailed at 155° off the breeze goosewing style under a full moon.

During the first two days at sea, one of our crewmembers wasn’t feeling well, so we made a quick call to alter course and drop them off at Christmas Island, as it was only 100 miles north of us: a slight detour but nothing compared to the thousands of miles we had left of the passage. After setting sail again, we decided to put a little bit of south in our route west as the forecast showed a line of cloud all along the Indian Ocean around 4°S of latitude – a ‘mini doldrum’ phenomenon close to the equator, where there is less wind, more rain and more chances of squalls. We aimed towards Cocos Keeling islands, using them as a turning point before pointing our bow straight west toward the Seychelles – hoping to stay moving the whole way.

Day four into the voyage and everything was running smoothly, we even managed to fly the kite under the stars, holding it until mid-morning the next day when the wind slowly died. Some minor maintenance issues required our attention: we noticed the second batten in the main was coming out and discovered the batten had gone right through its pocket. With the help of a calm sea state we managed to drop the main and have it fixed before the sun set, thanks to a little epoxy mix and fibreglass that didn’t take long to cure in the intense heat.

Downwind options included a large symmetric (doused with a sock) and poled-out headsails. Photo: Meg Niblett

The ocean was now glassy with a long period swell from the south that was enough to steady the boat in the water with no roll. The evening sky was a vibrant array of warm colours over us as we ate dinner on deck while gently motoring toward the next patch of wind. Everyone had settled into the offshore routine and was looking forward to get the boat moving again with the new breeze the following day.

By day six, however, the sea state had become more uncomfortable. We had a weird mix of a long swell from the south-west mixed with a new short period south-easterly swell which made for big 5m waves. The current was also pushing us south-west against the swell, making everything a little messy and life on board our big girl Eve very rolly. The wind, however, was blowing at around 25 knots and we made 235 miles in 24 hours; flying along with a single reef in the main, poled out headsail and staysail. Thankfully the sea state improved over the course of a few days and we were back to comfortable downwind sailing.

Fish and fishermen

Day 10 marked the halfway mark between Bali and the Seychelles. Eve had been clocking over 230 miles every day since Christmas Island with a constant 20-25 knot breeze from 120-140° true wind direction. As we sailed further west, Iain (one of our additional crewmembers) and I had to dodge what looked like a 10-boat fleet of fishing boats on AIS during the night. We could only see one ship with a very bright light bouncing between the troughs in the swell. We suspected that there was just one boat but multiple AIS transmitters on their nets/lines (the clue is that no name is displayed, only an MMSI number). With the Chagos islands in front of us, we also had in mind to avoid re-enacting Bernard Moitessier by crashing his Marie Therese on the Diego Garcia atoll. Clouds from the south turned the weather overcast, and the temperature had dropped a few degrees, a relief from the tropical heat.

The crew dropped anchor in Indonesia to explore surf breaks. Photo: Meg Niblett

We started finding dozens of flying fish scattered all over the boat every morning, and even discovered one stuck in one of the cockpit winch handle holders (the smell betrayed it…). Due to our well provisioned stores, we didn’t feel the need to fish everyday. But when the time was right we eagerly cast the lines off the back of the boat and caught an impressive wahoo. We enjoyed sashimi and tartar for lunch, together with an entire chocolate cake to celebrate the milestone of the ‘less than 1,000 miles to go’.

We had all settled into a familiar routine for every sunset and sunrise: the kite was packed away just before last light, then relaunched in the morning as soon as the sun finished its colourful rising. This gave our team of four a chance to fully rest and relax through the night watches, with the boat still moving along nicely at around 8-9 knots in an average of 18 knots of breeze. While it’s great fun to push a boat like Eve, we were content to be cruising at our own pace, thousands of miles offshore with limited crew, even if that did mean arriving a day or two later.

Before making landfall in Indonesia the wind died, so the crew took the opportunity to stop for a swim. Photo: Meg Niblett

Finding paradise

Our final day of sailing was idyllic: blue skies, a steady sea state and the postcard perfect view of the Seychelles slowly coming into focus. Entering the Seychelles lagoon, reaching in a nice 18 knots of wind at a 100° TWA, made the whole voyage worth it. It was the most upwind we’d been for three weeks and it almost felt strange to be slightly heeled over after running downwind for so long. Eve was charging between the islands at 9.5 knots towards the main island of Mahé.

After anchoring in a special quarantine bay, surrounded by lush islands and warm turquoise water, the authorities came and went, and soon we were free to step ashore for the first time in 21 days.
Overall, the time at sea slid by easily: we ate lots of food, read lots of books and played lots of music. The 3,700 miles flew past and, with no land on the horizon, nor reefs on the charts to avoid, the days blurred into one another; before we knew it we’d crossed an entire ocean and landed in a paradise. Eve was designed for powering across the world’s oceans, and she had carried us safely from Australia to East Africa, before arriving in a new Eden.

Eve is mid-way through a five-year around the world voyage, which this year includes the Rolex Fastnet Race. Charter berths are available on long bluewater passages and race events.
See swanningaround.com

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