Ashmore Reef is 500 miles west of Darwin, Australia. A third of the way to Christmas Island on the Southern Indian Ocean route to Africa. We arrived at midnight, hove to outside and rode the current north and motored south again all night. At dawn we saw a boat sailing toward us; an African-bound yacht we didn’t know about? Nope. A straggler in the Indonesian fishing fleet gathered here to rest up and wait for an easterly wind before heading south to Scott Reef, where they would fish “traditional” style for two months before heading home. Other than three sand islands, Ashmore Reef is just a ring of shallow coral fifteen miles long and six miles wide. We picked up a mooring in the outer lagoon, a half-mile south of the entrance on the north side. As we were a mile east of West Island and it provided no protection from the prevailing easterlies, for all intents and purposes we were anchored in mid-ocean. And the wind blew for days, and the currents ran through the lagoon from various directions.
It would have been untenable except we hung on the outer mooring for a big Customs vessel in the inner lagoon. It would seem an unlikely place for an Australian Customs ship to be moored but the Ashmore Guardian maintains a full-time, albeit underutilized, presence. Its civilian crew and enforcement officers watched over the fishermen, and us.
The Timor Sea and its reefs and islands “belonged” to the people of the southern Indonesian islands before Europeans arrived. I don’t know whether through increased population pressure or changed fishing habits, the fisheries in the area are endangered and the Australians, hoping to stabilize the fish and keep their own boats operating, allow the Indonesians to fish in the waters only under sail. They can use Ashmore Reef en route. They can fish for daily consumption there and visit their graves on West Island. In late afternoon the 25 boats beat out from the inner anchorage where they’d moored like so many ducks around the big Guardian. They anchored around us and in the morning, flew out the channel and were on their way. As we were a day later.
As a codicil to this story, I would like to praise the Australian Customs folk. Often maligned and overzealous (they’d boarded our boat to take details as soon as we were moored) yet they still, as opposed to our own Coast Guard, take responsibility to watch over and aid recreational vessels along with their modern concerns of drug and alien persons interdiction. Anyone stopping at Ashmore needs to be aware of this and take boundaries as fact and not optional.