Strange sights in the Indian Ocean


To the editor: I was solo on a passage aboard my Cal 30, Saltaire, one of the many legs of my circumnavigation. The route was from Christmas Island across the eastern Indian Ocean to the port of Galle at the southwest corner of Sri Lanka. While on the passage I saw some of the strange sights that make ocean sailing so compelling. 

The night after crossing the equator, having endured an evening of squalls and maddeningly constant sail changes, I experienced one of those surreal things that seem to be not of this world but of some far corner of our outer fantasies — indescribable by mere words. The wind had settled to a faint breeze, and I decided to motor a while. For miles all around me in the hazy moonlight, huge bluish-white clouds formed on the flat, shiny black water, towering into tall pillars. Each pillar was a squall, and Saltaire darted in and out of the sides of the majestic columns, her skipper delighting in his frolic on the floor of this heavenly Parthenon.

A hundred miles south of Galle, I was sitting in the cabin eating breakfast during a calm when a strange sound began reverberating through the hull. It sounded like a rushing river. Having grown up near the banks of the San Gabriel River in Los Angeles County, I know there is only one thing that sounds like a river, and that’s a river.

I stuck my head out the companionway, and small spikes popped up on the water, just like on a river. “What the…?” A quick look at the GPS confirmed the unbelievable: a west-setting current at 3.2 knots! I leaped out to the cockpit, cranked on the engine and spent the next 20 hours crabbing into the current, which topped out at 3.8 knots — I should have had a tiller pilot for this — making slow yet steady progress north. I shudder to think of the conditions that a westerly gale, the kind that had provided the sailing power over the previous week, would have created with an opposing ocean current. I might not have survived to tell the story. 

It was shortly after midnight when I finally passed out while drifting off the coast of Galle. Since the current was still running at about 1 knot, I had set the kitchen timer for one hour, expecting to repeat the procedure throughout the night, checking my position and looking out for small fishing smacks until dawn.

The next time I opened my eyes it was just a hair past 0600. In a foggy, confused panic, I jumped through the companionway, looked for other vessels and sat back down to chart my position. Saltaire had drifted about seven miles north by northwest, still staying safely away from the shore and outside the shipping lanes.

—Bill Morris completed a circumnavigation, two-thirds singlehanded, via the Suez and Panama canals aboard his 1966 Cal 30 Saltaire. He has written extensively on alternative energy for cruising boats and on his sailing adventures. Morris’s second book, Sun, Wind, and Water: The Essential Guide to the Energy-Efficient Cruising Boat, will be released by Seaworthy Publications this spring.

By Ocean Navigator