(above, Rob Nicols and David Radford on the Hati Murnih at anchor, Rote, early days.)
At sunset, the good ship Hati Murnih set sail from Rote Island, heading for Ashmore Reef, in Australian waters, on a whim and prayer and no radar or GPS. This was in 1995. We did have nautical charts and a compass, and Bapak Taone Umar, a salty sea dog from Papela, Rote. For centuries his people, the piratical Bugis, had been sailing below the wind to Australia to fish and gather sea cucumbers, sold to China. They knew those waters.
The above is Papela village, and below is the traditional sailboat, without engine, that the fishermen sailed for centuries down to Australian waters. When at anchor at Nembrala in the trade wind season, we’d see dozens of these sail past on their way home on the trade-wind broad reach, going a good dozen knots, faster than the old Hati Murnih ever did. Of course, we’d also see them on the top side of the island, trying to go up-wind, tacking back and forth and back and forth and back and forth — while we chugged along in a straight line. Today, though, you don’t see too many of these old-style sail boats anymore. The fishermen have switched to narrow fast hulls with engines.
So on an early May evening, after several months of planning for the trip, Michael McHugh and I and the crew of the Hati Murnih left the Nembrala anchorage and headed south. We had no running lights. In fact, no lights at all, except the stars and a flashlight rigged to throw its beam on the compass by the tiller so we could see the heading.
That’s a lot of open water, and the Hati Murnih was a small boat, so when we pissed over the side we made sure to keep one hand on the railing at all times.
Chug-chug-chug-chug. At first light of dawn, all we could see was open ocean with a little swell. We had no clue where we were. The skipper stood on top of the cabin scanning the horizon for the tell-tale sign of bird piles. And there they were, to the south-east, feeding on bait fish. They nest on Ashmore, so, land-ho! Although it is such a low-lying reef (with a tiny sand dune island) we couldn’t actually spot any land.
(Next week: part 2)