(The x marks the spot where we anchored up)
The sky was a big blue bubble over a big blue puddle of sea. This was in late April, or early May, in order to avoid the trade winds. But it had its own risks, especially in those days before Internet forecasting, because that is also the tail end of cyclone season. Many traditional fisherman from Papela Rote who had rights to fish the Australian reefs and islets (one basic requirement: sail only, no engines) never returned home, vanished in cyclones. One of the largest ever recorded was in late April, 1989 (producing one of Bali’s biggest ever swells.
The birds led us to Ashmore reef, marked by a hump of sand that was the main islet, although we first saw the radar mast of the ship anchored there. An Australian Coast Watch vessel, a private boat hired by the Aussie government and stationed there with crew. At the time, Ashmore was in a kind of territorial limbo, not sovereign Australian territory that required us to show our passports (Mike had checked with the Aussie government earlier), so many migrants aimed for Ashmore, as it was quasi-legal for them to land there.
They saw us too. The Aussie captain zoomed out in the Zodiac. The Hati Murnih sure looked suspicious, a slow wooden diesel chugger, the kind often packed with illegal immigrants. You should have seen the Aussie skipper’s face when he saw me and Mike, two sun-crisped bulés, hanging out on the back bed with our books and ice chest of cold beers. White folks in these parts were normally found on yachts.
“What are you lads doing here?” he asked.
“Looking for surf,” we said.
He ordered us to anchor up beside the ship and zoomed back. We trundled along, our local skipper Taone at the tiller picking his way through coral heads. He and the other two crew were in great high spirits. They knew these waters by way of illegal poaching, and here they were, in broad daylight without a care in the world.
Mike and I had been eyeing the reef setups and counters, but the surf was flat.
Another ship was at anchor, a bunch of scientists doing research on the banded sea-snakes, of which Ashmore has an abundance. After the Hati Murnih was anchored, we dinghied over to the Coast Watch ship, bearing our gifts of whiskey for the captain. Let’s call him Steve. The booze considerably softened his stiff upper lip and he showed us around his command but sadly said that we were not permitted to cruise around the reefs.
(to be continued)