Darwin to Dili Yacht Race

9 ½ years is a long wait to sail away from Australia to far-flung and exotic places.  The time was spent wisely I suppose: finding the boat, planning, saving and dreaming.  The Darwin-Dili Race seemed the perfect way for us to find our sea legs as we crossed into our first international waters.

boat maintenance & breakdowns are to bring you back to earth, sometimes without a gentle landing

The week leading up to it was a blur of boat jobs, shopping, troubleshooting, fixing, food preparation and re-stowing our belongings, yet again.  There were long days in hot & humid Darwin conditions and too many nights in which sleep alluded us.  The kids were tired of the packing and tired of the boat jobs. They just wanted some fun. So did we.

Departure day, Saturday. I woke as if I’d been struck with a hot poker. My head was unusually clear and the adrenalin came fast.  With a quick breakfast we were ready to motor out of the lock and towards the start line. Until we opened the fridge. Ohhhhhh dear. Houston, we had a problem. The stench of gas had contaminated our fresh food.  We looked at each other like rabbits caught in the headlights. “We’re going anyway”, I blurted out. Someone had to say what we were both thinking. “We’ll live on spam and beans. It’s only 4 or 5 days”.

our youngest crew watching Darwin City disappear from sight.

Well, we made the start line on time and seeing as there was little wind we dawdled across in front of the Start boat in true cruising style, like a snail.  149 people on board cheered and hip-hip-hoorayed us and I nearly cried.  It was momentous. Some were laughing at our lack of speed but one old salt hollered in our defence “hey, she’s fully loaded. They have a one-way ticket!” which brought more cheers and laughter from the gallery, and a smile to our faces. A one-way ticket. Yeah! The stuff of dreams, at least our dreams.

So off we toddled. Hour by hour we watched the land disappear and the other yachts ahead of us started to spread out and do their thing.  Over the next day or so a few were forced to return to Darwin and we pressed on ahead with flair. OK, so no flair but with plenty of gusto. We had decent winds before long and they were accompanied by decent waves which threw us around like a washing machine but we welcomed it. We’d mainly sailed Joyeste in calm, flat seas.  She handled these new conditions like a freight train and we slipped into a passage-making rhythm.

no land in sight and we witness this splendour

From the outset we stuck to 3-hour watches and on day 2 we no longer needed waking. A quick toilet stop, stuff snacks into jacket pockets, fill water bottle, don lifejacket, upstairs to do a quick handover.  If no sail changes etc needed then the one coming off watch hits the bunk with a thud, for 3 glorious hours.  The kids just ran their normal body clocks and kept themselves busy like seasoned professionals.  They were great galley slaves, washing and drying dishes from each meal while they were, at times, thrown across the saloon from the boat’s movement. It’s true what they say: children are sure-footed. It’s us adults who are clumsy.

Our first friend was quite a big bird taking respite on a rail as we ripped along nicely in the dark with a following sea.  It stayed for a few hours and then was replaced shortly after by a different, smaller one.  Not wanting to shine bright lights onto them I can’t say what breed they were but I enjoyed their company anyway.   The following morning we were accompanied by dolphins. You never tire of dolphins. The afternoon served us an unusual sight: 3 white sea snakes basking on the surface, zipping past us a minute after each other. We’ve never known snakes to hang in groups but there you go. They were thick and long and very easy to spot.  I didn’t fancy a dip….

The kids had asked last year about bioluminescence so I was thrilled to drag them out of their bunks one night to show them the most stunning display of fluorescent spots alongside the boat as she charged through the fairly calm water. There was a real-life fairy land right beside us and we were all speechless.

The next afternoon I was pondering the other possible textbook moments that this passage could present, when I noticed a ship on the AIS tracker. After a bit of button-pushing I was confident that she would collide with us if we continued our course so I asked the kids to wake poor Daddy.  We agreed on a nice, safe maneuvre and he went back to bed as I slowed Joyeste up a bit and watched in awe as the ship ploughed past us with enormous presence.  Another first: I hadn’t avoided a ship that close before. This was really starting to be fun.

In this race, as you approach Timor-Leste there’s a “time gate” at Jaco Island, in case no one crossed the Dili finish line.  It was around 8 at night, moon not yet out.  Confused by the light show which was Indonesia to the North, I hung out on the Portside with squinted eyes, making sure we weren’t about to prove our instruments wrong by hitting land, at quite a speed. We were really flying but the fun would’ve quickly turned to horror if our eyes weren’t playing tricks on us.  We rounded the island and charged for home. Brian collapsed in his bunk while I tried to anticipate the movements of a yacht closing on us on our Port Quarter.  All I could see were her nav lights and as they say, two boats on the water = a race.  It was on.  Shining the torch onto our sails, the next few minutes saw the quietest trimming possible so as to not wake hubby.  Joyeste responded with a few extra knots, reaching a speed which, on this sea while fully loaded, was pure exhilaration.  She was as comfortable as I was satisfied.  The agile racing yacht peeled off further North, probably chasing the wind as conditions would change now we were close to a mountainous island.

The last day or so of the passage was a game of cat and mouse with the wind but as the only yacht in the cruising division we had the privilege of using the iron spinnaker (engine) so after a few hours of zero wind we started her up.  Enough of this purism, we needed to get the family to Dili.

Feeling emotional as we entered Timorese waters and raised the flag

What a magical an experience to sail into Timor, along her rugged coastline. Having begun our love affair with this incredible country, as expats since last December, we were humbled and stirred by sailing ‘home’. We proudly hoisted the red, yellow and black flag and sat back contentedly, in the rain. Yes, the rain fell hard, to add a bit more variety.

The final hours were a mixture of extreme feelings: excitement, disbelief that we’d nearly made it, confusion at, again, the lights of Indonesia not agreeing with the chartplotter, and a fair degree of sadness that it would all end by 3am.  We joked that by crossing the finish line we could just keep sailing, as we were well-provisioned and definitely in the mood for it….

The extraordinary gusts that come from the mountains certainly tested us and again, with Brian asleep, I began to mistrust the instruments as Joyeste charged through messy water towards a sparkling sea of lights.  It was impossible to tell whether they were Timor lights or Indonesian and it was rather unsettling at that speed, so close to land.  Further out there was no wind so options were limited.

Before I knew it we were rounding the magnificent statue, Christo Rei, the entrance to Dili harbour.  Brian counted down the last ten seconds as I sat motionless, staring at the Dili lights, unable to feel anything. It was disbelief and exhaustion but the underlying feeling of accomplishment and contentment was suddenly overpowering as we gave each other the tightest hug in the dark. No words could have done it justice.

Dili Harbour, Timor-Leste

The next few days were a euphoric mix of immigration and customs check-in, celebratory drinks at the bar, welcome ceremonies and making new sailing friends.  The prizes surprised us and thrilled our kids who are still trying to work out the best way for us to spend the cash.

Yes, we’re planning for next year.  We’ve warned the much faster racing yachts to keep looking behind them!


ps if you’re considering this event in the future, do it.  The organisers and competitors were supportive and full of wisdom and we are eternally grateful to them all.