Archive for September 2010

The Top End

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Seisia/Bamaga to Gove/Nhulunby – August 26, 27 &28

Crossing the Gulf of Carpenteria took 3 days and 3 nights. The less said about the trip the better, as it was most unpleasant. The wind was from the SW at first and then wavered between S and SE. This meant we got the main swell on our beam. Although the wind wasn’t more than 20-25 knots, the seas were short and steep and confused. This is because strong currents from the Coral and Arafura Seas meet here as water from the Pacific and Indian Oceans flows in opposing directions over the relatively shallow continental shelf, and the wind and tide are often at cross purposes too.  That washing machine effect, again…


Gove Harbour/Nhulunby – August 29 &30

12° 11’ 55.54 S

136° 42’ 14.69 E

The harbour and town exist to service Rio Tinto Alcan’s vast bauxite processing plant, which squats at the entrance to the harbour. The land of both harbour and town is owned by the Aboriginal inhabitants and is only leased to the company. This place is truly remote: almost 700 miles from the nearest paved road and serviced by a 4-WD track that is impassable during the wet season, although an airport is accessible by small aircraft so the settlement isn’t completely cut off.

The harbour is large and contains a reef just as one approaches the Gove Yacht Club mooring area. This is exposed at low tide and is visible on the charts, but no one seems to have thought it necessary to mark the hazard, though there are red and green buoys slightly to starboard of it as one enters. Though these would ordinarily indicate the entrance to a harbour they’re placed right amidst the numerous moored yachts, which was puzzling. The explanation came during a chance conversation with a chap on the foreshore, who told us that in fact these mark the positions of 2 sunken vessels. A mast from another sunken sail boat poked out of the water at a drunken angle close by and closer to shore the rusted skeletal superstructure of another, larger, vessel was marked with a fishing float tied to one girder.  Many of the moored yachts there looked ready to join the wrecks on the bottom any day. It all seemed a bit random.

We’d arrived late on Sunday afternoon and discovered the Gove Yacht Club is closed on Mondays, which was a disappointment; we’d been looking forward to eating out, doing laundry and having real showers. But at least I hitch-hiked into town to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for the next few weeks while The Captain did boat maintenance. We’d read hitch-hiking seems to be the done thing in the area, but I’d never hitch-hiked in my life, having been brought up to ‘never accept a ride from strangers’. I nervously flapped my hand at the first passing Ute – the thumb gesture was beyond me – and the man who picked me up must have been especially nice, or seriously bored, because he waited until I’d done the shopping and brought me back to the yacht club too!

As it got dark, the Alcan plant was brightly illuminated and looked sparkly and attractive under night’s tactful veil. On the opposite shore bush fires had been lit as part of Aboriginal traditional land management practices dating back some 30,000 years and flickered through the trees. The two sets of golden lights – the ancient and the modern – glittered at each other across the dark waters of the harbour.

Elizabeth Bay, Cape Wilberforce – August 31

11° 54’.130 S

136° 34’.126 E

As we left Gove Harbour another sailboat came up alongside from behind and the two people on board shouted across to find out if we were also headed for Elizabeth Bay.  We bellowed back and agreed to meet there, which was a pleasant prospect as it had been a considerable while since we’d had company.

To reach Elizabeth Bay by the shortest route one passes through a cut between Cape Wilberforce and S.W. Bromby Island, then turns sharply to port to pass through another, narrower cut between the peninsula and a tiny speck of land which doesn’t seem to have a name.

Coming toward the cut we were flanked by impressive rock formations. Chocolate brown, layered rock that looked soft was undercut in galleries. This was capped by a thick layer of pale, much cracked and fissured sedimentary rock of a completely different texture. By the time we’d got this far 2 ½ metre waves were coming at the boat from several directions, the wind was strong, the current in the cut was against us, and with impeccable timing The Captain caught a seriously big fish on the trolling line he’d forgot to bring in.

It turned out to be a Bigeye Tuna (Thunnus obesus) – a variety that fetches top price in Japan for sashimi.  Mmm!  So that definitely had to come in before it threw the hook. It was too big and vigorous to fit into the net and we had to use the gaff, so the cockpit was liberally spattered with blood by the time I subdued it by splashing its gills with vodka. (This is, by the way, the quickest way of killing large fish, and any alcohol will do. They give a shudder, then stiffen and become still.)

Tuna, like other pelagic and especially warm water species must be bled immediately on capture and speedily chilled to maintain the quality of the flesh, so I hoicked the beast into the galley sink. After bleeding it I tried to saw the head off. (Remember that the boat was heaving all over the place during these procedures, the fish was very slippery and much heavier than one would expect and The Captain was fully occupied fighting his own battle to keep the boat steady and moving in the right direction.) I have a 12” long, extra heavy diving knife with a 7” blade, hopefully bought especially for such purposes. So far it had worked beautifully but this time it was barely adequate for the job. The galley was well covered with scales, slime and gore by the time I’d also gutted the carcase, sawed off the tail, wrapped the carcase in several layers of plastic rubbish bags and shoved it into the freezer to bring the temperature down as quickly as possible.

I regained the cockpit just as we turned to port to pass through the smaller cut. At the midpoint of this, the water suddenly became smooth, as if Neptune had drawn an invisible line on the surface of the water and pronounced: ‘Agitation this far, and no further’. It was really quite astonishing. We glided on to Elizabeth Bay in the fading afternoon light, avoiding the necklaces of buoys that marked pearl farms, and that evening shared the bounty with our neighbours off Silver Cloud: we provided the sushi and Tahitian ‘poisson cru’ and they brought beer! This necessity I’d been unable to buy in Nhulunby due to the draconian licensing laws there. One must first obtain a license at a special office in the centre of town and liquor stores are only open in the afternoons. The laws are meant to help control the alcohol related problems within the Aboriginal community, but are hard on thirsty yachties with limited time and transportation.

Gugari Rip a.k.a. Hole in the Wall


From Elizabeth Bay we left the next morning for the Gugari Rip, which is also known as the Hole in the Wall.

This is a narrow, short passage, only about 50 yards wide and about a mile long, where an island cracked in half to become two: Raragala & Guluwuru Islands. These are part of the Wessel Group of islands that stretches up between the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Arafura Sea. As might be expected where large volumes of water are squeezed through a narrow space as tides rise and fall, the currents can be terrifically fast.

The Gugari Rip has a certain notoriety because it must be taken on the High Water slack or first hour of the ebbing tide (if coming from the south), otherwise it is impassable or dangerous. However, many boats take this route through the Wessel Group because it saves a good day’s sailing.

Received wisdom has it that the Gove Yacht Club will provide the correct information to enable a smooth passage. However, the Yacht Club had been closed while we were there and my internet searches resulted in conflicting information:

“In Gove we had been confidently told the High Water slack was one hour behind HW Gove”

“Clearly, slack water is a little later than one hour after HW Gove”

“High tide is approximately 1 hour before that in Gove”

“Some references say to use Gove tides minus 1 hour and others say to use Darwin tides plus 2 ½ hours to hit slack tide and so go through with just a bit of current on your direction”

“Something in their calculations of the right time to start through the pass was off”

“Conditions were not as ‘per guidance’”

We made the decision to forget about received wisdom, Gove and Darwin. We looked up HW at Guluwuru Island on Seafarer Tides 2010. (This programme is put out by the Australian Hydrographic Service and has been most useful and well worth the reasonable price one pays for it.)

HW Guluwuru Island was 13.01 that day.

We made much better time than expected from Elizabeth Bay and arrived at 12:00 The wind was 15-17 knots SE, there was a 2 ½’ to 3’ swell, we saw standing waves and a general aura of roughness at the entrance to the Rip. We could also see that the water’s surface within the Rip itself was preternaturally smooth. For curiosity’s sake we decided to move up and reconnoitre in spite of being too early.

We had the Genoa furled and the main was ½ up as The Captain nosed the boat up very slowly, coming close but meeting no resistance until almost at the entrance to the passage, where our speed quickly dropped from 4 knots to nothing as with the engine on full we came to a complete stop. We turned the boat around and motored slowly about ½ mile back, where we lurked around until 13:45.

At 14:00, as we approached the entrance for the second time, the water presented a completely different surface although the wind had not dropped. It was mostly smooth, with almost no swell. There was a patch of densely ruffled, small standing waves at the port side of the entrance. We nosed up to the entrance and this time began picking up speed even before we entered. The water here was very smooth, with whorls and whirlpools along both sides of the passage. The current continued to increase until at the midway point it measured 6-7 knots and The Captain had to increase the engine revs to maintain steering control. (NB for non-boaty people: Whizzing along in a fast current sounds brilliant. However, in order to steer a boat, water needs to be moving over the rudder. If one is caught in a current – or wave – that is moving faster than the engine can push the boat, the current is in charge. This is Not A Good Thing, especially in a narrow, rocky corridor and quite aside from the fact that Captains prefer to be in charge at all times.)

The ride was exhilarating and really one of the best experiences of the voyage so far. The rock formations along both shores are wonderful – a tumbled desolation of massive cracked, broken and tilted slabs of sedimentary rock decorated with patches of sparse vegetation. I was able to take lots of photos, which have their own gallery and are in sequence beginning from the southern entrance to the northern exit.

We emerged into a wide bay and a dry, low landscape with white sand beaches and scrub. Although there were 18 knots of wind the water on this side of the islands was almost flat calm, so we brought up the sails and sat back to enjoy a  really pleasant sail!


Guruliya Bay/Raragala Island – September 1

11° 36’.012 S

136° 17’.856 E

We paralleled the shoreline of Raragala Island after our little adventure. It was very barren and along the shoreline we noticed curious reddish patches that upon closer inspection with binoculars turned out to be big balls of varying sizes. I have been unable to find out what they are, but judging from the colour assume they are large balls of bauxite that have weathered out, or been washed out of the surrounding rock.

The Captain hung the fishing line out and caught a mullet about the size of a breakfast plate. It looked delicious. Something else must have agreed, because when he pulled the poor thing up, had been neatly bitten in half but was still alive. Oh dear! A swift mercy killing was in order. I then cut it up for bait, and he dropped the hook overboard again. Wham, bam! Bait gone, hook gone! Now consumed by blood lust, dinner forgotten, determined to catch the thief, The Captain repeated the procedure several times, each time either the hook was taken along with the bait or the trace was bitten in half as well. He was obviously feeding some kind of monster. Finally he caught a small forktail catfish (Arius graeffei) which had stolen the bait this time but would have been incapable of biting the other fish in half. It made a rather pathetic, small gurking noise as it lay in the net, so we released it.

This wasn’t the first time he had lost a hook. During one of our passages between anchorages, a large hook and lure went when the steel trace was bitten through, and a subsequent attempt resulted in a huge chunk being bitten out of the wooden lure. We had agreed that we preferred not to have a jaw with teeth that powerful in the cockpit, and fishing ended for the day.

Refuge Bay (Elcho Island) September 2

11° 48’.833 S

135° 52’.007 E

This was a good anchorage, but we had to anchor very far out because of the sand shoals, so no photos. We left early the next day and sailed overnight to:

Mullet Bay (N. Goulburn Island) September 4th

11°31’.564 S

133°23’.430 E

En route to this anchorage we came across a sharply delineated patch of very turbulent water near an island and at the edge of it caught a huge Spanish Mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson).

This time it took a fair bit of wrestling to get it alongside and there was no question about having to use the gaff. There was also no question about not trying to clean & butcher it in the galley. Spanish mackerel is delicious and nothing like European mackerel. The flesh isn’t oily but white and quite firm and it tastes excellent both as sashimi or filleted and cooked plainly with butter and lemon.

Mullet Bay was a pleasant enough anchorage and calm, but of no photographic interest and even had we been tempted to go ashore this would not have been allowed without a permit, as it is Aboriginal land. However, we were able to access the internet, which more than compensated for the lack of visual interest. The Aboriginal settlement and/or small airstrip on the other side of the island must be provided with a really strong 3G network!

Malay Bay (Cape Cockburn) September 5th

11° 23’.576 S

132° 53’ .409 E

This was a quiet anchorage, but again we were so far out that there was little to see and nothing to photograph.

Palm Bay (Croker Island) September 6th

11° 07’.714 S

132° 29’. 099 E

To arrive at this anchorage we went through the passage between Croker Island and the Cobourg Peninsula, choosing our time so as to travel with the tide. This was another wide, shallow bay and we anchored far out from shore in 12’ of water. There are many sand shoals here and the area is poorly charted, so we edged the boat in even more carefully than usual.

Port Essington (Black Point), Cobourg Peninsula September 7th

11° 08’.839 S

132° 08’.445 E

Port Essington was a pleasant anchorage and it would have been interesting to go ashore if we’d had the time. It was the site of an attempt to form a British settlement called New Victoria during the 1830’s, intended to act as a major trading port to service the Asian market. But disease, lack of skilled labour and the destruction of the settlement by a cyclone caused its abandonment and it is now only a remote ruin.

Port Essington is also the site of archaeological remains of trepang (sea cucumber) processing plants, dating back to the early 1700’s, when the aborigines of Arnhem Land traded with Macassan seafarers who supplied the markets of southern China with that delicacy. This is the first recorded example of trade between the inhabitants of the Australian continent and their Asian neighbours, and it had a lasting effect on the Aboriginal culture of the area.

Alcaro Bay, Cape Don , Cobourg Peninsula September 8th

11° 17’.178 S

131° 47’. 926 E

We only spent part of the night here, as we had to leave at 2am (4 hours before HW Darwin) to catch the tidal current that would take us around Cape Don.

Before each passage The Captain checks and re-checks tide tables and timings very carefully but from here on, timings of passages and departure will be even more tide-determined than they have been. Until now, the tidal range has ranged between 1-3 metres. In Darwin, the tidal range is about 8 metres between HW and LW! Because of the many peninsulas, islands, outcroppings and bays along the shore of the Northern Territory and the Kimberly, tidal rips are common and flows reach 8-9 knots. Trying to fight these is a fuel-expensive waste of time.

Hence the 2am departure, only slightly delayed by the autopilot, which refused to start until it had been rebooted it a few times. We raised the anchor and cautiously motored out of the bay. Gradually the current caught us and our speed quickly rose to 9+ knots and we fairly zipped along under a starry sky and over what seemed like a completely still sea.

Cape Hotham (West side) September 9th

12° 05’.554 S

131° 15’.746 E

We were now where the Arafura Sea meets the Van Dieman Gulf. En route we had passed an undersea formation with the wonderful name of ‘The Deep Craven Patches’.

We had to try 3 times to get the anchor to hold and even so the boat was at a peculiar angle in relation to the anchor, probably as a result of the strong current. The water was muddy green and on the distant shore dense forests of gum and mangrove trees stood with their feet in the water. As twilight fell, it was so quiet that we could hear the evening chorus on shore as birds settled for the night and bats flew over the treetops in large flocks, chittering noisily. Then complete silence fell, but did not last.

We’d been anchoring near mangrove swamps and although we were usually at least half a mile from shore, insects seem to be attracted by our LED lights and we’d had a few unwelcome visitors. Among these was a very large cricket which jumped on me and then hid somewhere in the main cabin and didn’t reappear. I mentioned it and the Captain said he’d seen it and that it wasn’t a cricket but something like a praying mantis. Oh well…we forgot about it.

The cricket began shrilling at an unbelievable volume at about 9pm. I was already deeply asleep by then and didn’t hear it, though probably would have done eventually had not The Captain woken me first with a flash-light and irritable demands for bug spray, a fly swat, help searching for the offending insect, anything to silence the din.  Equally irritably, I blearily scuffled thorough our cache of cockroach killer, insect repellents for body and clothing, mosquito nets and rat traps with no success. When I pointed out that trying to find a cricket in a dark boat is futile, The Captain began muttering evil things while continuing to peer into dark cavities with his flash-light. Finally I moved a few things about in an arbitrary sort of way and shouted, ‘Be quiet or you die!’

Silence.  I grumbled off to bed again. Then the cricket gave a very tiny, tentative chirrup and The Captain threw something large at its general vicinity and discouraged further zithering for the night.

Darwin – Fannie Bay 10-14 September

12°25’.793 S

130°49’.062 E


I sat on the side of the dinghy yesterday evening, waiting for the incoming tide to float the dinghy and watching the sun set. The clear blue sky was painted with scarlet and gold clouds in swirling veils and the sun was a bloated fiery ball as it sank below the horizon. As dusk fell, a small, dry scratching on the concrete slipway where it met the sand meant the hermit crabs were creeping out from their hiding places among the rocks to meet the rising tide. The signs I’d read during my walk along the shore that day came to mind:

‘NO SWIMMING – Blue Green algae has been reported in the water in this area. It can cause skin irritation and respiratory distress’

‘IRUKANDJI’ – No Swimming from October to May, Swim with Caution During Other Months. First Aid:

1. Vinegar

2. Resuscitation

3. Emergency Room


I thought about trying to swim ‘cautiously’ in murky waters while trying to keep a sharp lookout for transparent centimetre-sized jellyfish and didn’t imagine for a moment they’d be waiting politely for the correct date on which to move in and terrorise human swimmers.

I thought about crocodiles, and how they like to feed at dusk, and how unwise it is to wade in water while trying to launch a dinghy. I decide to wait until the dark, warm water actually floated the dinghy rather than try to hurry the process by dragging it. Sparkles on the dark water all began to look like reflections from crocodile eyes…

We’re moored about a mile out and even so we have only about 3’ under the keel at low tide. It’s a long dinghy ride to shore, and feels like an even longer one back in the dark, but there’s no alternative, because we’re anchored in Fannie Bay, because there’s no room for our boat in any of the marinas.

When there’s an 8 metre tidal range, you have to go to shore on the high tide and leave again on the high tide – 12 hours later – unless you are physically capable of dragging a heavy dinghy for long distances. The alternative is to come in when the tide is lower and leave the dinghy marooned where the returning water will get to it earlier. This means one has to load the dinghy by slithering back and forth for 100 metres or more in very soft, smelly, squidgy mud pockmarked with the deep conical depressions made by crabs. While we’ve been here I’ve had to leave for shore in the mornings to do necessary errands and for the last 2 days have been getting back after dark because that’s when the tide is high. At night, our boat can be seen as one of about a dozen dim mast lights, distinguishable only by an extra, even dimmer glow from the spreader lights The Captain has turned on to help guide me in the right direction.

To add discomfort to inconvenience, the temperature and humidity have been unusually high for this time of year – one taxi driver said it’s like The Wet. Various bits and pieces of the boat are misbehaving again, including the refrigerator. Possibly it’s working too hard. Possibly it’s finally given up. Possibly it isn’t sheer, malignant perversity that it’s decided to stop working after all the shopping had been done. The Captain got a touch of heat stroke while working on the boat the first day, so I’ve been doing the dinghy runs, including those to chandlers to pick up complicated bits of hardware and the correct oil for the diesel engine (in case anyone is interested, there are more varieties of engine oil than any sane person would think possible). Finally a taxi driver whom I’d helped earlier with his new touch-pad mobile phone returned the favour by taking me to the right place to buy what was needed.

‘Scanno’ was a real character: eighty years old if he was a day, elfin, with the build of a jockey and the long, beautiful hands of a pianist and no front teeth, he’d been a commercial fisherman and worked building marine diesel engines for many years in his younger days. He assured The Captain over the phone after getting our engine details from me, “She’ll be all right, Mate!”  We drove around for about an hour and he turned the meter off about half-way through. His comment, when I thanked him for his extraordinary kindness, was “You’re a pretty poor excuse for a human being if you can’t help other people.”

The Darwin Sailing Club is pleasant and the staff helpful; there are certainly worse places to kick one’s heels while waiting for the tide to come in. I took a walk one day to visit the cliffs nearby, where the rock is beautifully coloured and so soft and waxy where it has been exposed by the tide, that one can break pieces off and draw with the various coloured ochres. The stuff seems to be pure pigment. I bought vegetables at a local market and took some photos there. It felt very Indonesian and the food vendors were busy grilling and pounding and chopping and stirring the most delicious-smelling foods. I wished the Captain had been there too, as he would have enjoyed it. Then I walked back to the sailing club feeling an idiot for having bought too much, because when it’s 90° and one is walking for half an hour, melons and mangoes get heavy.

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory – only a short walk from the club along the shoreline – was well worth visiting. As well as a permanent exhibition of really excellent contemporary Aboriginal art, one of the most interesting exhibits is about Cyclone Tracy, which devastated the whole town on Christmas Eve 1974. It includes a sound recording of the event, taken by a local pastor. One listens to this in a completely dark room in order to experience it as did the inhabitants of Darwin that night after the wind had torn down all the electrical cables, plunging the town into Stygian blackness. It was the most elemental thing I have ever heard. The wind didn’t howl, it growled – a deep, roaring growl that had fangs in it. The sound is unbelievable; it completely bypasses the neo-cortex and goes straight to the most ancient part of the brain. I could feel all the hair on my body begin to stand on end.

On the whole, though, Darwin has been rather a disaster though had we been able to spend 2 weeks here while tied up in a marina so we could see a bit of the beautiful countryside, as we had originally intended, we’d probably have enjoyed ourselves.  The Captain is feeling better physically, thank goodness, but the boat is like a furnace and we’re much too hot – streaming sweat all day but having to be careful of water to wash with. We’re also seriously fed up with the constant hassles. I’m stressed out – losing all the fruit and vegetables that are in the fridge hasn’t amused either – and the poor Captain has spent most of his time either upended over an engine or babying some bit of machinery or other. We’re out of here tomorrow with only about 1,600 miles to go!

Internet access may be limited during the next 2-3 weeks!