Archive for the ‘Australia’ Category
Roebuck Bay, Broome – arrived 10th October
17 59 51.90 S
122 13 82.10 E
The Boat is on a mooring in Roebuck Bay. We have been staying in a hotel-cum-resort just outside town, surrounded by acres of lush tropical vegetation and bush, and are enjoying the luxury of lots of running water, a clean loo, and plenty of rest.
I’ve been seriously remiss about writing for several reasons: for one, exploring the area has been too much fun and taking (and sorting) photos of the astonishing scenery has taken up too much time. Also, internet access has been rather a trial; one could lose the will to live waiting for pages to download – and that’s when one isn’t being timed-out. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to upload any photographs because of this. When we get to Perth I’ll do so, and provide links with the next blog post.
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We remained in Thomas Bay (16 28 58.10 S – 122 52 86.50 E) – 5th October only one night and left for Beagle Bay mid-morning in order to catch a favourable tide.
While bringing the anchor up I happened to look down and saw a miniature octopus next to my bare foot. It was about 3” across and almost exactly the pale beige colour of the teak. It was also looking rather flattened – understandably – as it must have come up with the chain and got flipped onto the deck with some force. I finished raising and securing the anchor, by which time the creature was crawling feebly along the hot, dry wood toward a nearby bit of shade. Bending over, hand already outstretched to pick the poor thing up and return it to the water, I suddenly thought, ‘Hang on a minute – we’re in Australia…’, and went to get the heavy fish-handling gloves we keep in the cockpit. Hurrying back, I pulled them on and was picking the octopus up when a few electric blue rings appeared on its skin and I just about jumped out of mine when they did.
It seems the blue rings only appear when the animals are agitated, though the literature omits to make this clear. Presumably the shock of hitting the deck must have stunned it, which would explain why they didn’t appear before. Paranoia obviously has survival value.
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Beagle Bay – 6th, 7th, 8th October
16 53 51.50 S
122 29 59.10 E
We spent three nights here. There were high wind warnings along that part of the coast and hand steering had been tiring enough for The Captain – who did most of it – during calm weather. We anchored well out from shore, because anchorages in the bay are rather exposed and there’s a large tidal range. The anchor dragged a bit so we let out more chain, after which it held like a rock through the next 2 days and nights of wind and chop and strong tidal currents which had the boat facing a different direction every few hours.
On trying to raise anchor on the morning of the 9th we found out why it had held so well: the chain had wrapped itself around something and we were well stuck. Always the pessimist, I was already envisioning having to don scuba gear and dive to untangle the wretched thing, and began calculating how long a full tank would last if I were working hard at that depth. But The Captain began steering the boat in a circle around the point where the chain entered the water and, luckily, he’d picked the right direction first time. After we’d slowly motored around almost 360° the chain broke free and I was able to bring it up with only a few nasty grinding noises.
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James Price Point – 9th October
17 32 13.90 S
122 08 07.50 E
We arrived at this anchorage mid-afternoon, to find it occupied by what looked like a pair of miniature drilling platforms and an official-looking vessel, from which we were sternly advised by radio that a 2 mile exclusion zone had been set up around the area. Since there was no time to reach the next anchorage, we headed further along the shore only until there were no more warning buoys and pulled in, muttering rebelliously. The weather was calm, which was as well because we were completely exposed.
We discovered much later that James Price Point is the proposed location for a new natural gas processing plant. The various viewpoints on the issue make interesting – albeit depressing – reading. Western Australia’s Premier says it’s “an unremarkable stretch of coastline” well suited to development; mining companies are positively drooling to get their hands on the vast mineral and petroleum resources in the Kimberley; environmentalists and a large proportion of the public are raising fierce objections – and for excellent reasons – but it’s unlikely they will be successful in getting the project stopped because during the time we’ve been in Broome I’ve already seen three more platforms being slowly towed north along the coast.
It took less time than we had anticipated to get from James Price Point to Broome the next morning, so there was still a bit of current running when we arrived in Roebuck Bay. We hung about until the slack tide before entering the bay and picked up the mooring without trouble. Huge sighs of relief from us both, after which The Captain immediately went to sleep.
He had intended that we stay aboard for approximately a week to rest and get the boat in order, then find a place to stay on shore while waiting for The Boat to be hauled and trucked to Perth. This plan had to be changed because, for some reason, our huge mooring buoy kept dragging under the boat. This may have been caused by the cut-away shape of The Boat’s hull combined with the strong, swirling tidal streams in Roebuck Bay, because none of the other moored vessels seemed to have the problem. First there would be loud thumping sounds as the buoy came alongside and banged against the hull for a while. Then the boat would lurch as the buoy went under the keel, where it would stay for a while before making the boat lurch again as it banged and bobbed up on the other side, gaily decorated with the red anti-fouling paint its rope harness had scraped off our hull. Although The Boat was secure, nothing we could do solved the problem and it was driving us nuts. Time to get off the boat.
That raised the next issue: there’s nowhere to safely leave a dinghy for any length of time in Roebuck Bay or on the other side of Gantheaume Point at Cable Beach. The tides are enormous, there’s no yacht club and no security. There’s talk of setting up a boat-taxi service next year, but that was of no use to us. There was the possibility that we might be able to leave the dinghy at a secure yard belonging to Paspaley, the pearling company that will haul the boat, but in the end we begged a ride to shore – at short notice – on one of the small vessels they use to service their pearling fleet. The man with whom we had been dealing, who is an unusually efficient and pleasant fellow, met us at the commercial deep water dock and drove us to the place at which we’re staying.
This is called Habitat Resort, and consists of individual units and pavilions in a tropical garden filled with palms, exotic trees, ginger plants and giant plumeria bushes bright with flowers. The grounds are also densely planted with specimens of the native vegetation, which attracts local wildlife: wallabies, blue-tongued skinks and other lizards, frogs, geckos, possums, pheasant coucal and many other birds – mostly honey-eaters. The kind gardener supplies us with more ripe papayas and lady-finger bananas than we can eat, and I was able to find a mango farm nearby from where I buy freshly picked mangoes at a more reasonable price than those sold in the grocery stores.
The weather has been very warm and humid – never less than 35° and usually around 37° during the day – though the nights are slightly cooler. We’re at the cusp between the Dry and Wet seasons and during the time we’ve been here a few heavy downpours during thunderstorms have already brought out new leaves and blossoms on trees that were bare when we arrived.
Now to Broome itself….
Modern Broome is a strange, isolated township, poised between the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and the glowing red Pindan soils unique to the Dampier Peninsula, and it has a history as brutal as it has been brief. The first settlement of the area was a short-lived attempt at grazing sheep in the 1860s. This was followed in the 1870’s by the establishment of very temporary pearling facilities in Roebuck Bay, which consisted of depot camps used by pearlers based on Cossack and Thursday Islands.
On 27 November 1883, the Governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Napier Broome, announced that there would be ‘a Townsite on the North Western point of Roebuck Bay hereafter to be known and distinguished as Broome.’ Broome had not named it himself; the Surveyor General, John Forrest, had named it after him. In fact, the governor didn’t even want to be associated with the settlement since at this time Broome consisted of nothing more than a few pearlers, some pearling luggers, several shanties and some local Aborigines. In 1888 one visitor to the settlement described it: ‘The only water was a native well…The Mangrove swamps were full of mosquitoes, and high up on the sand hills a few struggling camps were pitched.’
Two years later everything had changed. Because of volcanic activity in the Arafura Sea, the submarine telegraph cable between Java and Darwin was rerouted through Broome. It came to shore in 1889 at Cable Beach. The Cable House (now the Courthouse) was erected at this time as an office for the telegraph operators. It is said – perhaps apocryphally – that the building itself was actually meant for Kimberley in South Africa and somehow ended up in Broome on the edge of the Kimberley in Australia. In any case, when it arrived the town had no wharf and the pieces had to be carted over the mudflats by Chinese labourers. The town grew rapidly, driven both by pearling and because the port facilities were used by the pastoralists who were settling the harsh interior. The population of the town was seriously cosmopolitan – Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Europeans and Aborigines – and many of the people living here now boast a wonderfully varied ancestry.
Initially, it was only the pearl shell from the giant oyster species Pinctada maxima that was sought after. This was used to make mother-of-pearl buttons, handles for cutlery, handles of walking sticks and inlay for expensive furniture, mirrors, fans and other luxury articles. Occasional pearls were found, but those were just a valuable bonus. Pearl divers were always needed, and master pearlers had no compunction about kidnapping local Aborigines and forcing them into virtual slavery as divers. Inevitably, the death toll was very high. Without the benefit of modern underwater equipment, the divers were forced to dive again and again, resurfacing only when they ran out of breath. In the early years, the mortality rate was greatly compounded by the number of sharks which cruised the muddy estuaries where the pearl shells were found.
By 1887 most of the Broome pearling fleet was equipped with canvas suits, copper helmets and boots, and rubber air hoses. Nevertheless, hundreds of young Japanese divers died, either from the bends or by drowning, and many more were left grotesquely crippled and unable to earn a living. The dead were buried in Broome’s beautifully maintained Japanese Cemetery, which dates back to the very early pearling days. A large stone obelisk in the cemetery recalls those who were drowned at sea in the 1908 cyclone. The cyclones of 1887 and 1935 each caused the deaths of at least 140 men.
By 1904, Broome supplied as much as eighty per cent of the world’s pearl shell, and more than 400 luggers operated out of Broome. In the lay-off season there would be over 3000 Asian divers in the town, and Chinatown was crowded with pubs, gambling dens, eating houses and brothels. During this time Broome gained the reputation described by an old pearler when he wrote: ‘Broome in its early days was probably the most unique town in Australia. It was an affluent, sinful and tolerant community, in which the Clergy’s frequent references to Sodom and Gomorrah were regarded as appropriate tributes to civic progress, rather than warnings of future divine retribution.’ This was Broome’s Golden Age, and the master pearlers became fabulously wealthy. It is said they changed their white suits twice daily because of the red dust that blew into town from the surrounding countryside, and had them laundered in Singapore, which also supplied most of Broome’s fresh food.
The economy of the Broome collapsed with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, which coincided with the arrival of over 250 fully laden luggers in port. Contracts with overseas buyers were rendered null and void in the event of war, so the pearls and pearl shells could not be paid for. After the war, recovery was slow. By the early 1930’s the industry had been effectively taken over by the Japanese, and by 1939 the pearl industry was severely depressed and there were only 50 luggers operating in the waters around Broome.
The importance of the Japanese to the Broome economy was highlighted when Japan entered the Second World War in 1941: pearl shell collecting ceased completely as the entire Japanese population of Broome was interned. Broome was designated as a primary aircraft refuelling point during the evacuation from Java and was attacked by Japanese aircraft in 1942, though by this time the civilian population had already been evacuated.
After World War II the pearl industry revived, though buttons were now being made of plastic. Not mother-of-pearl but pearls, cultured in a process learnt from Kokichi Mikimoto and modified to suit the Pinctada maxima oyster, funded Broome’s renaissance. The origins of the cultured pearl industry are celebrated in a memorial which depicts the three key people involved: T. Kuribayashi, Keith Dureau and H. Iwaki. It stands in town, opposite a rather spooky memorial to the divers themselves.
A few years ago Broome might as well have been renamed McAlpine, because Lord Alistair McAlpine so dominated the townscape and the economy of the town that some say it was virtually his personal fiefdom. To be fair, Lord McAlpine converted this rough pearling port into an attractive town (for the most part) though the older locals say it lost most of its unique frontier character during the transformation. He was responsible for the beautiful trees and other plantings which line the streets, he restored many of the most interesting Master Pearlers’ houses, and built a luxurious and opulent holiday resort at Cable Beach. This attracted other investors and the Cable Beach area is now the ‘posh’ part of Broome.
The rest of Broome is what could be kindly describe as ‘mixed’. Chinatown is picturesque and the main tourist streets are pleasant; there are some fancy hotels along the shoreline, but buildings on the side streets are often derelict and the famous Streeter’s Jetty is crumbling and encroached upon by mangrove thickets. There are slick modern suburbs but many of the houses adjacent to the town centre, especially those in the Aboriginal areas, are old and surrounded by a dispiriting combination of dusty ground, broken down cars and household appliances, litter and decrepit furniture, all interspersed with the vicious glitter of broken glass.
And that’s all, really. We’re waiting for The Man with the Big Truck to arrive from Perth to coincide with the next Spring tides around the 8th November. Then the boat will be hauled, the mast taken off, and we’ll fly to Perth while the boat follows at a more sedate pace.
This blog entry is long enough, so I’ll stop here. More shortly and – with luck – the photos of the astonishing scenery here.
THE KIMBERLEY – Darwin to Cape Leveque
This entry is even more of a journal and less of a coherent narrative than usual. Except for the occasional, weak signal we were without internet from Darwin until Cape Leveque, and simply cleaning up my daily notes seemed the easiest and best way to give a picture of the last weeks, given the number of places we’ve visited and the various challenges that have kept us occupied.
Just a few notes:
To find a location in Google Earth, one must enter the latitude and longitude in one of the following specific ways:
37 25’19.07″N, 122 05’06.24″W or 37 25 19.07 N, 122 05 06.24 W
Google Earth doesn’t accept degree signs and also wants an extra number to the right of the decimal point, which our GPS doesn’t provide. I didn’t realise this until now. Sorry! If you move the cursor around until the figures at the bottom of the Google Earth page match those of our anchorages, you’ll be close.
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The Kimberley is spectacular and picturesque and we’ve travelled much too fast to have caught more than a glimpse of what the area has to offer, but we haven’t done too badly considering our jack-rabbit progress.
The straight line distance between the King Edward River estuary and Yampi Sound is approximately 400 kilometres, whereas the actual length of coastline between them is about 12,850 kilometres and includes 2,581 mapped islands. To properly appreciate the specially lovely and remote places of the Kimberley, one would need months. There are narrow river canyons, small bays tucked behind peninsulas, islands, beaches made of quartz crystals, caves decorated with Aboriginal art, unusual animals, beautiful waterfalls, spectacular cliffs and interesting hikes.
Quite aside from the sheer distances involved, one of the reasons cruisers need so much time to be able to explore the shallow waters with a dinghy, and to venture in and out of the deeply indented coastline, are the 5-10 metre tides characteristic of this part of the Australian coast. Boats must wait for high tides to cross sandbars; rising or ebbing tides to get into or out of rivers or through narrow passages; slack tides to avoid tidal flows of 5+ knots in contrary directions within short distances; Neap tides for anchoring close to shore and for less tidal movement; Spring tides in order to venture far up river canyons. And it’s a good idea to move slowly when navigating in areas where large portions of the chart are marked ‘inadequately surveyed’. In fact, there’s a website which has a whole section devoted to the Kimberley’s uncharted rocks and hazards which have been discovered – often abruptly – by cruisers.
That said, the photos in the gallery are mostly lithic. That’s because unless one gets off the boat, which we seldom did, rocks are what one sees. On the other hand, a lot of geology has happened here and some of what remains is pretty dramatic.
Most of the landscape we passed as we sailed along the Kimberley coast is composed of sedimentary and igneous rock which forms part of the Pre-Cambrian Shield of the Proterozoic Eon. That was 1500-2250 million years ago, give or take a few million years, and I photographed some of the oldest rock visible on the planet. To give some perspective to these figures: simple multi-cellular organisms evolved about 1200 million years ago, Australia separated from Antarctica about 70 million years ago, and the first humans came to Australia about 40,000 years ago.
The black patches and streaks that can be seen on many of the rock faces in the photographs are ‘desert patina ‘, composed of iron, silica and manganese oxides leached from soil and rock by moisture. It can take 2,000 years to form, which means that the simple multi-cellular organisms that scratch their names on patinated boulders and cliffs will have achieved a kind of immortality – as well as earning the heartfelt curses of generations of subsequent passers-by.
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Joseph Bonaparte Gulf – nights of September 15th & 16th
The Joseph Bonaparte Gulf is named for Napoleon’s brother. This honour may not have been a compliment, given it is infamous for strong currents, short, steep seas and nasty weather.
The passage from Darwin took 48 hours, during which we covered about 275 miles. We were lucky enough to have calm, slightly foggy conditions during the first 24 hours and only a few squalls during the latter part of the trip. We had to slow down in order not to arrive after nightfall, though, which made the boat roll dreadfully.
The fridge stopped working en route after having become ever feebler during stopover in Darwin. It now comes on occasionally when the main engine or generator is running. This keeps the cooling plate just chilly enough that the temperature inside remains at between 15 and 20 ° C, which is the equivalent of a nice summer’s day in England. Even this is better than the outside ambient temperature of 28 – 30° C. and will keep the citrus fruits, onions and spuds from rotting immediately. A few things that must be kept properly cold are now in the small portable fridge/freezer The Captain hopefully brought along to augment the main freezer in case he caught a lot of fish.
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‘Jim’s Bay’ – September 17th
13 46’21.60” S
126 59’50.50” E
This was the first available decent anchorage after crossing the Gulf. In fact, the bay has no name on the appropriate Australia chart, but was given this one by cruisers and that’s what’s it’s called in the Fremantle Sailing Club’s ‘Western Australian Cruising Guide’, which we are using as a pilot book.
Here, and when rounding Cape Londonderry, the view is of low, crumbling cliffs of red & whitish rock that stretch along the shore. The sea is a turbid green. The scrubby vegetation is sparse, clinging to the thin, exhausted topsoil. The Cape is the most northern part of the mainland of Western Australia, and is “…to be approached with extreme caution. There is often a strong tidal flow, and when there is a strong easterly wind the result can be extremely steep and dangerous breaking seas.” Luckily, we had almost no wind at all, to The Captain’s disgust and my delight.
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Cape Talbot – September 18th
13 48’72.90” S
126 45’18.10” E
A decent anchorage. A long, long beach here, mangroves & rocks. Nothing to photograph, though.
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McGowan Island Beach & Camp, Napier Broome Bay – 19th & 20th September
14 08’67.70” S
126 38’74.70” E
This was intended to be a quick refuelling stop only, after which we had planned to anchor in the opposite side of the bay. At every marina and sailing club since Airlie Beach, leaflets had been displayed advertising a fuel barge at this location during the 2010 Kimberley cruising season. But when we neared the area we saw only another yacht and some scattered buildings half-hidden by surprisingly lush vegetation.
We were anchored by lunchtime and immediately launched the dinghy. This takes 1 ½ hours and an equal amount of time is required to put it back, which is why we often didn’t bother going to shore after a long day’s sailing if we intended to leave again the next morning. I motored off with our 4 empty jerry-cans to get fuel, but before scouting around on shore I decided to pull up to the neighbouring yacht ‘Outsider’, which had a friendly aura about it, to say hello and enquire about the barge-less state of affairs. As it turned out Outsider’s inhabitants – Ian and Wendy – were very friendly indeed, as well as knowledgeable. Ian also brews exceedingly good beer on board! We sampled this while enjoying their company over drinks the next two evenings.
They had mentioned, when I told them of our plans, that high wind warnings were forecast for the next two days. When I returned to The Boat and reported this, The Captain decided to stay where we were until the weather settled down. The anchorage was secure and pleasant, the company interesting, the water was clear and jellyfish floated by looking like giant pink powder puffs. There was no reason to move on.
Fuel was to be got, not from a barge but from a tanker truck, parked by a giant boab tree slightly back from the beach. It was dispensed by Robert, who was to be found in the main building of the camp when he wasn’t out taking his boys fishing. He explained that this was the first year he and his wife were offering this facility and that it had been a reasonably successful venture.
It’s obvious that the owners of the McGowan Island Camp are putting in an enormous amount of work to improve the place. Young coconut trees line the red dirt road, small lawns under the huge mango trees were being watered, and generally the atmosphere is a hopeful one. A few years ago it was pretty desolate, according to a couple I spoke with who were car-camping there and who spend several months every year exploring the Kimberley and Northern Territory.
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Freshwater Bay – 21st September
14 00’79.00” S
126 10’90.70” E
The trip from McGowan Island Beach started out most excellently. Ian called up on VHF to wish us Bon Voyage, the weather was fine and the wind just right. We both began to entertain the hope that – just possibly – the last part of our voyage might prove to be relatively problem-free and pleasant. But so far, agreeable conditions have always presaged imminent disaster of some kind and this time was no exception.
A few hours later the auto-pilot and chart plotter quit again. The Captain thought he’d fixed that recurrent problem after calling the service manager in New Zealand and getting a possible diagnosis and solution. They came on again after 5 minutes and some re-booting, but the fear remains that any day now they will quit permanently and we’ll have to hand-steer for hundreds of miles.
Then about mid-day smoke began pouring from the generator. This had overheated because, as we found out later, the salt water pump had died (it pumps salt water into the system to cool the fresh water that cools the engine). In retrospect, it’s unnerving how long it took us to realise there was a problem. Because the wind was blowing from the land, carrying with it the smell of bush fires, I didn’t register the faint odour of smoke in the boat as anything to worry about. The Captain has little sense of smell anyway, in spite of the impressive size of his proboscis, and relies on sound, lights and alarms to warn him of malfunctions, but the warning light was on a panel below. The air currents from the boat’s movement kept the smoke within the cabin. It was only by chance that I went below and saw what was happening.
Without the generator, of course, the water-maker won’t work. The Captain has finally had enough of doing repairs and having something else go wrong immediately afterwards – usually something previously ‘fixed’ by professionals. He’s tired of having to rush, spending only one night at every anchorage and having to move on again without a chance to relax. I’ve already expressed my opinion about the hassle-to-pleasure ratio of this exercise, but am now half-beginning to believe that short of having an exorcism performed, nothing we can do will stop the series of problems that have plagued this boat since the day we left Richmond.
The anchorage is pretty though, the holding is good, and in better circumstances we might have enjoyed it.
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Parry Harbour – 22nd September
13 58’06.40” S
126 03’92.70” E
To get here we rounded Cape Bougainville and passed Hat Point. This doesn’t really look much like a hat except from one angle of approach, but with so many geographical features to name and a limited number of saints, days of the week, months of the year, members of European royal families, famous naval figures and random illustrious personages to honour, explorers’ imaginations probably got a bit stretched.
The harbour is large and protected and the holding is tenacious, to say the least. It stank of mangrove swamp where we were anchored, though, and wasn’t very interesting. The Captain spent the afternoon working heroically on the generator pump until it got too dark to see. He thinks he’s identified the problem; whether it can be solved remains to be seen.
In the meantime, I sort through the vegetables in the fridge every evening and throw out the ones that have gone mouldy or slimy. The chilli I made for dinner required too much water for washing up, so I shan’t be doing much cooking until we can fill the water tanks a few days from now at Silver Gull Creek and refuel at adjacent Dog Leg Creek. We each wash from a plastic bowl in about a litre of water a night, which doesn’t really suffice. We’ll have to keep being very careful with water until we get to Perth because the pump will not be reliable even if it can be fixed temporarily. We – and the boat – are sticky, grubby, smelly, tired of hassles and irritated with each other.
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Krait Bay, just east of Cape Voltaire – 23 September
14 14’78.30” S
123 35’95.40” E
The vertical rock faces along the waterline of some islands we passed en route were fissured into such regular blocks that they looked almost like ruined masonry: like castles and fortified walls destroyed by siege, then shattered into rubble by earthquake so that only the foundations remain: ancient stones bleached to pale apricot and parchment by the fierce sunlight.
The bay itself is surrounded by low, not especially distinctive hills and small, white sand beaches.
We arrived early and spent the afternoon trying to fix the water pump. Once again The Captain couldn’t get as far back into the dirty, spiky hole under the cockpit as I can in order to wiggle things about or unscrew them. He decided the motor may have quit, so he replaced the new pump – installed in New Zealand, mind you! – with the old pump he had kept. But when he turned on the generator, although the pump motor functioned, water wasn’t going through the system and being expelled with the exhaust from the thru-hull in the back of the boat.
So he transferred the new pump’s impeller – a sort of flanged rubber wheel that pushes water into the system – into the old pump, isolated the hose leading from the pump by detaching the far end of it, and turned on the generator again. Success! Water came out of the pipe. So he reattached the other end and turned the generator on once more. Woe! Water and exhaust still weren’t coming out the thru-hull. This meant the pump motor had been the initial culprit, but we now had to find the proximate cause of the problem.
The Captain began dismantling things further along the line and then we made the grim discovery that the short pipe coming out of the exhaust water lock had melted into a blackened, distorted stump. The ‘exhaust water lock’ can also be called the ‘muffler’, but it serves the additional purpose of ensuring that in a following sea, water doesn’t get pushed back up the main engine’s exhaust pipe like a marine enema. It looks like a convoluted plastic box with a pipe coming out at each end.
This was a setback. But after I weaselled the muffler out from its nest of rubber pipes, I was able to remove some of the melted obstruction with a hot-knife and then push a small section of flexible plastic hose into the resulting hole. Then we measured the thick rubber pipe coming out of the engine – the one which carries the exhaust gasses from both engines to the muffler. The Captain found a thinner plastic pipe from his pipes stash that would fit snugly when forced into the rubber engine pipe. The idea was to shove the other end of that pipe over the small pipe coming from the muffler, secure everything with gaffer tape, and hope this temporary arrangement would work long enough for us to get to Broome….
Then we had to stop because it got dark. After dinner, The Captain suddenly remembered that he has a fibreglass patching kit – originally intended for the boat’s hull in case it got damaged – in his small mountain of spare gear. He suggested that we make a new pipe for the muffler instead of relying on a “bodge job” which he thought would be sure to fail. This did make sense, but also meant the work we’d already done had been a complete waste of time, which was depressing.
We were very dirty and couldn’t wash properly.
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Shelter Bay, Prudhoe Island, Bonaparte Archipelago – 24 & 25th September
14 25’37.10” S
We motored over a smooth, milky green sea on which many small, buff-coloured, flat-bottomed islands seemed to float. They were exactly the same shapes and sizes as the puffy, flat-bottomed white clouds floating above them in a lacquer-blue sky. The effect was curiously artificial.
Shelter Bay is almost landlocked and Quoy Island lies opposite the opening, so once we’d motored inside we felt completely encircled, and guarded by the high reddish bluff of Gaimard Island which we had passed on the way in. The view was pleasant, but by early afternoon, when we anchored, it was already very hot and completely windless. I rigged a couple of bed sheets over the boom and tied them to the safety lines to provide a bit of shade for the deck, which helped keep the temperatures in the cabin bearable.
We immediately began working on the muffler. I made a template-cum-foundation out of a 4 inch piece of brown Manila envelope while we detached the muffler and cut out the remaining blackened, distorted plastic stump to make a round hole. Then it was time to mix the resin and hardener, paint some onto the template, then dip cut-up fibreglass into the rest of the rapidly warming goop and attach the template to the muffler with the resulting sticky, fibrous wads. This went well, and after waiting an hour the template and foundation were firm enough to add layers of woven fibreglass and more of the chopped stuff to build up a 3 inch pipe. Then the result had to cure.
That night, after The Captain had fallen asleep under the soothing breeze of a fan, I went out on deck to cool off and enjoy a bit of peace. We’d been sweating all afternoon, in a stifling hot, cluttered, confined, dirty space. The stars were crystal-clear and because the moon had not yet risen, Venus threw a bright path on the midnight-blue water. The surrounding hills were barely visible as darker silhouettes in the near distance and I could hear the soft plosive of a dolphin breathing in the dark as it circled the bay.
The next morning, the resin was not as hard as it should have been. This was because we’d got the proportion of resin to hardener wrong. Many expletives. Because the anchorage was secure and attractive, we decided to spend an extra day there in order to get the job done. We began all over again. This time we got it right, because the resin/fibreglass mixture turned hard almost immediately. It was only with the greatest difficulty that I was able to persuade The Captain to let the resin cure for the advised 24 hours. I was as eager as he to wash properly, but simply couldn’t cope with the idea of a third attempt.
We went to bed feeling slightly more cheerful. At 5:00 the next morning when I went on deck with my cup of coffee, the moon was still in the sky, the water was like glass, and the landscape was bleached by the pale pre-dawn light. The sight was so utterly lovely that I spent the next hour watching the sun rise and gradually paint the surrounding rock faces gold.
We left on the low tide and promptly scraped our hull on an uncharted rock/reef in the ostensibly clear passage between Gaimard and Quoy Islands. We turned the boat smartly around and left the way we’d entered the bay – the long way round!
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Ivy Cove, Glauert Island (Glavert Island) – 26th September
15 03’07.20” S
124 57’88.50” E
As we approached this anchorage, which lies in a narrow passage between Glauert and Gray Islands, the vegetation became taller and denser and the cliffs along the shore became composed of dark basalt rather than the pink and orange sedimentary layers we’d mostly encountered so far. The pilot book advises that the anchorage is notable for a large boab tree set slightly behind a small beach, which turned out to be a useful bit of information.
The boab (Adansonia gregorii) is a very strange-looking tree, endemic to Australia, though it has relatives in Madagascar and Africa. We saw many solitary specimens growing at the ends of peninsulas in the most inhospitable parts of the surrounding landscape, like lonely outcasts. The Aboriginals call it ‘the upside-down tree’ and one of their legends recounts that the boab was originally created by the Tree God to be beautiful and bear delicious fruit. But the tree misbehaved and the God became so angry that he yanked the misbehaving boab out of the ground and stuck it back upside down.
The moment we’d anchored The Captain started the generator and it worked, so he immediately filled the water tanks. Thank goodness! Now we just keep our fingers crossed that the mended pipe stays intact until we get to Broome, where ‘civilisation’ begins again.
At 6am the next morning, a terrific racket heralded the arrival of a flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos at least 200 strong. They wheeled and whirled in the sky like a snow flurry, wings flashing white as they caught the slanting early sunlight, before they all disappeared behind a nearby hill.
~ ~ ~
Hanover Bay Inlet, Hanover Bay – 27th September
15 19’00.90” S
124 46’07.70” E
Leaving Ivy Cove we made our way down the centre of the passage between the two islands, with me as lookout on the bow. We encountered no obstacles and the only marked hazard – a large rock that would have been submerged had the tide been high – was prominent. Once again the sea was smooth and we motored all day because there hardly a breath of wind. The Captain gets very cross when this happens, although we have plenty of fuel. I love it! We saw several whales – mostly mothers with calves.
Sheer, flat-topped red cliffs rise straight from the sea on both sides of Hanover Bay Inlet and we anchored on the western side, just under a towering wall of crumbling red stone partly overgrown with white-trunked ghost gums that clung to every available crevice and formed small groves where the cliffs had collapsed and formed piles of talus.
White, cotton-wool clouds had been riding in the sky all morning, gathering in rebellious groups on the horizon as the afternoon progressed. By dusk, these had become towering thunderclouds in the far distance behind the cliffs on the opposite shore, and lightening began flickering within the bruise-coloured depths. Within 5 minutes, the mass of clouds was lit from within like a gigantic, misshapen Chinese lantern by almost continuous sheets and flashes of lightning. The drama took place in utter silence, because the storm was too far away for us to hear the thunder. We watched while eating dinner, but after about an hour – by this time the storm had spread along most of the horizon and showed no sign of weakening – we went to bed, The Captain muttering that with our luck, the damned thing would come our way and blow the rest of the electronics.
~ ~ ~
Deception Bay – 28th September
15 38’59.20” S
124 25’36.00” E
This was a good anchorage and the bay is free of hazards, so had we wanted to come in after dark it would not have been dangerous. However, the landscape was dull and featureless, with some hills so low they barely deserve the name and covered with sparse, scraggly vegetation. We had been told fishing is excellent at the anchorage in the north-eastern end of the bay near the river, but we anchored in the south-western end because it offered better protection from the wind.
The Captain did put a baited hook out at dusk, but caught only a baby shark about 18” long. I held it gently round the middle while he got pliers to take the hook out, and so I had a chance to admire it in the beam of a flash light. It was pale and slightly translucent – the colour of alabaster – and its skin was smooth, with a faint texture rather like that of soft, very fine suede. All the features that make sharks the creatures of nightmares were present, but in perfect, supple, beautiful miniature. Once the hook was out I threw the shark back into the water and it zipped away, seemingly unharmed.
Departure was at 2:30 am in order to make sure the tidal flow would be with us to the next anchorage. That meant getting up at 1:30 am…
~ ~ ~
Between Raft Point & Bluff Head, Doubtful Bay – 29th & 30th September
16 04’40.70” S
124 26’98.80” E
On our way down the coast we passed Langgi, where strange rock formations look like Indian temples and crowds of people along the shore. We weren’t close enough to take good photos, but we were able to get a good look with binoculars.
Raft Point is a popular anchorage for cruisers wishing to see the low tide expose Montgomery Reef, or admire nearby Aboriginal rock art sites and do day sails in the area. We did none of these, alas, although we had been told the sight of Montgomery Reef is not to be missed. We used Raft Point as a convenient place from which set out to cross the better part of Collier Bay before the terrifically strong tidal flows around the reef turned against us. It’s called Raft Point because the Aboriginal inhabitants of this area used it as a launching point for their rafts, which they took to Montgomery Reef more than 10 miles to the north-west, where they hunted and caught dugong and then floated them back with the favourable current.
We entered via Foam Passage, where a current that can reach 6 knots whips the surface of the water to froth. The anchorage itself is spectacularly beautiful and, because we’d got under way so early that morning and had the prospect of another revoltingly early departure, we decided to remain an extra day. The engines were both due for an oil change anyway and The Captain had other maintenance he wanted to take care of. I did the laundry, cleaned up, cooked, and photographed the surrounding cliffs and islands at various times of day; it was not quite Monet’s cathedral at Rouen, but his enchantment with the effects of changing light on stone became understandable.
~ ~ ~
Between Melomys Island & Kingfisher Island – 1st October
16 07’48.10” S
124 05’84.60” E
The autopilot has died. The Captain was unable to boot it up, and we left Hall Point at 3:30am with him hand steering. Luckily the sea was calm again.
Just east of Kingfisher Island our 3G network suddenly came alive for about an hour and we had internet for the first time since leaving Darwin. I pounced and got all our e-mails, sent a few quick ones and was able to upload a few photos before the signal weakened. Although we lost the internet the phone connection remained strong, so we were able to call New Zealand again about the autopilot. Unfortunately, after a long discussion with the service manager, some diagnostic tests and much rebooting, they determined that the compass is at fault. It comes on, but is unable to communicate with the autopilot. When on the compass display setting, the screen reads: NFU. No Fucking Use – well, that’s accurate, at least!
This unexpectedly lovely anchorage was a small compensation for our troubles. Nothing had been said about it in our pilot book, other than that the eastern entrance is shallow, navigable, but subject to severe tidal rips. We went the long way round, of course. As we came around Kingfisher Island we saw another mother whale with baby. She was basking peacefully on the surface of water so smooth, it might as well have been a duck pond in one of London’s parks. Occasionally she exhaled a small fountain of spray while her youngster surfaced and dived around her. We motored very slowly so as not to disturb them, feeling slightly guilty, but she didn’t move.
We tucked into a cove just inside the eastern entrance between the islands, the holding was good and there was no swell. Had the wind been stronger though, that might not have been the case. From the boat we seemed almost completely landlocked, encircled by low, rolling hills covered with an almost park-like combination of graceful eucalyptus trees and short grass. Just opposite from where we were anchored, a cut rock face exposed snazzy red and white diagonal racing stripes and that evening we watched another thunderstorm – this one not quite as magnificently operatic as that in Hanover Bay Inlet, but a respectable effort nonetheless.
~ ~ ~
Silver Gull Creek, Yampi Sound, the Buccaneer Archipelago – 2nd October
16 09’97.00” S
123 42’46.10” E
We left Kingfisher Island at 4:30 am. It was still dark, but the moon was paling before the dawn. The air was still, and the day promised to be even hotter than usual.
Anchoring at Silver Gull Creek had originally been a priority for the sake of the fresh water to be had there, which we didn’t need any more because our fibreglass work seemed to be holding up. But, although theoretically we had more than enough fuel on board to get us to Broome and beyond, we decided we might as well top up.
We motored around the outside of Koolan Island and from there back down to Yampi Sound rather than take The Gutter and The Canal between Koolan Island and the mainland. We’ve come to mistrust these narrow passages. Once we had passed the dense, dark red haematite shores of the Iron Islands and Koolan Island, the landscape consisted of rounded hills meeting the water in gentle, fawn coloured, parabolic curves lightly covered with the usual pale gum trees and scrub. This is where we saw 3 dolphins of a variety we hadn’t encountered before. They were pale beige and their heads were blunt and bulging rather than the sleek, pointed snouts we were accustomed to.
Later, I did a bit of research and found they had been Australian snubfin dolphins, a rare and only recently identified species.
Further into the inlet leading to Silver Gull Creek, we came to a cliff face made of fine sedimentary layers which had been violently twisted and upended vertically to form a fan shape. Where the hills met the water, smooth ground opened into gashes lined with shattered layers of blue-grey slate, which also formed menacing promontories on either side of us. Startling enough, but upon closer inspection with binoculars we could see that some of the slopes near the shoreline were spiked with of shards of razor-edged blue slate arranged in rows, the tips stained a rusty-red colour unpleasantly reminiscent of dried blood. It was as if the hills had been sown with dragons’ teeth. A rather disquieting landscape.
We anchored, then called the fuel barge and pontoon in neighbouring Dog Leg Creek on VHF16, and were told we were in good time to re-fuel at the high tide. This we did, then motored back and re-anchored. That night the sea was more bioluminescent than we had ever seen, and anything thrown overboard provoked an explosion of light. I dragged the fishing net through the water and created nebulae, fish swimming by the boat glimmered in the deep, and when we left the next morning before dawn our bow wave sparkled like a twin Milky Way, and our wake glowed behind us like a comet’s tail.
~ ~ ~
Sunday Island, Buccaneer Archipelago – 3rd October
16 23’27.10” S
123 09’84.00” E
King Sound has some of the strongest tidal flows and greatest tidal ranges in The Kimberley, and because The Captain was doing most of the hand-steering it would have been very difficult to make it all the way to Cape Leveque. Even there, the anchorages we could have reached in one day’s sail are relatively unsatisfactory.
So we spent the night at Sunday Island. One doesn’t feel very secure here. Although we anchored within a small bay, that’s stretching the definition of the word. It might as well have been Grand Central Station when it came to currents, and had the weather been boisterous we’d have been very nervous indeed, as the anchorage is surrounded by reefs.
There was little to see or photograph, though there was some bioluminescence, this time in the form of long, glowing strings that floated by on the current like discarded party decorations.
~ ~ ~
Thomas Bay, Cape Leveque -4th & 5th October
16 28’54.90” S
122 52’91.50” E
The waters between Sunday Island and Cape Leveque were roiling with contrary currents, rips and little whirlpools. We sailed with the tide part of the way and there was little wind, which was a blessing. Had there been a stiff breeze the going would have been difficult.
We’re now out of The Kimberley and anchorages seem to have become almost nominal. In our pilot book the phrase ‘anchorage has been taken at’ is used frequently for this area, as if to say, ‘For anyone daft enough to have to hang out in this area overnight, you just might get away with slinging your hook here’. This particular anchorage is very rolly – almost like heaving-to – in spite of the light winds. The shore is one long, white sand beach except at one end, where the white sand meets a low red rock escarpment.
The Captain has now definitively traced the problem with a sporadically malfunctioning GPS to the generator: when that is turned on, the GPS goes off and the course computer becomes erratic. The cables to these units are properly screened, but they end in plugs. These plugs end in ‘networking plugs’ which were installed 60 cm away from a 210 amp Balmar alternator. The plugs could be temporarily screened with aluminium foil, but that’s hardly a solution.
Expressed in layman’s terms: the alternator is leaking electricity, driving the GPS and course computer mad, all those old ladies who are afraid of electricity leaking from sockets aren’t so weird, and the tin-foil hat brigade are right after all. The generator and GPS and course computer can’t be on at the same time, the fluxgate compass has gone catatonic and can’t communicate with the outside world and we have no autopilot – in spite of the fact that we had two separate systems installed as a safety measure. The generator and water maker are relying for life on an old pump and our fibreglass DIY project. Oh – and the freezer is dying, the fridge effectively dead.
We might be able to get the autopilot fixed in Broome and The Captain has contemplated flying someone he can trust up from Perth to do the job. A new fluxgate compass could be sent overnight by the New Zealand company who provided the original. We should be able to get a replacement pump and new muffler and have those installed. A new compressor might solve those refrigeration problems, or they could be related to leaking gas….who knows?
There’s no calculating how long these repairs will take or if they’d be effective. Certainly until now repairs have never solved problems for long and often create new ones. Nothing can be done about the proximity of alternator and networking plugs without fitting suppressors (aluminium foil with a university degree, as far as I understand it) and moving some of the electrical system to another part of the boat.
We were able to arrange a mooring in Broome, but because of the strong tidal flows a small dinghy like ours can only be used to get to and from shore during the brief period of slack tide, which occurs only every 6 hours at varying times of day and night. The boat has to be below 30° South by the 1st November, which is the official beginning of the cyclone season, or the insurance will not cover damage if we should get caught in a ‘named’ storm. Time for some hard thinking.
The Captain has decided at this point – all things considered – that he no longer has enough confidence in The Boat’s vital systems to feel comfortable taking her any further than Broome. We have already logged 2,900 miles since leaving Brisbane and from Broome it is another 1,200 miles to Perth. We would be travelling to a deadline, with headwinds a certainty, along a dangerous coast with few places to pull in should we hit bad weather and even those giving little protection. If something major did go wrong again there would be nowhere to get it fixed until we were very close to Perth. With just two of us on board it would be all too easy to get into serious trouble, if only due to simple fatigue.
We have excellent 3G access here, so we’re staying an extra day while The Captain investigates the possibility of getting The Boat hauled in Broome and having her brought south by truck or loaded onto a large ship and brought down by sea. He’s rejected the idea of hiring a crew to take the boat to Perth on the grounds that if he no longer trusts the boat’s navigational systems it isn’t right to send other people out on her.
We should be in Broome by Sunday, and that’s all for now!
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 that 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 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 we subdued it.
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 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 – really one of the best experiences of the voyage. 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 agreed that we preferred not to have a jaw with teeth that powerful in the cockpit, 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
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. However, 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.
From now on, passages and times of departure will be even more determined by the tides than they already have been, and before each passage The Captain checks and re-checks tide tables and timings very carefully. 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
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:
3. Emergency Room
‘CAUTION – CROCODILES INHABIT THESE WATERS. No swimming!
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, there being 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. At night, our boat can be seen as only 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; 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!
Howick Island 17th August
14° 29’.772 S
144° 57’ .014 E
A nightmare anchorage, just to teach us a lesson for relaxing. Such a heavy swell (“a well-developed southeast trade wind sends a beam swell along the north of Howick which can make conditions uncomfortable”) that the boat was rocking 30° to either side from the perpendicular during most of the night. One wishes the writers of cruising guidebooks wouldn’t use understatement. We got out of there with curses as early as we could the next morning.
Bathurst Bay (Cape Melville) 18th August
14° 12’ .223 S
144° 28’ .216 E
Another miserable anchorage. A heavy swell made the boat rock uncomfortably, and howling winds blew at over 20 knots all night, the sound given a vicious edge by the whine of the boat’s wind generator. The anchor dragged slightly at the usual ‘interrogation hour’ of 3am, though letting out more chain took care of the problem immediately. Even the surroundings exuded a forbidding, albeit fascinating atmosphere. Giant, smooth granite boulders piled into mountainous hills rising as high as 500 metres came to the water’s edge. Almost barren of vegetation and infested with snakes, these seemed like a landscape I remembered from one of Sindbad’s voyages:
“The valley in which I found myself was deep and narrow, and surrounded by mountains which towered into the clouds, and were so steep and rocky that there was no way of climbing up their sides. As I wandered about, seeking anxiously for some means of escaping from this trap, I observed that the ground was strewed with diamonds, some of them of an astonishing size. This sight gave me great pleasure, but my delight was speedily damped when I saw also numbers of horrible snakes so long and so large that the smallest of them could have swallowed an elephant with ease. Fortunately for me they seemed to hide in caverns of the rocks by day, and only came out by night, probably because of their enemy the roc.”
No diamonds – at least the Queensland’s Department of Parks doesn’t mention them – but it looked just the place for gigantic serpents of mythic proportions. It’s warned that attempting to climb these hills is much more difficult than it looks, the boulders being so large that far from being stepping stones, they become insurmountable barriers, forcing climbers away from their chosen path…
Morris Island 19th August
13° 29’ .440 S
143° 43’ .317 E
It was a long day’s sailing and motoring to Morris Island – 11 hours. This was a lovely little anchorage though, and I’d have liked to go ashore. The island itself is a tiny coral cay about ¼ nautical mile long and 1/10th mile wide, at the edge of a vast reef which is a full 5 nautical miles long and 1 ½ miles wide! The cay tapers at both ends to narrow spits of pale sand crisped by waves. A lone palm tree waves bravely from one end and a crest of punk-y spikes marches along the entire length of the island. Both are remnants of British Admiralty policy of the 1800’s – food was to be made available on Great Barrier Reef islands, for the use of shipwrecked sailors. The spikes are the inflorescences of sisal plants, intended to be used to knock down coconuts from the palms. The sisal plants thrived, but of the coconuts palms there is only the lone survivor.
It was also nice to anchor in sand for a change. The usual blue mud we’ve been getting, is of an extraordinarily glutinous and adhesive quality and mixed with coarse grit, it clings in great immoveable lumps to the anchor when it’s raised. Once the anchor has been raised we have to move off immediately, but a clogged up anchor doesn’t set well the next time, so the stuff has to come off. Dragging the anchor in the water doesn’t work, I’ve tried leaning over the safety lines while en route and jabbing at the problem with the boat hook, but that isn’t very effective either, so I’ve been reduced to scooping it off with my favourite heavy plastic kitchen spatula while hanging/squatting on the bowsprit like a cross between a monkey and a badly carved ship’s figurehead.
Night Island 20th August
13° 10’ .869 S
143° 34’ .366 E
Night Island was a pleasant enough place, made very interesting indeed by our neighbour at the anchorage: a large motor cruiser attended by not one, but 3 runabouts and a couple of bright yellow helicopters. These buzzed back and forth delivering people onto the island, who were then ferried to the cruiser by large dinghies. We were, of course, very curious. Curiosity was satisfied when one of the dinghies came alongside and the skipper, on behalf of the charterer, invited us for drinks at 6 that evening and then dinner to follow. Goodness!
The dinghy arrived at exactly 6pm, and on boarding the luxurious cruiser we were greeted by about a dozen young male and female crew in uniform, one of whom was bearing a tray of strawberry daiquiris. Heaven! We were then given a tour of the boat which ended in the lounge, where we chatted with a group of rather jolly men, almost all American executives with a moneyed aura about them and regrettably well-developed pot-bellies, before meeting our host, who was a bowed, elderly, impish man, obviously struggling with poor health but determined to enjoy himself nevertheless.
His name was Fred Turner, and for anyone who doesn’t agree with McDonalds’ corporate policies, we might as well have supped with Satan. We dined on roasted quail, reef fish with lobster sauce, excellent wine and the chef’s apple and pineapple crumble, which had all the men very quiet and very busy for a while. Frankly, I’d have been happy with sausages and beer as long as someone else cooked them and cleaned up, so this counted as a lavishly hedonistic evening!
It seems that Mr Turner has been coming to the Great Barrier Reef – in much the same sort of style – for some 35 years. While here, he invites his family and friends to enjoy the experience with him. Some of the men there had been his friends for almost that long, in fact. We happened to be there during the second wave of a guys-only holiday, and they were obviously having a wonderful time.
Lloyd Bay 21st August
12° 52’ .501 S
143° 21’ .535 E
A reasonably quiet anchorage, though no protection from the wind – just no waves or swell. It was very shallow where we anchored in a blind inlet near the river estuary, about 11’ deep at low tide, leaving us only about 4’ under the keel. The water was muddy and one shore was lined with what looked like the Forest Primeval. The other was inviting white sand with a healthy crocodile population, according to one of the crew with whom we’d spoken during the previous evening. Mmmm!
Cape Grenville – Margaret Bay 22nd & 23rd August
11° 57’ .449 S
143° 12’ .301 E
The trip from Lloyd Bay to Margaret Bay was fairly miserable because once again the winds were above 25 knots all the way. The Captain got soaked by waves en route and we were a bit nervous about the anchor dragging. It didn’t drag, but during the night the lashing holding our shiny new snubber broke. We made up another with a plain stainless steel hook we had been using for something else, and that works fine.
A snubber, btw, for those people sensible enough not to have to know about them, is basically nothing more than a thick rope with a gadget at one end – there are various patent kinds – that hooks into or grabs the anchor chain. The rope leads back to the boat, where it is fastened to the Samson post. Then the anchor chain is let out a bit more so the snubber is underwater, the rope taut, and the chain a tiny bit slack. That way, when wind or swell make the boat heave up and down at anchor the shock is taken up by the elasticity of the rope rather than the chain and windlass. This is easier on the windlass and also on the people in the boat. It also gets rid of the horrible, dungeonesque clanking noise the chain makes when it’s jerked about under load.
We had pulled in at Margaret Bay to rendezvous with one of Sea Swift’s mother ships, which supply the fishing fleet with fuel, water and stores and unload their catch which is returned to Cairns for export. I’d heard about the service from some pleasant people in Brisbane, who had been kind enough to give me lots of excellent advice about anchorages for the trip north, and we’d picked up the schedule from Sea Swift’s headquarters in Cairns. The ship was scheduled to show up at 3:00pm but we’d been warned timings were only approximate, so weren’t surprised when it moved majestically into the bay at dusk. It was dark by the time the shrimp trawlers which had been waiting around at anchor during the last 24 hours were able to be offloaded and refuelled, accompanied by much VHF chattering and grumbling about ‘crook’ backs and painkillers.
We were last in the queue and motored slowly up to the side of the great mother ship, which was well padded with giant, round orange and yellow bollards, bright in the glaring deck lights. Our gearbox stuck at the worst possible moment, so Captain and cockpit got drenched in a gush of warm salty water being pumped from the side of the ship’s hull – water which was on its way back into the bay after having been used to cool the giant freezers. The refuelling went smoothly after that though, and then we went back to re-anchor. This time I was the one who got soaked, by a beautifully timed cloudburst.
We were only scheduled to leave at 3pm the next day, on an overnight sail to catch the rising tide in the Albany Passage. I spent that morning doing laundry and cobbling together a new piece for the outboard-motor harness; a gale-force gust of wind had whipped the missing piece out of The Captain’s hands at Lizard Island. He did necessary things with the chart plotter and engine filters in the meantime.
About an hour before we were to leave, 3 young, smiling, bare-chested fishermen with starry tattoos, clutching beers and only slightly inebriated, roared up to the boat in an aluminium dinghy littered with sticks and leaves, and asked if we’d like to join them on the beach for beer and a prawn barbecue. The answer was, ‘No, we can’t, because we have to leave’. The rejoinder: ‘Why not just leave a day later?’ was the only rational response to such insanity, but unfortunately our schedule took precedence. So after chatting for a while they motored off again, wishing us a safe trip and telling us to visit their boat next time we were in the area.
Anyone would be justified in wondering why we’re doing this trip if after all the expense, hassle, physical and intellectual discomfort and work, we don’t have a spare afternoon to spend enjoying the company of people we’d otherwise not meet. The negative decision was wrong at so many levels: intellectual, philosophical – even in terms of simple good manners, because those guys are on their shrimp trawlers for weeks on end with no other company and their invitation was gracious. For me it was pretty much the tipping point as regards travelling anywhere else in this boat; when the method by which one chooses to travel is allowed to become more of a barrier than a gateway to other people, places and cultures then it’s time to find another way of moving around.
Seisia- Bamaga – 25th August
10° 51’ .038 S
142° 21’ .060 E
We left Margaret Bay at 3pm, exactly as planned, and reached Cape York at about 8am on the morning of the 25th August, so we’re now officially Over-the-Top.
The winds had been mild during the night, and The Captain was glad we’d taken the decision to bypass the Escape River and just go for it. I’d been rather looking forward to catching mud crabs in the river with our new crab net, because it’s supposed to be swarming with them, but we did save another day’s sailing.
We took the Albany Passage between Albany Island and the Cape York Peninsula to avoid the major shipping lanes and to make the trip shorter. It was very early when we passed through on a rising tide, as planned, but the flow was not as strong as we’d anticipated, so we glided rather sedately through the ½ mile wide, 3 mile long passage flanked by low hills and the occasional shallow bay and yellow sand beach. The rocks were black and the vegetation of the wild jungle-y sort, so in spite of the low light it was rather beautiful. The solitary small homestead in the passage, set back from a beach fringed with coconut palms, was reminiscent of Polynesia.
Once through, we soon came to a scattering of rocky islands sparsely covered with dry vegetation, and began seeing the ‘magnetic ant hills’ (termite nests, in fact) I’d read about. Some of these become huge – much taller than a man – but we were so far from shore that it was difficult to judge their dimensions.
Now we’re anchored far out in the bay south of Seisia, the coastal port of the aboriginal settlement of Bamaga. We shan’t be going ashore, though during the Friday night beach-side barbecues, the music by local bands is supposed to be brilliant. Tomorrow we set sail for Gove. That will be a 3 day/2 night non-stop slog, so we’re keeping fingers crossed that the winds will remain benevolent.
Cape Flattery 13th August
14° 57’ .117 S
145° 19’.518 E
This was a fairly nondescript anchorage, except for the blindingly white silica sand dunes far in the distance. It was simply an overnight stop en route to
Lizard Island 14th, 15th, 16th August
14° 39’ .603 S
145° 27’ .060 E
The first evening we sat on deck with gin & tonics in hand, watching as the sun sank through a sky decorated with an airy scribble of transparent clouds and melted into a deep indigo sea. Close by, a turtle raised its head occasionally for a breath, and in the distance sea birds were whirling about a patch of reef where skittering splashes told of frantic activity under the water’s surface.
Lizard Island looks barren, but is one of those bewitching, austere landscapes that rewards attention to detail with a myriad of small and large beauties. The beach is of soft, white sand except near the rocks, where the fine layer has been swept away. There it becomes coarsely crystalline, almost pure quartz from the decomposed granite of which it’s formed. On the upper beach, some areas of the sand were paved with tiny white shells, as fine and delicate as a baby’s fingernail, and strangely shaped seed pods littered the high tide line; around them wove the mysterious tracks of animals that had gone about their snuffling business the night before.
The water was crystal clear the next day, transparent and warm. When I began snorkelling, it was almost like floating in glass. The coral gardens were unbelievable. If you remember the photographs of the corals on the jetty at Airlie Beach, try to think of them grown to hallucinatory, Brobdingnagian proportions. The hand-sized orange plate coral with ridges was represented by a specimen the size of a very large dining room table. Soft finger corals a few inches long, at Lizard Island towered like trees. Corals shaped like chanterelle mushrooms were the size of bathtubs.
But the giant clams were the most astonishing sight of all and I gasped at first seeing one (NB: not a good idea when snorkelling). The largest were a good 5’ long and I could easily have curled up within them. The outer shells were grey, ridged and gnarled, encrusted with sponges and corals, and photographs don’t capture the contrast between this outer shell and the exquisite texture and colours of the living mantle. Imagine the finest, softest, deepest purple silk velvet, shot through with bronze highlights and scattered with hundreds of minuscule, iridescent green rings. The inner membrane at the centre is pierced by two large vents. Peering inside the largest, one can see into the core of the creature and see what looks like a crisp white ruffle of purest white fluttering over a background of milky opal membranes. Some of the clams have tiger striped mantles in green and violet and black, others prefer to cloak themselves in shades of gold and brown; all have the tiny iridescent green or blue eyes.
I delicately tickled one of the clams, to see if it really would snap shut. Slowly and jerkily, as if reluctantly activating a piece of ancient, massive, creaky machinery, the clam closed the two ridged halves of its shell a few inches, then stopped. Further tickling would have been lèse majesté , so I left it and played with the myriad of small, brightly coloured fish that were nipping at my yellow gloves. The photo above is not mine, alas, but gives some idea of what they look like.
That afternoon I trekked to the south west side of the island, through pandanus and mangrove swamps, eucalyptus groves and stunted dune vegetation that stabilises the fine white sand hills. The beach was littered with seed pods, coconuts, pumice and similar detritus cast onto the shore by the prevailing winds. I didn’t stay very long, because it was too windy.
The walk to the top of Cook’s Lookout the next morning was reasonably strenuous. When I told him about it, my son expressed surprise that I’m still fit enough to have accomplished it after so much time on the boat. I told him it was a case of the battery chicken so relieved at being let out of her cage that she was carried along by sheer enthusiasm. I also climbed over Chinaman’s Hill and had another snorkelling session that afternoon. The bill for the exertion was presented by my body the following day, but I didn’t care!
The photos of the Cook’s Lookout walk are in order of ascent and descent, but don’t capture the scent of dry grasses in the sea breeze and the faint, sweet perfume of flowers and aromatic eucalyptus. The wind whipped at the summit, where a couple arrived shortly after me and we all took triumphant photos of each other. Facing towards the sun, cloud shadows chased each other over a brazen sea; facing the other way, reefs and islands showed as turquoise and brownish patches alternating with the indigo blue of deeper water.
I didn’t want to leave…
From this entry on, it’s unlikely we’ll be stopping for more than a night or two anywhere and even less likely that we’ll be getting off the boat except to refuel, so entries will be briefer. Photos may be lousy too, unless we get close enough to the shore to actually see something interesting!
Love – and am missing you all,
Half Moon Bay Marina & Yacht Club at Yorkeys Knob.
16° 48’ 04.86” S
145° 42’ 27.04” E
This is a smallish marina – 200 berths on 3 jetties – with a new club house overlooking the basin, and we were lucky enough to get a berth for 4 nights. It had been recommended to us by several yachties as a pleasant alternative to Cairns Harbour, and it has an unusually relaxed and intimate atmosphere compared to the other marinas we’ve stayed at.
The water was muddy and there weren’t many fish to see. A sign warned of crocodiles and I kept a sharp and hopeful lookout for pairs of googly eyes protruding above the surface, but was disappointed. We’re now in serious crocodile territory and they’re known to infest the mangrove swamps and creeks from here on north, especially the Daintree River, but we have yet to see one.
Aside from providing crocodile habitat, mangrove creeks are a refuge for boats during tropical storms. The marinas around Cairns provide protection against cyclones but nevertheless, when an alert is sounded, yachts are required to make for the many large mangrove-lined creeks running off nearby Trinity Inlet, where they go as deeply into the thickets as possible and moor up in a web of criss-crossing lines. The photo will show why: those roots could tangle up even the fiercest winds and waves.
We spent most of the 3 days in Cairns working on the boat, so didn’t see much of the surroundings. The Captain wanted to install a new circuit breaker for the loo holding-tank macerator pump and get the generator electrics fixed once and for all. I wanted to clean the boat properly for the first time in a couple of months; laundry had accumulated and there was also provisioning to do. Generally it was a case of getting prepared for the next part of the trip. From here on, it’s unlikely we’ll be pulling into any more marinas for at least a month unless something goes wrong. Shopping will become more difficult and we hope to be doing most of our re-fuelling from Sea Swift’s ‘mother ships’ that travel between Cairns and the Gulf of Carpenteria. These supply fuel to the shrimp trawlers that ply the northern waters, and fresh food and other supplies to the otherwise isolated communities within the Gulf area.
Cairns lies on the Barron River floodplain and the rain-forest clad mountains of the Great Dividing Range rise straight from these flat lowlands, which are covered in sugar cane fields, of which many are now being sold for development. We had arrived at the beginning of the sugar cane harvest. Anchored at Orpheus Island, looking toward the mainland, we had watched the cane fields being fired, sending great plumes of smoke into the sky and, at night, creating glowing islands in the distant dark. Here, they were harvesting the cane without burning the fields first. On the day we left, under a low, dark, heavy sky, in fields bordered by palm trees with limply drooping fronds, green machines moved slowly along the face of each row, raising puffs of pale dust and shredded leaves that settled quickly in the still, humid air. In the distance, cane bins – narrow-gauge railway box-cars made of steel mesh – were being heaped high with pieces of chopped sugar cane before driven along temporary tracks to factories for processing.
The climate in North Queensland is tropical, and people here divide the year into 2 seasons: The Wet, and The Dry. During the wet season the temperatures are between 30° and 35° and it rains. It rains a lot. Between November and May, some months average over 400mm of rainfall, and locals who can afford to leave for Sydney or Tasmania, do so. During the dry season between June and October the average monthly rainfall is 35mm and the temperatures are about 25°. This is when yachties and other tourists from the south come up to play among the corals of the Great Barrier Reef and visit the rainforest.
We did take one day off boat slavery to take the Sky Rail Rainforest Cableway to Kuranda. The Sky Rail project caused an international uproar in environmental circles when it was proposed, because it traverses the heart of the World Heritage listed Barron Gorge National Park Wet Rainforest. For once, all the fears proved groundless, and hundreds of people a year glide above the rainforest canopy without harming it, while learning enough about the biology of the area to be impressed and made aware of both its importance and richness.
Those fears were reasonable, however. These are the oldest (415 million years) continually surviving and truly pristine rainforests on earth, and once covered the entire Australian continent. Now, although they cover only about one thousandth of the Australian landmass, they contain:
65% of Australia’s ferns
21% of the country’s cycads
37% of its conifers
30% of its orchid species
36% of Australia’s mammals
30% of its marsupials including tree kangaroos and possums
60% of its butterflies
Kuranda itself is an ‘arty’ town. It was originally built in the late 1880’s during the height of the area’s timber industry and short-lived gold-rush. Coffee was grown there for a while, until severe frosts in the early 1900s wiped out the crop. In the 1960s it became hippie heaven – sorry: ‘alternative lifestyle’ heaven – and remnants of that era can be seen at stalls selling hash pipes and incense as well as local honey, stuffed cane toads, chunky leather goods, mandalas, wind chimes, dream-catchers and massages.
We passed on the cane toads. These are an invasive species in Australia and are toxic enough to kill a dog that is unlucky enough to bite one. They’re such a pest that in parts of Australia where they are common, ‘sports’ have developed in which cane toads are used as balls, such as cane toad golf and cane toad cricket. In an attempt to dispose of the corpses, people came up with several bright ideas: having them tanned, then stuffed and mounted in antic positions, or turned into coin purses with dangle-y legs and glass eyes, or into singularly hideous, flabby, leathery toad-shaped objects to strew around casually or keep in a pocket (as one does). But we did visit the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary and Birdworld.
Birdworld was by far the more interesting and amusing. We were warned before entering about dangling earrings and eyelets on hats – the birds like to pick them off. No one mentioned that rubber shoes are vulnerable. A macaw decided Croc-strap was what he wanted and had neatly gnawed one of mine in half before I could gently remove him. It’s well to be gentle when dealing with an animal that can bite your little finger to the bone if it feels so inclined…
Once the shoes had been stowed in my bag and out of sight, the bird decided I needed a pedicure and began biting crescent-shaped chunks out of my toenails. Another parrot played kissy-face, nibbling off my lip-gloss, which was a rather weird sensation, but parrots seem to like me so I wasn’t too worried about being bitten. Boris – as we subsequently learned he is called – remained on my shoulder during the rest of our visit, quietly crooning to himself and occasionally leaning over for another gentle nibble of my upper lip. The macaw was packed off to indulge his foot fetish with some other hapless tourist while we went to see the cassowaries, which were the real object of our visit.
They’re extraordinarily dinosaur-like creatures – much more so than ostriches or emus – and have huge appetites. One in captivity reportedly ate 20 mangoes in two minutes! They’re native to the Australian Wet Rainforest, and are absolutely essential to the survival of over 150 plant species. Some of the fruit they can digest is so toxic no other animal can eat it – so cassowaries are the only animal that can disperse these seeds. Should the birds become extinct, so will the plants dependent on them in the wild.
Cassowaries have also had a rather bad press, being called ‘the world’s most dangerous bird’. As is usually the case, translated into less anthropocentric language this means: ‘able to defend themselves effectively when harassed or threatened’. They will chase humans – usually when they’ve been led to associate humans with food and when none is forthcoming or when people infringe upon their space. They also seem to have a marked dislike of dogs and will chase cars, though more cars and dogs kill cassowaries than vice versa. But the injuries cassowaries cause consist of the occasional puncture wound or bruise – rather like the injuries inflicted upon paparazzi by celebrities who’ve finally had enough.
There has been only one properly documented death-by-cassowary. This was in 1926: a 16 year-old and his younger brother were trying to club the bird to death and the older boy suffered a puncture wound in the neck, from which he bled to death while trying to run away. Serve him right.
We left Cairns on the morning of August 10th, in a fine, persistent, unpleasant rain that didn’t let up all day. We anchored off
16° 17’ 33.63” S
145° 29’ 27.04” E
The first attempt failed, but we changed position slightly and the anchor bit the second time, which was nice because by then we were soaked to the skin. The anchorage was lovely though, even in the rain, and we were sitting amidst trawlers that are part of the Cairns shrimp fleet. These wait at favourite anchorages during the day until evening – when the shrimp come out – to begin trawling.
Sure enough, come dusk, they all lit their lights, turned and slowly moved off into the distance, booms on either side of the boats lowered and trailing their nets, like a bevy of 18th century ladies lifting their panniered skirts with both hands
Now we’re moored off
15° 43’ 328” S
145° 27’ 385 E
But the coordinates are of no real use, since this is a part of the Great Barrier Reef that Google Earth shows only as a dark splodge without detail!
The day was flat calm when we left Magnetic Island – spookily so, as we motored slowly into a misty white void over a flat calm sea. The surface was littered with drifting sticks and logs – small and large – which had come down the Daintree River, so a sharp lookout had to be kept for really big ones.
Later, and quite suddenly, the wind blew up and had soon it reached 20 knots+ with an accompanying chop. These aren’t really the conditions in which to navigate coral reefs, because charts don’t show individual coral heads – the lookout needs to be able to see them. But because the tide was so low the reefs were above water and we decided we could afford to take a chance, with the proviso that if the going got really hairy we’d just keep sailing through the night.
We moved along at about 1 knot until – what luck! – we found one of only two public park mooring buoys was free! And we’d arrived after 3:00pm, which meant we could stay the night, which was as well because the wind didn’t drop. We’re still here, in fact, as is the boat on the other mooring. It’s been blowing 20+ knots all day (12 August) and no one in their right mind would venture out here to go snorkelling.
Tomorrow the wind should moderate, and we’ll be sailing overnight to Lizard Island.
That’s all for now!
Best from us both,
Magnetic Island – Horseshoe Bay
19° 06’ 15.18” S
146° 51’ 38.21 E
From Airlie Beach we sailed overnight to Magnetic Island. We’d intended to spend a couple of days there, but when we arrived at Horseshoe Bay there were so many jet-skis and powerboats and other boats at anchor that we decided to simply stay the night and move on to Orpheus Island the next morning. Having to avoid shark drum lines at the entrance to the bay helped the decision-making process, as did the rather murky water. Shark drum lines are floating oil drums with baited hooks attached. These are very effective at catching bull sharks, tiger sharks, and great white sharks – which are the species most dangerous to swimmers. Somehow, I didn’t care for a swim and The Captain prefers his water hot anyway, with soap and a good bath brush.
Cook sailed past Magnetic Island in June, 1770. Because of some fluctuations in his compass readings, he named this “rocky and barrenst surface” Magnetical Isle, as he believed his compass problems were caused by magnetic interference from the massive rocky outcrops of the island. This assumption later proved to be incorrect and no one has been able to duplicate the phenomenon, but the name stuck, albeit changed to ‘Magnetic’.
Orpheus Island – Hazard Bay
18° 36’ 40.72” S
146° 29’ 10.20 E
The sail to Orpheus Island the next day was wonderful. First, for a time we had an honour guard of 4 bottlenose dolphins. They played in the bow wave, weaving back and forth, slipping to the surface and down again, turning and twisting to look at us from within their glassy world as we leaned over the safety lines of our floating island.
Then, shortly afterwards, I was called up from below to look at humpback whales breaching. They looked to be a mother and calf and got closer and closer until, finally, they were no more than a yard or two off the bow when they dove under the surface, the larger one showing a long, long curve of grey ridged, barnacle-encrusted flank. For a horrible moment we thought the boat might have scraped them although we weren’t moving very quickly, but they must have known what they were doing. We were too busy standing with our mouths open in astonishment to be very competent.
Orpheus Island looked to be a most promising tropical paradise as we approached and anchored in Hazard Bay. The water was still, and on the horizon plumes of smoke from burning sugar cane fields south of Lucinda, on the distant mainland, rose into a milky evening sky. Later, the fires cast a reddish glow along the distant night shore, and Venus was so bright in the sky that it cast a glittering path on the black water. Even getting seawater with which to flush our wretched toilets was an enchanting experience: bioluminescence made the water sparkle and flash as I poured it into the large translucent plastic bottles, as if I were pouring stars.
The fun came to an abrupt end at about 3am. The wind came up, changed direction, and we began dragging our anchor. The anchor position alarm roused us from our bunks, though I’d already been half-awake for some time listening with growing anxiety to the menacing noise of the chain dragging around on the bottom.
So The Captain had to turn on the engine and bring the boat forward while I had to go out onto the bloody bow, which was by now heaving through an arc of about 30°, to release the rope snubber and bring the anchor in. Then after he had moved us further out from shore for safety’s sake in case the anchor dragged again, I went through the palaver in reverse. It really did seem as if 24 hours could not go by without some unpleasant drama, and 3am is not a good time for dramas. I used a lot of very nautical language, very loudly, and felt slightly better.
The next morning found us hobby-horsing up and down in a really nasty chop until we moved further in – now that we could see the edge of the reef – and in the afternoon it calmed enough that I could take the dinghy to Yanks Jetty and walk on the beaches there for a bit while The Captain read and dozed. The beaches were idyllically pretty and the sand was littered with bits of coral sucked smooth as old ivory by the waves. Yanks Jetty is so-called because it was originally built as part of a degaussing (demagnetising) station during WWII. There is story that General Douglas McArthur used the idyllic setting as a love nest for trysts with local girls…
Rather a lot of cone shells that had been washed up onto the beach the night before. Now, cone shells are beautiful, but the molluscs that make them are predators which eat small fish and suchlike creatures. They sneak up on their prey in a slow and snailishly sinister fashion and then from the narrow end of their shell gradually extend a proboscis, at the end of which is a tiny harpoon with which they inject venom into their victim.
They can also harpoon humans who disturb them, causing great pain and occasionally even death. In the pretty illustrations accompanying cautionary on-line articles the dangerous shells are shown in their full patterned and coloured glory. The problem is that on the beach they’re all covered in a brownish-grey coating, so the dangerous ones are indistinguishable from the ones that aren’t. I cautiously picked one up with a bit of shell and an eye at the end of a stalk peered out at me, so I chucked it and the others of its ilk far out into the water as my Good Deed for the day.
The next day was beautifully calm so I was able to go for a snorkel – hurrah!
Getting to the reef required some interesting rock climbing around the point from Yanks Jetty. I wore my thin wetsuit and heavy Teva sandals and carried flippers and assorted gear – including the camera in a waterproof bag – in a backpack. My new boogie board did double duty as a walking stick. It must have looked awkward, but worked. After inspecting the mangroves, I left backpack and camera on shore well above the waterline but kept the sandals on while shuffling (recommended in waters where there are stingrays) through the shallow water en route to water deep enough in which to don flippers and mask. Then the sandals went into a mesh bag and onto the boogie board and I was set to go!
You’d have to be a lunatic not to wear shoes while wading here and every pamphlet and guidebook emphasises this point. Coral and oyster cuts almost always get badly infected and some varieties of coral sting. Stonefish live in these waters and if one steps on them the venom in their dorsal spines will, at best, cause excruciating pain; they’re impossible to see because they’re so well camouflaged. I startled a small stingray, too. So: why were a couple with 3 small children wading around in the shallows all barefoot? Within minutes of walking into the water the youngest was wailing and dripping blood. Park service employees and emergency crews must despair.
The water wasn’t as clear as I’d hoped, but toward the deeper water giant boulders covered in a skin of blue coral were spectacular, as were fan corals. The usual psychedelic colour combinations prevailed: hot pink next to mustard yellow and bright orange, gas-flame blue alongside iridescent green. There were a fair number of fish, including a variety of large grouper with a skin decorated to look exactly like the pattern of rippled sunlight on pale underwater sand. The large clams were the most delightful, however, and I almost laughed out loud at first catching sight of them. They’re a species that works its way into coral heads so that only the edges of the shells and mantle peek out. It looked as if the coral-covered rocks had many pouty mouths with plump, wavy blue and green lips – Mick Jagger-like. (The photo of them is off the internet, btw.)
Next stop: Cairns