Posts Tagged ‘Seisia/Bamaga

The Top End

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

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


Gove Harbour/Nhulunby – August 29 &30

12° 11’ 55.54 S

136° 42’ 14.69 E

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Bay, Cape Wilberforce – August 31

11° 54’.130 S

136° 34’.126 E

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Conditions were not as ‘per guidance’”

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

HW Guluwuru Island was 13.01 that day.

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

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

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

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

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


Guruliya Bay/Raragala Island – September 1

11° 36’.012 S

136° 17’.856 E

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

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

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

Refuge Bay (Elcho Island) September 2

11° 48’.833 S

135° 52’.007 E

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

Mullet Bay (N. Goulburn Island) September 4th

11°31’.564 S

133°23’.430 E

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

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

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

Malay Bay (Cape Cockburn) September 5th

11° 23’.576 S

132° 53’ .409 E

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

Palm Bay (Croker Island) September 6th

11° 07’.714 S

132° 29’. 099 E

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

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

11° 08’.839 S

132° 08’.445 E

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

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

Alcaro Bay, Cape Don , Cobourg Peninsula September 8th

11° 17’.178 S

131° 47’. 926 E

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

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

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

Cape Hotham (West side) September 9th

12° 05’.554 S

131° 15’.746 E

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

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

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

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

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

Darwin – Fannie Bay 10-14 September

12°25’.793 S

130°49’.062 E


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

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

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

1. Vinegar

2. Resuscitation

3. Emergency Room


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Anchorages North of Lizard Island

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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 immovable lumps to the anchor when it comes up, which is a nuisance. 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! Luckily I’d brought along one reasonably elegant long black cotton T-shirt dress, so was able to dress properly for dinner.

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 at the marina 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 because 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 Captain’s 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.