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Australia: The Top End

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
February 25th, 2019

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation Hugh and Heather made landfall in Australia. The next segment of their world cruise sees them leaving Australia and venturing into what was for them, a vast unknown. June 9, 2002 they departed Townsville and continued cruising more or less continuously until June 20, 2003 when they arrived in Turkey. Nautical miles under their keel from Townsville to Kemer, Turkey totaled 8,786.

Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their 1997 outbound Caribbean track.


The route from Australia to Turkey took us from Townsville to Darwin, through South East Asia to Thailand, across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka and on to the Maldives. From the Maldives we sailed our second longest non‑stop passage of 2,155 nautical miles (nm), which took us through the gauntlet of active piracy to the Horn of Africa. Passage north up the Red Sea was a battle against adverse winds, saddened by the tragic death of a cruiser, as we negotiated the Coalition Naval Forces of the second Gulf War. Eventually, we made it through the Suez Canal and visited Israel, only to be compelled to “Get out of Dodge”, as fresh attacks erupted in Gaza. We left hurriedly for Cyprus and finally reached our safe haven in Turkey.

Yes, we stopped and toured, taking time to explore many countries. Still, there were specific seasonal weather gates we had to consider, such as the North East Monsoon (December to April), to cross the Indian Ocean. It was important to arrive at the southern end of the Red Sea around March/April to catch favorable winds for at least the first half of the passage up to Suez.

In the next few episodes of Memories of a Circumnavigation we will trace these passages, including many of the highlights. Sometimes we leave the yacht to tour inland, but we will not attempt any in-depth coverage of these side trips.

Our Canadian recess ended January 29, 2002, when we flew out of Ottawa for Los Angeles and after a short visit with cruising friends, went on to New Zealand where we toured by car for about a month. Finally we flew into Brisbane, picked up our old car that had been left in the care of friends and drove up the coast to Townsville. After a series of visits with Aussie friends, we eventually reached Townsville in April 2002, and got to work preparing the yacht for its longest passage ever. We knew that getting the boat ready would not be a quick task, so we sublet a house adjacent to Ross Haven Marina. In fact, we could see Argonauta I from the kitchen window.

Pre-splash in Townsville.

A month later, we splashed the boat and spent three weeks at Breakwater Marina, also in Townsville, doing further preparation. Among the many projects was the installation of Inmarsat C and replacement of the #2 battery bank: four golf cart Trojans. Finally it was time to go. We deposited our old car at the local wreckers, did some serious provisioning and on Sunday, June 9 we departed Townsville.

By this time, the “Aussie Navy” was on its way north, so we linked up with local cruisers as we gunkholed further up the coast. First stop was good old Magnetic Island, where we settled in for a night. Next morning, we were visited by a large flock of at least twenty Rainbow Lorikeets. One even sipped our coffee. It was a great omen for the beginning of this series of passages.

Rainbow Lorikeets.

We made our way north, eventually arriving at Dunk Island where we linked up with two Australian yachts. One of them was Afterglow, pictured leaving Dunk Island, with serious downwind rig.

Afterglow leaving Dunk Island.

We departed Dunk Island early morning in the company of the Australia cruisers and by late afternoon, we reached Fitzroy Island, just short of Cairns. This passage made it clear that we were inadequately equipped for downwind sailing in the short, choppy, very windy conditions common inside the Great Barrier Reef. One must maintain a precise heading to stay within confines of the channel, while sailing wing on wing, or “gull winged” as the locals call it. The passage started well but conditions became heavier, quickly exceeding the capability of our inadequate autopilot (Autohelm 4000 Wheel Pilot). The Cape Horn wind vane could not maintain a precise enough heading and the Tiller Autopilot attached to the wind vane was no better. To make matters worse, the clutch lever on the 4000 failed, locking up the wheel and forcing us to overpower the mechanism to steer the boat. Not a good situation.

By this time we were reefed down, watching the Australian boats leave us in their wake. With Heather struggling to steer, I worked to remove the broken wheel pilot. In two metre seas, this was not easy but we did it. Then we hand steered. Bottom line: for downwind sailing within the reef, without precise heading control, the passages become extremely tiring and unpleasant, even dangerous. We later learned the two Aussie boats both had strong autopilots with hydraulic actuators. Downwind sailing in short shallow seas in winds often exceeding 20 knots could be expected all the way to Darwin. It was clear what we needed to do; install a brute of an autopilot. In Cairns, at Marlin Marina, we contracted to install an Australian built TMQ 50 autopilot with a hydraulic actuator.

That took the better part of a week and, once it had successfully passed sea trials, we headed up the coast another 35 nm to Port Douglas. At Marina Mirage, we rented a car and picked up our nephew, David, who arrived in Cairns on July 2. Renting a car allowed us to show him Cairns and the nearby areas of interest before we “tied him to the mast” for the trip to Darwin.

Heather ponders whether there are any people out there whose spouse passionately wants to sail around the world and who has some trepidation, anxiety or antipathy toward the dream? During our voyage, Sailors by Marriage shared experiences, concerns and emotions. No, it is not all tropical sunsets and romantic idylls. There is fear, pain, anger and boredom along the way. So when the Skipper suggested bringing a nephew to travel with us, I was delighted. Having a strong young man to carry out deck chores and share long hours of night watch seemed like a welcome gift. Indeed, David was fine crew and we are still friends!

David aboard.

The coastal passage inside the Great Barrier Reef stretches all the way to Cape York, known as the “Top End” of Queensland. Our reference guide; Cruising the Coral Coast, by Alan Lucas proved reliable and comprehensive. Together with a series of medium scale charts and the precision of our chart plotter, we made no mistakes. We day-sailed much of it. A couple of pleasant anchorages saw us soon cover the 116 nm to fabled Lizard Island, home of one of the most isolated luxury resorts in Australia. We anchored in the secure bay and found the Marlin Bar, which caters to non‑resort visitors. We spent three glorious days at anchor, hiking the Island and snorkeling the reefs.

Moving on 54 nm to Ninian Bay set us up for a great triumph. Australians had been fervently encouraging us to fish. In deference to them, we went out and bought all the necessary gear, including something called a “barra assassinator”. Heather, in her new role of fisherperson, spent the better part of two afternoons poised to receive Neptune’s offerings. To her great relief, no barra, indeed nary a creature of the piscatorial persuasion appeared. That did not last!

We departed Ninian Bay early morning. We were able to sail so we deployed our new fishing line. Almost immediately, we caught a small mackerel. After two hours, we hooked a monster! It turned out to be a Spanish Mackerel 46.5″ in length, weighing just over 40 pounds. It was a group effort to boat it. Heather and I had immediately pulled in the genoa to slow down. Then we found a glove. Naturally all this happened at a crucial navigation point, a rocky shoal, which we had to leave to port. David hauled the fish in close to the boat, cut his hands on the line, and handed it to me to gaff aboard. A major battle in the cockpit was reduced by pouring rubbing alcohol into the fish’s gills. Still anesthetized, it nevertheless bled profusely in the subduing process.  The cockpit resembled a war zone! Universal jubilation! Once at anchor at Flinders Island, we cut it up into some steaks and filleted the remainder. More mess, but the freezer was full of fish. We gave some to a nearby Norwegian boat, a single-hander who joined us for a fish supper. The next day, Heather made ‘poisson cru’ for lunch. No one suffered ill effects!

Spanish mackerel.

Once David had become reasonably familiar with the yacht, we decided to do a short,  80 nm, night passage, just to the east of Cape York. We set out from Shelburne Bay early evening in ESE winds of 15 to 25 knots and anchored on the Cape York Peninsula in Shallow Bay off Albany Passage early morning July 22.

David got to do his first night watch. We had track guidance at the helm and he quickly grasped how to use the autopilot to maintain track. I relaxed down below, facing the radar and chart plotter screens, while listening to the occasional “beep” from the autopilot control head as he made heading adjustments to maintain track. He did well, which was important given we had two long passages coming up to transit The Torres Strait and Arafura Sea to reach Darwin.

Shallow Bay is salt water crocodile country. These aggressive beasts are at the top of the food chain and pose serious threats to just about anything, including yachties. One cannot travel this area without hearing of some unwary soul becoming dinner. Another threat is the box jelly fish. Entanglement in its stingers is usually lethal, so if one does venture into the water while at anchor, wearing a full body Lycra stinger suit is essential, but “salties” are not put off by Lycra. Undeterred, David and I dinghied ashore and hiked the beach, keeping an eye open for crocodile tracks. We saw none and returned to the boat. Then, while cleaning out the water maker pre-filter, we dropped the cup overboard! With no crocs in sight, in my stinger suit, I risked a quick snorkel to retrieve it. Somewhat foolish and unsuccessful as the water was so murky I could not see anything. Heather was not amused! Later, I pondered my folly, resolving to take Northern Territorial waters more seriously.

Salt water crocodiles.

Horn island was only 25 nm further, so next day we anchored there late morning. The location was more sheltered than Thursday Island, which we visited by ferry. We made the obligatory check in with Customs and enjoyed a lobster dinner at the Grand Hotel.

Late morning July 25 we left Horn Island for Cape Wessel, a passage of 326 nm, which we expected would take two nights. We planned to anchor for a couple of days in Two Island Bay, Marchinbar Island. The Wessls, as they are known, are about midway to Darwin. It was downwind all the way in a decent ESE wind of 15 kn. Marchinbar Island is perhaps one of the most remote locations we had visited. The Island is a series of beautiful sandy bays with nothing but scrub vegetation inland. Two Island Bay is deeply indented with complete protection from any stray swell. Absolute isolation in this idyllic location is a rare experience and something we really appreciated. At the same time, we realized that we were indeed alone and must rely entirely on our own resources. We hiked the beaches, mindful of crocodiles and prepared for the final passage across the top of the continent to Darwin.

Routing was from Marchinbar Island to Cape Don at the entrance to the Van Diemen Gulf, then through Clarence Strait to Beagle Gulf and Darwin. The passage poses a planning challenge; tide gates are what it is all about. One must arrive at the entrance to the Van Diemen Gulf about 5 hours before high water in Darwin. That demands a plus/minus 30 minute arrival to a point some 300 nm from the Wessels. Miss the tide gate and expect to be driven off towards Timor, with perhaps a 24 hour delay in arrival at Darwin. That is because of the very strong tidal currents in the Van Diemen and Beagle Gulfs and the connecting Clarence Strait. Tidal flow can meet or exceed best boat speed through the water, so passage towards Darwin is not possible in a contrary current.

High water in Darwin was 1027h, so we aimed to hit the tide gate at 0600 hours local time. Using an estimated average speed of 6 knots, we raised anchor in The Wessels at 0500 hours July 30 and set off in ideal sailing conditions: wind from ESE at 15 kn. Soon the wind was approaching 25 kn and by then we had the number two reef in the mainsail and most of the Genoa rolled up. A speed over ground of 8 kn for much of the first 18 hours put us well ahead of schedule. With a similar weather forecast, we furled the Genoa entirely, which still gave us a speed of 7 kn. The wind began to drop back to an easterly at 12 to 15K and soon we had all sails back up and were enjoying perfect conditions. With nightfall on the second day, the wind dropped to below 10 kn and with 50 nm to the gate, and less than 10 hours to go, I began to wish that we had not slowed down when we had the wind. By midnight it was obvious we would have to motor to make our tide gate arrival. Six hours of engine time brought us to the tide gate more or less on time. With dawn, we were blessed with a 12 kn wind from the SSE, making for a close hauled sail south to Abbots Shoal, the entrance to the Clarence Passage. We really benefited from the tide and at times made over 10 kn. Then the wind died for the duration, so we dieseled along at 2200 RPM and through the narrow bits we made over 12 kn. Once in the Beagle Gulf, we continued to ride a favorable tidal flow all the way to Darwin.

Cruising guidance was sketchy about Darwin approaches, so we followed the steamer entry tracks to avoid any night time groping in the shallows. With the help of our C‑Map chart plotter, GPS, radar and the assurance of a yachtie friend in the anchorage monitoring our progress, we dropped the hook safely at 2200h August 1, 2002 and had a well-earned drink.

Uplocking in Darwin.

With tides almost as extreme as the Bay of Fundy, marinas in Darwin are reached by a series of locks. Next day, we up-locked to Cullen Bay Marina, which became our home until September 10 when we down-locked to depart Australia bound for Bali, Indonesia.

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